Chitwan National Park, Nepal
December 17, 2014 – December 19, 2014
Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal would be our last stop in Nepal before India. Chitwan is famous for its rhinos, tigers and elephant riding safaris. We decided to check it out and have a safari of our own, to compare to our African safari. We rode an elephant, dodged alligators and searched for rhinos and tigers.
Chitwan is to Asian safaris as the Serengeti is to African safaris. Endangered rhinos and tigers roam the park and are the main draw, though there are hundreds of species of birds, monkeys, deer and crocodiles in the park as well.
We took a bus from Kathmandu to the small town of Sauraha. The town sits just across the river from the park and is the most popular stop for tourists wishing to visit the park. As a result of its popularity it is filled with touristy shops, hotels and restaurants. At the bus stop as soon as we stepped off the bus we had over a dozen men yelling at us to go with them to the different hotels they represented, shouting out prices and services and that they would take us there. However with a dozen loud voices shouting over each other it was hard to understand any of them or decide what we wanted to do. At one point a police officer came over and pushed them back a bit and succeeded in quieting them for a few moments before they started up again. We finally picked one offering a cheap ride into town and showed up at hotel that he represented but didn’t tell us about, we checked out the hotel and didn’t like what we saw so we walked away and went to one of the hotels we had researched before hand. The drivers get commissions from the various hotels and they will try to talk you into going to their hotel. You should not listen to them and make sure you go to the hotel that you want to go to. We were not used to this yet, but would find it to be very common in India.
We chose a hotel with good reviews along the river which separates the town from the national park. A waiter at a restaurant next door said he commonly sees rhinos grazing just across the river from the restaurant, typically in the morning.
Our Safari into Chitwan – A Half-day Walking Tour
There are tons of guides in the town who will take you into the park. We couldn’t find much in the way of reviews for guides, choosing one is a bit of a crap shoot. We chose one who worked at our hotel, a young guy in his early 20’s. We started early the next morning with a walking tour into the park. You can’t ride an elephant into the park unless you are staying at one of the expensive resorts in the middle of the park, where you can ride government owned elephants. As this option was well out of our budget the only other options are a walking tour or a jeep tour. The walking tour is the cheapest route and since it’s quieter than a jeep and not restricted to roads, we thought we might have a better chance of seeing animals as well. To enter the park everyone has to cross the river by canoe and begin their tour on the other side. We crossed and soon entered the jungle keeping a lookout for any rhinos or tigers. We read that there are 1-2 deaths a year on average due to tiger attacks, we suspected probably tourists choosing the economy walking tour. But our guide instilled us with confidence as he nervously clutched a big stick and picked up a good throwing rock as soon as we crossed the river.
For about four hours we walked cautiously through jungle and grassland, startling the occasional deer or bird, and spotting some tiger and rhino foot prints. But unfortunately we saw no rhinos or tigers. If the number of tiger footprints are any indication, it appeared they were quite common, though it could have been just one tiger messing with the tourists walking around back and forth ahead of us. Halfway through our tour our guide got bored and began climbing trees with his friend, another youth who came along.
Our walking tour turned out to be kind of a dud, but we would see more later during our elephant ride. The walking tour was a nice way to see the jungle and potentially a great way to see wildlife but sometimes the animals just don’t cooperate. At least we didn’t have any bad encounters with a tiger.
* A note on walking tours: The guides will try to push for an all day walking tour of around eight hours instead of the half day tour. This is because they make a lot more money on the full day tour. But we read that walking through the forest all day does not necessary increase your chances of seeing anything, the animals are usually resting during the hot afternoon hours, and even if you did see lots of animals eight hours of walking in the sun might get a little tiring, so consider just going for the half-day tour. The full day walking tour is the one the guides make the most money on so they will always pitch it strongly, even saying its hard or impossible to see animals on other types of tours, but make sure you do what you want to do and don’t worry about what they want.
On our walk back to our hotel we spotted an elephant bathing in the river nearby and Krista decided to go in and help it scrub some of the harder to reach areas.
All done with the bath
Unlike African Elephants, Asian Elephants have been used as beasts of burden for thousands of years and now their numbers are largely privately owned animals rather than wild animals. Although we did not see how these elephants were treated and worked, this elephant was clearly enjoying his bath in the river.
There are two ways to go about riding an elephant, there are the expensive resorts deep in the middle of the park run by the government. They have government owned elephants and have free reign to ride anywhere inside the park. The other way is to ride on a privately owned elephant at one of the smaller private ‘community forests’ outside of the main park. This is the much cheaper option and the only one we could afford with our budget. We deliberated on whether it was ethical to ride on a privately owned elephant which is worked purely for profit. So we decided that since we saw no evidence of any elephants being mistreated and elephants mask the human scent, making their back one of the best ways to actually see a rhino, that we would try it once.
Climbing a small staircase to a small wooden platform we boarded our elephant and sat down with another couple in a small wooden frame box seat, each person gets a corner and you stick your legs out around the corner posts and sit with your backs pressed tightly together.
We finally spotted some rhinos, relaxing in the jungle, seemingly unconcerned about the elephants and their small noisy riders happily taking pictures.
All in all it was fun to see the wildlife from the back of an elephant, and to have had the experience of riding an elephant, but it was very uncomfortable and we are not sure how well the privately owned elephants are treated so we would not ride them again. We would only recommend the elephant rides to someone who had no luck with either a walking or jeep tour in the park.
If you want to see rhinos and possibly a tiger, and maybe all from the back of an elephant, Chitwan is the place to go. Though we had a lot of fun seeing the park, the African safaris are much better. If you only have time for one safari on your next vacation go to Tanzania first.
The next morning we were off on a bus to the Indian border after more than one month in Nepal.