Today was Adam’s 30th birthday, and to mark the occasion, we thought it would be fun to take a guide and a jeep into the national park in the hopes of seeing some of the local fauna.
We arranged the guide through our hotel and negotiated favourable rates from the hotelier. Waking at five this morning, we took our breakfast and collected our pack lunches before walking down to the river to meet our guide, a young chap called Ram. We were kept waiting for ten minutes before Ram arrived flustered and late. We were a little annoyed that he was late, but it turned out to be providence, for once we crossed the river on a long canoe and climbed aboard our jeep, all the other parties had set off before us, leaving the trail clear and quiet. Indeed, we were only a few minutes into the forest when a Great One-Horned Rhino appeared, laying down in amongst the trees to our left.
The driver slowed the jeep and we climbed out to investigate further. Rhinos have been known to attack, so we kept our distance, with Ram out in front wielding a stout staff. The beast was massive, huge armour plates protected its flank and as we approached it looked up and flapped its ears back and forth.
We climbed back into the jeep and within another minute, another, larger rhino passed out of the foliage- this time to our right, and stood in the middle of the road blocking our way. The rhino eyed up the jeep, snorted and stamped its hoof, then it lowered its head as if to charge.
WHROOOM – The driver turned the key in the ignition and the roar of the engine in the eerie quiet of the forest, sent the rhino bolting into the trees in a mad scramble.
We were all filled with adrenaline at this point, rushing from our encounter with the rhino, and were further amazed when Ram shouted at the driver to stop, and stood pointing at a tree off to one side. This tree had low boughs, and there, sat leisurely in the fork, was a leopard, swinging a paw idly back and forth. Ram told us that in the eight years he had been a guide, he had only seen a leopard seven times. He accounted this good fortune to Adam who must be blessed on his birthday! We all happily agreed and spent a few minutes looking at this marvel.
Another jeep pulled up alongside us and the guide had a pair of Leica binoculars which he let us try. The optical quality was outstanding, and all of a sudden you could see every graceful movement that the leopard made as it roused itself and dismounted the tree in a smooth and fluid motion.
Moving on we encountered wild boar, which sped across the road as we approached. In the canopy Rhesus Macaque monkeys and Langur monkeys screeched and jumped from tree to tree. As we progressed further, peacocks appeared, some strutting about with their tails spread, others attempting to fly in a cumbersome manner.
I was totally amazed by the amount of wild animals we were coming across, and seeing these creatures in their natural environment was like nothing I have ever seen before. Animals in zoos seem used to the presence of humans, but here, out in the wild, they all eye you up as either predator or as prey, and a distinct feeling of danger is never too far away.
The jeep itself was an ancient machine. 180,000km clocked on the odometer and we dreaded to think how many times it had bowled into this forest, riding up hard slopes, bouncing over vicious ruts and passing through deep fords. The suspension was pretty battered and the seats rock-hard. We found it helped to stand every so often, and this led to better views out over the woodland and occasional fields.
We stopped for lunch just as it started to rain. We were in an open-top jeep and started to get quite wet, luckily for us one of the army guards at a checkpoint offered us shelter under a gazebo. The army are the only people allowed to live in the national park, and soldiers frequently stopped us to check our permits were in order. Nepal has a long history battling poachers here and with so many endangered animals present it was great to see such oversight.
After lunch we carried on our journey, in a large loop back to the river and our hotel. We glimpsed more boar and herds of deer that only seemed to notice us when we were on top of them. At one point an eagle flew from a branch overhead and Nicole spotted some storks nesting high up in a tree. Ram pointed out a brilliant blue bird called an Indian Roller and we were all once again amazed when another Rhino appeared blocking our road. This one had been in a fight and had a wound on its rump. Less aggressive, or maybe just disheartened from its recent battle, it gave us one look then rushed into the tall grass, smashing a path before it.
We thought that our luck had been outstanding today, and imagine our surprise when the driver shouted out and stopped the jeep once more. In a tree, much closer than before was another leopard. Ram could barely contain himself and led a foray closer to the tree to get some better pictures. Despite our best efforts to remain stealthy, we had only ventured a few metres from the jeep when the leopard spotted us moving and lost itself in the grass.
A large peal of thunder marked a sudden downpour and we all raced back to the river, in order to cross back over and return to our hotel and some dry clothes.