Nepal – A country of amazing extremes, with a total land area of 147,181 Sq.Kms. is bordered by China in the North and by India in the South, West and East. The landmass is divided into three geographical zones – the high Himalayas, the mid Himalayas or Mountainous Region with long terraced slopes leading to fertile valleys and the flat sub-tropical Terai region.
Recently I along with a group of Travel Writers were invited to visit one of the most fascinating bio-diversity hotspots of Asia – the UNESCO designated Chitwan National Park in the virgin and unexplored Terai region of Nepal by the Nepal Tourism Board. From the cacophony of Kolkata to the world famous Chitwan National Park in Nepal is quite a change, Chitwan undoubtedly must be amongst the most beautiful National Parks anywhere in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage Site - Chitwan’s 932 sq.kms is home to some of most fascinating wildlife species of Asia, which is inclusive of the rare and elusive One – horned Rhinos.
We checked in at the impressive Barahai Lodge run by the renowned Pugdundee Safaris group. This fabulous vernacular Tharu-style lodge is tribal to the core with a pleasant blend of wood and bamboo to create that rustic ambience. The bar too was well stocked and it helped a lot in fighting the weariness as a result of the 4 hours drive from Kathmandu. In the evening, we were enlightened by the Pugdundee Safari’s in-house naturalist about the history, topography, wildlife species and the conservation activities being implemented in this one-of-its –kind National Park, even as a group of traditional Tharu dancers performed a truly exhilarating traditional dance over a bonfire. After an early dinner at the rustic in-house restaurant, we retired for the night.
Day 2 of our visit commenced with an early morning elephant ride and we were lucky we didn’t have to exert ourselves spotting the Rhinos. As our “Mahut”(Elephant Rider) directed the elephant along the dedicated “Rhino Corridor” through the rugged reeds and marshy areas of the park, we came face to face with a herd of Rhinos grazing with their young ones. Our knowledgeable “Mahut” informed us pointing his fingers to the smallest baby Rhino, that it was born just a week back and that it had already become the cynosure of all eyes. After the day’s adventure we returned back to Barahi Lodge and straightaway headed for the infinity pool to cool down. After refreshing ourselves on the pool, we sat at the Lodge’s rustic looking Tiger’s Den Bar and evoked the thrill that only a wilderness escapade can bestow.
Chitwan is not just another wildlife sanctuary that you come across on a long drive through the countryside. It is one of Asia’s most preferred National Park and a designated RAMSAR site. We were informed that Chitwan National Park is one of Asia’s best managed National Park and has a tremendous reputation of resolving conflicts between the Park and the indegenous people. What is more, Chitwan being the habitat of the rare and endangered One-horned Rhinos, it felt great to know that their numbers have gone up considerably from 534 Rhinos in 2011 to 645 as on 2015, which indeed is praiseworthy. Chitwan being a biodiversity hotspot, it comes as no surprise that the Park is home to nearly 68 species of mammals. Apart from Rhinos, Chitwan is also a dedicated Tiger zone. Tiger experts are of the opinion that the alluvial floodplains are the best Tiger habitats, which is exactly what Chitwan offers for the Royal Bengal Tigers to thrive on. “Camera Traps” (2010-11) revealed that Tiger density ranged from 4.44 to 6.35 individuals per 100 sq.kms.
Day 3 of our trip was dedicated for bird watching and as we made our way to the marshy surroundings of Chitwan, we were amazed by the sheer variety on offer. Our naturalist informed us that close to 543 bird species have been identified in Chitwan, which is about two-third of Nepal’s endangered species. Here in the Park’s alluvial grasslands you can have a date with Bengal Florican, Lesser Adjutant, Grey Crowned Prinia, Swamp Francolin, Grass Warblers, Oriental Darters and the globally endangered Spotted Eagle to name just a few.
Since we were visiting Chitwan in the autumn season, we were greeted by the ethereal sight of migrating birds – Greater Spotted Eagle, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Bar-headed Geese and Fish Eagles. These varieties of birds, numbering around 165 species visit Chitwan every year in the autumn season from the North and spend the severe winter months in Chitwan’s salubrious habitat. Having visited some the world’s top National Parks, Chitwan is one National Park which scores high on the Eco-Tourism front – for two successive years, Chitwan has earned the coveted mantle of being a “No Poaching Zone”.
Chitwan is not just about wilderness. It is also about the indigenous Tharu tribals who have a fascinating lifestyle, far removed from the contemporary world. Their simplicity and warmth is worth going miles to see. I had an animated conversation with the Barahi Pugdundee Lodge’s Resident Naturalist with regard to the Lodge’s designing, which is predominantly vernacular Tharu-inspired architecture and sensing my curiosity for indigenous tribals, offered me with a complimentary day trip to an adjoining Tharu village the next day. After a light breakfast, we embarked on our walking tour of Tharu village. Although, the option of a “Tonka Ride” (Ox Cart) too is there for those who are less mobile physically. We walked barely half-an hour and it took us no time to appreciate that we had entered the Tharu domain. Clusters of thatched huts, the women folk busy with household works, cherubic children playing with water buffaloes...
As we set foot on the village of Badrahani, we were greeted by the sight of clusters of mud & thatch hutments and I was told by the naturalist that the Tharu people eke out a living by engaging in cultivation, hunting and fishing to survive. I engaged myself in conversation with a wizened old man in broken-Hindi, who sat by the corner of his modest hut even as his grandchildren were having a gala time playing around hide and seek. This old man had this to say –“I am proud to be a Tharu. Once upon a time we were considered as untouchables. I worked as a bonded labour in Kathmandu for six decades and with whatever little money I could save, I bought a piece of land here in Badrahani and I lead a peaceful life with my grandchildren”. We had traditional Tharu-style crossed-legged sit-in lunch served by a group Tharu women -beautifully adorned in traditional Tharu dresses. Most can speak broken-Hindi and when they know you are an Indian, they all make their aspirations known - to work in Delhi and Mumbai.
One very noticeable fact about the Tharus is that they worship “Gram Devta” or village god. “Nature” has always been a source of awe to human beings and the Tharus are no different. They have been worshipping nature from times immemorial. Of particular significance is their sense of belonging to the community and it is so palpable when you spend some time in their backyard. There is a saying in the Wildlife circles that if you haven’t visited Chitwan National Park once in your lifetime, your spirit of wilderness remains unfulfilled. I now can vouch for that and had I not visited this geographically stunning National Park, I surely would have missed out on Asia’s No.1 Wilderness habitat.
By Air: Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport is well served by routine flights operated by renowned airlines like Singapore Airlines, Malayasian Airlines, Qatar Airways, Air India, Cathy Pacific, Turkish Airlines, Thai Airways, Oman Air, Etihad etc…
By Road: From Kathmandu, one has to travel by road to Chitwan National Park. The Distance of 155 Kms. takes around 4.5 hours and the drive is beautiful.