Experiential is the buzz word in travel at present. An elephant safari at Tiger Tops in Chitwan National Park, Nepal, is certainly an experience. Yes, you can go on a ‘tiger show’ in India and ride elephants in search of a tiger but as its name suggests it is a performance, a parade. This is not the case in Chitwan.
Staying at Tiger Tops Lodge, famed for its ‘tree houses’, I had the benefit of experience and training both in terms of the wealth of knowledge accumulated over the years by the naturalists of Tiger Tops and its elephants. My guide was Rajdeen, whose insight was invaluable, and my elephant Hira Kali, who was magnificent.
Tiger Tops has thirteen working elephants and part of the thrill at staying at the lodge is spending time with and learning about them.
“Each has seventy-five sandwiches a day, each sandwich consisting of unhusked rice, molasses, chickpea and salt. It takes three men to make the sandwiches for one elephant,” Rajdeen explained, revealing that this was no small undertaking on the part of Tiger Tops. “They don’t have diabetes – each elephant eats about 500lbs of fodder and drinks 200 litres of water.”
Having got to know a little more about Hira Kali, I felt that I had earned the right to ride her: time for the elephant safari. Seated on a comfortable platform on her back, we swayed out into the forest. Part of the thrill was being able to enjoy the bond between elephant and mahout – who sits astride the head of the elephant and guides it with gentle prods of his bare feet behind its ears – and also to access parts of the forest that are simply not passable by man or vehicle. With the snow-capped Himalaya in the distance and the sun on my back, I was blissfully happy.
Hira Kali strode slowly but confidently through the luxuriant vegetation of tall elephant grasses. Rajdeen had explained earlier that these grasses are the preferred habitat of the greater one-horned rhino, of which there are over four hundred in the park. Given my knowledge of its African cousins, I felt that we would have little chance of seeing one. I was wrong and more than once as we saw several individuals and also some mothers with young calves.
Moreover, I was surprised by how close we were able to get to the rhino, literally a matter of yards. And then with a loud snort of derision he swung round and trotted off into the sanctuary of the grass, his armour-plated backside wobbling in defiance.
We also saw hog deer, spotted deer (chital) and gaur, the largest wild cattle. But of course, tiger was the real draw. There are some sixty breeding tigers in Chitwan which is 923 square kilometres. Rajdeen astride on the back of the elephant as scouring the landscape for any sign of the apex predator.
“You see the pug marks there. Reasonably fresh. Earlier today.”
“Where the grass is all depressed – that was where the tiger was lying down not long ago.”
“Look there,” Rajdeen points. “Tiger claw marks on the tree. Marking its territory.”
I was amazed. Not by the marks but how high up they were – the size of our elusive prey suddenly dawned on me. In spite of Hira Kali’s height, it would be incredible and a little daunting to see a tiger.
But in spite of the best efforts of Rajdeen and our mahout, the tiger remained hidden, retaining its mystery and again illustrating that unlike India this is not a show.
I will be back to enjoy the experience again – hopefully for longer than one night and thus with a greater chance of success.