The hundred (plus) degree heat and high humidity of Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s version of the more tried-and-true African safari, left us exhausted… so exhausted that we can only muster the below recap of our time with rhinos, tigers & elephants at Nepal’s southern border…
1. The Bus Ride: We were already sweating from the heat & humidity before we even arrived at Chitwan. Because we didn’t cough up an extra 200 rupees ($2.00) per ticket, we took an AC-less bus trip to the Park (although, admittedly, the air conditioning doesn’t work so well on any Nepali bus… somewhat like the bus’ advertised wifi, which just doesn’t exist).
However, that wasn’t the big takeaway from our bus trip. Although we had already experienced one bus ride in Nepal, from Kathmandu to Pokhara, we were ill prepared for our second bus trip from Pokhara to Chitwan National Park. For 100 miles and 7 hours (yes, that’s roughly 15 miles per hour), we experienced a truly thrilling & terrifying ride on rocky & winding roads carved into Nepal’s mountainous terrain. The narrow roads are clearly only constructed to be one-way but are instead used both ways by massive buses and trucks that run on 20-year old, smoke spewing diesel engines. On top of that, every bus and truck driver (including ours) played a constant game of leapfrog, even as they approached a corner on the cliff side around which they could not see… Needless to say, we were on edge throughout the ride.
2. The Jungle Walk: Despite the fact that the temperature each day soared above one hundred degrees and the humidity added to our feeling of malaise, we opted (of course) to take a full day jungle tour to explore the National Park. So, we spent 6 AM to 5 PM walking either in a dense, humid forest or in open, dusty plains with the blazing heat of the sun bearing down as we searched for Chitwan’s “Big Five”: (1) One-Horned Rhinos (only 3,000 alive worldwide), (2) Asian Elephants (only 35 in the Park), (3) Royal Bengal Tigers (only 120 in the Park), (4) Gharial Crocodiles, and (5) Sloth Bears (think Baloo from The Jungle Book).
Amazingly, we spotted our first one-horned rhino before even making it into the Park: while dining in the village during our first night in Chitwan (ironically across from the Rhino Lodge Hotel), a lost rhino came stumbling down the pedestrian street. Sadly, we were told the rhino was likely old or sick, which is how it lost it’s way. The next day, during our full day jungle tour, we spotted several rhinos in a better mental state. A few we were told were dangerous, so naturally our guide took us too close for comfort. In one instance, the rhino actually charged our guide, but upon seeing our whole group (aka 6 mere unarmed humans!), he decided against a charge and ran in the other direction instead.
Fairly early in the day, we also spotted a tiger. Seeing this endangered animal in the Park is extremely rare, so we were unbelievably lucky to see the shimmer of its orange & black fur as it crouched in the fields watching us and ultimately crossed the river towards us. Naturally, our guide told us to sprint towards the tiger following it’s river crossing to get a better look (yes, confusing, we were prepared to run away since attacks are not unheard of on jungle walks). Unfortunately (or fortunately) we didn’t find the tiger again on our side of the river. Upon returning from our trek, our guide boasted about our encounter to everyone at the lodge, and we spent the remainder of the day showing these pictures of a barely visible tiger and receiving enormous praise & congratulations:
After spotting two of the Big Five early in the day, we were so satisfied we could have turned back before noon – and we should have. Instead, we ventured further into the Park, and spent the remaining five hours of the walk baking in the heat, spotting a few additional animals, and then hurrying back as the afternoon monsoon threatened to unleash.
While the tour was awesome, a half day (or less) would have saved us a massive amount of energy – and sweat.
3. The Elephant Bath: After a sweaty day in the Park, a chance to cool off via a swim with elephants sounded right up our ally. The Park uses domesticated elephants to offer “elephant safaris”, and the tour operators bathe these elephants each morning. We had fun jumping atop the elephants and getting a bath of our own, as they sprayed us with water from their snouts.
Unfortunately, we had heard these elephants were not well treated, and after our brief bath with them realized why – the local masters proceeded to poke the elephants with spears and yell violently if they did not move or act as commanded. Sadly, this bad treatment soured our fun experience with the cute (and surprisingly hairy) elephants and we left quickly.
All in all, Chitwan was a unique safari experience compared to the safaris we have done in Africa. However, we recommend a trip to Chitwan that doesn’t coincide with the hottest time of year. And if it does, don’t go for an 11 hour walk in the middle of the day…
- A jungle walking tour is a unique experience and definitely worthwhile. However, if the weather is hot, we recommend only a half day. As our experience demonstrates, it’s possible to see animals close to the Park entrance, so don’t assume you need a full day to retreat far into the Park to get a glimpse of any of the Big Five (especially the rhinos).
- An elephant safari is also a unique way to see animals, and apparently the animals don’t run away from the elephants like they do from humans. However, after seeing the treatment of the elephants at bath time, we were put off from any elephant ride. We were also told by many people that the elephant ride is extremely uncomfortable.
- A standard jeep safari tour is also an option, and likely the least dangerous.
Getting There & Away: Buses from Kathmandu cost approximately 600-700 rupees (or $6-7 USD). Cough up the extra rupees for an air conditioned bus, as we did on the return trip to Kathmandu (though the driver only turns on the AC on roads that kick up a lot of dust, forcing you to close the windows). The bus can take anywhere from 5 hours to over 10 depending on traffic – and traffic can certainly build up when you combine some crazy driving with these crazy roads.
Accommodations: We stayed in Chitwan Gaida Lodge, which was comfortable, reasonably priced and offered hammocks to relax in. We recommend staying in one of the lodges on the outskirts versus a hostel in the town of Sauraha as they seem nicer & add to the safari experience.
Days Stayed / Recommended: We stayed 2.5 days and, honestly, in the heat that was more than enough. If you manage to find a 24-hour air conditioned hotel (aka with a generator to outlast the mid-day power cuts) you might last longer.