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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : December 2000 : Home to the world's highest mountains, Nepal also guards rare rhinoceros, leopard and tiger in its valleys
 

Home to the world's highest mountains, Nepal also guards rare rhinoceros, leopard and tiger in its valleys

 

By Julie Davidson
Sunday Telegraph (London)
December 10, 2000

Out with Buddha and back by Yeti, with seven other modes of transport in between. Which pleased me most? The early-morning ride on Urrie, a sprightly trekking pony from Mustang, whose furious, light-footed gait defies all attempts at a rising trot? Or the sunset safari on Durga Kali, who rolls through the forests of Chitwan like a boulder, rumbling quiet conversation to her sister elephants? Or the raft on the Seti River, swinging under mossy cliffs on the ice-blue meltwaters of the Great Himalaya?

I review the merits of each while waiting at Meghauli Airport in southern Nepal for the Yeti Airways flight back to Katmandu. People who live close to the gods seldom ignore them and the domestic airlines of Nepal, on their flights along the heavenly arc of the Himalayas, have mystical names: Buddha Air, Cosmic Air, Shangri-La Airways. Even the departure lounge at Meghauli is a contemplative place - an open-fronted pavilion whose comfy chairs face the grass runway, where buffaloes, cows and goats take their ease.

On clear days, the view stretches from the lush lowlands of the Terai to the celestial snows of the north - from Nepal's southern, sub-tropical border with India to its mountain frontier with Tibet. The control tower is a single-storey block. When it receives news of incoming flights, its officials hand-crank an old air-raid siren and blow whistles until Meghauli withdraws its pastoral activities to the runway perimeter. Once a year the runway becomes the venue for the World Elephant Polo Championship.

In such a setting, does it matter that our flight has been delayed by morning mist in the Katmandu Valley? Or that I have missed, by two hours, a tiger sighting near Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Royal Chitwan National Park? Tiger Tops has sent staff to the airport to serve lunch outdoors - scrumptious samosas and salads. Gatwick Village, eat your heart out.

If acceptance is a condition of the Nepalese temperament, perfected over 3,000 years of civilisation and the co-existence of two great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, then I have come to accept that the Bengal tiger is highly selective in its guest appearances.

Within the past 18 months I have taken seven elephant-back safaris in the forests and grasslands of Nepal, which hide a hefty fraction - about 10 per cent - of the Indian sub-continent's beleaguered tiger population of about 4,000. I have also, effortlessly, logged five other endangered species. You name it and it has come my way: greater one-horned rhinoceros, wild Asian elephant, fish-eating gharial crocodile, rare Gangetic dolphin, wild water buffalo - but nothing of the tiger except pug marks in the sand, territorial claw marks on the bark of trees and, once, a pungent smell that caused my pachydermal transport to vibrate with excitement. For me, the tiger is always the one that gets away.

Once I gritted my teeth; now I smile forgivingly when other wildlife tourists boast, "Yes, we saw Lucky Pothi and her two cubs yesterday." Or, "We were just going back to the lodge when the tiger came running down the track chasing a jungle fowl."

Between May and October this year, the big cat strike was high in the Tiger Tops patch of Royal Chitwan. Guests and guides recorded 162 tiger and 72 leopard sightings; which, says the lodge's general manager, Marcus Cotton, does not prevent less fortunate visitors making the same creaky joke: "Tiger Tops is not the best name for this lodge. It should be called Rhino Bottoms."

The prodigious, boiler-plated, one-horned rhinoceros is almost 10-a-penny in Chitwan, which has a population of some 500, guarded, like the tiger, by an entire battalion of the Royal Nepalese Army - a ratio of one soldier per endangered mammal. (Nepal's anti-poaching commitment, which includes an effective network of informers, has become a model for other governments on the sub-continent.) On the grassland near the lodge, a veritable mother-and-toddler group of rhinos, two cows and their calves, present their backsides to us within five minutes of our arrival on the Tiger Tops lawn.

Also on the lawn, drinking iced tea, are Geoff and Eileen Peak from the Ribble Valley, in Lancashire. Eileen attracts my attention with her fluttering hands. Compulsive knitting is not common on the Nepalese circuit of temples, mountains and jungles. "I'm on my fourth since we left home," she says, holding up the arm of a woolly teddy bear. "It's a Mothers' Union project. They're for traumatised children in Tanzania."

The Peaks were in Tanzania last year, and it turns out that they are the best kind of wildlife tourists. When they, too, fail to clock a tiger, Geoff is philosophical. "It's the excitement of looking, isn't it? On the Serengeti the game is all laid out before your eyes, but here you never know what's behind the next bush."

Or over the next horizon. Tiger Tops is our final stop on an elemental journey through Nepal by earth, air, water and, if you count the internal combustion engine, fire. It begins before dawn on a wooded hilltop above Pokhara, Nepal's second "city" - the definition is notional in the pastoral valleys and terraced hills beyond Katmandu. Pokhara is also the country's main "resort". It brings the idle tourist as close as it is possible to get to the Himalayas without wings or walking boots.

Lifting my eyes from the Pokhara Valley I keep on lifting them until they find, above the clouds, the mighty frieze of the Annapurna massif, only 20 miles to the north. The highest top, Annapurna 1, is 26,546ft, but the most arresting peak is some 3,600ft shorter. A child, asked to draw a mountain, would trace the jaggy fins of Machhapuchhare - the twin summits of the sacred Fish Tail.

Sacred, too, is the hour before sunrise, when our group convenes on the terrace of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge to watch the mountains' daily transformation. There they all are, in our faces, pushing back the night shadows - Dhaulagiri, Machhapuchhare, and the four Annapurna tops.

The mood is hushed. If we speak at all, we speak in whispers. The first sunrays touch the loftiest snows and a master lighting director goes to work, spotlighting the peaks one by one. As the sun climbs and the light changes, they turn the colour of flames, blushes, pink Champagne, peaches. Only the banal would call the spectacle beautiful; it is beyond the reach of commonplace adjectives and the sensible stay silent.

Four hours later, we have lost the mountains to a humid mist and the deep, green cleft of the Seti River gorge. "Forward!" shouts Dhan Gurung, our rafting guide, and six inelegant paddles fray the water. As white water goes, the Seti is rafting for wimps - no rapids more severe than grade two. But the river is perfect for novices and its long stretches of calm give us time to admire an enchanted forest - the property of gem-like kingfishers, brilliant butterflies and a few graceful Nepalis.

Games for grown-ups. The water is flying, keeping us wet and overcome by hilarity, and requiring Captain Dahn to keep us in order. Our Nepalese rafting guide is atypically tall and strapping - his people are the hardy Gurung from the western hills - and typically modest about his achievements. Bit by bit, we learn that he is a national hero: the captain of the Nepalese team that won the world triathlon championship for running, cycling and river rafting in 1993.

"The rafting took place on the upper Ganges," he tells us, "where the rapids are only grade five." Only? Six is the worst. "The competition was more to do with technique than the grade of white water." We are in expert hands.

That night we have a drying-out party at the comfortable riverbank camp which marks the midway point of our 20-mile river voyage. We are the only guests, but for a passing leopard who leaves its marks in the sand. The camp staff - shy, country boys who have all the virtues of Nepalese hospitality - are teased into dancing to the beat of the maadal, a two-sided drum held horizontally. Feeling large and clumsy, we join in.

The next day brings the "Cheese Grater", our most difficult rapids, which Captain Dahn graciously allows us to call "grade two-plus". Then the unwelcome noise of traffic tells us that the Seti is leaving its remote conduit through hill and forest to join the main road south to the Indian border. Journey's end is also signalled by a water fight between our two rafts and we leave, wringing from our clothes a souvenir pint or two of the Himalayan glaciers.

Now in the Terai, homeland of the Tharu people, we are two hours, a change of wardrobe, a picnic lunch and a bus ride away from Tharu Safari Lodge, on the edge of Royal Chitwan National Park. But the bus becomes a redundant mundanity as soon as we arrive. From now on, great-uncle Andrew's charm bracelet takes over.

When I was a child, I was given a bracelet by my relative, who was a ship's doctor and travelled the world. The bracelet's theme was travel: each charm was a tiny replica of a means of transport. As well as a plane, car, ship, train and bicycle, there was a rickshaw, an elephant, a horse and a balloon.

More by good fortune than design I have spent much of my adult life working through them all, but seldom have so many transport opportunities come together as at Tharu Safari Lodge, which is modelled on the longhouses of the Tharu, who paint their walls with motifs of animals and scenes from village life.

Here I ride Urrie, the mustang from Mustang, while others ride elephants. Here I am given the most unusual "hotel transfer" of my life. To reach Tharu's sister lodge, Tiger Tops, we must cross the broad, fast-flowing Narayani River (the habitat of aggressive mugger and harmless gharial crocodiles) and penetrate the dense forests of Chitwan itself. The journey takes nearly three hours over three stages.

First, we are hauled to the river in a commodious cart by two snowy, hump-backed bullocks. Then we are rowed across the river in a wooden fishing boat. Finally, we are loaded into an open Jeep for the rough drive to the lodge.

Great-uncle Andrew, you forgot the bullock cart.

Hotel workers in Nepal are in dispute over service charge negotiations and are threatening to strike from tomorrow. Other tourism-related businesses, including trekking services, could also be affected and visitors are advised to check with their operator before travelling.

Getting there

Qatar Airways (020 7896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) operates the fastest and most convenient route between the UK and Nepal, with daily flights between Heathrow and Katmandu and a swift transfer at Doha. Fares from pounds 429 return.

Julie Davidson's Nepalese journey followed part of Himalayan Kingdoms' 13-day First Class Tour, which next year runs from March 24 to April 5 and November 3 to 15. The trip costs pounds 2,395 and includes return flights, accommodation, transfers, all guides and activities, b & b in Katmandu and full board elsewhere. Further details from Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844400; www.himalayankingdoms.com).

Staying there

Accommodation, guiding, rafting and transfers on the First Class Tour are operated by the Tiger Mountain Group.

The group owns Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge, Tharu Village Safari Lodge and Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge.

The itinerary includes four nights in Katmandu at Dwarika's Hotel.




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