My parents having arrived only a few days beforehand, I thought it wise to push the envelope and fly us all to the remote Terai region of Nepal, in order to visit Chitwan National Forest and perhaps spot some wildlife. We parked the Prayer Wheels at the domestic terminal and went through “security” in order to wait while our flight was (perfectly normal) delayed a couple hours. We then put the children on our laps and got refunded the standard tickets, as the airline decided their large craft was having “mechanical difficulties” and they put us on a smaller craft. Transport secured, we buzzed off into the smoggy sky of Kathmandu valley for our 25 minute ride to Bharatpur, where we landed and taxied to a halt on the tarmac.
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Our van was waiting, as promised, and we bumped and jostled our way south-east to Chitwan National Forest. We were met by yet another vehicle, a large personnel transport of ex-military ilk, and dieseled our way on a dirt track, across a couple rivers, to Machan Wildlife Resort, inside the park. Ram, our host, let us have a hurried late lunch (we were a couple hours late) and ushered us to the Elephant boarding platform, where we split into two groups, each on their respective Elephant. Mom, Dad and Merrill rode one elephant, while Lucas, Eleanor and I rode another, named Powankali (Beautiful Flower).
Our first afternoon ride was exciting! Immediately we saw Peacocks a few times in the trees, and then some deer. Our mahout (Elephant Driver) led Pawankali with a washing-machine gait from camp through the jungle on a wandering path, occasionally peering down from the elephant’s head to inspect footprints or wild animal scat. We diverged paths from the other elephant tourists early on, in order not to flush too much wildlife I suppose. In the two hours we wandered the forest, the sun began setting lower and the temperature rapidly descended to the lower 40’s (F), and by the time we deboarded our elephantine rides, our breath was visible. We toddled back to camp and plopped down in front of a very welcome bonfire. Apparently the Terai region is not usually this cold this time of year; some 27 people died during the cold snap this season thus far.
We did not dress exactly as needed, though at least we brought warm hats and gloves. Dinner, served fireside buffet-style, was jerk-style pork and chicken kebabs, rice and vegetables, most of which the kids disdained. By the late hour of 8:00pm, still shivering, we turned in for the night. The resort harkened back to my memories of Prince William Forest Park, a loosely gathered cluster of houses, connected by swept dirt paths. The jungle in the terai is not that much different than the vine-ensnared forests of Northern Virginia, save that the scale is between that of VA and the Redwood forest in California. The same style of swampy plants that might grow to six or ten feet in VA grow to nearly 20 or 30 here.
Illumination was provided by bare bulbs wired into notched tree trunks, and did a better job at blinding, having no real covers, than providing guidance. The cabins were duplex units, Mom and Dad occupying “Hornbill 2” while we had the adjoining “Hornbill 1”. The waddle and daub structures appear solid enough, but I don’t think they have any insulation underneath (they are raised from the ground some 2-3 feet) and certainly don’t have anything more than single-paned glass or insulation in the window panes. I actually thought we didn’t have glass after the first night. Illumination in the cabins is provided by a pair of kerosene lanterns (again, back to camp!). We brushed teeth (opting to use water from the camelback rather than tap) in the FULL bath (no kidding, sink, shower, etc, hot water provided by a passively heated solar array and then fire-heated intermediate barrel chamber for each cabin) and turned in for the night. The last thought of the evening was “oh what a joy that we have hot water bottles in our beds!”
The 6:00am wakeup call the next morning was rough. I could still see my breath by the dim light of the kerosene lantern, no light from outside having yet filtered through the jungle canopy. We were due fireside shortly thereafter for tea and coffee, but dressing the children, let alone waking them up, proved difficult enough that we were the last ones to show and slurped down scalding liquid at that. Our activity for the morning, a ride in dugout canoes down the river, awaited! We bounced to the riverside in a pickup jeep and were ushered into canoes made from the Kappa tree. Each canoe had small flat-bottomed wooden chairs that one could move around. With mist creeping past us, our guides stepped barefoot into the chilly water and pushed each of our canoes off one by one. It seemed almost sacrilege to speak at more than a whisper, but the children still managed tiny high-pitched chatter, which carried across the water to the rocky, grassy banks on either side. The watermen noiselessly guided the hulls of their crafts along a path known only to them, turns and markers seeming to come from nowhere as we passed them. The ride was short, only 30 minutes or so, but still managed to chill us to the bone. Our ride back to camp, via the same jeep, was longer, and wound through the tangled jungle. The sun finally winked through the vegetation and warmed us a bit. A Nepali family’s older daughter watched Beyoncé videos on her iPod touch in an oddly out-of-place happenstance. Back at camp we again visited the bonfire for a short while (Merrill had turned from a tall drink of water into a popsicle) before settling in to a western breakfast of eggs and toast (no bacon for Lucas).
After breakfast, another break (Dad, restless, was ready to begin rethatching a roof or something) and then our “elephant briefing” wherein Krishna, the local naturalist, walked us halfway over to the elephant stables and with Pawankali’s and her Mahout’s help, explained everything we wished to know about elephants. Apparently elephants are quite fond of alcohol, and in the west there is quite a problem where elephants (who have quite an accurate sense of smell and can detect something 12-15 km away in open ground) will lift the edge of a cabin’s thatched roof and suck the contents of the owner’s alchohol (roxy) vat dry. Then they “do a dance” as Krishna said. The last, and probably best part of the briefing, was the chance to mount an elephant from the ground. Lucas jumped at the chance! Krishna helped him lift up his arms to grasp the bridge of the ear on either side, plant his foot firmly on the front of the trunk and the mahout guided Pawankali to hoist Lucas up and then helped to spin him around, straddling him on the neck and his hands on the twin domes of the head. He even got to feed Pawankali an “elephant sandwich”, a bundle of grass, rice and other goodies. Merrill also got to mount the elephant, and when I got up, Dad handed Eleanor up to me. All in all, an incredible experience being up on top of that huge animal.
We walked back to camp and had another break (Dad envisioning reinforcing the structures with stone from the river I’m sure) wherein the kids, infinitely entertainable, played with rocks, sticks and made up stories and games with the other tourists’ children involving making castles, booby traps and guns from our jungle surroundings. My christmas gifts for 2011 will reflect this simplification in interests.
Lunch was another asian-resort-take-on-western-comfort meal and the children, inspired by the menu, gave a repeat performance of nose-turning. Before the afternoon Elephant ride, we had another break (Dad, mentally building a suspension bridge from the highway to Machan) and Eleanor actually napped. AWESOME. Of course, that meant she was a bit grumpy at being woken prematurely when we departed, but I took it anyway. Our second ride took a different route through the jungle, and the highlight of this trip was a near-spotting of a leopard, in which the animals got quite excited and skittish, the younger ones trumpeting and the older ones throatily growling (this sound was used in both Jurassic park and in lord of the rings for the “balrog” to give you an idea).
The meal that evening was the best yet (for me at least), hearty butter chicken curry, curry vegetables, dhal bat, etc. Everyone else suffered. Two servings later, we made room for tea and coffee. The generator provided us electric light for the experience and my phone (my precious) with a full charge before bed. Another chilly night, we didn’t bother to change into PJ’s, instead opting for the full clothing experience. I even wore my coat to bed.
The last day at Machan was a lazy one. Dad’s cold and sleeping children made it easy for us to forgo the morning bird watching walk, and instead roll in for a late breakfast and easy nature walk. Our ride back to the airport a short while later got us there more than in time for our 2:30 flight, but of course this is Nepal, so our flight was delayed…by a lot. Given that there are only perhaps two flights each day, it makes it easy to listen for the plane to come in from Kathmandu, and that we did, as I read book after book to the children (thank you, Apple iBooks) and played “I spy.” Finally the flight from Kathmandu buzzed in, just as the sun was getting orangey and low. Again the airline refunded me partially and were going to have me plunk Eleanor on my lap in order to get an unexpected passenger onto the flight. (“Oh yes sir, the plane can take the weight!” ME: “Really, because I don’t want to crash. I’m not kidding.”) As domestic flights don’t use radar or other instrumentation per-se, just line of sight, flying after dark is a no-no. This was going to cut it close. The crew nearly kicked the passengers from KTM onto the tarmac with their luggage as they raced us out the door and ushered us onto the plane, still running. The tight little Beech 1900 craft made a swift U-turn and bounced down the runway, lifting into the dusky sky above Bharatpur. The himalayas had a nice pink wash on them as we descended into the valley of Kathmandu. My finger was poised on the “last wishes” text message I would send Jean should the worst occur. Fortunately we touched down and skipped into view of the terminal as the sun set and the international air traffic runway lights winked on. Our trusty “Prayer Wheels” was there waiting in the parking lot and we drove home. I was again happy to enter the diplomatic bubble of home.
Here is a trailer (click “Trailer” to see it) I made from the footage I shot. Fun stuff!