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
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
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
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.
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).
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.