Beyond the village of Meghauli in southern Nepal extend the dense riverine forests of Chitwan National Park. Over 600 one-horned rhinos and other wildlife, like the sloth bear, royal Bengal tiger, and elephant, live here. Walking in the wild is commonplace here and I was about to hike in the forest.
When a boatman dropped my guides, Prem Gurung, Subhash Gurung, and me off on a lonely bank of the Reu River, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of being abandoned.
The guards were not carrying rifles, which left me feeling uneasy. Neither the sight of hundreds of sand martins roosting on a sandbar, nor the vast panorama of the Reu winding through the hills of Chitwan, could calm my thumping heart. I had never set foot inside the core area of a national park before.
Apart from being a roaringly successful conservation story, Chitwan is unique and different from most national parks in India, in that you can actually track animals on foot here.
I was thankful that the first creatures we came across inside the forest were a herd of docile chitals grazing in a green pasture. Despite myself, I hoped that the sighting signalled the start of a boring, uneventful day. However, the next few hours turned out to be anything but humdrum.
Charting a path straight through the jungle, by noon we’d arrived at a spot frequented by a tiger. Here, we stumbled upon a well-marked trail going up a hill. Hoping to get a bird’s-eye view of the park, we marched up, stepping over withered leaves that covered the forest floor. Suddenly, Subhash threw his bag down and ran towards something. It slowly registered that the young, lanky naturalist was wrestling with a humongous rock python just 15 feet from me.
I have fear-filled childhood ideas about big snakes thanks to the outrageously misleading movie, Anaconda. Those fears rushed to the surface and, imagining I’d be hunted down by a conniving reptile of the sort shown in the movie, I shrieked and ran away. Meanwhile, Subhash seemed to be using all his might to straighten out the python. The poor snake however, seemed intent on gently slipping into its home, a hollow bark nearby. In his career spanning nearly a decade Subhash had never seen a python that big and wanted to measure it. It was a massive 18 feet long.
Leaving the python and my fears behind, I hiked to the top of the hill, where we ran into a few army men who were part of the 1,000-strong force deployed for park protection. These men patrol every inch of the national park, guarding the denizens of Chitwan. Their efforts over the past decade have produced phenomenal results in curbing poaching and raising the dwindling number of Indian rhinos in Nepal from 375 to the current 645. But because of this frequent human movement, encountering a tiger in Chitwan is uncommon. Thankfully, I thought from my position on land.
From the vantage point near the army camp, I spotted a lone rhino cooling itself in a river, a few hundred metres away from where we would be crossing it on foot very soon. My heart went back to thumping mode in an instant. As we descended to the valley floor and walked through a narrow, sand-covered path fringed by tall elephant grass, I couldn’t tell the difference between fear and exhilaration anymore. Luckily, just as we were about to wade through the thigh-high water, an old friend of Subhash’s offered to take us across in an old WWII army vehicle.
Soon after crossing the river, Subhash and Prem positioned themselves on either side of me and asked me to stay quiet and be cautious. The large swathe of towering grassland by the riverside is prime rhino territory. Climbing up a wooden watchtower, we spotted bear scat on the stairs and at least three rhinos munching on the grass around us. We also saw a baby rhino with its mother hiding in the grass right next to the trail we had come on, though we had failed to see them as we passed. On the way back, we carefully tiptoed around the colossal creatures. A startled rhino mom chasing us was the last thing we wanted: The massive, prehistoric-looking beasts can reach speeds of 40 km/hr, though they don’t have very good eyesight.
As we made our way back through a dense thicket in which the grasslands mingled with the forest, the flaming red of a scarlet minivet, the splash of a turtle jumping into a swamp, and a lone wild boar scampering through the undergrowth kept me distracted enough to keep fear at bay. The wonder set in. Putting myself in such an unguarded situation in a forest brimming with wildlife seemed to have aroused my primal fears, but as soon as I reached the safety of civilisation, I was thrilled to have walked through one of the world’s last remaining pristine stretches in the Himalayan foothills. The forest had opened its heart to me, and I’ll be forever indebted to it for that privilege.
Chitwan National Park lies in southern Nepal. It is located on the banks of the Rapti and Narayani rivers, about 180 km from Kathmandu. Far away from Sauraha, the over-commercialised region providing entry to Chitwan, Meghauli offers respite from the crowds and is the recommended gateway into the park’s more tranquil parts (chitwannationalpark.gov.np).
By Air The closest airport is at Bharatpur, 32 km/80 min east of Meghauli. Taxis to Meghauli charge ₹2,500.
By Road Meghauli is 180 km/7 hr west of Kathmandu, on a road that winds through the mountains before opening onto the plains of the terai. The roads are mostly decent, but the ride from Bharatpur to Meghauli can be a bit rough along country roads through villages of the indigenous Tharu people (taxis charge ₹8,000 one-way). Taxis and private deluxe buses, most popularly from Greenline Travels, ply from Kathmandu and Pokhara towards Bharatpur (5-7 hr; ₹700 per head). The border towns of Sunauli/ Birgunj, 150 km from Meghauli, are the nearest points of entry from India to Chitwan.
Walking safaris on the periphery of Chitwan National Park can be organized through your accommodation. Anything from half-day hikes to multi-day jungle walks, which include camping on the fringes of the national park, are possible with prior reservation. The walk I took was organised by Barahi Jungle Lodge, a luxurious ecolodge situated in Meghauli (+91 9718637711 /+977-56-695447; www.barahijunglelodge.com). Other options include Landmark Forest Park (www.landmarkforest.com) in the Sauraha region.
While the park remains open all year long, the weather is most pleasant from October until March (10-25°C). In summer (Apr-May), the temperatures can soar upwards of 40°C. In the monsoon, between June and September, intense precipitation floods the park’s mud roads and adjoining rivers, making it difficult to enter the forest.
Forest rangers and guides might downplay the risk of a rhino encounter, but it is possible. Don’t push your guide to take you closer to the animals or accept any offers from them to do so. Stay with the guides and do not stray off alone because the tall elephant grass can hide a rhino or two.
Chitwan is Nepal’s first national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has managed to stay free of poaching for two years, since 2014, with not a single tiger, rhino, or elephant killed. A 1,000 police personnel patrol Chitwan from about 40 posts, to keep poachers out.
Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “Walking The Wild Side”. Updated in October 2017.
Neelima Vallangi is an itinerant freelance travel writer and photographer who enjoys purposefully getting lost in the mountains and going to faraway corners where Google Maps fail. She tweets as @i_wanderingsoul.