Claire stood before us, her eyes fixed on the elephants. “I’m going in.”
The mahout we approached looked relieved to have a bit of help. The elephant’s hide was thick and rough and covered in deep crevices that held in dirt like a cracked heel. The mahout gave us a quick demonstration; lean into the beast and vigorously scrub its thick hide with a flat river bed rock. This wasn’t a hard task per se, but it was a laborious one with so much surface to clean. We found our own river rocks and began scrubbing. I did my best to clean all the nasties from the elephant’s nooks and crannies but my effort produced little reward and soon my focus shifted toward creating a swirling mud-streaked masterpiece on the elephant’s back.
The mahout spoke to his elephant and in turn it responded with a stretch of a leg or a full body rotation.
This command I didn’t register until I was blasted by a fire hose explosion of river water which erupted from the elephant’s trunk. The elephant looked indifferent to what he had just done.
My mud art was gone.
The mahout stood proud and amused.
“You got me!” I shouted.
“Choop!” yelled the mahout.
Great, it was Claire’s turn to get soaked. The elephant sucked in another five gallons of river water and blasted me in the side.
And then again.
And finally Claire got her turn.
Farther down the river Brad and Nathan found an elephant to wash and once they were done we sloshed out of the water.
“Hey, we didn’t get sprayed,” Brad whined. “It must be because we’re not ladies.”
It was finally Election Day in Nepal and it was evident that the locals were uncertain about how things would go down. All of the stores closed down at midday and the people went to the voting booths. A few hours later the shopkeepers came back from the voting centers with black marker on their thumbnails to signify they had voted. Everything seemed to have gone smoothly and it looked like the Maoist’s efforts over the last couple of weeks had been fruitless.
As advised we decided to stay clear of Kathmandu until after the elections so we had headed south to the Nepali lowlands, called the Terai. We had come here to see Nepal’s most famous wildlife preserve, Chitwan National Park, the country’s last refuge for the one-horned Indian rhinoceros, Royal Bengal tigers, and Indian elephants.
The emergence into the Terai was heavenly; the weather was pure bliss and we were all ready to relax by the river in our lawn chairs. We also wanted to see the park, we just had to do decide how we wanted to explore it: on the back of an elephant, by foot, or by jeep. By elephant seemed too slow and by foot seemed rather dangerous. People were attacked every year in the park and that’s not how we wanted Nathan and Claire’s trip to end. We also wanted to get farther away from the park’s more highly frequented zone so we opted for a full day safari by jeep where we were told we’d be able to access remote regions of the park.
On the morning of our safari we packed our sack lunches: bread, peanut butter and jelly, fruit, and Oreo cookies. Our guide met us at the hotel and walked us down the elephant poop-splattered road to the river’s edge. The sky was foggy and overcast and there was a slight chill to the air. He directed us to a narrow dugout canoe and we climbed in and sat down on the wooden block stools. The morning atmosphere felt surreal and when we reached the other side we were officially within the park’s limits, no active resorts or restaurants, just nature as it was intended to be.
Historically, however, that’s not how the region has always been. The area has had its problems. Just a few years back massive resorts existed within the parks boundaries and then suddenly the government mandated the shutdown of all such establishments.
Before that, back in the 19th century, the land was used as a hunting reserve for rich aristocrats like King George V and his son, who in 1911 slaughtered 39 tigers and 18 rhinos in just one safari trip. Yet some say the hunting reserve saved more lives than it took and that the biggest loss of populations came from loss of habitat and illegal poaching during the Maoist insurgency. By the 1960s there were fewer than 100 rhinos and 20 tigers remaining in the area.
On the other side of the river we piled into an old bare metal jeep with our guide and the driver. We took off down a narrow dirt road and within a few miles we had already ticked off a number of the high profile animals: deer with spotted backs and white fluffy tails, a barking deer, short and compact with pencil-thin legs, the boar, and a plethora or birds. We even stopped at a crocodile breeding ground.
But I wanted to see a tiger.
Our guide reported that he had seen one just the other day crossing the road. We all stayed focused and hoped we’d make it to the right place at the right time. We worked our way into the jungle and stopped at all of the common animal hot spots until we reached a meandering stream with a small bridge that crossed it, where a jeep was parked with two tourists in the back. Their guide had spotted tiger prints on the bridge and they were going to wait and see if it reappeared.
“Should we wait too?” we asked our guide.
“No. What are the chances that the tiger will walk back the same way?” He shook his head. “It will not happen.”
We trucked on, transitioning back and forth between jungle, which provided good visibility, and grassland—thick masses of elephant grass which grows up to 24 feet and provides excellent coverage for elephants and tigers. In just a few months the villagers would risk their lives to cut the grass because they needed the material for home repairs and animal feed. Some villagers had already started cutting the grass and I wished them safety from whatever lurked inside. Tunnels cut in through the walls of grass and cobwebs speckled the surface like shiny white freckles. I got goosebumps just driving through.
After 25 miles we arrived at a wide river bed and parked the jeep. We crossed the stream and set up lunch atop an overturned boat. We couldn’t watch the river from our abandoned boat but our guide sat on a hemp bag at the water’s edge while we basked in the sun and slowly prepped our sandwiches.
“Psssttt! Come quick!” our guide yelped. “Rhino!”
We dropped our sandwiches and ran to the water. I could hardly believe it. At the edge of the desolate pebble strewn river stood a living breathing rhino. It was unreal. I expected it to look small and friendly, but instead it looked like a giant prehistoric plastic toy placed out in the water. It was a predator for sure, bold and in charge and fearful of nothing. For the second time in the day the world around me felt unreal. It wasn’t the first time I had ever seen a rhino—of course I had seen one in the zoo—but one in its true environment? This was something quite different. Soon the massive beast crossed the river to our side and disappeared into the brush. The bushes taunted us as they moved in waves, and we stood a captive audience, waiting for the rhino to make a final appearance before officially exiting the stage. It left me wanting more. I wanted to see another one.
We packed up our things and continued our search for more rhinos and hopefully a tiger.
Farther down the road we pulled off next to a narrow river. Unlike the last river this one was engulfed in the thick jungle and we fought to make it to the water’s edge. Our range of sight was rather limited and it seemed unlikely we’d have the luxury of seeing much of anything.
But I wanted the impossible. My inner voice demanded for the appearance of a tiger and I willed for its arrival. I focused all of my energy until I wholeheartedly believed my wish would come true. My short attention span got the best of me and soon I was mindlessly staring out into the greenery.
Our guide, on the other hand, was honing in on something. We stood in silence watching him, and then watching the jungle, and then back to watching him, wanting to be a part of the discovery. He shot a finger at 10:00 and from the greenery appeared rhino number two. This rhino was even more surreal than the last and it was much closer to us than before. I held my breath, afraid it would hear my heart beat. We were all dumbfounded and wanted a closer look. We worked our way down the river until we were nearly across from it.
Claire let out a sigh and in an instant the guide shot her a glance that screamed “silence your naïve foreigner! This rhino will KILLL you!” Earlier our guide had told us that rhinos were incredibly dangerous and you never wanted them to know of your presence; not because they’d disappear, but that there was a risk that they would charge. I imagined myself running away through the thick brush and the scenario did not end well.
Bumping along the road toward the edge of the park through the alternating tall grass and jungle, the sun cast its rays through the early evening dust, turning our return trip into a sepia tone photograph. Had that really happened, I wondered. I looked around the jeep at the rest of the group, all lost in thought. They were probably wondering the same thing.