Working in a multinational company certainly has its perks, one of them being occasional jaunts to resorts and such for half-yearly, sometimes annual, sales meetings. Once in a blue moon, you get to tow your family along, and that doubles the fun, without doubt!
However, this particular jaunt to Chitwan, was only for the sales team, which numbered fifteen, including the General Manager, the Area Manager, the Regional Manager, and the sales officers. While all the others traveled by road, it being but a short ride of just about three hours from Kathmandu, yours truly, on the other hand, took the twenty-minute flight. I don’t remember why as it happened some time ago; about a decade or two ago actually.
The moment I landed in Bharatpur Airport’s grassy runway, with a lot of verdant greenery around, I breathed a long sigh of relief, as no doubt my co-passengers also did. Those days, but even now (but perhaps to a lesser extent) flying in one of those rickety 20 to 30-year-old-overhauled and painted-over twin otters was like playing Russian roulette. You could very well be the next in the headlines for the wrong reason. Thus, quite a few prayers of gratitude certainly must have traveled heavenwards.
It was swelteringly hot. So, as soon as I reached the hotel we were staying in (Island Jungle Resort Bharatpur Heights), not far from the airport, nor from the main town of Narayanghat, I pulled out a towel and a swimming trunk from my hold-all and rushed to the invitingly cool-looking swimming pool. And, lo and behold, who should I find there, splashing around, but my dear team members! They had reached Bharatpur much earlier than I did, but no matter, the more the merrier! I dived into the cool water, and another long sigh escaped my lips. This time it was of pure undiluted delight.
By and by, the evening came by, we had our drinks and our dinner and retired early, both because we were tired, and also because we were starting off early the next morning for the jungle in the fabled Chitwan National Park. It was a package that we had booked with the hotel, which also had a resort inside the park, and which organized a full day’s jungle activities for us. Just to read that phrase ‘jungle activities’ was exciting.
Just so you know, there’s a big difference between a jungle and a forest, the former being a much denser forest with not much of human inhabitance. The park is a jungle. Humans mostly live in, or outside, its peripheries. There were some resorts inside the park around the time, but they were all removed some years ago. So, it is now a complete haven for plenty of wild animals, some like the endangered One-horned rhino and gharial propagating very nicely, thank you.
That was a time when visitors could avail of the exciting opportunity of living inside the park. Miles of paper have been written on to describe various experiences, with many relating to the early morning sight of grazing rhinos and deer, the chattering of monkeys, and with the failing light, the deep growl of tigers; sometimes, even their terrifyingly glowing eyes in the pitch black darkness of moonless nights. The Royal Bengal tiger is a magnificent beast, and a major attraction of the park, although few have been lucky enough to get but a passing glimpse among the tall elephant grass and the thickly wooded jungle.
"Imagine what the atmosphere would be like, when even invisible pug marks could give such an adrenaline rush?"
We didn’t. But of course, we were really hoping to, as we clambered atop our massive mounts, four on one elephant, at the start of our jungle romp. The huge mammoths were a docile lot, unhesitatingly obeying the commands of their mahouts as they lumberingly got down on their knees. We stepped on our elephant’s deeply wrinkled tough-as-nails trunk and crawled over its gigantic head to reach our seats on the wooden platform on its broad back. Once on top, the jungle all around took on a different perspective; we could see more, and further, and felt pretty safe, too!
But sadly, we didn’t see a tiger. What we saw were a couple of rhinos, cooling their heels near the river that we crossed on our majestic mounts. I tell you, more than anything else, what held my fascination was the ride itself. Sometimes we rode on dirt tracks, sometimes through the thickets, the elephants using their strong versatile trunks to effortlessly rend asunder any branches or thickets that came in the way, thus clearing a new path. Traversing the river was pretty adventurous, with the elephants first having to scramble down a plunging slope to the bank several meters below, before crossing the river. Despite their massive bulk, not once did they falter; as sure-footed as the nimble mountain-goats of the Himalayan region were they. The Lord Almighty sure achieved something special in creating these mighty beasts!
As for us on our swaying platforms, I’ll be the first to admit that I was pretty scared during the scramble-down-to-the bank part. Otherwise, it was a breeze. After we had reached the other side, and were moving speedily on a dirt track, the mahout on the leading elephant held up his hand and gave a low whistle. We stopped. What? I whispered to our mahout, and he whispered back, “Tiger.” Man, someone should have measured my adrenaline level then! Just the whisper of the king of the jungle’s name was enough to make the environment around us thrilling and expectant.
We moved on slowly, and the mahout pointed down at the track, whispering, “Pug marks.” All of us strained our suddenly extra keen eyes to the spot he was pointing at. But, no matter how much I strained my eyes, I couldn’t see any pug mark. Anyway, who was I to doubt the experienced mahout? Nevertheless, a thought passed through my mind—it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have somebody wearing a tiger skin hide in the thickets, and growl now and then! Imagine what the atmosphere would be like, when even invisible pug marks could give such an adrenaline rush? Actually, I was also struck by another thought—which tiger in its rightful mind would be so dumb as to be around areas that the elephants lurched through day after day, carrying their constant load of gawking tourists?
We dismounted at the gharial breeding farm, and had a leisurely look around. For me, it was more of a rest from the ride-of-highs-and-lows, since I didn’t find the farm particularly interesting. Then, we walked through the jungle for some time, before reaching a spot where some dugout canoes were tethered. Talk about Nepal’s famed handicrafts! This was as handy a craft as I have ever laid my eyes on, made by the skilled hands of proficient boaters, no doubt; masterpieces literally carved out of tree trunks. But is it safe? Well, there was no getting around it, so we all climbed into some of these dugouts, the waterline within touching distance of a hand. It reminded me of the stealth canoes used by Red Indians in old cowboy and Red Indian movies. However, the guide let slip about alligators and such, and you may have guessed; we kept our hands to ourselves!
It was a nice ride, nonetheless, we didn’t encounter any gators, and the sailing was smooth as can be. Finally, after about half-an-hour or so (actually, it’s difficult to keep track of time when doing jungle activities, what with your eyes scanning each and every movement in the water, and the large rocks on the beaches—is that a sunning gharial?). Finally, it was time to call it a day, and we got out of the dugouts and headed for the resort (the one inside the park). As are most structures here, the resort, too, looked extremely eco-friendly, with a thatched roof, wooden walls, bamboo furniture, etc. The semicircular bar, with tall stools in front, and plenty of drinks behind, was a most welcoming sight for the tired and the thirsty.
We ordered bottles of beer, and the pouring of the ice-cold beverage into tall glasses was enough to gladden our hearts. And what about pouring it down our parched throats? Heavenly is the word I would choose to describe the moment when the first gulp went down our gullet, lowering the temperature significantly as it made its way deep into our very beings. Even today, I can recall the feeling, so moving was the time and the place for a chilled glass of ice-cold beer. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.