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[at-l] Trip Report: Jungle Fever

Ok, gang, so I've been holding back on you. I've been SO swamped I haven't 
gotten around to typing up too many of my little hikes with sister Sal in the 
wilds of Asia this winter. Now mind you, she's not a backpacker. We did only 
day hikes. Nonetheless, they were...ah...unique. And the list is slow, so 
I'll feed you some as I get to them. Here's one day's adventure in Nepal, 
which I've sent to a few newspapers. -- Cheers, Navigator

The atmosphere is tense. We've hardly recovered from our morning expedition 
aboard a massive Asian elephant, where our mahout - the elephant's trainer 
and lifelong companion - surprised us by giving chase after two rhinos 
through the dense underbrush. Now, over a steaming bowl of garlic soup, Malin 
has second thoughts about our next activity, the jungle walk.

"Lonely Planet says it's pretty dangerous." She frowns, looks at her 
boyfriend, Daniel. "People have died on this trip. Maybe we shouldn't--"

My sister and I exchange wry looks. What do the guidebooks know? Just last 
week we sat on our perch at the Irish Pub in Thamel, laughing, as one by one 
the fresh tourists, guidebooks in hand, walked into Kathmandu's busiest 
intersection. Each one would look in the book, look up, see the sign: Alice's 
Restaurant. Ascend the staircase. The rooftop café soon filled with tourists, 
all with noses in guidebooks. All repeating the same experience. Hilarious!

"If it weren't safe," I pointed out, "they wouldn't be doing it." Malin 

The dugout canoe lies extremely low in the Rapti River as our Tharu boatsman 
poles us across the swift current. I keep watch for crocodiles. We are a 
group of six- my sister Sally and I, the Swedish couple, our guide (armed 
only with a bamboo stick) and his assistant. We scramble to shore, disappear 
into the tall grasses of the savanna on a well-worn trail. We soon reach the 
jungle. In a clearing under a saal tree, the guide stops, addresses us.

"When a rhino charges--"

The Swedes look at us in alarm. No backing out now!

Welcome to Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park, where every moment is an 
adventure. Like many visitors with a tight travel schedule, we've chosen to 
experience the park by booking into one of the many all-inclusive camps along 
the park's periphery-in our case, Tiger Camp. Bounded on two sides by 
wilderness, the camp boasts an unobstructed view of animal activity across 
the river. On a two-day, three-night package deal - costing roughly $95 per 
person - we enjoy a busy roster of activities designed to immerse us in the 
jungle and the culture of the Terai, the lowlands of Nepal. 

Warned to either run in circles or climb a tree if attacked, we silently slip 
down a jungle path, single file, guide in front, assistant guarding the rear. 
A rustle in the trees above; the guide motions us to stop. Langurs! With 
tawny fur, black faces, and long tails, a troupe of these monkeys play in the 
high branches of a silk cottonwood tree. Malin pulls out her Nikon, starts 
snapping some photos.

Behind us, the underbrush crackles. Our guide whirls around, the look of 
terror on his face unmistakable. I hold my breath, expecting the worst-but 
it's only another tour group, nosily emerging from the bushes. I let out a 
sigh of relief. 

An hour later, I learn the meaning of fear.

It's clear that our guide doesn't relish his job. It wouldn't surprise me if 
they draw straws to decide whose turn it is to lead the next group of lunatic 
tourists into Chitwan's dense jungle and broad savanna for the six-hour walk. 
But it's his job to find us animals, and it's the fierce creatures that keep 
the tourists coming here-especially the tigers and  rhinos. 

He stops. Sniffs the air. Leads us off the beaten path into a peninsula of 
jungle jutting out into the savanna. The tall elephant grass waves, crackles. 
An unmistakable snort. "Rhinosaur," he whispers, motioning us to silence. 
Bamboo stick firmly in teeth, he shimmies up the nearest tree to scout its 
position. I'm left standing at the front of the line. Defenseless.

The rhino snorts again, more loudly. The grass bobs. My heart is in my 
throat. I survey the trees surrounding me. Will any of them support my 
weight? When will I know to run? I'm afraid to breathe.

Chomping. A flash of gray. The rhino moves away, deeper into the savanna. A 
sigh of relief. Our guide comes back down the tree. 

"You'll have to climb trees to see them well," he says. He looks us over. Not 
likely. These are young, tender trees-no problem for the average Nepali male, 
around 5'10" and 110 lbs., to climb. But not us. He shakes his head, points 
us back to the main trail. Thankfully, we retreat.

On the broad jeep causeway through the savanna, Daniel asks him whether 
anyone has died from rhino attacks. "Six, seven people this year." He shrugs. 
Then, not wanting to scare us from returning, adds, "All villagers. During 
the grass-cutting."

Under an ages-old contract with the king, who ceded his royal game preserve 
in 1972 to become a national park, the Tharu villagers may enter the 
grasslands and chop down a limited amount of the 12-foot-tall elephant grass 
for use in building their traditional homes, beautiful terra-cotta structures 
made from a mix of mud, dung, and grass. But the savanna is the greater Asian 
one-horned rhinoceros' favorite habitat-and there are more than 900 of them 
in 60 square kilometers of park, the second-densest rhino population in Asia. 
Confrontations are inevitable. Even at home, the villagers are at risk. 
Unlike the 60 or so Bengal tigers in the park, the rhinos have no compunction 
about crossing the river and raiding the crops.

"What do you do when there's a rhino in your yard?" I asked a Tharu villager 
later that night.  He grinned. "Run."

The next morning we see rhino tracks through the potato fields.

A brightly colored blur of crimson and yellow streaks out of the tall grass 
and across the road, startling all of us. "Jungle chicken," says our guide. I 
figure he's pulling my leg. It's not until several weeks later I read that 
domesticated chickens did indeed descend from the wild chickens of the Asian 

While we see no more rhino, we come across rhino tracks, rhino scat. We pass 
other tour groups on the jeep trail, then slink back on smaller trails into 
the underbrush, encountering several types of small deer-a herd of delicate 
spotted deer, some small barking deer. More monkeys - rhesus, this time - 
chatter in the treetops. A blur of green turns out to be a parrot. Our guide 
pauses at a gnarled tree, runs his hand over the bark.

"Tiger was here." We look closely. Deep claw marks. Fresh. Staking out the 
boundaries of its territory.

If you're willing to spend upwards of $200 a day, you're virtually guaranteed 
to see a tiger. Three camps- Tiger Tops, Temple Tiger, and Island Jungle 
Resort - are plunked down in the thick jungle inside the national park, with 
night-viewing platforms to watch the wildlife at play. But after the rhino 
encounter, claw marks were as close as I wanted to get to a tiger in its home 
habitat. And that goes double for the sloth bear. It's a small creature, but 
fierce and unpredictable-more frightening to our guide than a tiger. 

Nearing sundown, skies shifting to hues of lilac and pink, we have our final 
brush with a rhino-again, on the savanna's perimeter. Our guide climbs a 
tree. We can hear the rhino stamping, snorting; see the tall grass waving, 
feel the echo in the air as it crunches into a thick shock of grass. Fearful, 
but curious, we hide behind tree trunks, peer into the grassland. A flash of 
horn. Our guide jumps to the ground, leads us away. "Hurry-we must hurry!" 
Adrenaline racing, we thunder down the trail, back to the main path. "We must 
get back to the boat before sundown."

A large sambar deer ambles brazenly onto the path as the light wanes. We hike 
with renewed speed. The creatures of the jungle have started to emerge-it's 
their time of day. It's no longer safe to stay.

Back at Tiger Camp, over dinner, we laugh off the moments of fear. Ask the 
coordinator, Saanta, when the best animal-watching time is. "March," he says.

Malin shakes her head. "I might come back," she says, "but I am never doing 
that walk again."

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