Chitwan National Park and buffer zones. Source: BhagyaMani, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0 (2010)
CHITWAN National park was established in 1973, partly at the expense of the Tharu people who lived there. The Tharu displaced by the park’s creation number ten to thirty thousand.
I was to witness clashes over different types of survival — conflicts between locals and the army, animals versus humans — and to ask: do they have to be mutually exclusive?
In Chitwan, there are currently 650 rhinos, 250 tigers, and a number of leopards that I didn’t catch.
They’d had zero poaching for the last few years, probably because there was now a battalion of Nepalese soldiers stationed in the park to protect the wildlife. There had been shoot-outs with poachers four years before, but nothing lately.
Before the king was assassinated in 2008, and a republic proclaimed, the remaining locals had policed the park. Where I went next, to the town of Madi, I found that the local people were still nostalgic for the idea of their own force.
Homestay in Madi
Madi was on the southern edge of the park, very close to the Indian border, outside the park but inside an administrative buffer zone. Before 1973, Madi had apparently been a prosperous base for hunters and safari expeditions. But eight resorts had closed down since.
When I encountered it in 2018, the town struck me as the poorest I had been to apart from Manaslu in the Himalayas. I really did wonder about the quality of the accommodation. I was worried about my health and decided I was not going to over do things, and be careful where I stayed.
So, we got a bus eventually and found ourselves going on a rocky road via Bharatpur, past two army checkpoints, to Madi where I had a homestay booked.
The bus ride was a nightmare, with three people attempting to squeeze onto two seats. Kamal prevented a woman from sitting between us; she was younger than me and no way was I was going to let her share.
I was really worried as to whether I could handle this homestay situation. I had never chosen to do this before; but then it could not be as bad as the crappy hotel rooms various guides had put me in on the Everest trail.
Anyhow the accommodation was very clean, and the woman running the homestay, named Sarita, turned out to be nice. Her husband had left her to start another family seven years earlier, and her parents had bought the place. She had two married sons on the property, her sister, two nieces, her parents, and two grandchildren. And me.
Sarita’s house was in a village that was part of the wider Madi conurbation, itself really a collection of villages. Sarita’s village was made up of houses that all had thatched roofs. There were young children and buffalos in the streets, and dogs running around.
I had a cute hut made out of mud, with interesting windows, spaces between the sticks, and a mosquito net. That was just as well. Quite apart from the mosquitos it kept out, I was grateful that it would probably keep animals at bay as well. A small mouse was nibbling on the thatched roof. I figured it wouldn’t be able to get through the mosquito nets and run across my face in the middle of the night, which was the important thing .
We arrived at 11am, and walked to the old temple of Shiva, where two woman from Pokhara had built a house. They had sold their land in Pokhara, all in the name of karma and wanting a better life. It was so hot and I was drinking water like there was no tomorrow: six litres in one day, all carefully treated with pills. How would I survive tomorrow’s trek?
Kamal was very knowledgeable. He had been a guide since 1995, after being in the police before that. We also engaged a local guide called Oppo, who was in fact Sarita’s son. He was 27 and just married, very shy, but knew where the Tigers were.
The whole village had moved to a new location about five years before, as another wild elephant, not the same as Ronaldo but another one, had killed about half a dozen villagers. I wasn’t sure whether this had been required, or whether because the old place was now thought to be unlucky.
The villagers also had to house their buffalo at night, as the tigers came for them otherwise. The buffaloes seemed to have better accommodation than the people. The local people slept outside as it was way too hot to sleep inside, other than in an airy hut.
Some of the local villagers caught fish in the river. The army tried to convince them not to. I saw the people fishing on my first night in Madi, till the army caught them at it.
That night, Sarita’s mother and other women from the village were also out gathering ferns, to extract the edible insides of the stems. They did this weekly. It was a tasty vegetable and supplemented a very limited diet. The locals would also graze their buffalo near the park in the dry season, as the river ran low. This often led to conflict with the army, too.
At night the children played until 9 pm around the different homestay cottages and the households of Sarita’s family group. Sarita or another woman would cook and serve the guests. More people would go into the homestay kitchen to cook the meals. Each household had its own kitchen; each was separate from the homestay cottages.
Two young women had been raped by the army. Sarita had a meeting with the village women about this. But the guilty guy was only transferred.
On the Tiger Trek
The next day was going to be a tough one, a twelve-hour trek from 6:30 am till dusk, to Tiger Point and back. Tiger Point was the area where tigers could most easily be seen, even if a sighting wasn’t absolutely guaranteed. Most of our route was along the river.
We were given some sticks which I thought were walking sticks at first; but it turned out that they were batons to fend off enraged wild animals. I was told an injured or sick tiger could attack you at any time, though they were normally wary of humans otherwise. You could also be caught in the middle between fighting rhinos. I couldn’t help wondering what use a baton would be in a situation like that.
We saw a tiger after only two hours on the trail, at 8.30 am. We had stopped to talk to some other guides and their two guests. Kamal saw the tiger first, then me too. Wow, I could not believe it: an actual Bengal tiger in the wild. The rest of the day we followed the river and Oppo let me wear his open jandals. I was going from mud, to water, to sand, and this repeated itself about thirty times through the course of the day. I had flat feet and bunions but it seemed my feet were up for it. Oppo must have spent about five hours up a tree looking for tigers during the course of that day, by the way.
There were about eight people in the park at that stage looking for tigers. It was close to 50 degrees centigrade and the river water was really hot where it formed stagnant pools, actually too hot for anyone to swim in it! Kamal came across about ten different tiger foot prints, but no other visitors in the park had seen tigers that day. I was so lucky.
Occasionally there would be wind to cool us down. But mud, sand and river water, and up banks, is what we did for twelve hours.
The army came through with elephants, enroute to their outpost in the jungle. Unlike private elephants, the army elephants were allowed to eat foliage on their way through. I snuck into a cooler part of the river for a swim and the army nearly saw me. Kamal said he did not want them to become jealous. It was funny lying in the river knowing a tiger or a leopard could come down for a drink. It was only later on that I thought about crocodiles, too.
Eventually we stopped for lunch by a cool watering hole, this is where the rhinos fight each other. I heard one snoring and I was told they could run at any time and to get out of their way if that happened. This watering hole realy was uncannilly cold: it must have been fed by an underground spring or a cave-stream.
The day was very hot and I needed to rest in the shade every two hours.
The other tourist staying at Sarita’s establishment when I was there, a Belgian guy named Leo, saw nothing. But Kamal’s last two clients came within a metre of a tiger!
I loved the fact we walked along the river both ways. Another guide joined us, saying that he would do this and that if he were in charge of the park: restore the lookouts, and cut the grass so that the tigers can be seen more easily. Kamal said this guy was head of his guides’ association, that he took fees and did nothing with the money in spite of all the talk. He wanted it back.
I got another restless night’s sleep with the heat.
Back to Sauraha by ambulance and jeep, then Kathmandu
The next morning there was no traffic on the road. Kamal joked that there was a bus strike. Actually, a bomb had gone off in the small hours of the morning at a supermarket in Bharatpur.
To revive a Victorian expression, the infernal device had been tossed from a motorbike by left-wing rebels, who had presumably put themselves at risk to make sure the bomb didn’t hurt anyone else. As terrorist incidents go, this was at the old-fashioned end of the scale. But the scare put the bus services out of action for the day, all the same.
So, the Belgian’s guides got a safari jeep to come all the way from Sauraha to give us a ride back. But the army would not allow the jeep through as they did not allow jeep safaris in that part of the park. It was all a bit of a Catch-22.
So instead, believe it or not, we got a ride with an NGO-sponsored ambulance to meet the jeep at the checkpoint beyond which it had not been allowed to come. That was a cool ride back.
I got back to Sauraha, stayed the night, and got the bus to Kathmandu at 7am. This time around it was a 10-hour ride. Still, I was feeling better. I only had a sore throat now, one that could be sorted by aspirin. Then I would be right to return to New Zealand.