Grasslands and jungle of Chitwan park

Chitwan national park is a stretch of grasslands and jungle in the Terai, the lowland plains in front of the Himalaya that borders India. The area is rich in wildlife. Endangered rhinoceros, elephants, crocodiles and and tigers are found here, as are many species of birds. This used to be a place where royals came with their guests to shoot tigers, or whatever else wandered in front of their rifles.

In the past, the Terai was never developed as farmland because it was heavily infested with malaria. Extensive spaying with DDT brought malaria under control in the 1950's, and people hungry for fertile land moved in. When Chitwan park was established in the 1970s it was one of the few remaining tracts that was relatively undisturbed. Even so, the Nepali government had to relocate thousands of people. Today, farmers at the perimeter of the park still lead an uneasy coexistence with elephants and rhinos that wander out of the park and gobble up crops.

At the edge of Chitwan park is the town if Sauraha, separated from the park by the Rapti River. It is a bit of a tourist trap, and when I first arrived in Nepal and was offered a package tour I declined; the guided tours and activities seemed pretty lame at the time. But after my Everest trek, staying in a posh hotel with lots of food and structured days scheduled with elephant and dugout canoe rides was a good way to recouperate.

Even though Sauraha is indeed a tourist trap, it offers a completely different view of Nepal than the hills, and the wildlife is indeed fascinating. Alas, I did not see a tiger, but sitting on a patio with a beer and watching the sunset across the Rapti River was unforgettable.

Sunset on the Rapi River.

Hazy skies, humid air, and a low horizon combine to make for some great sunsets at the edge of the Rapti River in Sauraha.

Dugout canoe ferry.

Villagers make their way from Sauraha to Chitwan national park. The Nepali government has relocated thousands people since the park was established, but some settlements still remain within the park boundary.

Marshmugger crocodile.

A marshmugger crocodile basks in the sun along the Rapti River. The croc was lying absolutely motionless, and I was wondering if it was a plastic prop set up for tourists. A few days later, outside the park, I was watching another croc and wondering the same thing when a local boy chucked a rock at it. The croc jumped up and disappeared into the murky water in the blink of an eye.

White Rhinoceros.

One of the attractions of Chitwan park are the elephant rides, which offer a chance to see endangered white rhinoceros in its natural environment. In the low afernoon light, wobbling on the back of the elephant, and with slow film in my camera, it was quite difficult to photograph.

Baby elephant playing.

At the Chitwan elephant breeding centre, this baby elephant was having a great time playing with a burlap sack. Young elephants are allowed to roam around freely, but the adults are chained down. When this elephant grows up, a mahout will train it to obey commands, and it will probably take tourists for rides in the park.

Elephant splashing.

Elephants love water. Each elephant has its own keeper assigned to it, in addition to the mahout who trains the animal. Their daily routine involves foraging in the forest in the morning and taking tourists for rides in the afternoon. At about noon, the elephant keepers take their animals down to the Rapti River where they get to splash and roll around, and the keeper scrubs down their skin.

Jungle at 20,000 lakes area.

Nara and I had been planning for a while to rent bikes and ride out to the 20,000 lakes area. But when we went to the bike shop Nara sheepishly confessed he'd never ridden a bike before! He grew up in the roadless hills of the Himalaya, and having grown up in Holland myself the possibility never crossed my mind. Anyways, we rented one ramshackle bike and Nara sat on the back. My turn to be porter! We went through fields, through a chaotic roadside town, and then onto a path leading into the jungle. The trail ended at this pond full of water hyacinths. Black ibis and storks in the trees were making jungle sounds, rhesus monkeys were rustling in the trees, and a marshmugger crocodile was lying on the opposite shore in the distance, mouth wide open.