Royal Chitwan National Park
© 1997-2004 Max Lent
Our visit to the
Chitwan National Park was not planned. The whole adventure, as
adventures often are, was the result of chance. We had planned to
visit Nepal only
long enough to tour Katmandu and fly over Mount Everest. However,
Indian airlines somehow managed to lose our return reservations to New
Delhi, India. We had time on our
hands and had remembered that the Chitwan National Park was famous for
its tigers. While eating a plate of
at our hotel we agreed that we should go look for a tiger safari.
Down, 4 hours of down. Down through three layers of clouds. Down
through at least 3 cultures. Down through valleys along curvy narrow
roads. Ears popping, eyes looking everywhere and everywhere something
new to look at and take in. What could be more exotic than Katmandu?
This is and so is everything around the next curve and down the road.
Our travel agent, Yeti, located in the Hotel De l' Annapurna, arranged
for us to spend two days at the
Wildlife Resort in the Chitwan National Park. Even the names
sounded adventurous. Part of the trip arrangement was to have a
driver pick us up at our hotel in a 4-wheel drive Jeep and drive us to
the nature preserve. Our travel agent said that they would have a
driver pick us up at 8:00 a.m. At 8:00 a.m. the driver was waiting
for us and ready to load our gear and start the journey.
The drive is an adventure in its self. The road from Katmandu to
Chitwan was barely two lanes wide. In few the good patches it is
paved. In other places it is washed out or recovering from rockslides.
Trucks and buses carrying supplies and people from India climbed the steep
road as we drove down it. Breakdowns of trucks and busses were
numerous. Since there was no place for the trucks and busses to pull
off the road, most of the time, they just stopped where they were.
Where they were was often halfway around a blind curve or a narrow spot in
the road. The precipitous drop off from the road to the valley below
was more than a thousand feet most of the time. Although we were
driving down a valley that was mostly steep cliffs with little tillable
soil, there were houses and shanties lining the road for most of the
distance we traveled. Looking across the valley we could see more
homesteads perched on small terraces above steep cliffs.
As we descended the canyon we passed through villages every few miles, it
seemed. Whenever we saw children, they were dressed in clean school
uniforms and were carrying knapsacks or books. This included villages
where houses didn’t have doors or glass windows. Many of these children
were coming from huts that lacked running water, furniture, or electricity.
What we saw was an example of the Indian and Nepalese faith in the future
and the drive to succeed. In the poorest villages we drove through,
the poorest people were working. The lowliest work we saw was the
gravel makers. These people sat by the road between two piles of
rocks. One pile was small stones and the other gravel. Using
primitive tools, the gravel makers spent their days breaking small rocks
into smaller rocks that would eventually be used to pave the road that we
were driving on.
It seemed that every village that we descended through looked slightly
different that ones higher in the mountains. Our observations were
confirmed as we continued on. We observed changes in costume,
physiognomy, and architecture. We could detect we had passed through
at least three layers of cultures before we reached the lowland. Some
of the cultures we saw appeared more aboriginal than we had seen in
Katmandu. Since using the word Indian here would be misleading, I’ll
say that these cultures looked more tribal than any we had seen thus far.
As we drove past huts in and outside of villages we saw a moving picture
made up of short clips of images of everyday living. As the sun rose
high in the sky, the shady side of the canyon we were driving down started
receiving light and warmth. As the air warmed, people, mostly women
and small children, showed up at public water pipes. They partially
disrobed and bathed and washed their hair. Other women sat on the
ground, or on the rare chair, in the sun and picked what may have been lice
out of each other’s hair. We saw tea brewed on little clay stoves that
were domes about the size of a military helmet. The stoves were so
small that they could only burn twigs and small branches. Most of the
nearby land had been deforested, so not much was left to burn except twigs
We saw street markets in the larger villages. The vendors
everywhere were selling a kind of tangerine. The vendors in the
mountains had the largest and most delectable looking ones.
We turned off the main road and descended out of the mountains onto a
plain. Coming out of the mountains, the light changed. We were
in a more tropical light on this plain. Here we saw yet more cultural
variation. These people looked more Indian than Nepalese. The
older men resembled Gandhi in stature, physiognomy, and dress. The
women looked those we would see later in rural India. Because the land
was level, bicycles were more common. Rickshaws were now seen on the
We turned down a side road into what looked like a nature park where we
were met by guards. Our driver motioned for us to get out of the Jeep
and then proceeded to remove our luggage. Using broken English he said
that he would be back to pick us up at the end of our stay.
There we were, alone with guards, who didn’t appear to speak English,
watching our last connection to what we thought of as civilization disappear
back down the dirt road in a cloud of dust. We felt justifiably
Within minutes a four wheeled drive pickup truck with bench seats in its
be appeared. The driver loaded our luggage onto the truck and helped
us aboard. Off we went down a rutted trail through huge trees and
brush. Exotic tropical birds flew overhead. None of them were
familiar to us. In what was probably less than 15 minutes we came upon
a river. Two dugout canoes awaited us. This, we thought, was an
interesting surprise. One was for our luggage and the other was for
us. We followed the instructions of our guides and climbed into a
canoe, which was immediately launched into the fast, but not particularly
dangerous current. Our guides poled us across the river to an
established landing and unloaded our us and our luggage. Once again,
even further from the safety of civilization, we were completely out of
control of our situation. This is what travel should be.
Another, even more robust four wheel drive pickup with bench seats along its
bed and over its wheels appeared and took us across a dry part of the
riverbed and through a forest to our next destination, the Matchan resort.
With each new phase of this side trip we were thrust further into wild and
we loved it.
When we were greeted by a guide who spoke perfect English and who had the
manners of butler we began to see what a well run operation Matchan was.
We were assigned a side of a duplex cottage made of mud and wattle that
lacked electricity. We were given a five minute lecture on the activities of
the next two days. After lunch we were assigned to an elephant safari.
One return from the elephant safari followed by tea, dinner and a slide
show. Tomorrow, we are to go on a Jeep safari at 6:30 a.m. followed by
breakfast. From that point on we are not yet scheduled.During the evening we met the
star of the PBS television series
Land of the
Tiger, Valmik Thapar. A representative from the Save the Tiger
Fund was also staying at Machan. Thapar looked like an Indian
version or Orson Wells, a big burly man with a grand black beard.
He was also charming and captivating. We spent several hours
around the campfire talking with him about Tigers and conservation; a
Jungle Lodge, we learned from Thapar, used to tie a sacrificial
animal to a post every night to attract Tigers. It worked, but is no
longer done. It is hard to imagine how Tiger Top justifies its $1,000
+/per night fees if they can't attract game. Thapar suggested that
if we wanted to see tigers we should visit the
Tiger Preserve where he had studied tigers. He also invited us
to visit him at his home in New Delhi before we left India.
Postcards sold at the makeshift store show a Rhinoceros taking a sip of
water from the swimming pool while a guest, not 3 feet away, sips a drink
and watches with an amused expression. This image certainly set our
We were not certain, but we may have been the only English-speaking
tourists, out of about 20, at the resort. Most of the tourists were Germans
about our age, 50+. The remainder were either Japanese or unknowns.
An elephant just called and it was time for us to get ready to our safari.
How to describe riding an elephant; it is elevated undulation. At
first, it's rough and awkward. If you adapt and roll with the
elephant, a rhythm takes over. From then on it is a gentle natural movement.
The seating arrangement for riding an elephant consists of a rectangular
platform about 3x4 feet with the longer section inline with the elephant's
back. The floor of the platform is padded and there is a single 1-foot high
railing around the platform. Tina, my wife, said that she could easily slip
through the platform.
Our elephant driver was very concerned with getting me to sit back away from
the railing. At first, I thought he wanted me to keep my feet clear of the
elephant's ears; which he used for steering. Later, I noticed that the
railing had been repaired. My guess is that a big person, perhaps a German,
may have broken the railing and fallen off. In any case the elephant driver
did more gesturing at me than the rider behind me; a bothersome, but
Rambling across riverbed grassland atop an elephant is an elegant natural
experience. It is quiet and gentle, except when the elephant farts. Wildlife
seem to ignore them.
kerosene lamps are left on the porch just outside the doors of the huts
after dark. The lamps are to be taken into the rooms and provide
the only source of light.
The huts at Machan are not heated and in December they are chilly
inside. Sometime after dinner the staff places hot water bottles
between the sheets of the visitor's beds. Heavy comforters keep
the heat in the beds which leads to a pleasant surprise after disrobing
and washing with cold water. The water is supposedly heated by
solar power, but the combination of cool days little sunlight, and great
distance from the solar collectors makes them ineffective
Our second day at Machan started at 6:00 a.m. We were awakened before
dawn by a knock at our door. We rushed to put on our clothes before going to
the central compound where strong British style tea and cookies were waiting
After tea and cookies, neither very good, but appreciated, we were led to
the elephant loading area and taken for another safari along the river and
into the forest.
The view across the river was mystical. Fog hovered across the
riverbed. As the sun rose over the valley the fog gradually
disappeared leaving only light wisps floating here and there.
We were called to the elephant boarding bridge where we stepped down onto
the elephant's back. It's good to sit on the front of the platform.
The best view and the first sightings of animals are seen from there.
Our elephant safari route was along the riverbed and then into the bush
along the bank and then into the forest and stream area. We saw 2
female Rhinos with a baby each and several kinds of deer. What we saw
appears to be usual. According to two guides, tigers are seen about
twice a year if one goes out twice a day looking for them. The
likelihood a visitor seeing a tiger is near zero, but everyone looks with
expectation. Since Machan does not promise tiger sightings, there is no
false advertising. However, there is an emotion of unmet expectations.
A young Indian couple sat behind Tina and me. They were obviously
honeymooners. They cooed, kissed and sang during most of the ride. That is
until they got cold. After that they shivered. We had on long underwear and
insulated jackets and were still a little chilled. They had neither.
Even with the racket the young couple made, we still managed to see some
wildlife including two female rhinos with calves and several kinds of dear.
Tip: Sit at the front of the elephant or of the bed of a Jeep. You get the
best view from this vantage point. On both elephants and Jeeps you are
farther from the exhaust and see less dust and more wildlife.
After the elephant ride, it was off to breakfast. Every day, the meal
routine is varied just enough to make it difficult to know what to do or
what will be served. Sometimes breakfast is a buffet and sometimes it is
served. The same applies for lunch and dinner.
Breakfasts were European. Toast, rolls, tea and coffee were followed with
some combination of the following; eggs, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, cold
cereal with hot milk. The food was not very good, but adequate.
Chris, the Aussie guide, took us to the elephant stable to present an
informative lecture on elephants using the first elephant we rode on for the
demonstration. We learned in the lecture that our elephant, an older female
had an arthritic knee. That solved they mystery as to why the driver wanted
me to scoot back and not put my weight over the elephant's left leg.
When asked about the dangers of riding elephants next to rhinos Chris
said that we were more in danger from the elephant's behavior than the
Rhino's. If an elephant is spooked it will take off through the forest
as fast as it can run. When it is scared it will charge through low
tree branches and bushes. Anything on top of the elephant will be
brushed off with great violence as it runs at thirty miles per hour.
The story about how elephants are captured and trained was sad.
Elephants are, we were told, social creatures that live together as
families. When a young elephant is removed from a family, its mother
becomes sad and shows signs of severely missing her young. The young
elephant cries for its mother for months. The process of training, as
described to us, involves beating the young elephant into submission.
The young elephants often become insane or live lives of never ending
Elephants are "guided" by being hit on the head with a metal instrument
ankus. We were told that hitting the elephant on the head with a
heavy metal instrument or pulling its ears with the hook of the ankus is not
painful to the elephant.
The elephant handler or mahout is responsible for the care of their
elephant. The relationship of a mahout with an elephant is often life
long. The healthful state of the elephant determines the income of the
mahout. If an elephant, it was said, becomes ill or has to be put
down, the mahout is out of a job. The mahout of our elephant, which
was used for the demonstration, seemed to care a great deal about the
welfare of his elephant.
After lunch we were taken on a dugout canoe trip down the river and an open
air Land Rover ride through the forest. The canoe ride was uneventful
due to the skill of our guide. He was able to maneuver us through
class one rapids with ease and grace. We saw few birds, but the ones
we saw were interesting and different than we had ever seen. We
remarked that the birds we were seeing were similar to birds we would expect
to see in similar habitats in North America. Where we would expect to
see a Red Wing Black Bird another similar looking bird filled the niche.
Even the plants looked familiar, but weren't.
Our Land Rover was waiting for us at the takeout. From the bank of the
river we drove into the forest though grassland. Not much wildlife was
observed, just a few deer and wild boars.
Back at the camp we ate dinner and watched a stick dance performance by a
group of 20 or so men from the
tribe. The men formed a circle around two drummers.
Following the beat of the drums the dancers ran and cracked their sticks
with one another in elaborate patterns and varying speeds. The performance
went on for about 45 minutes without a break, yet the dancers never seemed
Leaving Machan was abrupt
and a little less mysterious than arriving. One of the four-wheel
drive pickup trucks picked us up where we were dropped off and drove us back
to the river and across it. This demonstrated that our initial dugout
canoe crossing was just for effect. We drove on to the guard station
and were met by our original driver and the same Jeep. The driver
apparently waited for us for two days in a nearby village. Driving
back to Katmandu I pondered the Machan experience. The two days at
Machan were wonderful, too wonderful. I wanted to stay until summer.
I wanted to become close friends with Chris, the Aussie guide, and his wife.
I wanted to actually see a tiger. I wanted to learn the birds and
other forms of wildlife. I wanted to recreate a summer I spent as a
volunteer at the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research
Station in southeastern Arizona—perhaps the best summer of my life.
Falling in love with Machan made me feel like I had just fallen in love with
a prostitute who had a line of customers waiting for me to leave. What
we experienced at Machan was pure commercial ecotourism. The whole
experience was very carefully orchestrated and choreographed. Even in
our brief stay we saw other groups of tourists arrive, go through the drill
and leave before we did. From what we learned from watching what was
going on around us, we saw that the Machan experience is limited to two
days. After two days, all of the orchestrated events are repeated and
began to lose their luster. The ride is not as much fun the second
time around. Would I recommend Machan to someone else? Yes,
without reservation. Would I go back again? Never. Would I go to
another ecotourist resort? Yes, every chance I get.