Chitwan Nationalpark is a number-one-destination in Nepal for a reason: There is some serious wildlife spotting to be done there. And even though masses of tourists visit the park each year, you can still get away from the crowds in vast bush lands – just make sure you take a guide. The next Rhino might just be around the corner.
Chitwan Nationalpark wasn’t really on my Nepal-hitlist, when I arrived in the country. What I wanted to see was the mountains not the jungle-terrains. Yet after my Annapurna Basecamp trek (read more about it here), I had some days left until I had to get back to Kathmandu and decided to squeeze in a three-day Chitwan tour.
Being short of time and too lazy to organize a trip myself I booked a trip via one of the many travel agencies in Pokhara. Most guide books advise against purchasing those kind of package-trips, you usually pay too much and get too little. My experience was mixed. The price was not far off what I probably would have ended up paying if I had organized everything myself and included pick-up at the hotel, tourist bus to Chitwan, lodging and meals and various park activities. Yet the accomodation was very, very basic and the food was just whatever the kitchen served (as opposed to there being a proper restaurant, as I was promised by the travel agency).
The park activities that were included and the park itself however more than made up for those unpleasantries. My package included a wide range of park experiences. We started on the arrival day with a short walk along the outskirts of the park to watch the sunset. The light was stunning and the landscape completly different from anything I have seen in Nepal so far. We saw various birds and even a first crocodile.
Second day started with a canoe-tour, that took us down the river for about one hour. We spottet many birds (including Kingfishers, herons and storks) and some more crocodiles – one way to close to the low and narrow canue for my liking. Yet our guides told us not to worry…
The canoe dropped us off at the edge of the forest and we started our bush walk, after a quick safety briefing by our guides (tiger: “You make the tiger eye and retreat slowly”. Rhino: “You climb a tree.” Bear: “You make as much noise as possible”). Equipped with two large bamboo sticks for protection our guides took us into the wild. We walked through dense forests and man-high grass, always listening and looking for an animal. Just walking through that wilderness was an experience in itself. Yet suddenly our guides got excited: There was a male rhino just a little distance away down in a creek. The excitement quickly changed from happy to quite anxious when the rhino suddenly seemed to realize we were there. Slowly it made its way towards us. Our guides started looking for trees, we backed away. Luckily the rhino turned the other way. I for my part was quite glad when we reached the jeep road and therewith a terrain where you could see a little further ahead than just one or two meters.
Just as iconic as the rhinos to Chitwan Nationalpark are the elephants. While wild elephant spottings are rare at the edges of the park, there are a lot of elephants in Chitwan village, that are used by the army for border and poaching control and also for tourism. It is an ongoing discussion about whether the use of elephants in tourism is to be supported or not in regards to animal welfare. The elephant has never been domestized like for example horses and their training is traditionally rather brutal. Also their backs are not made to carry heavy loads. Most western guidebooks and travel agencies do no longer advertise elephant rides.
Yet some started including Chitwan Nationalpark elephant activities back into their programs, because there the elephants rides are actually a positive force for conservation. The park and its buffer zone protect some of the last remaining Bengal tigers and Indian rhinoceroses, as well as wild elephants and leopards. Elephant safaris are one of the safest wfays to disover these exceptionally rare species in Chitwan, and revenue from these safaris contributes greatly to the upkeep of the park and surrounding area, and the protection of its wildlife (read the whole articel on the dilemma on responsiblevacation.com )
As for the elephant ride experience I have to say it was a beautiful, quiet way to discover the park. We got superclose to many rhinos, even e rhino mother and her calf, while they kept grazing undisturbed. We got to see monkeys and eagles nearly eye to eye because on an elephants back you are much higher and see the park from a different perspective. And the quiet walk of the elephants made you experience and appreciate the strange and new noises from the jungle, that was so different from any wilderness I have ever visited before.