|An elephant and its friendly mahout (rider/trainer).|
Being in Sauraha is a surreal experience.
We get off the bus and we're whisked off on the back of a truck to our accommodation, Crocodile Safari Lodge and Camp. Along the way, I see not only elephant dung paper shops, but also a sign and stall for an "Emergency Elephant Booking Counter". Because, as we all know, sometimes you just urgently require an elephant.
Then as you get closer to the periphery of Chitwan National Park, you do begin to see elephants everywhere. They're on the road with their riders, sharing the road with cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians. After a while, it just starts to become totally expected and normal. But still awesome.
We launched our adventures at Chitwan National Park with a canoe safari. It was a peaceful event being out on a boat in the early morning, the water gently lapping, with our guide identifying the variety of different birds and the spotting of crocodiles every now and then - including the unique gharial with its elongated, narrow snout.
|A crocodile sunning itself.|
After the canoe safari, we went for a full-day jungle walk safari, and this is where it gets freaky.
Firstly, we were briefed by our guide on what to do if we encounter any potentially dangerous animals. If you see a tiger, that is a rare occurrence as they're apparently quite shy of humans, but should it happen, you are to maintain eye contact and back away slowly. If a rhinoceros charges, you have a few options. If you can, climb the nearest tree. Otherwise, hide behind it. If there are no trees, run in a zigzag manner, and throw something (e.g. a cap, jacket or whatever) as a red herring, for the rhino has poor eyesight, and this will confuse them. If you chance on a sloth bear, stand together with your group and try to be as intimidating as possible. The sloth bear is considered to be one of the most feared animals, as unlike most other animals, it is actively aggressive towards humans, often going for the face with its teeth and claws, in some cases even tearing it right off.
I began to think that, perhaps, seeing wildlife on a safari was totally overrated and unnecessary.
Our walk started on footpaths flanked by savannah grasslands. It may not be obvious from the picture, but those grasses can grow to towering heights, so we don't venture into them. We once heard a rustling and our guide investigated - it was a rhino. We never saw it ourselves, but stayed still in the shadows of the trail until the sounds were gone.
|The mystical savannah.|
We then went into the jungle, and one of the first things we saw was the skull of a sambar deer, just casually sitting there. The guide says it was likely the victim of a tiger. Later, Simon tells me that he cynically reckons that it was planted for the benefit of tourists like us.
|A sambar deer skull on the forest floor.|
At this point we hadn't seen very much, though we would occasionally spot assorted varieties of animal excrement. It was a hot day, we were tired, and we wondered if we would see anything worthwhile.
We stumbled upon the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros.
We had just emerged from trees and bushes to a clear area, and there it was, right there, drinking from a waterhole.
There is just nothing like spotting a wild, majestic animal when you're on foot, vulnerable and completely aware of the precariousness of the situation. Adrenaline rushing, heart thumping, we slowly, quietly crouched down as silently indicated by our guide. And there we stayed, looking right at the rhino, and he looks at us.
|We see a rhino, and it sees us.|
Our guide quietly told us that we can take photos. I was slightly frozen at that stage, but this gave me the confidence I needed to pick up my camera. We took a few snaps, and there seemed to be a mutual understanding that we all come in peace. The rhino eventually left. I had already picked out the tree I was going to climb, but oh well. Our guide suggested we have a picnic and observe if any other animals visit the waterhole. So there we were, incompetently eating fried rice with our hands because no utensils were packed, softly discussing what just happened. "How far do you think that rhino was from us?" I asked, and answered my own question: "I reckon it was about 10 to 15 Michael Jordans away, so 20 to 30 metres." Simon thought that was a hilarious way to measure things, but whatever. I find it extremely useful.
|The rhino departs.|
So, the jungle walk turned out pretty awesome after all. Oh, and amongst other things, we also saw a peacock waddling quickly away from us at one point, into the grassland, closely followed by a chicken (a wild one, i.e. a junglefowl). It's like they are best friends. That was almost as cool as seeing a rhino.
We were so incredibly exhausted from walking for about 6 hours in 35°C heat (95°F), that we just plonked ourselves down in our 5-dollar-a-night lodge the moment we got back, turned the fan on to full blast, and downed a big bottle of cold Fanta between us.
The next day, we were still not quite fully recharged, so we took it easy with casual strolls around Sauraha.
We saw chickens...
A horse-drawn cart...
And a dog on a roof.
|Hello, dog on roof.|
Also, marijuana plants grow everywhere around here. And when I say everywhere, I mean EVERYWHERE. It's in everyone's backyards. By the roadside. Outside our window. Like the whole elephant state of affairs, it felt surreal at first, but we merrily adapted to it as another fact of life in Sauraha.
|Oh... hello, Mary Jane!|
Don't think I've forgotten about the food. This is a food blog, after all.
Our first meal in Sauraha was at Sweet Memory Restaurant (not to be confused with the Sweet Memories Restaurant we ate at in Pokhara, they love that name around here don't they?). The food was quite nice.
Simon had a vegetarian burger.
|Vegetarian burger at Sweet Memory Restaurant in Sauraha.|
I opted for a pleasantly spicy egg curry.
|Egg curry at Sweet Memory Restaurant.|
We subsequently discovered Jalapeno Restaurant and Bar.
Their deep-fried buffalo momos are tasty - there is a rich meatiness that is assertive without being overwhelming.
|Deep-fried buffalo momos.|
But it was this vegetarian dish that Simon absolutely fell in love with - Bhatmas Sadeko, a local snack. Crunchy pan-fried soybeans are tossed together with green chilli, garlic, ginger, shallot, spring onion, tomato, lime, coriander. It was quite the flavour explosion. We came back and ordered it again the very next day.
Then we're back to doing safaris!
After a good rest, we were up for another trip, this time going even deeper into Chitwan National Park with a full-day jeep safari.
|The view from the jeep.|
We were, unsurprisingly, able to cover a lot more ground with a jeep than we did on foot, so we saw many more animals as well - deer, bison, monkeys, and various birds, including a gorgeous Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo and also - I think - an Asian Paradise Flycatcher. Unfortunately I didn't get many good pictures of these sightings. Plus, I was mostly using Simon's camera, which I don't have access to at the moment, with our latest interstate romance and all.
But, I did get more rhino pictures!
This mother rhino and her child had been moving through the grassland. Our guides tapped the jeep to indicate our driver to stop. One of them whispered, "I think they're going to try to cross the road." So we waited, and we waited. And finally, mama rhino emerged in her full glory.
|Mother rhino starts to cross the jeep tracks.|
Moments later, the baby comes into view too. They were quite alert of us, and seemed slightly hesitant. Eventually, mama rhino crossed to the other side, and the cutest thing happened - baby rhino looked uncertainly in our direction, then quickly ran off after his mother, his little armoured butt wagging, as if to say, "Oi, mum, wait for me!" Ahhhhhh. Too adorable.
|Mama rhino with her baby rhino.|
There are so many peacocks in Chitwan National Park. At one point our guides saw another peacock-chicken duo, and I was a little sad that I missed out on that sighting - gotta love endearing pair-ups. But anyway, here is a peacock, chilling out on a tree branch.
|Spot the peacock sitting in a tree.|
On our final night, we had an impromptu jamming session with the local guys at our lodge, which included a Nepali rendition of Knockin' On Heaven's Door. It was an exhilarating conclusion to an eye-opening few days at Sauraha, and we are grateful for all the wonderful things we experienced here... and that we came out alive, of course.
|Bye bye, Sauraha and Chitwan National Park.|