After breakfast on our hostel roof terrace, overlooking Kathmandu, we jumped in a taxi to the Chinese consulate to lodge our visa applications. We were there over an hour before the gates opened and were first in line. As it had been shut for a week we were expecting to see huge queues and with only a 1 1/4 hour window when they accept applications, we didn’t want to miss out. We were first at the window when the clerk opened her desk, only to be told the form, which we’d printed from their website, was an old one and we’d need to fill in the newer one, the exact same form with the same details but a different number in the corner. The mistake meant we had to queue for over an hour to get back to the front.
Visas in, we wandered back into Thamel. As we’d agreed we’d send another parcel home from Nepal we had a chance for some more souvenir shopping, another smaller thangka (this time a mantra), another yak wool rug, a cashmere scarf and some smaller bits and bobs. Back in our room we had some chill time before another visit to the coffee shop, Himalayan Java for coffee, cake and fast internet.
The next morning, we had a ticket booked for the journey from the tourist bus park to Sauraha, the gateway to Chitwan National Park. We were up early and had time for a chai before leaving Kathmandu. The journey was long winded as we retraced our route through the Kathmandu Valley, along the Trisuli River towards Pokhara for about 4 hours before turning off to Sauraha. As usual, the bus stopped for breakfast and lunch before pulling in to our destination.
The tourist bus park at Sauraha is a couple of kilometres from the village and the buses were met with hordes of hotel touts and jeeps collecting people who’d booked their accommodation. We had a reservation but there was no one there to meet us and no one would take us, we were quoted a price five times what it should be and they all laughed, so we picked up our bags and marched out of the park towards the village. We walked for about a kilometre, with people stopping to tell us we were going the wrong way while other people stopped to help us and give directions, our first impressions of the place weren’t good, blatantly being lied too while walking with backpacks in the midday heat isn’t the greatest experience.
Finally in the village we found a rickshaw who would take us the rest of the way, only to arrive at the hotel and be told they weren’t expecting us until the next day, they’d read the booking wrong. We sat outside waiting for a room to be cleared for us while being told of the tour options we could book through the hotel. Once in the room, we showered and walked into the village to check the prices at other tour agencies. Just as we left our hotel, in an army restricted area we spotted a baby rhino, living there as something had happened to it’s mum and he wouldn’t survive in the wild by himself.
Although the village is only small, the main street is tourist orientated and has lots of souvenir shops and tour guides. It’s nowhere near as commercialised as Pokhara and with its dusty dirt tracks and riverside restaurants it has a real charm. We spoke to a few companies and found one who was offering the same trips for significantly cheaper than at our hotel. We liked the guide and booked on for morning trips for the following two days. With our bookings made, we wandered to the river and perched in a riverside bar to watch the sunset while pied kingfishers swooped down into the water.
|Sunset over the Rapti River, Chitwan National Park.|
The next morning the alarm went off at 6am. We dressed and walked into the village to meet our guide and his assistant before walking back to the river, past a group of hornbills, to wait for our canoe. We were on one of the first boats out and despite a very loud German man in the canoe next to us, we spent an enjoyable hour floating down the Rapti River, spotting kingfishers, storks, herons, peacocks and two kinds of crocodiles including a gharial with a long skinny nose. From the canoe we stepped into the national park itself. Chitwan is a protected area of sal forest, elephant grassland and water marshes and is one of the last places where Indian Rhino’s can be found. There are also Bengal tigers but we knew a tiger spot would be nearly impossible.
|Canoe ride along the Rapti River, Chitwan National Park.|
We walked for about two hours through forest and grassland, skirting the river back towards the village. Although we didn’t spot any mammals, it not being the right time of year as the grass is too high, we saw plenty of foot prints and scat, the animals were out there somewhere. We stopped at a viewing tower where Dharma our guide told us stories from his 20 years of guiding, including getting charged and thrown, several times, by a rhino. Back level with the village, a canoe collected us and took us back to the bank where we wandered back to our hotel in time for brunch.
|Walking through the long grasses, Chitwan National Park.|
We spent the rest of the day at the hotel, we took a long midday nap and sat out in the garden before walking back in to the village for dinner.
The next day we were up early again to head back to the tour office. On our way we were stopped by a local boy who asked if we’d seen the rhino and pointed us to the river bank. Too excited to miss the opportunity but running out of time before our 6am pick up, we ran to the river and joined the group of people watching a fully grown adult rhino grazing right by the village. He’d swam across the river in the night and napped in the grasses until day break when his snoring had drawn attention to him and word had spread. We would’ve loved to have stayed longer, especially to watch him return to the national park on the far river bank, but we had an elephant ride booked.
|Indian Rhino grazing, Chitwan National Park.|
Indian Rhinos have only one horn and the best scientific name ever, Rhinocerous Unicornis. They are the world’s fifth largest land mammal measuring about 6ft tall and 12ft long, weighing up to 4,000kg and about 5,000 still live in the wild, 500 or so in Nepal. The population in Chitwan suffered, dropping by nearly a quarter, when the Maoist rebellion drew the attention of the military away from the Chitwan park border allowing poachers opportunities to trap and kill the animals. Since then, numbers have recovered and are on the rise.
We were 10 minutes late to the tour office but the jeep collecting us was 30 minutes late. Eventually it turned up and we squeezed in for the short drive out of town to the community forest. As the grasses in the park are about 7m high at this time of year you have more chance of seeing animals in the community forest and we’d decided to take an hour ride on a private elephant. Joined by another couple we climbed aboard and set off. It was an uncomfortable amble but riding an elephant is always going to be a good experience and we saw a couple of different kinds of deer, monkeys, kingfishers and a few mongoose (mongeese?!), no more rhinos though.
|Deer in the community woodland during our elephant ride, Chitwan National Park.|
We had time for a chai and to buy some bananas to feed to the elephant before we were back in the jeep and back in town. After checking to see if the rhino was still there, we stopped at a small local eatery for breakfast and had the worst, oiliest eggs ever, before ducking back to the hotel, hoping for a quick shower. Nepal has electric shortages and there are always times in the day without electricity, the problem with our hotel was that the generator never seemed to work properly so we were often without light when it was dark or had no fan or water as the pump wasn’t on. We’d made a bit of a judgment error when we’d decided to treat ourselves to an aircon room since we only got a couple of hours use out of it each day. Even in Kathmandu, electricity shortages are a problem and the streets are full of traffic police because they can’t install traffic lights!
|Our elephant enjoying her bananas, Chitwan National Park.|
We walked back into town at midday to watch the elephant bathing. Each day the elephants are supposed to be taken to the river to bath and for 60p you can join them. It just happened that all the elephants were busy when we were there and none were at the river. Disappointed, we walked back, stopping for lassi’s on the way.
We headed out again later and rented bicycles to ride the short distance to the elephant breeding centre. It was a hot, sweaty and very bumpy ride with creaky, wobbly bikes but the scenary was beautiful. We passed rice paddies, buffaloes grazing in paddocks, goats climbing every wall and lots of large, mud walled, thatched houses where the old men would be sitting outside chatting with kids running all over the shop. The ride was a bit longer than we’d expected and after asking for directions a couple of times we reached a small river crossing. Leaving the bikes, we hopped in a small wooden boat to be rowed over to the breeding centre.
There wasn’t much to see other than a row of stables, we arrived at around 3:30pm and the mum elephants were being led in from the jungle where they’d been out grazing, closely followed by their kids. Some were so tiny they could hide underneath between their parents legs. Our hearts started beating faster when one mischievous youngster turned away from the stable and started trotting towards Rhys. We wandered up and down the field watching the elephants for a while before heading back into the village, stopping to buy jungle honey on route.
|Elephants at the Breeding Centre, Chitwan National Park.|
|Baby elephant, Chitwan National Park.|
After some chill time at the hotel, we walked into town and ate a Nepali meal on plastic seats at the side of the street by candle light.
We’d decided it was worth setting the alarm for another early start even though we didn’t have a trip planned and our bus back to Kathmandu wasn’t until 9am. By 6am we were out walking along the river in search of crocodiles and rhinos. We didn’t have any luck and on the way back to our room stopped for breakfast. Walking back to the river after our meal we ended up finding a whole new path we’d never known was there. A local guy told us they’d seen rhinos that morning along the trail so we followed it as far as some elephant stables. It was the perfect place for grazing rhinos but by then was too late in the day and we had no luck. We spotted more kingfishers and crocodiles and enjoyed the walk, as we’d seen a rhino the previous day we weren’t too disheartened.
After a misunderstanding paying the hotel bill, we were finally transferred to the bus park where we boarded the bus for the final journey, the fourth time we’d driven along the Trisuli River valley. After a few stops for samosas we arrived in Thamel and walked back to our hostel. It was already late afternoon but we had some final chores to run, laundry to put in, paintings to collect, yet another parcel to send to the UK and a haircut and super powerful head massage for Rhys, I could barely stifle the laughter watching him in the mirror.
As it was our last night in Nepal, we decided to head to a Lonely Planet recommended momo restaurant for dumplings. We arrived 5 minutes before last orders and had a delicious last meal before wandering back to the room.
We had the full day before our 9pm flight and had hoped to do some more sightseeing. Just as we sat on the roof terrace to wait for breakfast, it started to drizzle. We were due to collect our passports from the Chinese embassy that morning and walked over, excited to have one more visa out of the way before returning to the hostel to wait out the weather. The rain didn’t stop and we ended up back in Himalayan Java for more coffee and cake.
We had a taxi arranged to collect us from the hostel for the ride to the airport and made it through security with plenty of time to kill. Our flight left on time and we began the first 4 1/2 hours of a very long night.