It was late spring but already very hot in Chitwan. A lazy, restful silence was in the air until a jeep drove past the empty road billowing a cloud of dust.
“You’ll just be making a round of the jungle,” the rickshaw man said as we sat in a restaurant waiting for the elephant to arrive. He was beetroot-red in the face and sweating heavily after the ride in the sun.
Heaving a long and tiresome sigh, he wiped his face and hands with a damp towel flung round his neck and continued, “There are tigers, rhinos, leopards, and other wild animals out there, but it’s mid-day and very hot, so they’ll not be easy to spot. They will hide deep in the bushes.”
The heavily built restaurant-owner nodded. “He’s right. If you’d come later in the afternoon, like at 3 or 4, you’d have had a better chance of spotting wild animals. It’s very hot now.”
“Nobody told me that before,” I said, feeling a little helpless, “not even the man who sold me the tickets. He claimed that some tourists had spotted a tiger just this morning. Was he telling me a lie just to sell the tickets?”
“Only rarely are tigers and leopards seen in the jungle, and certainly not at this hour,” the restaurant owner replied. “They come out of their hiding to make a kill or drink in the ponds late in the afternoon when it is much cooler. But you’d still have to be very lucky.”
Sauraha was not accustomed to welcoming visitors at this time of the day. The shops were still shuttered and restaurants deserted, save for waiters fanning themselves or lounging on tables under the shaded terrace. There was nothing to do, but wait.
So I decided to pass time with a shot walk towards a resort further up the road. The graveled path from its gate ran between two lines of palm trees and ended in a small, circular garden. I crossed it and went towards the big thatched cottage housing a reception.
It was little dark inside and my eyes took time to adjust. The office was very clean and well decorated and had the feel of a hunting lodge. I thought it would be a nice place to spend a night. There were no attendants around, though, so I didn’t stay inside long.
I returned to the restaurant and was told that the elephant had arrived. The rickshaw man came up to me, again red and sweaty, and said the elephant was almost ready to leave.
“It’s a very big male elephant and the mahout is also experienced. You might just see some wild animals with him,” he said, and quickly looking at his wrist watch, added. “You’ll be back here by three o’ clock.”
At a small clearing behind the building, where I had bought the tickets to the park, the mahout was preparing the elephant. It was indeed a massive creature, patiently dusting hay against its big legs with its long trunk before eating it. A small distance away two girls were sitting in the shade. I had seen them at the highway bazaar of Rananagar when I’d taken a side road to come here. Apparently, they had come for an elephant ride too. I was glad to have some company.
The mahout, a short man who had developed tight muscles through years of tending to elephants, told us to get on the elephant. The girls went up the steps of the wooden platform and got onto the howdah. I followed behind. The mahout mounted on the elephant by climbing up its raised front leg.
Once we were comfortably seated, the mahout tightened the straps that held the howdah steady and made other last minute adjustments before using his toe and driving hook to nudge the elephant behind the ear to command it to move. The elephant lazily made it way along the side of the dusty road.
On both sides were freshly ploughed fields with small, clean mud huts, and beyond them vast dry plains. Soon the elephant followed a trail that led into the jungle. As we entered the domain of tall trees, it was suddenly cool. The sun glinted through the leaves and the view became less and less extensive as the jungle closed in on us.
I watched mellowed light make patterns through the sprawling boughts of the old sal trees as the elephant marched on. Most of the leafy branches were skillfully cast aside by the mahout’s hook, but few still managed to brush our bodies. There were trees everywhere we looked and the forest floor was littered with dry leaves. The girls started chatting and it felt as if it was resonating in the jungle.
“Are we going to see some wild animals?” I asked the mahout after some time.
“afternoon is the best time to sot wild animals,” the mahout replied. “But you can see rhinos any time.”
“The elephant is very big,” I remarked, looking at its large, flapping ear.
“Yes,” the mahout answered, still focusing his attention on tending to the elephant. “It is the biggest in Chitwan. We brought him from Assam ten years ago.”
“How many years have you been working in the national park?”I asked again.
“Are you from Kathmandu?” the Mahout asked me, slightly turning towards me while still guiding the elephant with his short commands.
“Yes,” I said.
“After two months we are taking the elephants to Kathmandu for a show,” he said. Then he fell silent and started peering keenly into the bushes. He had spotted something. The girls also fell silent.
“Look, there a chital,” he said, pointing towards his left. “There, over there.” We looked at the direction he pointed and saw a spotted dear. It was alone, and quickly dashed into the bushes and disappeared. A little further away a group of stags with their fine branching antlers were resting in the shade. They seemed unmoved by our presence and kept munching on grass.
The elephant kept its forward march. After some time we came to the most pristine part of the jungle. There were old trees with sprawling boughs all round and the sun was in their leaves. The bushes were so thick that you couldn’t see the jungle floor.
The mahout told us about an encounter he had here with a leopard a long time ago.
He said he was passing by this very place in the morning when a leopard jumped into the elephant and snarled at him. For a moment he was terrified, he thought that the leopard wanted to take him down. But just as he was about to hit the leopard with his driving hook the latter lost its balance and sprang off and disappeared into the tall grasses. The mahout always believed an angry leopard was a sign that the forest goddess needed to be worshiped and offered a sacrifice, something the villagers living nearby the jungle had long been ignoring.
“That was a very close call,” I said. “Have you had similar encounter with tigers?”
“No, in all these years I have been working here I have seen tigers maybe six or seven times. But on one occasion I saw a tiger hunt down a deer in the grassland and will never forget the fierceness in its face when it went for the kill. And sometimes when you surprise a feeding tiger they give a growl that even unsettles elephants. Tigers are known to attack and kill elephants, usually by getting on top from the rea to avoid the trunk and tusk. So you never know with them. They can take on anything.”
The girls were also following our conversation, and talked about a middle-aged woman in their village who was killed by a tiger while she was collecting fodder about a few months ago.
“I heard that tigers become man-eaters when they are old or injured, is that true?” asked one of the girls who had long hair and tawny complexion. Through their conversation I found her name was Rita. She was very chatty and lively while her friend, who was slightly younger than her, a bit self-conscious.
“Yes,” the mahout replied. Female tigers also attack when they are with cubs. Otherwise they mostly avoid people.”
“So, what are the chances of seeing tigers today?” she asked again.
“You need to go deep into the forest to see tigers and that’s not possible in a few hours ride,” the Mahout replied. “it may take a whole day or even many days. Who knows?”
After a while, we came to the grass-land where the view looking back at the jungle was spectacular. The mahout kept taking long drags from his cigarette. Rita and her friend were looking blankly ahead, their chins resting on the wooden rail of the howdah. At some distance, separated from the jungle by a barbwire, a small stream could be seen.
“Aren’t we going to cross the river?” I asked the mahout. I had seen photos of tourists crossing the river on elephant’s back.
“We will pass the river on our way back,” the mahout replied. “It was raining a couple of days ago. The water would be too high now for us to be able to cross it on elephant.”
“That stream has nothing. Bis Hajar Taal is more beautiful, and it is so peaceful there,” said Rita.
The mahout found footprint left by passing rhinos and showed it to us. He talked with a forest guard at the view tower who said he had seen a few rhinos heading behind the bush. We followed his direction and saw two rhinos some meters away the water hole. They ignored our presence. It felt very safe watching them from atop the elephant. We then spotted a mother rhino with her calf in the shade. Rita was excited to see the rhino, but her friend looked uneasy.
“Don’t be afraid. It is not going to attack the elephant,” she tried to console her friend, “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Later, Rita told me that her friend, who grew up in a nearby village, was once at the riverbank cutting grass with couple of her friends when a rhino suddenly charged at them.
“They just managed to save their lives by climbing the trees. Even then the rhino kept charging at the tree. This really terrified her,” Rita said and looked at her friend who kept silent.
“She always tells me she is afraid of rhinos the most,” she said.
“Look,” the mahout said, “if you catch a rhino by surprise, it is always best to climb a tree rather than continue running because rhinos chase to kill.’
Soon the rhinos left the water and we came out of the bushes.
Rita then asked me whether I knew how poachers kill rhinos. I said I didn’t she told me rhinos are trapped by digging a pit where they usually relive themselves. The rhinos approach their dumping spot sliding backward so they do not see the pit covered with bushes and they fall in. Later the poachers come and kill the,.
“Have you seen a rhino being killed?” I asked the mahout.
“Yes, during the tiem of war many rhinos were slaughtered by poachers as there were few army camps guarding the forest that time,” he said, but quickly added that poaching rarely happen in the jungle these days as the forest guards kept a close watch.
“And you know what the rhinos are killed for?” Rita almost whispered into my ears.
“Probably for their horns, I think,” said I,curious about the strange turn the coveration was taking.
“Yes, but do you know the use of rhino horse?’
“I think they use it for some medicinal purposes.”
“Yes,” she agreed, her voice falling into an even softer murmur, “It is said to raise one’s sexual power.” She then turned away, shook her head and laughed, looking uncommonly pretty.
Except for the rhinoceros, a few deer and an antelope, the ride was largely uneventful, We had made a round of the jungle, skirted the river and found ourselves in the same dusty road in the oppressive heat. An elephant much smaller than ours slowly trudged up the road carrying foreigners, and after a while another passed us with hay stacked on top of it.
I tipped the mahout before leaving. He was very grateful.
“Listen, he said as we were walking off.”Those two girls…don’t talks to them. They usually come here and I have seen them with lots of men.” He paused to check if anyone was listening. “If they had been my sisters I would have slit their throats.”
I nodded and waved him goodbye as he lit a cigarette and sat on his haunch near the ticket counter.
The girls stood outside a restaurant across the road. I entered the restaurant with the girls. I sat at a table on the terrace and after freshening up in the washroom they came to my table.
“It’s pretty hot,” I said, inviting them for a cold drink.
Rita nodded pulling at her shirt to cool off.
“Three cokes,” I called to the waiter.
A man in a white vest and shorts was asleep at another table, his mouth open. Beside him a young man in a blue t-shirt was staring at the girls, a grin on his face. His motorcycle helmet was on the table.
I said, “So you were talking about the lake before, tell me more about them.”
“Oh, it’s not very far,” Rita said, and looked at her friend for affirmation, “it’s been many yers since I went there.”
She leaned forward. “Let’s go there together, it’d be fun.” She smiled. “I’m sure you’re here for few more days?”
“It is a nice place, but I am going back tomorrow.”
“You won’t say even if I ask you too,” she flirted, putting her hand on mine.
“I want to but…”
“I don’t want you to anything that you don’t want to.” She interrupted, feigning to be hurt.
“No, it’s not like that.”
She said nothing.
“Are you two hungry? Let’s have something,” I suggested trying to change the mood.
“No, we don’t like to eat anything,” Rita said. The other girl remained silent.
I looked at the empty glasses and decided to call for the bill.
Rita finaly broke the silence. “How I wished you would’ve stayed here for couple of days. That would have been nice.”
“Yes, but I have my tickets ready for early tomorrow morning I have to go back to Bharatpur now.”
Two guys and a girl had joined the man wearing blue-shirt at the other table. They ordered beers. One guy waved at Rita and asked how she was.
“Okay, I have friends there. I will go now,” she said.
They went to join the other table. As they sat the guy put his arm around both girls. They seem to know each other well.
I went out and got on the first jeep that was passing by. I had almost considered spending a night at the nearby hunting lodge.