For Yann's birthday weekend, the three of us planned a trip to Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. As one of Nepal's top three most visited sites and one of the best places in the sub-continent for wildlife viewing, we paid no attention to the warnings of heat and hopped on to a tourist bus heading for the park. Not without warning but still very annoyingly, the bus drops off all its passengers a few kilometers from Sauraha, allowing them to be mobbed by business card weilding locals trying to attract you to their hotel. It seems no one has understood that getting two inches from someone's face and yelling "hello hello where you want go, hotel very cheap" isn't exactly the best sales pitch. But in my usual boneheaded fashion I managed to single out the one seller with dilated pupils and a large quantity of marijuana in his system. Megan and Yann were kind enough to point this out to me once we had settled into his hotel. Our first task in Sauraha was to book a jungle walking tour. What better way to go searching for tigers, bears and rhinos then to go walking unarmed through the jungle? Every other building in the small Sauraha tourist strip is a travel agent, and they all offer the notorious jungle walks. After a brief interview with our slurring hotel resident stoner, who offered his guide services, we quickly set out to find another candidate. The next guy we met claimed to be the guide described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as having fended off a tiger attack, he even had the framed letter from the tourists who were with him during the attack. We visited a third guide who gave us about the same rhetoric as tiger man. During this process Megan seemed to be the only one showing some apprehension about the safety issues, apparently she is the only one of the three of us with a brain. We booked tiger man for a four hour morning walk the next day, we each paid about 5$ for his and his assistant's animal tracking services. We celebrated our Chitwan holiday and Yann's birthday with a mound of half disentegrated chocolate (most likely ruined from the continuous melting and rehardening in the heat of Sauraha). Our walk started at 6am but it took a while to purchase our park entry tickets as we were lined up behind hotel workers buying tickets for long lists of guests (who were probably still sleeping). We were introduced to the assistant guide, a young man who had been working for a month, both our guides were armed with a pair of flip-flops on their shoes and long wooden bamboo sticks. Feeling extra safe now. We got ferried over the river in a long wooden boat and began our walk. We walked quietly for a few minutes, until Megan brought up the question of safety tips. Our senior guide then gave us the rundown:
Sloth bears- Stick together and act big and scary, don't climb a tree, don't run
Tigers- Don't run, fight for your life
Rhinos- If there is a big tree, hide behind it, otherwise climb a tree
Elephants- Run for your life My idea of the jungle walk was that we would follow a trail through the park, enjoying the scenery and if we were lucky, we might see an animal from far away (if we were unlucky we would see one from close). Very quickly into the walk I realised this wasn't exactly what our guides had in mind. Our guide spotted rhino dung and rhino tracks in the ground and exclaimed "a rhino been here last 10 minutes, follow me, quiet", and cut off the path and into the forest "following the tracks". Most of this tracking business seemed like an act, and after about an hour of walking around pretty much in circles I was wondering how I was going to last 4 hours. Every once in a while our guide would squat to his knees and scan the forest with a very concerned look on his face. Megan would turn around to sneak a glimpse of the novice guide looking bored and useless, once he would notice her, he would turn on his serious "scanning for wildlife" face. Acting on a tip from some park rangers that we crossed paths with, we took a small detour through the tall grasslands on a search for some rhinos, that didn't yield any sightings either. Back into the jungle, our guide brought us into some thicker vegetation and it started becoming more difficult to see anything ahead of us. As we walked through the quiet jungle we were all startled by the sound of an animal, it was a loud snort/puff. The novice guide was actually more than just startled, he blew past us running in fear. This is the point in the "jungle walk" that I started doubting the safety of it all. Retrospectively, this was also the point where we should have turned around and walked away from the animal sound. Our guide on the other hand, led us closer to the source of the sound, exclaiming confidently that we had come across a rhino (one of the least agressive of the possible encounters). The next few moments are somewhat of a blur, but each of us has managed to reconstruct the events as follows:
All of a sudden, our guides were yelling, the junior one ran off like a bolt of lightning. It was sheer mayhem. Yann, Emilie and I were running in all directions not knowing what to do. And by running in all directions, I mean slowly trying to navigate over and under branches with our cumbersome backpacks, cameras and water bottle holders making things that much more difficult. The senior guide who stuck around was pushing us and screaming. At this point, we could hear stomping and branches snapping right behind us. I couldn’t look back – I was too focused on trying to run through the thick jungle (while contemplating my lack of tree-climbing abilities and whether or not now would be a good time to learn). This is when I tripped and fell. While splayed out on the ground, I had no idea what was about to kill me – maybe a rhino or a tiger?...but something was very near.
Emilie, who was behind me at the time, was kind enough to stop for me, while our guide looked me right in the eyes and yelled "RUNNNNN, RUNNNNN, RUNNNN". I quickly made it back onto my feet and continued the frenzied running. Eventually, the charging stopped, and our guide stopped, and we all just stood around laugh-crying. The guide was brushing off my pants and shaking my hand. We had survived being charged by a wild elephant!
The guide told me "even me too, I was sad. I thought you would be dead". Umm, thank you junior guide, who ran off – dropping his stick and a shoe – but making sure to hold onto his lunch.
Novice guide starts running as fast as he can, Yann who is right next to him, takes his cue and starts running too. Meanwhile Megan and I are at the back of the pack not yet reacting. Senior guide begins to scream "Run! Run!", we are now running through thick brush with the senior guide shouting and pushing. Megan falls flat on her face in the scramble and the senior guide is yelling at me (and her) to run, but I'm not moving since I am stuck behind Megan who is still on the ground. At this point I look behind me to see a huge elephant coming towards us (I suppose all elephants qualify as huge however). Megan is now back up, with some help from the senior guide (who I maintain put her there in the first place) and we continue running together. The whole time this is going on, we can hear the elephant trampling through the forest, but the sound finally stops. The senior guide rushes back towards the elephant to make sure the stampede is over.
We quickly continued walking through the brush until we felt we were at a safe distance at which point we stopped to compose ourselves. The young guide was shaking, he had lost one shoe and dropped his bamboo stick, but was still holding on firmly to his lunch. Senior guide was trying to cover up his panicked behavior, pointing out how he was "very sad and sorry" when Megan fell, but luckily he was there to help her. Megan and Yann still didn't know what was chasing them, neither of them had looked back (am I the only one with such morbid curiosity?). However, if they had listened properly to the safety instructions they should have known what kind of beast we had encountered (run from an elephant). None of us were too shook up because we were never really aware of the danger that was facing us. It didn't stop us, however, from cutting our jungle walk short.
I run quicker than all the elephants in all the jungles of the world. Proven by Fact!
Back in Sauraha, I took a bath in the river with the elephants (trained ones) and their handlers, we got stuck in a torrential downpour complete with lightning storm and we drank a bottle of wine, toasting to the beginning of our new lives. We wouldn't arrive back in Kathmandu until late the next evening stuck in Sauraha by a local roadblock/strike for hours. But of all the passengers on the tourist bus, we were confident that we had had the most intense brush with nature. "Oh you saw a wild peacock? How nice.... we got attacked by an angry wild elephant... but peacocks.. amazing...really amazing."
An afterthought: although our guides were pretty much useless (they did prove to be good trackers though), they seemed somewhat embarassed by their cowardly behavior. At one point, the senior guide made a comment about it being his responsibility to protect the tourists. Really that's a complete load of rhino dung. We come to a poor country and pay peanuts for a jungle walk, in which anyone in their right mind should know they are exposing themselves to certain dangers. Seriously, what can the poor village guides really do with a bamboo stick? They can't very well stop a charging elephant, though they might be able to wack a tourist in the head and save themselves. For five bucks I certainly wouldn't risk my life for a tourist, and we let him know that, hopefully his expressions of guilt were part of his act.
A second afterthought: For Seinfeld fans, think of our senior guide as George Castanza in the fire at the children's birthday party.
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