Part II of a tale I told earlier this year of a trip to Nepal in 1990…
That evening, a huge thunderstorm hit our campsite with a vengeance. The gods were playing havoc with hammer and anvil, hurling hailstones down the mountain the size of golf balls. We were forced to shelter in a nearby tea house as the rain lashed down and our tents collapsed. We watched the show from the balcony, the sky lit up like New Year’s Eve in Sydney. A terrified local hid in a box, so all we could see were his eyes peeking anxiously over the edge. The local children found it hilarious, rushing out into the rain and playing dodgems with the hail, encouraging the blokes from our tour group to join in, whooping with laughter when they dashed out in their jocks. As the storm receded, our guide, Juan poured us all a glass of the local rum and started singing. He proceeded to lead us through every western song he knew. The more rum, the more tuneless we became, but nobody cared. Eventually the rain stopped, and the owners of the tea house got sick of our dreadful singing and kicked us out. We regrouped by the river and continued competing for the Eurovision Song Contest with limited success.
Despite some hangovers and hoarse throats, we spent another glorious day on the river, leaping the rapids now with professional verve, sliding into the water to cool off in calmer waters. After lunch, the temperature dropped suddenly, and we were hit by a brief but chilling deluge that somewhat dampened our enthusiasm. However, the final tumultuous rapid gave a dramatic flourish to the end of the trip. Juan, had disembarked earlier, to collect his bicycle and ride ahead to set up camp. Left alone, we quickly proved we were mere amateurs without his excellent guidance. Our dinghy was tossed into the centre of the river, where it collided with a huge rock. Here, we perched precariously for what seemed like minutes, those at the back gripping fiercely to the rock with their fingernails, those at the front hanging perilously into the froth below, the water pouring in over our feet. Eventually the force of the current dislodged us and sent us hurtling down into the swirling rapids with an almighty lurch, half the river flooding into the boat. Waterlogged and weary, we thudded through the remaining torrent, before edging our way cautiously back to shore, where we could see our campsite, and Juan waving eagerly from the bank.
Here, we left our new friends and set out to find our own way to Chitwan National Park, where we had been promised herds of elephants and a crash or two of rhinoceros. Yes, that really is the collective noun for a bunch of rhinos! Cool, isn’t it? We hitched a ride in one of those tinsel-covered trucks, where we squeezed onto a bench seat behind the driver, our rucksacks on our knees. We had a great view of the river, no longer deep jade but a muddy terracotta brown, then gradually a sandy ochre as the river widened and settled. High, majestic cliffs rose on both sides as the rain set in again. Turning away from the road, we drove through gentle woodland where the locals were gathering up vast bundles of firewood that they would lug back to town on their heads.
In town, where busy streets were overrun with rickshaws and rubbish, we descended from the truck with a wave to our friendly driver. Perched by the side of the road, we watched the world go by, waiting for someone to collect us and drive us to Chitwan. For an hour we absorbed the sounds, sights and aromas, falling in love with every doe-eyed child that came up to us, shy but curious. Eventually, a jeep tore up the road, scattering everything in its path, apart from a sturdy cockerel who stood his ground until the very last second, before taking to the air in a flurry of dust and outraged tail feathers.
Our lodge sat beside the Rapti River: a dozen bamboo and daub huts with thatched roofs. Two in the centre, covered in creeper, were kitchen and dining room. A garden, filled with neatly clipped hedges and pink bougainvillea, ran down to a copse of slim trees by the river, where we sat in the evening to watch the sunset. We dined by soft lamp light on noodle soup and spring rolls, and collapsed into bed early, curling up under thick mosquito nets.
That first morning, we were woken at dawn for a sunrise trek through the park. Our guide took us bird watching, then on to the local museum, where we discovered interesting morsels about the history, geography and wildlife of the region – baby elephants trunks lack coordination; rhinos weigh up to two tons – and then back to our hut for a late breakfast. Later, we took a ride down the river in a dugout canoe, floating past waterlilies as big as cabbages, the water blissfully cool as the day grew warmer.
In the afternoon, we headed into the forest to find a rhinoceros or three. We had been warned that rhinos are visually challenged, and may charge at anything smaller than an elephant. On foot, this resulted in several speedy retreats into the trees, so we didn’t end up kebabbed on a rhino horn.
Later, then, we mounted an elephant to go in search of rhinos from a greater, safer height. The view was superb. We trundled through the forest, meeting rhinos everywhere, undisturbed by our presence now we had Jumbo with us. It was thrilling to get so close after the morning’s distant sightings. We also disturbed a large stag and gaped in awe as ‘our’ elephant removed a huge tree trunk from our path.
A final banquet dinner – according to my diary, the best meal I had eaten in Nepal – and a sip of the local raksi, which tasted like the bottom of an ashtray. We spent the evening dancing like mad chooks with two New Zealanders and the Nepali lads.
The following morning we set out for a two day, twenty kilometre hike across the park to a small village in the west. Chitwan covers an area of almost 1000 km2. It was established in 1973 to save the rapidly declining populations of rhinoceros, tiger and sloth. Sadly, this was done at the expense of local human communities, who were forcibly relocated out of the area.
It was incredibly hot and humid walking, and by the time we reached the end of the first day, I was wilting and rhubarb-red. But we had spotted more rhinos, and had even picked up the scent of a Bengali Tiger. He kept a low profile, however, and chose not to be introduced, which was undoubtedly a good thing.
These days, some thirty years on, Chitwan National Park is home to almost seventy species of mammal. Beside the Bengal tiger and the rhinoceros, sloth bears and occasional wild elephants, there are otters, Bengal foxes, and honey badgers, striped hyenas, civets, and mongooses (mongeese?), gaurs – Indian bison – wild boars and deer, rhesus monkeys, pangolins, and porcupines.
The next morning, we were up at dawn, to climb a watch tower for a view over the plains. We were joined by a Nepalese couple and their young son, who took us in their jeep to see a dead rhino. The poor rhino, mad with pain after losing a fight to a bigger rhinoceros, had charged a jeep. The driver had to shoot it or die himself.
As every part of the rhino can either be eaten or used to cure any ailment, the villagers had arrived faster than us. Already, the hooves had been removed, and young men were collecting blood in bottles. The skin had been efficiently peeled from the carcass and laid out to dry, and the rest of the rhino butchered. This one animal would keep the villagers in fresh meat for some time.
Eventually, we set off again, through the forest to a lake, the day growing hotter with every step. We climbed a tree to watch a rhino bathing in the water. By now the humidity was sitting heavily on our shoulders, so we were delighted to come across a water pump under which we, too, could submerge our overheated heads. Once dry, a lovely, local lady applied red and gold tikkas to our foreheads before waving us on our way.
The last two kilometres were the longest of the whole day, out on open, dusty roads. At last we reached the river and crossed in a dugout canoe to Jagatpur, where we were to stay with a family in their blue, two-storey house, complete with electricity – the height of civilization. The owner told us he had spent twenty years in England as a Gurkha with the British Army and was now on an army pension, which made him the most illustrious person in the village.
His wife offered us chicken for dinner. This meant chasing a somewhat decrepit chook around the courtyard, before finally cornering it and chopping off its head as party of the evening’s entertainment. Unfortunately our ancient boiled hen tasted like shoe leather. We chewed hopelessly for some time, before passing our plates to eager grandchildren, happy to finish it off- and obviously possessing better teeth than we did.
At sunset, we strolled through the village, followed by a handful of small kids, wide-eyed and snotty nosed, fascinated by the strangers in their midst, daring each other to come closer. The One & Only sat among them like Jesus, as they all giggled and reached out to touch his watch and his beard.
A bus back to Kathmandu the next morning provided a different sort of adventure. This rusty tin box with wooden benches along both sides, broken windows and a door handle held on with string, ensured a bone shaking trip with dust flying into every nook and cranny. We were jammed in with old men in cotton caps, teenage mothers breast feeding their babies, little girls carrying confused chickens in their laps, old women with earrings all the way up their ears, old men with goats, rocking and swaying as the bus lurched along the road, crashing over potholes, squashing us together like mushy bananas on the back seat.
An hour and a half later, we were in Narangat buying fruit and chocolate. Buses were few and far between and would take the whole night to reach Kathmandu, so we hitched a ride with a truck driver, who declared we’d be in Kathmandu before midnight. We settled ourselves in the dress circle above the driver’s cabin with sleeping bags and snacks and prepared to enjoy the ride, with fresh air and plenty of leg room.
By midnight we had reached the river where we had started our rafting trip, and the driver decided to pull in for a nap. We would proceed at sunrise and arrive in time for breakfast, he assured us. At 4 am we set off again, crawling along at ten miles an hour, the driver studiously avoiding every pothole, the engine overheating halfway up every hill. We were overtaken by every bus, every strolling child, stopping every fifteen minutes to let the engine cool down or a passenger take a pitstop behind a tree.
At the final check point, we waited, sweltering in the midday sun, as our little refuge on the roof turned into an oven. Eventually, we found a taxi for the last lap, and were soon showering off four days of dust and grime, our clothes packed up and sent out to be washed, the decision made to find an earlier flight to London. It had been a fabulous adventure, but the heat and the squalor had worn us down, and things were getting a little hairy back in Kathmandu.
We met up with a friend from home, mate who had followed us over and just returned from Everest Base Camp. During dinner, we talked politics. There had been pro-democracy protests and marches in Nepal since February, but while we were away, the army had suppressed the protesters and enforced a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am. Six civilians and twenty policemen had been killed that afternoon. The Superintendent of Police had been hanged from a tree. The Telecommunications Centre had been razed to the ground. We ate a quick dinner and raced back to our hotel with seconds to spare, passing a dozen soldiers on the way, patrolling the streets with huge guns.
‘It is ANZAC Day, and our last day in Nepal. Tomorrow we fly on to London, via India, providing our flight doesn’t get cancelled! Right now, I am perched on a man-made island: two beds pushed together as the rainwater floods in under our bedroom door. And the lights have gone out. We have been sweeping water and hailstones back out into the courtyard all afternoon. Thunder and lightning have been crashing and flashing above our heads, so between the curfew and the thunderstorm, I expect the streets of Kathmandu will be silent tonight.’