I see the ears first: dark, round Mickey Mouse orbs. Then a crinkled face peers out through the bush. This is followed by scraping and grunting, and the sound of snapping branches. “He’s going to charge,” whispers our guide with a grin. My heart begins to race. Then the whole rhino barges out in front of us, ready for a fight.
It’s just before dusk on a warm, lazy Saturday, and I’m on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal, picking my way through jungle brush alongside two massive Indian elephants.
Most hotels and travel agencies offer elephant-back safaris, which make great photo ops, but are said to cause the animals undue stress. Tiger Tops, a British-Nepali tour company who are famed for running eco-friendly tours offers its own uniquely humane twist: a hiking and camping trip through the jungle, with elephants by your side. They are my designated bodyguards on this walk through rhino country.
Squaring its massive shoulders, the rhino now stares the elephants down, who emit harsh bellows in response. Seized with primordial panic, I stumble out of their way. But the stand-off ends in a draw. After a couple of tense minutes, the rhino lumbers off and we continue on, trailing after our elephants through a canopy of lush, dreamlike foliage.
The delight of the elephants in walking freely seems somehow obvious, despite their sedate movements and impassive faces. When I first met them that morning, I helped prepare kulchis, an elephant sandwich made of knotted long grass packed with rice. They greedily groped for them with their long trunks, peering at me curiously through wrinkled, heavy-lidded eyes.
They are still busy eating, grabbing trunkfuls of vegetation that they leisurely push into open pink mouths. Though slow, the elephants are graceful and loose-limbed, their rough, textured skin moving supplely with each stride. Being in their company during the walk gives me a serene sense of purpose.
The long grass fills with dappled, golden light. It’s right before sunset, that time of day known as ‘the magic hour’. Our Nepali guide points out a green herb on the ground, known as a ‘touch me not plant’ (Mimosa pudica). He tells us to reach down and poke one, so I stoop to stroke a row of tiny leaflets. They instantly curl into themselves, furling up and disappearing like collapsing dominoes.
I feel as if I’ve entered the looking glass. This fantastically surreal world seems somehow larger than life — and a great deal more fun.
Just before sunset, we reach a wide, sandy bank along the Narayani River, where the team sets up our camp. They prepare dinner by lantern-light, and although this may be the middle of nowhere, manage to pull out porcelain plates. We spread out along the dark, glass-like surface of the water, and feast on succulent chicken, mixed lentil soup, and steamed rice — a variation of Nepal’s traditional meal, known as dal bhat.
Bedtime comes quickly in the jungle. I teeter off by flashlight to find our makeshift bathroom, then settle into a sweet little tent, where a soft mattress and crisp white sheets have been spotlessly assembled. After exerting myself all afternoon, I collapse almost instantly. My sleep is heavy and peaceful, filled with rosy sunsets, verdant ferns, and ambling pachyderms.
I jerk awake some time later. Was that — surely, that wasn’t a tiger roar?
A long, low growl breaks the stillness of the night. It is followed by snorts and scuffles, and the odd bellow from our two elephants, who have parked themselves — a pair of hulking, silhouetted masses, outlined by a glimmer of moonlight — on the outskirts of our camp.
This odd chorus continues, and I realize that the jungle is anything but quiet. At night, it appears to swell with life. There is a whole creaturely soundtrack ringing out from the trees, the sounds of animals hunting, fighting, thirsting, and playing.
It seems hard to believe that Chitwan National Park — a World Heritage site since 1984 — was originally conceived as a royal hunting ground for the Nepali monarchy. Thanks to conservation efforts, the grounds were transformed into a protected park in the 1970s, and are still teeming with wildlife.
It is thrilling to hear the animals at close-range, though I remain spooked by the growl that I (perhaps prematurely) took for a prowling tiger. Soon, though, as I grow adjusted to this thick litany of noises, it lulls me back to sleep.
By morning, everyone is up early, strolling along the sandy beach, waving big, black umbrellas. We’re leaving behind this wet wilderness, heading back to the main resort, known as Tharu Lodge in a vintage Land Rover. But there’s soon to be another hitch.
Piled in the 4WD, we rumble up to the river and prepare to cross over a land bridge. Last night’s storm flooded the water, and the bridge, we now see, is washed out. The river is pretty shallow, the driver shouts over the engine. He still thinks we can make it across. “Should we go for it?” Dazed and soaked, we agree to give it a shot.
Adrenaline grips me as we get closer to the shore, then tear into the river. For a few mad, giddy moments, we’re cheering and clapping, ripping across the water like a speedboat. Then, halfway, we sputter out and sink.
The hood of our car, pokes out from the water like a little island. I chase down an errant hiking boot, as a few backseat cushions rise and drift away. Soon, we’re all knee-deep in lukewarm river water, laughing so hard we can barely speak.
And we’re not the only ones. I catch sight of a row of villagers watching us from the shore, also shaking with mirth. One of them gallantly comes to fetch us in a wooden canoe, still chuckling as he rows us back to dry land.
After towelling off, I begin to be worried about damage to the car, and inquire later about its fate. The owner of Tiger Tops actually seems rather tickled by the plight of our 4WD. With a laugh, I am told that one of the elephants has come to our rescue once more and has already dredged it out.