Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine (Bangladesh) on 1 April 2011

Jungle walking in Chitwan National Park

“I’m not walking through a jungle full of rhinos and crocodiles,” I hissed.

“Fine,” shrugged Kris, “Book a jeep.”

I handed over another wad of cash to the booking agent.  It was the equivalent of two days of my travel budget, but instinct told me not to scrimp on jungle activities.  Sticking to momos at mealtimes for the next few days was inordinately preferable to meeting a grisly fate in Chitwan National Park.  The surprising array of spiders that emerged from the timber slats in my bedroom that evening only reinforced my conviction.

Kris and I arrived at the meeting spot shortly after it was lit by a misty sunrise.  Two athletic-looking men of wildly different ages ushered us onto the back of a small pick-up truck with a wave.  I patted its sideboards as I would an old dog, and let out a few relaxed yawns.

An hour or so passed before we pulled over at a dilapidated eatery overlooking the Narayani-Rapti River.  Kris and I slurped down sickly sweet coffee and bickered above the birdsong.  Since meeting at Mount Everest’s base camp three weeks earlier, our quarrels had become increasingly regular — and depressingly trivial.  I felt sorry for the guides, who no doubt already realised they’d lucked out for the day in terms of atmosphere.  For the time being, I was grateful that they appeared to understand little English.

Jungle walking in Chitwan National Park

Elephant and Jessica bathing in Chitwan - a more relaxed activity than jungle safaris!!

Absorbed by irritation, I stomped my way onto a log canoe without bothering to ask where we were headed.  I assumed the pick-up truck would be there to collect us and focused my attention on the scenery.

The barely-there current betrayed a false sense of calm, which could be broken at any moment by the snapping jaws of a crocodile.  A waiter in Chitwan’s tourist hub of Sauraha had told me that their numbers in the park are plentiful – and that an adult male “mugger crocodile” had wandered into the outdoor dining area only a month before.  “For breakfast,” he added, laughing.  As I sat cross-legged on a timber plank that was just inches above the water level, I scanned each piece of driftwood for the presence of beady yellow eyeballs.

We disembarked on the opposite side of the river.  The vegetation was thicker and there was no road in sight.  A narrow path seemed to dissolve into giant grasses, which were at least as tall as a double-decker bus.

“Where is the jeep?” I asked.

“Coming,” said one of the guides.

“When?” I asked, the panic rising in my voice.

“4pm,” he said.

I choked – that was more than six hours away.  For all I knew, that expensive pick-up truck may have delivered us into a more remote, and thus more densely inhabited, part of the jungle.  I felt like kicking a tree.

Crossing a footbridge

I stared at Kris.  I knew he thought I’d over-hyped our chances of a dangerous encounter — but my calculations were based on the idea that it would only take one to bring us down.  Though I wanted to abort the jungle safari altogether, I grudgingly decided it would be easier just to get on with it.

The eldest guide provided short, sharp advice about escaping from animals bigger and faster than us.  The one-horned rhino was ranked top of our danger list, as they have a sharp sense of smell and an inclination to charge at anything perceived to be a threat.  If confronted by one, we were told to run in a zigzag, as rhinos have weak vision.  I was dubious about my ability to execute the strategy, because it seemed counter-intuitive.  My overwhelming instinct would be to flee – fast, in a straight line – rather than tap-dancing my way away from a two-tonne behemoth.  The alternative was to climb a tree – something I hadn’t attempted in a decade.  Our third and last defense, and the one applicable to all other less-than-friendly species, was the guides themselves, who carried ominously light sticks.  Although Kris and I would be sandwiched between the two guides at all times, I didn’t waste a second in finding my own stick, which prompted a Dutch snigger from behind.

Less than 15 minutes later, the pit-pattering of our feet was eclipsed by the thundering approach of an animal.  It sounded like something straight out of Jurassic Park.

Although it was very, very close, the animal – perhaps a rhino or an elephant –would remain invisible until it thrashed its way to the path through the grasses.  My mind went predictably blank as a guide hoisted me up the closest tree.  Kris hopped from foot to foot below, and I narrowly avoided dropping my camera on his head.  Maintaining my grip on the branches was difficult because I was shaking and sweating heavily – I was terrified that if I actually saw a rhino, I’d simply fall out of the tree in fright, and would impale myself on its single horn, kamikaze-style.

A watch tower

But thankfully, quietness returned before we ever had the chance to identify what ruptured it.  When the frightened birds began to resume their places among nearby branches, we descended to the path.

I found a bigger stick and we pressed on.  A reddish-brown, half-coiled snake basked in the sun a few feet away.  I shivered despite the heat and resented the lazy stares of two small crocodiles on the riverbank.  Our guides identified tiger track marks and rhino faeces, which I duly photographed.

The march of insanity adjourned for lunch, after a quick visit to a tiger sanctuary.  From the watchtower’s vantage point, we observed a Nepalese army troop moving stealthily through the yellowed grasses.  Their blue and purple camouflage provided a brilliant, unintended contrast.  In 2010, the Nepalese government dedicated almost US$700,000 to an anti-poaching fund for rhinos, though is yet to agree to the army’s request to shoot poachers on site.

We arrived at a crocodile breeding farm around 2pm.  As I observed even the tiniest of them, fresh from the egg and with pint-sized teeth, I fought uncharitable thoughts about their existence.  When I found myself regarding it as “stubbornly long-term,” I realised how easily fear mixes with hostility.  But to my surprise, I also became foolishly familiar.  During the final hour of our jungle walk, our guide pointed to a large crocodile less than four metres away.  With the guide’s permission, I crept closer to photograph it, while pressing my body flat against a tree.  My photos were nothing special, and I often wonder how many seconds that crocodile needed to make fatal contact.  Perhaps only half of one.

Elephant safaris in Chitwan are by far the safest option - but at the time I didn't know they existed!I was overjoyed when we completed the jungle walk – though yes, the adrenaline rush had been fantastic.  However I still wasn’t sure whether I had been unreasonably timid about the prospect of walking with wildlife.  When I returned to my room, I flicked through my guide book for an author’s comments.  Owing to the profusion of tourist facilities in Sauraha, I hadn’t yet bothered to consult it.  I shuddered when I came across the following passage:

“Promises of ‘safari adventure’ in Chitwan can be misleading…  Lodge owners and guides often play down the risks associated with tracking wildlife, so as not to scare off business.  In fact, safety is a serious issue in Chitwan, and a year doesn’t go by without one or two fatalities in the park…”

I also learnt that the closest emergency medical facilities are two hours away and that “most guides are young and gung-ho, and in their eagerness to please will sometimes encourage tourists to venture too close to animals.”

Furthermore, finding a guide with three or four years experience is difficult, according to the Rough Guide, because “leading tourists through a jungle full of two-tonne horned animals is a hazardous occupation, and anyone with any sense gets out of it as soon as they can.”

Jessica in Chitwan ParkI threw the book on my bed and headed out to find momos.  I wanted to put my stupidity behind me, but not before a long session at an internet café, where I recounted my ‘Jane of the Jungle’ story to friends.  As I was paying up, I noticed a framed portrait above the counter and enquired about the subject’s identity.

“Oh, this was a very brave man.  He saved a tourist’s life, but the tiger killed him.”

“Very brave,” I murmured, as my appetite disappeared entirely.

Sadly, I cannot share the best of my photos (ie of animals!) as my external drive broke – so I retrieved these from Facebook…