A family on an Indian elephant
A family on an Indian elephant
It is hard to hold on in a howdah. Elephants don’t walk with the grace of a quarter horse, so the enormous saddle the five of us shared behind the mahout dipped precariously towards the jungle floor with the pitch and roll of each step. A confirmed roller-coaster addict, I did what I knew best: wrapped arms and legs around the bamboo rails and hung on for dear life.

A Wild Journey

We’d had a day at Tiger Camp to build up anticipation of this elephant safari, watching the great beasts move silently through the tall grass in the distance, headed for the jungle. When my sister Sally and I planned this outing to Royal Chitwan National Park, we’d expected a jungle the likes of which Tarzan and Jane enjoyed. Instead, the habitats felt very familiar: vast open savannas with islands of forest. “This feels like Florida,” I said to my sister. “Stop it!” she replied. “You’re ruining the magic!” I continued the comparisons. Most of the Tarzan movies were filmed only ten miles from where we grew up.

Loading and unloading elephants
Loading and unloading the elephants

Clinging to the howdah, trying not to touch our shoes to the elephant’s thick hide – “it upsets the elephant,” said our guide – the reality of an elephant safari isn’t quite so dreamy. Sharp jolts ran up my spine as the elephant climbed out of the Rapiti River after wading us across the muddy waters, home to gharial and crocodiles. My face careened dangerously close to a moss-spotted silk cottonwood tree, close enough that I could ponder the profusion of cottonwood beetles clinging to the bark like so many drops of blood.

Wildlife from Aloft

“Rhino!” shouted our guide, and pointed into the deep dark green of vegetation below us. Several other tour groups on elephant safari turned to his call. Half-hidden by the greenery, a mother rhino and baby shuffled through the underbrush, just a few feet away. I held my breath and tried to snap a photo – another tricky thing to do atop an elephant’s back. Our multi-ton steed lurched sideways, and I felt like we’d spill right out of the simple bamboo howdah.

Rhinos in Nepal
Mother and baby rhino, as seen from an elephant’s perspective

Mother rhino perked her ears up. They don’t see well, but have a keen sense of smell. She snorted and began to race beneath the trees, baby following close behind. The chase was on! Swaying back and forth, up and down, like a ride at a cheap carnival, the motion of the elephant at a trot was nearly nauseating. I was glad we’d eaten a light breakfast.

Driven by competing mahouts, other elephants stampeded towards the same prize. I expected a collision, but we simply lost sight of our rhino. Our guide turned his attention to pointing out simpler fare: sambar deer browsing through the vegetation, troops of macaque monkeys in the trees. But we’d found what we’d came for, and that was enough. Still clinging on for dear life, I breathed a sigh of relief when the elephant found the familiar path back to the Rapiti River and Tiger Camp.

Mahouts in Nepal
Each elephant has its own caretaker, a mahout, that trains and looks after it.

Visiting Royal Chitwan National Park

Royal Chitwan National Park requires a permit to visit. The fee is more expensive for non-Nepali visitors. On a package tour, your permit should be included. Primary access to the park is through the community of Sauraha, where the visitor center is located. The best time to visit Royal Chitwan National Park is October through May. We spotted our mother and baby rhino in November.

Tiger Camp Nepal
Our jungle walk crew from Tiger Camp. My sister Sally, far left.

Elephant safaris are included in package tours through several lodgings along the park’s boundary at Sauraha. We stayed at Tiger Camp, where our safari was included in the package. They can also be independently arranged.