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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 momos at our hotel we agreed that we should go look for a tiger safari.

Getting there

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 Machan 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 and dung. 

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 road. 

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 vulnerable. 

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.   Photo of the cabins at Matchan, Chitwan, Nepal

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.

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 expectation high.

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 endurable behavior.Photo of elephant safari in Chitwan Park, Nepal

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.

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 wonderful evening.  Tiger Tops 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 Ranthambhore Tiger Preserve where he had studied tigers.  He also invited us to visit him at his home in New Delhi before we left India.

Lit 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 for us.

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.Photo of elephant driver atop elephant at Machan, Chitwan, Nepal

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 Australian Guide with elephant at Machan, Chitwan, Nepal
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 depression.

Elephants are "guided" by being hit on the head with a metal instrument called an 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.Elephant keeper at Machan, Chitwan, Nepal

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 Tharu 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 to tire.

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.

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