It was during a wildlife sojourn in Pench, Madhya Pradesh that I first heard about a walking safari. Over a mesmerising bush dinner in the jungle, the naturalist Chinmay regaled us with tales of a German couple who quickly climbed a tree when they realised a tiger was nearby, and his own back injuries due to a surprise rhino attack in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. It was these accounts that played on my mind, as I embarked on my first walking safari in the very same park, courtesy the staff of Barahi Jungle Lodge.
We convened for some aromatic French press coffee and cookies at 8:30 AM. Even at that hour, the lodge was shrouded in thick fog, the cool temperature making us glad for the protection of our jackets. A quarter of an hour later, we were at the banks of the Rapti River, ready to cross over to the forest and begin our adventure. As we pulled away from the lodge, we saw what looked like dried logs lying on the slope leading to the river. But on closer inspection, they revealed themselves to be ghariyals, a crocodilian reptile known for its long, pointed snout.
The late winter fog hung over the river, turning the other boats into shadowy silhouettes and the way ahead into curtains of veiled mystery. But the boatman and the naturalist Saket – they didn’t fail to see a grey shape in the distance that spelt both danger and excitement. I grabbed the binocular beside me and feasted on the beautiful sight of a grown rhino sipping water from the river.
The only problem was that it was right on our path to the forest and there was no way to go around it, without risking a charge. We drew closer and closer, hoping against hope that the rhino would note our presence and move out of the way. I watched through my camera lenses as the rhino turned to look at us. There seemed to be a few moments of indecision and then the great horned creature went splashing through the water to safety, sending a million droplets of water into the foggy air. The whole surreal episode left us with renewed excitement for our upcoming tryst with the forest.
We climbed up an incline to plunge straight into the ‘rivering forest’, the part of Chitwan National Park bordering the Rapti River. The sheer thrill of walking through the wild coursed through me as dried leaves crunched beneath our feet, the trees formed a web of greenery whenever I looked up, and secret calls pierced the air intermittently. This was how our ancestors lived, I mused; wandering through forests and settling down for a meal of scavenged food in a natural clearing.
One cannot hope to spot too many birds on a walking safari, as the vantage point is not ideal for getting a view of them through the thick foliage. But we could certainly hear them. The ground was strewn with red cotton silk flowers, hill glory bower, poisonous giant milkweed and bright orange flame of the forest. Every now and then, we’d almost walk into a spider web, but for Saket, who’d stop and point out the little creator in the centre of the web. Spotting butterflies was a much more fruitful exercise and we pursued a fair few, including the cabbage white and the great Mormon. When you’re on a jeep or elephant safari, you barely look at the ground but on a walking safari, you are free to peer at rhino apples, called such because they are highly favoured by rhinos (but not fit for human consumption!) and little red sindure berries, which give off a colour akin to the ‘sindoor’ that married Hindu women smear on their foreheads. There are over 600 Indian rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park, so it came as no surprise that most of the ground was covered with mounds of their excreta! Incidentally, rhino excreta is supposed to have medicinal benefits for ailments such as cough and cold.
Presently, we reached a 360 degree clearing that allowed us an excellent 360 degree view of the forest. It was the perfect spot to assuage our rumbling tummies. Saket and the local guide busied themselves with unpacking the breakfast while we rested our walking sticks against an enormous fig tree and found a nice big log to sit on. Chitwan National Park is full of fig trees whose trunks are as massive as walls, and tall clusters of sal trees in patches. Interestingly, stranger figs are parasites, often wrapping themselves around the host tree until it is dead.
We enjoyed a charming breakfast of sandwiches, muffins and fruits, curated by Barahi Jungle Lodge, in the midst of the forest, possibly watched by creatures safely camouflaged by the vegetation. When we’d finished and packed up, careful not to leave behind any signs of our presence, the fog had cleared almost completely. It was mid-morning by now and we were halfway through our safari. And that was when we had the most exciting experience of the day – an encounter with a mother-daughter rhino duo! Our guide and naturalist spotted them in the distance, just in time to avoid a potentially unsafe confrontation. “Hide, hide!” they whispered, as we contemplated how we’d been sharing the clearing with the rhinos all this while without knowing it!
We stood among the trees, well out of the way of the rhinos. “They’ve smelt us for sure,” Saket said, as the creatures looked around curiously before resuming their grass munching. It was a while before they started moving and we watched in silent excitement as they walked by slowly, quite oblivious to the effect they were having on us. While rhinos look peaceful enough, they can weigh up to three tons run at 40 km per hour and cause significant injuries with their horns. So it was a good thing our friends that day were more intent on finding breakfast than chasing us way!
It’s not just the prospect of bumping into predators and being watched by strange pairs of eyes that make a walking safari at Chitwan National Park deliciously spooky. It’s also the presence of places like the Nandbauzu Lake, marked as the location of the suicides of two sisters in law. ‘Nandbauzu’ means sister in law in Nepali. The mossy, tree-framed lake looks peaceful and welcoming but chills are bound to run down your spine when you hear tales of the tragic deaths that occurred here and the subsequent haunting. One other story Saket told us was of the ferocious Kanchirua, a killer rhino responsible for the demise of at least ten people. He was such a terror that the forest department tried to relocate him. But Kanchirua returned, and lived to the ripe old age of 43. We were thus suitably awed when after some scouting and retracing of steps, we came upon the site of his remains. I had never seen a rhino’s skeleton so closely before, and nothing will erase the sight of the late Kanchirua’s magnificent skull and bones.
There are several military outposts in Chitwan National Park and we had to be ready with our permits whenever a group of patrolling officers accosted us. Poaching used to be a menace but the numbers have come down significantly thanks to their vigilance. We also waved at other guests occasionally. But by and large, it felt like we were all alone in the dark, whispering forest. Once or twice, we fell off the designated route in pursuit of a bird or animal but finding shortcuts and alternate routes was equally exciting. On our way back to the lodge, we glimpsed a herd of deer through the foliage. Our guides could hear their calls though I couldn’t. Thus ended my first walking safari. If you have more time and stamina, Barahi Jungle Lodge will arrange a day-long safari that takes you through the village as well, where you could enjoy a local meal. We however, thanked the forest for protecting us and returned to the lodge for a sumptuous lunch, followed by bathing in the river with Sundarkali, a grand old elephant.