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By the river bend

In Chitwan National Park, the social scene includes crocodiles in still waters and rhinos who'd rather not be disturbed.
By Piya Bose | Hindustan Times, Mumbai
UPDATED ON JUN 12, 2008 01:49 PM IST

Late last month, lawmakers in Nepal voted to abolish the country's 239-year-old monarchy, turning it into the world's newest republic.

The outgoing king, Gyanendra Bikram Shah's family had ruled Nepal since 1769. And one of the earliest harbingers of this transition is the Chitwan National Park, which was established in 1973.

Chitwan National Park Visitor Information
Getting there By road: A scenic six-hour drive from Kathmandu.
By air: Thirty-minute flight from Kathmandu and 20-minute flight from Pokhara.
Where to stay: Lodging includes homestay programmes with the locals, and lodges both multi-starred and basic.
Timing it October to March are the best times to visit, with the long grass of the Terrai normally cut in late January, allowing for the best sightings.
The best time to bird watch is March and December.


Eight legs to chase
Once a protected hunting reserve meant exclusively for the royals, the Park, located in southeast Nepal, has since been open to tourists, its 932-km sprawl home to over 570 species of flowering plants, 486 birds, 40 mammals, 17 retiles and 68 kinds of fish.

My welcome committee at the Rainbow Resort, where I stayed, was a huge spider on the toilet seat. After the resort staff persuaded it back to its original habitat, I spent the rest of the day eyeing every little movement in the room with suspicion. And climbed into my bed only after attacking it vigorously for a while, which evicted a few more species of the crawl-and dart variety .

I put all this behind me after a hot meal, a traditional Nepali thali, and set out to explore. My guide, one of the local Tharu tribe that lives in the village, showed me around the settlements, most of them mud houses with thatched roofs.

There are also longhouses that can accommodate upto 150 people. To catch a flycatcher I learnt that the entire tribe had lived for years in isolation in malarial swamps until the arrival of DDT.

Home-stay programmes organised in the homes of the Tharus include basic accommodation and traditional meals. I headed off for a walk in the jungle. After the recent rains, some of the trails had turned sluggish and my guide armed me with a stout branch for balance.

Among the endangered bird species in the park are Bengal floricans, giant hornbills, lesser floricans, black storks and white storks. The more common birds in the park include peafowls, red jungle fowls, egrets, herons, kingfishers, flycatchers and woodpeckers.

Presently, I was walking along the banks of the Rapti river that borders the Park. The still surface of the water looked inviting until someone pointed out an open jawed gharial. After this, the trek moved to safer ground that included a cultural museum, and we were back at the resort just after sunset, finding our way by torchlight, the only other illumination being the occasional candle or lantern in a little hut.

One of the early visitors to my room was the elephant - at my doorstep - that was central to my safari deep into the jungles.



Chitwan incidentally means "heart of the forest". From my wobbly perch, I watched my female elephant make two unplanned stops along the way once for a breakfast , of uprooted plants and grass, then to stroke a passing male.

The mahout pointed to a group of wild elephants in the distance. Apparently, every year a few of them try to enter the local breeding centres to mate with the domesticated females.

My elephant almost did an about turn when she saw them and I was told she was afraid of the wild ones. Leaky crossings With my head literally in the trees, I swayed past an assortment of bird nests, sometimes almost coming face-to-face with a startled bird.

Among our sightings for the day were a one-horned rhino taking a nap, a wild boar that darted past with three of her cubs, and a herd of deer that vanished into the grass the moment we saw them.

The Park's more exotic animals include pangolins, Gangetic dolphins, monitor lizards and barking deer. Back at the resort, I freshened up, had a hearty breakfast, and headed off to the elephant breeding centre.

Part of the adventure of getting there was crossing the Rapti in a leaking canoe. From the opposite bank, it's a small walk to the center, home to mothers and baby elephants in various stages of growth. The young are unfettered, unlike their mothers, and came lustily to tourists for biscuits and other snacks of the day .

I had fun walking around the centre, doling out special elephant biscuits to the little giants as they stroked my hand with their trunks. Back on the canoe, I was told about the crocodile breeding centre on a canoe safari that I didn't have time for. At day's end, from a deck chair, I watched the sun set behind the river, a large hippopotamus family standing in the water and probably discussing the same sunset.

Piya is a corporate lawyer who loves to travel

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