My heart raced. Scarcely a hundred feet ahead of me, the purple-tinged fronds of elephant grass parted in the savanna and I could see a glimpse of gray, hear a snort.
I eyed the closest tree. Could I climb it if I had to? At once both enthralled and terrified, I took a step backwards into the shade of the forest. I’d wanted to see a rhino in the wild, but not this close.
On the itinerary of potential activities at Tiger Camp, the Jungle Walk was my top choice. Given a chance to take a guided hike through one of the most wildlife-rich zones along the border of Nepal and India, I talked my sister into it. Over dinner, my sister and I talked our newfound friends from Sweden, Daniel and Malin, into coming along. Their self-hired Nepali guide refused to join us. “Many people die,” he said.
Talking to local villagers, we discovered they’re terrified of the Jungle Walk. “Quick way to get killed,” said one. “The rhino saw me before I saw him. Chased me up a tree. I’ve never gone back.” Even our guide admitted that it wasn’t a comfortable job.
In the morning, our guides – Dani and his companion, who brought up the rear of our tiny group – led us to a dugout canoe to cross the Rapiti River. We left the river shore and followed Dani into the thick sal forest of Royal Chitwan National Park for a pre-hike talk.
“When a rhino charges,” he said, “you must run. Or climb a tree if you can. When the rhino follows you, circle around the tree.” The Swede’s eyes grew wide. A troop of macaque monkeys suddenly chattered in the trees above, startling us all. This wouldn’t be like any hike I’d been on at home.
Walking SoftlyWhen you try to walk quietly through a forest, you don’t realize how easy it is to snap a twig or crunch dead leaves. As Dani led us down a well-worn trail, we found rhino tracks, rhino scat, and rhino wallows. We stopped quietly for photos near another troupe of monkeys. Behind us: heavy sounds. Branches breaking. A snort. The guide at the rear of our line whirled around, a bamboo stick in his hand the only permitted protection in this national park.
It was just another group of hikers. I let out my breath. But the flash of fright in our leader’s eyes worried me. He picked up a club-like stick soon after, before we entered the savanna. Feathery-plumed elephant grass waved twenty feet overhead, with paths crushed into it by the rhinos and elephants that roamed this landscape. Following a Jeep trail, we made a beeline for the next island of forest, coming across several boisterous tour groups in the process. They certainly weren’t going to see wildlife with all that noise!
Wildlife Up Close
Something fluttered in the grass. “Jungle chicken,” Dani said. I thought he was joking, but when I got home, I did a little research and discovered that chickens, indeed, originally came from this part of Asia. A few moments later, we reached where the savanna began again. We heard thrashing in the grass.
“Wait,” Dani said. He slipped quietly into the forest to my left and climbed a tree. Now alone and defenseless, I stood at the head of our line of five, peering into the thick grass. The thrashing happened again. The tension grew thick as we heard a stomp. My heart about fell to my knees. Rhino!
Dani dropped out of the tree. “No safe place for you to climb and look here.” We backed up into the shade of the forest. The rhino moved on.
Sampling the Jungle
As Dani led us down jungle paths, he pointed out claw marks – a sloth bear here, a tiger there. We’d been so focused on rhinos that the thought of running into a tiger, unlikely in daytime, didn’t even cross our minds until that discovery. I felt a bit more nervous, childhood memories of Rudyard Kipling stories racing through my head.Dani picked white berries and gave them to us to taste. “The villagers dig and crush the root, use it to make medicine against pnuemonia. ” He also added a hard-to-believe medicinal followup. “They dry rhino dung and smoke it to clear up respiratory infections.”
Walking back along the main Jeep trail, we saw sambar deer and more monkeys, but no more signs of rhinos. One encounter was plenty. As we disembarked from the canoe on the far shore of the Rapiti River, a short distance from camp, we looked back at where we’d been. Jackals slipped out of the shadows, sniffing our footprints.
Visit 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 rhino in November.
Jungle walks in Royal Chitwan National Park can be also arranged independently. They are included in package tours through several lodgings along the park’s boundary at Sauraha. We stayed at Tiger Camp, where our walk was included in the package.