The journey out to Bardiya National Park could be cheesily described as half the adventure.
Nestled down on the Indian border in South-Western Nepal the park has been shielded from the mass tourism of the Kathmandu valley by Nepal's famously slow roads and the proximity, and accessibility, of the Chitwan Park to Kathmandu city.
The start of the journey
The primary travel hub for South-Western Nepal is a rather bleak industrial town, and imaginatively named, Nepalgunj. While it is possible to make it to Nepalgunj via bus from Kathmandu, the hefty 14 hour journey was enough to dissuade me – it was simply too great a time sink during a brief 2 weeks in Nepal. Instead I took an internal flight, while not cheap at nearly $150 each way, the journey suddenly became a very manageable 45 minutes! The flight also afforded breath-taking views of the Himalayas, a ridiculous wall of ice and rock that rises out of the haze and pollution from the Kathmandu valley as you take-off. It then hovers above a skirt of clouds to the right of the plane for the entire flight.
On arrival at Nepalgunj the journey is far from complete. Not wanting to pay the $85 dollars I was quoted for airport pickup, I elected to make my own way and get as close to the park as I could manage through a combination of public transport and local charity (hitch-hiking). These are some of my favourite moments travelling. I'm on my own, I'm not quite sure where I am at any one moment, but things tend to work themselves out. Ironically I find these moments of uncertainty to be relaxing, especially when coupled with the occasional sighting of a place name you dimly recognise from a map, or when receiving an encouraging nod and smile from a bus driver despite my inevitably dodgy pronunciation of a destination.
Journey from Nepalgunj
My journey from Nepalgunj consisted of a rickshaw (and a few bruises to my skull), a surprisingly empty (by developing world standards) bus and a hitched lift by open top jeep.
The bus was particularly enjoyable – I was grateful for the luxury of a basic amount of personal space, rather than the usual under-foot grain sack, overhead chicken coop and on-lap fellow passenger (and that's if you are lucky enough to get a seat!). This area of Nepal, so close to the Indian border, has an understandably North Indian feel and the multi-coloured bus bounced along the roads to the strains of Bollywood pop stars.
The creaking old buses that ply these more remote roads are only making money when they are packed to the rafters, this means near constant stops while our ride’s designated tout worked the crowds in each village to find some extra custom. Against a time limit this might prove infuriating but I enjoyed the opportunity to people-watch and to try and decode the complexities of the Indian/Nepalese head wobble. The head wobble might be the most confusing visual communication I have encountered in all my travels – it can mean “yes”, “no” or “maybe” depending on minute differences in the head movement and expression of the person delivering it. For most visitors to Nepal the confusion generated by a head wobble can best be viewed in interactions with taxi drivers or shop owners. Western tourists will typically indicate they don't want something or are not interested by shaking their head, to the Nepalese this head action is often taken to mean “maybe” or even “yes” and at the very least to represent a natural part of price negotiation. A Western tourist shaking their head while repeatedly saying “no” is therefore very confusing!
A night in a village
I made it to Bardiya's nearest village in the early afternoon and checked in to an eco style lodge on the edge of the park. A river formed a natural border to the forest, and a tightrope walk along a log would be my means of entry and exit for the next few days. While the infrastructure to cater to tourists seemed to be in place, I was seemingly the only actual guest in the village. The lodge manager would be my guide for a few days trekking in the park, a short brick-shit house of a man called Madhu. Once we had established that I would like to head in straight away and make the most of my limited time in Bardiya he was all business – he disappeared briefly and emerged decked head to toe in dark green combats, rucksack shouldered and wielding a huge bamboo stick. He explained that normally tourists would have two or more guides but as I was poor (I thought about trying to correct him to “on a budget” but thought better of it), it would just be me and him. I would therefore need to choose a protective Tiger bashing stick of my own.
Tiger trekking in Nepal
Stick in hand we entered the park via the log bridge, with me trying to look as casual as possible. The park (and the Nepalese Terai) consists of a variety of landscapes, from grassy open “plains” to Sal and riverine forest. We were headed towards the Karnali river when Madhu decided to lay down the basics for tiger tracking. First came the safety briefing – you absolutely, positively, never, ever, run from a big cat. You back away, very slowly and make yourself big. If needed you call it a prick (yell at it).
I've had this sort of briefing before so perhaps I did not seem suitably afraid for his liking.
“It's a terrible time of year for tiger” he said. Not an ideal sentence.
“Oh yes?” I said. “Is the grass too high? I know there is very little chance of seeing anything, don't worry.”
“Oh no, grass is grass, the tigers have cubs – they are very aggressive” he proceeded to do an impression of a tiger leaping out of the undergrowth to my right. “And you are very poor so few guides” he waved the bamboo stick at me encouragingly.
“I see. But sightings are very rare right? Attacks must be almost non-existent?”
“A guide, just like me, was with a poor tourist, like you, last month” at this point he performed another tiger impression.
So it turns out the guide lost a leg and the tourist fled and was missing in the forest for 3 hours before being found (safe but very shaken). A lovely reassuring story to start my few days of tiger tracking then.
Day 1 and 2 consisted of a gruelling amount of sitting stock still in bushes and watching river crossing points; interspersed with long walks through the forest and shovelling fried rice and vegetables into my face to keep energy levels up. I saw a variety of birds including some beautiful kingfishers and some very boisterous langur monkeys, but unfortunately no tigers. However, right at the end of day 2, exhausted and ready to retreat from the forest and the heat, I had my first stroke of luck. An Asian Greater One-Horned Rhino emerged from a river bank ahead of me and stopped to drink for a while. These creatures are properly prehistoric -all gnarled flesh and terrible eyesight – and there are thought to be less than 3,000 left in the world. As far as tiger substitutes go I couldn't have asked for much better.
I had been planning to stay one further day in the park but had unfortunately underestimated my expenses, in both getting to the park and then the multitude of fees to actually enter each day. With no cash machines or banks for hours in each direction, and coupled with the expense I had already gone to, I was internally debating my options that evening when Madhu joined me by the river. In the end we struck a deal, I would pay in Euros for another discounted half day in the park, based on what I guessed was a roughly correct exchange rate. Madhu was very sure that we'd have better tiger luck the next day and kindly offered to take me on his personal motorbike back to the main road afterwards – in order to save me time getting back to Nepalgunj (provided I could cope with hanging on while wearing my huge hiking bag of course). I did not have high hopes for tiger, but I knew I would regret turning down the opportunity. You never know.
Entering the park at 5am I spent the early part of the morning close to the river bank. We found fresh tiger tracks, the first tangible evidence thus far. I'm not sure I can adequately do justice to quite how exciting it is to be walking next to these massive paw prints in the sand from just a few hours earlier, its electric.
Tracking tigers on foot mostly consists of listening. Specifically, you are listening for those creatures with the most to lose from not spotting a tiger in their midst – the many species of deer; the langurs and the macaques. Each species has a unique series of vocalizations that translate as different variations of “Tiger Walking”. One of my favourite moments of the morning came only an hour or so after finding those tiger tracks, we had stopped near a river crossing for about 45 minutes before Madhu decided it was time to move further upstream. We had gone a few hundred yards when a warning cry was raised across the river, Madhu immediately turned to rush us back towards the crossing point. We had made it about half way there when a second warning cry came from the scrub immediately behind us – on our side of the river!
“I'm sorry what?” I whispered.
“Get in tree”
It had been a few years since I last climbed a tree so I can't imagine I was very graceful. However, the fear of either being mauled to death or missing out on spotting one of the two tigers was enough to launch me up the trunk and in to the upper branches pretty quickly. Inevitably we didn't see either tiger, despite their proximity. The saying goes that a tiger is 100 times more likely to see you than you are to see it – I certainly felt that we were being watched.
I had been due to leave the park at midday and we spent the last couple of hours at one of Madhu's favourite river crossings. By the time midday arrived I had long since resigned myself to not seeing a tiger, however Madhu kindly suggested we stay just a bit longer. At about 12.15 we hit gold, with Madhu frantically waving me over to him and pressing his binoculars to my face. A large male tiger had emerged from the river bank, not far from where I had seen the rhino previously. Needless to say I'm sure, but tigers are magnificent. It sat in the shallows for a while and seemed to watch us. Clearly it had sensed us to some degree but it didn't seem at all bothered. I spammed a few attempted photos but primarily watched it through Madhu's binoculars. After 5 minutes or so it forded the river, with moorhens bobbing around it (apparently unafraid!), and disappeared in to the long grass on the opposite bank.
My body had flooded itself with adrenaline, I guess in case I had needed my fight or flight responses, and I was elated. In my last hour in the park, on my last day, I had not only caught a glimpse of one of the rarest mammals on the planet but I had been treated to a full 5 minutes of leisurely tiger bathing.
Travel diary shared by Travel Beer Food