Do NOT interrupt mating rhinos; two days in Bardia National Park

We woke up at ridiculous o’clock to make the journey from Chitwan National Park to Bardia National Park. We had thought that this would be a well-beaten track for nature lovers but we struggled to find an account of people making the journey and were a bit stumped as to how to achieve it without having to make an overnight stop. Fortunately, both our hosts at Chitwan and our hosts at Bardia were extremely helpful and we were able to make a plan for a route that would take most of the day but would avoid a night in a random town. A 5am tuk tuk ride was followed by a brief false start in Naryanghat when we wound up at the wrong bus station. When we got to the right place we were swarmed by bus drivers determined that we should join them in their particular vehicle. Our tuk tuk driver helped to get us on to the right bus direct to Ambassa and we endured 12 hours of some of the most uncomfortable travelling we have experienced so far.01The issue was that Nepali people, as a general rule, are very small and we, as a general rule, are not. There simply was not enough space for us to flat pack ourselves in to the seats and Caro spent most of the journey with her legs in the aisle, tripping people up as they made their way on or off the bus. The whole experience was capped off with an impromptu bus change which meant that all of the luggage, including the computer desk that had been laboriously secured to the bus roof, had to be transferred in an achingly slow process.

The tuk tuk journey from Ambassa to Shivapur was an equally interesting experience as the roads were ropey at best and our driver seemed to be determined to hit every single pothole and rock on the way and occasionally switched in to 3WD and went off road entirely. We arrived at the marvellous Bardia Homestay looking extremely bedraggled and in desperate need of a hot shower. Sonja and Budhi were perfect hosts and we were ushered in to our large and comfortable room to have half an hour to ourselves before being fed copious quantities of dal bhat.

We felt that a safari would be wasted on us the following day and instead took the time to recover at the homestay observing the craziness of family life and indulging in unlimited refills of tea, an offering that we were sure our hosts would come to regret by the time we left four days later. Sonja realised that we were big animal lovers when we continuously fussed her two dogs and so asked us if it was ok for her to let the pig out. Yes, we were completely ok with that and a hyperactive piglet emerged from the far end of the garden. This animal was essentially another domestic pet and played happily, and noisily, with the dogs and trotted around dotingly behind Sonja.02Like Chitwan, Bardia National Park is separated from the village by a river and in the middle of the afternoon we were ushered quickly in to the family jeep as a wild elephant had been spotted on the National Park side of the river. There is an elephant breeding centre on the opposite bank and the wild bull elephants are known to make their way there on occasion, in search of the females housed there. They rushed us down and we were very lucky to see this magnificent fellow strolling along the river bank.03There are only 30 or so wild elephants in Bardia so it really is a treat to see them, particularly as they are free to roam between Bardia and another national park just over the border in India. As we were essentially standing between the male and female elephants everyone was wary in case he decided to cross the river but he decided to head back in to the park instead.04After Chitwan, we weren’t particularly keen to go on a walking safari but Budhi assured us that it was our best chance of seeing tigers and that the walking wouldn’t be anywhere near as challenging as it had been in Chitwan. We trusted in Budhi’s expertise and the following morning we met with our guide, Manmohan, who equipped us with binoculars and sticks, which made us look super professional.  We started off walking down the road to the park entrance, it’s a good 20-minute walk so we were glad when a jeep stopped and offered us a lift to the gates.0605Bardia National Park operates on Nepali time and with a Nepali queuing system which essentially means that you stand around a lot and watch a very lacklustre scrum of guides jostle in slow motion until one of them emerges with tickets. We found ways to pass the time.0720-30 minutes later Manmohan had secured our passes and, as we made our way in to the park, informed us that “luckily” he knew how to get tickets “quickly”. Our first challenge was a wade across a slightly too deep river. We reminded ourselves once again that we needed to re-waterproof our boots when we got home.08Walking through Bardia was definitely a more pleasant experience than Chitwan because there are a number of known tiger-spotting points and getting to them is relatively easy. That being said, you do still find yourself walking through very tall grass.09This is a nerve racking experience. Each time we had seen rhinos it had been in and around this type of grass and you just would not see one coming until you stepped right out in front of it. We would like to mention here that we always felt safe with Manmohan, he had briefed us on what to do should we find ourselves unexpectedly close to any animals, was constantly on the alert and generally respected the animals. This all becomes pertinent later. Sure enough, we emerged from the grass in to a river bed and interrupted this chap at bath time.10Fortunately, the rhino didn’t seem too bothered by our presence and after a while retreated back in to the grass. We’d seen rhinos on foot in Chitwan but this felt a lot more intense as we were so much closer and at eye level. We spent the rest of the morning sat at or walking between the tiger viewing spots along the river. This type of safari is largely a waiting game and we had come prepared with books to pass the time. We could see other safari goers looking sideways at us as we settled down to read, wondering why we weren’t avidly staring out at the water for the first glimpse of a tiger, but after a couple of hours they too were finding ways to occupy themselves. The park is gorgeous and it was a pleasant place to pass a couple of hours, so long as you could find shade.1112Sadly, no tigers had materialised by the time we sat down for lunch but we were happy with our rhino sighting and were only just starting to feel the beginnings of restlessness. Manmohan was determined to find us a tiger, he repeatedly received calls on his mobile but these were for rhino and he knew that wasn’t our priority so continued to lead us to new spots on the off chance that a tiger might appear. It wasn’t looking hopeful as the afternoon drew on and it seemed to be a last-ditch attempt when Manmohan climbed a spindly tree on a sparse bit of river bank to give himself a better view. We shrugged off our packs and strolled aimlessly around whilst he looked. We heard the occasional warning call from some out-of-sight deer, so there was definitely a cat around somewhere, but we just didn’t know where.

Please bear with us whilst we give a description of the view in front of us, it is relevant to the story and in the rush we didn’t think to take a picture of it for the blog. We were on a raised bank on one side of a wide river. The river split in to a fork directly in front of us, the right fork, nearest us, was completely dry and then a raised bank of tall grass separated it from the left fork, which had some water in it. The river bed was formed of large round stones, not ideal for running across.

Suddenly, Manmohan was hissing at us: “run to the river, run to the river!” We dithered stupidly for a couple of seconds before deciding to follow his instructions blindly and pegged it down the bank and across the river bed of the right fork. To be clear, we were now running full tilt to where we knew there must be a tiger. Manmohan overtook us within seconds, despite having had to scramble out of his tree, and we were soon weaving our way through the grass in the middle of the two forks. Regular readers will know that we had the most beautiful tiger sighting in Ranthambore but this was something completely different; we had fleeting seconds with this tiger, which was about 100 metres away, but we were on foot and that made an enormous difference, we had adrenaline coursing through us, our blood was pumping and we were out of breath. It was an electric moment.13We’d made too much noise and too little of an attempt to hide ourselves so ended up spooking the tiger, we weren’t even close enough to tell whether it was male or female but its body language spoke clearly that it was aware of us and scared.14Deciding that it was too exposed, the tiger ran for the grass and we headed back to our tree to see if we could spot its movements from a higher vantage point. We were met there by another guide and his two French clients who, like us, were only interested in finding tigers. Manmohan had called the sighting in to a friend. The two guides climbed the tree and gazed about in hopes of finding it again.15The tiger remained firmly in the tall grass and we eventually parted company with our French friends to start the walk back to the park entrance. We weaved our way along the river bed, looking back over our shoulders to see if the tiger would emerge again until our attention was fully occupied once more. We rounded a corner and unwittingly interrupted a pair of mating rhinos which were about 30 metres further along the river. Manmohan’s reaction was instantaneous; run! We spun around and sprinted across the river bed with Caro’s ability to trip over standing still being a source of terror to both of us as we picked our way through the stones following the zig zag route that Manmohan was setting. We couldn’t look behind us because that meant taking attention away from our feet, so we had no idea if the rhinos were following or how close they were. After a couple of hundred metres Manmohan stopped and turned around, the rhinos still didn’t look happy but they had stopped running and we were safe on higher ground. Our hands were now shaking with adrenalin and we all agreed that that was quite enough excitement for one day.1617Our problem now was that our route out of the park lay between the two rhinos and heading that way was completely out of the question. The male seemed to be quite content to mosey off and graze but the female was really pissed and was following the path that we had run, albeit at a much slower pace.18There was only one thing that we could do and that was to wait it out. The male disappeared in to the grass and the female eventually decided to have a drink and wander off herself. We were clear to make our way through the grass, this time with ears pricked for the sound of moving grass and hoping that none of the other groups encountered a highly strung, irritated and doubtless frustrated female rhino. The remainder of the walk was delightfully uneventful, deer were emerging from the forest to feed as the afternoon drew to a close.18a18bThe following day, Budhi had arranged a jeep safari for us and this time we were joined by 3 other homestay guests. Manmohan was accompanying a group on a camping safari so we were with a new guide, who we won’t name for reasons that will become evident. We will preface this section by saying that when we told Sonja of our issues following the safari she was very professional and concerned about the behaviour and assured us that she would make sure it didn’t happen again. The guide in question was not one of their regular guides and we would encourage other Bardia visitors to stay at Bardia Homestay without hesitation.

The day began much as the last one had with a short dawdle at the gates before plunging in to the park. The nature of the layout of Bardia means that, even when you are on a jeep safari, you have to get out and walk to get to some of the viewpoints. This meant that we found ourselves at many of the same tiger viewing spots as the day before.1920As we didn’t have to walk between sites it actually felt as though there was more down time than there had been the previous day and Caro, tired of her book, took the opportunity to do some yoga. This was a novelty for the assembled guides.21We saw a couple of distant rhino but nothing more than that and our guide decided to venture further in to the park, in to the Sal forest, which was inaccessible on foot. The forest was beautiful and made such a contrast to the grasslands that we had been driving through previously.22Our guide was looking for the wild elephant herd, which had been spotted in this area of the park. To cut a long story short, we didn’t find them and a couple of hours spent perched on another river bank in the rain did not yield any tigers either. You can’t control the weather and it is something that you simply have to make your peace with on safari. Finally, we decided to move on and a call came through that the wild herd had been spotted, our driver made for the location at breakneck speed causing our eyes to stream. Fortunately, the weather had broken and the sun was back out when we pulled up next to the 6 or 7 other groups waiting for the elephants to emerge. We could just see them through the trees about 150 metres away. This is when things started to go wrong.

We were surprised that we had been allowed to get out of the jeeps at all but when the guides started encouraging us to walk towards the elephants we were downright stunned. To be fair, our guide wasn’t the only one to do this, but that just made it worse because there must have been about 20 people scattered around. We had been up and close to animals the previous day but that had been carefully managed or in the case of the rhinos, an accident. In this case our guide was actively leading us in to a dangerous situation. The elephants started to emerge from the trees and our guide continued to walk towards them. We hung back once we were about 100 metres away but the guide and remainder of our group couldn’t have been more than 75 metres away when they eventually came to a stop. By this point we could see that there were a couple of babies in the group, so the mothers were bound to be more unpredictable and we felt even more uncomfortable, dropping back a little bit further. We could see the elephants observing us and deciding what to do and they seemed fairly calm until a lone male appeared from one side evidently in search of a mate. Just to add to the drama, he was large and, unusually, had tusks. (This photo was taken after we were back in the jeep.)23We only had enough time to mutter “we are much too close to these elephants” before one trumpeted, flapped its ears and looked as though it was making to charge. We saw our guide and the group in front of us jump out of their skins and turn just as we turned and sprinted away. It so happened that the elephant hadn’t charged and we soon came to a halt, our guide bent over laughing at the situation. It wasn’t funny, it was lucky, and could easily have gone devastatingly wrong. At this point we retreated to a couple of hundred metres away whilst the rest of the group stayed where they had stopped and even began to walk closer again. Our guide kept laughing and beckoning us to join them. Caro was shaking and close to tears. Another male elephant approached from the other side and an already dangerous situation became ridiculously risky. The group was forced to run away a second time and yet still they remained in close proximity to the elephants.

Once back in the jeep, our guide continued to find the whole thing hilarious and when he started answering questions posed by the rest of the group (How fast can elephants run? Will they attack humans?) he still didn’t seem to quite grasp quite how dangerous it had been even though his answers made it quite clear to some of the others. We appreciate that he was trying to give everyone a good sighting and there is enormous pressure on safari guides but he simply wasn’t being responsible for other people’s safety.

We actually came across another bull elephant as we were leaving the park, presumably making its way towards the government elephants that are housed on the edge of the park and used for patrolling, and once again the behaviour of the guides was decidedly cavalier. We were at least told to remain the vehicle on this occasion.DSC_0092So our experience of Bardia was somewhat tainted by our second safari and Caro had to wait until the following morning before speaking to Sonja because she was still very upset when we got back to the homestay. As mentioned before, Sonja took the feedback very well and was shocked when we relayed what had happened.

We want to try and end on a high note because we did have some excellent experiences in Bardia and we would recommend it to others. Our walking safari on the first day was rewarding and renewed our faith in walking safaris in general. Bardia Homestay was fantastic and felt like a home away from home. Sonja and Budhi were so helpful in aiding us to get there, organising our safaris and assisting with our onward journey to Kathmandu. They even allowed us to stay in our room until evening whilst we waited for our bus. When we did eventually leave Budhi and Sonja gave us our first tikka to bless us on our journey, which we swiftly forgot about and smeared all over our faces.Jamescarolyn12042018IMG_1533

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