Chitwan: a high price to pay for a picture?

Entering Chitwan is a world away from Pokhara and possibly in a different galaxy to Kathmandu, busy jostling streets are replaced by the slow melancholy of rural life with traditional Tharu mud huts lining uneven mud and rock roads. Resorts springing up around every corner it’s hard to ignore that tourism is a staple in the day to day living of this town on the borders of Chitwan National Park.

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Large spanning fields to the north with jungle and grassland to the south it’s simple beauty is undeniable, it’s story laid bare by numerous tour and guide companies haggling for your time and rupees.

It is no secret that elephant safaris are the big attraction here, a tradition stemming way back beyond the living generations to when the king used to hunt the 2000+ wild giants here. Unsurprisingly that number has been greatly depleted and now the only elephants you’re likely to see are the ones kept behind electric fences or with their mahout. This however is not a natural fond relationship, rigorous training schedules of the elephants at only 2 years old that include intimidation, rationing of food and water and even beatings have got me asking, has it all gone too far?

I, like most people, came to Chitwan wanting ‘that’ picture, a top an elephant having the time of my life but on the first day as we walked into where the elephants were kept I couldn’t escape the chains… And neither could they. There was something about their eyes and stance that said they weren’t happy and they wanted us to know it. I chose however to give the mahouts the benefit of the doubt and the next day went down to bathe the elephants, to see them rolling around playfully in the water was beautiful!

My version of 'that' picture

My version of ‘that’ picture

Splashing around

Splashing around

I however found it a challenge to get over the niggling feeling of guilt. That’s why when I was offered the elephant safari I opted out. My little stance against riding atop an overloaded elephant through the jungle.

Going to the elephant sanctuary seeing the mums with the babies watching them playfully roll around, showing off, content they were safe, I could barely stand the fact that in a year they would be forced away from their mum, tied to a pole and ‘taught their place’ so we can have our entertainment.

Mum and baby

Mum and baby

Its not all doom and gloom here though, although I did feel pretty gloomy, a lot of tour packages offer early morning canoe trips down the Rapti river and jungle walk with two guides carrying stick, STICKS(!), to beat off tigers, boars, the occasional rampant deer. Its generally great fun if you’re OK with a little bit of danger and spotting more tourists than wildlife.

Early morning on the river

Early morning on the river

Jungle walk... Tiger free thankfully!

Jungle walk… Tiger free thankfully!

And oh the sunsets! They’re pretty impressive, as I sat by the river on my second night I couldn’t help but again be drawn into the magic of Nepal as this giant orange orb disappeared behind the trees and left the sky glowing with the last embers before the darkness set in and the mosquitos came out to once again paint my legs with their sporadic design.

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It was at this sunset the I learned of the tiger killing earlier that day (as I strolled through the jungle, protected by sticks, again sticks), a reminder of the reality of life in the jungle. I was fortunate, if you want to call it that, to sit drinking Rakshi with the main vet that caught the tiger and other locals involved the team. A fascinating insight into local life, they told of injured and  old tigers attacking humans for easy prey and of catching the tigers using white cloth and a trained eye. They showed us pictures of the tiger and even the mangled body of its’ victim which they also proudly showed the local children as I sat shocked at the macabre openness of it all.

The next day Bishnu, a wonderfully wise guide took us for breakfast at his orphanage and talked to us about the children he raised as his own due to the death of their parents to animal attacks, all to the background noise of giggling children and nursery rhymes, an uplifting end to my Chitwan adventure.

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