Thursday 5 Oct
Bardia National Park, Nepal
As we reached the entrance to the park stories of the infamous tigers came out. I bought a drink at roadside kitchen and the owner delightedly told me how there had been tigers seen on the road last night. 2 years ago, he continued, a motorcyclist had been killed and and eaten. Once a tiger has tasted human flesh he becomes a man eater (apparently due to the salt in our blood that is scarce in their normal prey). Krishna who came to pick us up from the entrance confirmed the story. The tiger was caught and taken to a zoo in Kathmandu.
The park is around 1000 square kilometres making it slightly larger than its more popular and better located rival Chitwan. Within the reserve there are 3 types of deer, monkeys, crocodiles, wild elephants, rhinos and Bengal tiger. If you are really keen to see a tiger in the wild, Bardia is supposed to be one of most likely places you'll see them, especially in April when the heat drives them all out to the rivers. We were really keen to spot one, but tried to keep our expectations low as the long grass at this time of year is their perfect camouflage.
We got up at the break of dawn for an elephant ride into the park. That it was the first time I had ridden an elephant was enough to satisfy me. It was also one of the biggest I have ever seen, a towering female with pink blotches around her ears. Thankfully the rider did not have the pointy spike that is often used - similar to a whip - to stab the elephant in the head. He did, however, whack its skull with a big metal rod making a sound which I imagine is similar to the one Andrew Flintoff makes with his bat when hitting a six. It made us jump in our seats and wince every time.
In the cool of the early morning we bashed down a woodland path make an enormous racket, which I felt made our prospects of even seeing any bird life pretty slim. However, soon we saw some small groups of spotted deer (exactly like the ones at home) and, in the trees, some langur monkeys which look like white-haired old men. Quickly the wood changed into a deep forest and we arrived at a wide river. The towering mass of flesh plodded down the steep muddy bank and crashed into the river, which it barely noticed, until it clambered up the other side better than any man-made vehicle ever could. Then we were in 2 metre tall grass which we combed through leaving a wide trail of destruction behind us.
The elephant ride was a total hoot, but our guide Sitram had not seen any sign of big game. As I thought we were turning around to go back we came a cross some flattened grass which had not been made by us. Some rhino had slept there last night. It was then a simple task of following the trail. The next thing, we heard a puffing noise over by a small group of trees in the middle of the sea of grass. We headed towards it from the right trying to cut of the rhino in their path. As we got within about 20 metres the puffing went up a gear, sounding like a steam engine leaving a station, but much more threatening. In a second the vegetation shook in a rapid line towards us and two of the most dangerous looking things I have ever seen exploded from the grass. The rider quickly steered the elephant away. I couldn't believe how frightened I was being on top of this walking castle. Once the rhino had seen that it was just an elephant they changed direction and disappeared back into the grass. We followed one down to the wooded river bank and found it standing in the trees, eyeing us cautiously. Here in the wild it was a lot different than seeing them in a zoo where they generally look quite sedate. It looked like something built for Robot Wars with it's 3 inch armour plating and nasty looking horn. We were told the guides in Bardia are far more afraid of coming up against a rhino than a tiger. Tigers are very shy animals and their amazing senses mean they probably spotted you coming when you went for your morning pee. The rhino, on the other hand is one of the most aggressive animals on the planet, which is rather odd for a grass eater that probably wouldn't notice if a grenade went of next to it. Apparently they like to stamp their victims to death before quietly ambling off to a spot of grass and having a munch. In the end we saw a total of four which was apparently very lucky as there are only 60 or 70 in the entire reserve.
After breakfast we were to go on a walking trek with Sitram back into the park.