Sauraha; Walking safari into Chitwan Park; Rhinosaurs and the meeting thereof; Baby elephants are the best thing in the world

The walking safari into Royal Chitwan park started early. The power had been out all night, and no electricity means no ceiling fan, so we’d had a bad, sweaty, sleepless night, but at least the mosquito net over the bed kept the bugs off. We were supposed to be at the safari booking office at 6:15, but when we got there the guide was nowhere to be found. We had some tea, played with the happily frenzied pack of stray dogs and said goodbye to Christian while we waited. The guide arrived half an hour late, but we felt that we’d been lucky - Christian’s guide (hired by a different agency) had come an hour and a half late the day before.

The first part of the morning was a hour’s canoe ride down the river. The boats were flat-bottomed wooden dugouts. Aside from being wooden rather than fiberglass, they were nearly identical to the makoros in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. I suppose there’s really only one shape for a boat, in the end. The ride was quiet and peaceful. The heavy rains had stirred up the silt of the river bottom and the water had turned to swirling brown paisley. Though the river was shallow the current was fast and the guide hardly had to pole us at all. Water plants and villages passed on the right and huge expanses of head-high, wide-bladed elephant grass to the left, the park side.

At one point the guide turned the boat into the left bank and vanished into the elephant grass. We’d assumed he’d gone to follow a call of nature, but when he came back he motioned us to silence and told us to follow him and see the rhinosaur. Nepalis call rhinos “rhinosaurs”, to rhyme with “dinosaur”, it’s unbearably cute. We snuck through the tall, wet grass and the marshy ground to a waterhole. There was one rhinoceros sitting in the water, mostly submerged and facing away from us, maybe fifteen meters away. I’d never really seen a rhino up close before, and I thought to myself he’s not so big. As we watched and took photos the guide quietly and urgently gave us instructions for what to do if he charged us. Apparently rhinos can run very fast but their eyesight is poor and they don’t corner well, so the best thing to do in a rhino attack is to zigzag randomly through the grass and try to stay out of his path. After imparting this comforting knowledge he began to make sharp, loud coughing noises. The rhino stood up out of the water and turned around to glare at us. As he stood up I thought My god, he’s nearly the size of an elephant! He came closer, flicking his ears, and the guide told us to sneak away quickly and quietly.

Sheryl and I were elated. It’s so rare to spot any wildlife on a walking safari, especially given our usual luck, and I hadn’t expected to see anything at all. Everyone says that Chitwan is full of rhinos but I’d put it down to the usual safari hype.

That was the highlight of the morning, though. The rest of the morning more closely followed the walking safaris we were used to. We walked for two and a half hours through the jungle without seeing anything except deer and monkeys. The bugs and the vegetation were fascinating though. There were bright red “cotton bugs” with long, thin bodies and a vine that covered the forest floor in great wide swathes, engulfing everything in its path. It looked like morning-glories, but without blossoms. The guide called it “forest-killer vine” and said it had showed up in the jungle no more than ten years before.

The guide, buy the way, was either an idiot or thought we were. He pointed out to us what he called a sloth bear paw print (and it did look like a small bear print to me) and then claimed that the bears were all long gone from that part of the forest since a month earlier - this despite the fact that it had rained the night before and the print was obviously fresh. He also tried to convince us that a series of vertical gouges on a tree-trunk were tiger claw-marks, even though the marks were only a couple of centimetres apart and altogether no more than ten centimetres wide. I’ve seen tiger paws and they’re the size of a dinner plate. Maybe it was a very tall, thin tiger? Or maybe a tiger cub was standing on the back of an elephant?

Despite the guide’s jive it was an interesting and fun couple of hours. We got back just in time to join in on bath time for the elephants. All the working elephants go down to the river around noon and their mahouts scrub them with big brushes and let them play in the water. It was so much fun. We picked our way down the slippery mud of the riverbank and jumped onto an elephant’s back. She’d squirt us with her trunk and then roll over on her side, throwing us into the water where we’d nearly get swept away by the swift current and have to splash our way upstream and clamber up onto her back again. It was so great to feel her rough, hot skin with its spiky black whiskery hair and ride bareback, even if she wasn’t going anywhere.

In the afternoon we rented a couple of rattle-trap single-speed bikes and rode out to Sauraha’s elephant-breeding centre, a few kilometres out of town over rocky dirt roads. It was the highlight of the entire visit to Sauraha as far as I’m concerned. The centre was a simple affair - a field with a few outbuildings and a big long roofed shelter for the elephants, held up with wooden posts. The matriarchs spent their time under the shelter, kept from straying by chains attached to one leg, waiting for the wild bull elephants to come during the night. Previously the centre used a domesticated bull for stud services, but they’ve had many more successful births and less inbreeding since allowing the wild bulls into the compound.

The mothers and the adolescents were chained, but the young elephants were free to roam. We spent a while watching the pride of the centre, twins born four months before. Twins are quite rare for elephants, apparently. They weren’t very interesting to watch, though - they spent most of their time hiding under their mom. But at the other end of the compound I could see another baby wandering around. He was about five months old and very adventurous. He came up and leaned on the fence for us to scratch his head and play with him. With his head fuzz he was probably the cutest thing in the entire world, ever, and I wanted to kidnap him. He kept chewing on the metal fence rails - maybe he was teething, or maybe he just liked the taste, we weren’t sure. The fence was open so he came out to play after a while. He may have been only five months old, but his back still came up to my shoulders and he was probably four or five times my weight, and he didn’t know his own strength yet. So after he’d gotten a little too excited and crushed one of my fingers against the fence, swatted me with his trunk and butted me with his forehead hard enough to send me sprawling, we decided that maybe playtime was over for a while. He wasn’t quite done, though, and began to chase the centre’s resident herd of water buffalo around, herding them in circles with panicked looks on their faces.

In the pen beside our little devil was another family with a five-week-old baby. He was so tiny, he only came up to our waists (and weighed only maybe 100kg!). He was skinny and fuzzy and his skin was too big and sagged around his ankles. His eyes were big and wide enough to see their whites, which gave him a perpetually started look. He hardly knew what to do with his little trunk and couldn’t use it very well. He knew he was supposed to mess around in the piles of grass with it because that’s what his mom and his sister did, but beyond that he mostly just walked around with the end of his trunk stuffed in his mouth, sucking on it just like a human kid sucks its thumb. He also had the same drunken walk as a human toddler and had to watch the ground and his feet with fierce concentration to make sure he got it right. He was still nursing and spent all his time teetering between his mother and Auntie in the next pen over, drinking from both of them. I was impressed by his cheekiness, but found out later that this is normal in elephant herds.

His big sister of four years was a bit of a rogue. She got herself free of her leg chain and had to be bribed with sweets to trick her back into it, upon which she immediately set about escaping again. I watched how she did it - she put her trunk through the joining link and wrenched it with a simultaneous leg-kick and trunk-twist, over and over. Elephants aren’t dumb animals, and when you’ve got all day to work on a problem like she does you’re bound to figure it out eventually. I was cheering for her, but it was better if she stayed chained up away from her mother because she kept stealing the baby’s milk.

Elephant sweets are a half-kilogram of rice and sweet molasses wrapped in grass, called kuchi. The love them and eat them by the bushel, but the younger ones don’t like the grass and only like the sweet insides. They’ve figured out the trick of unwrapping the grass with their tongues and trunks, but the younger they are the more mess they make of it.

I could have spent a very long time at the breeding centre, but they kicked us out at closing time. Good thing, too - the rocky potholed road back to the village had been no fun in the daylight and would have been impossible in the dark. We got back just in time for dinner and the inevitable evening power outage.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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