After visiting Chitwan National Park, Nepal, briefly in 2018 I was left wanting more after only spending a couple of days on the outskirts of the park. Despite a semi-wild rhino coming into our hostel car park one night, we were unlucky and didn’t see any of Chitwan’s megafauna. In January 2020, after leaving New Zealand and making my way back to work in Malaysia, I met my dad in Nepal to give Chitwan another shot. Four days of trekking through the grasslands and forests in search of Chitwan’s elusive tigers turned into a great adventure.
Getting to Chitwan wasn’t as easy as it looks on a map. Kathmandu is surrounded by mountains from the get go, this means hundreds of hair pin bends on roads that have never seen a repair truck in their life. A bone shaking eight-hour bus journey from Kathmandu to the town of Sauraha did not deter us from seeking a guide straight away so that we could start our adventure as soon as possible.
Full of anticipation for the adventure we were about to embark on, we awoke early to start our trek. The morning was a cold one and a thick mist meant that we could barely see five meters ahead of us. To get into the national park we had to cross the river on a small dug out canoe, a daunting task after seeing the number of mugger and gharial crocodiles on the banks. On the other side of the river the sands were littered with animals tracks, from small deer hoofs to the enormous footprints of rhinos, clues of what was to come.
From the river bank we entered the extensive sal forest. With the mist still thick it was an eery feeling walking through the tiger’s territory with so little visibility. However, any angst soon lifted as we were met by the morning chorus of Chitwan’s incredible birds. We came across a tree full of parakeets, the sound was tremendous as they all sang their morning songs, suddenly they became spooked and all at once flew from the tree making the most incredible racket as their beating wings took over the sky.
Slowly the sun started to come out and burn through the mist. This allowed us to fully appreciate the habitat that we were walking through. Eventually the sal forest gave way to a vast landscape of elephant grass, so tall that as the name suggests, it could hide an elephant. We continued to encounter many different birds from brightly coloured pigeons, to nesting lesser adjutant and even a distant great hornbill, my favourite bird!
We were following a quiet jeep trail through the mixed forest mosaic chatting to our guides about what wildlife we could encounter, reassured that their sticks were enough to keep the large mammals at bay. As we were talking, one of our guides suddenly stopped behind us. We looked back and got the signal to get low to the ground. We slowly edged back to where he had stopped, looking into an opening in the tall grass. There walking towards us without a care in the world, a sloth bear lazily plodded in our direction. Unsure which small animal path the bear would take, we moved back a little to assure the bear didn’t stumble straight into us. As we shuffled to get out of its way, the bear noticed us. Suddenly looking up and sticking his wet nose in the air, he could smell something he didn't like. After about 20 seconds, he suddenly realised what was going on and spun around, sprinting back into the long grass making the strangest loud grunting noises.
A bear on our first morning! Things were looking good. We continued further through the forest until reaching an oxbow lake with a look-out tower on the banks. We took a break up the top and enjoyed surveying the area with our binoculars. Scanning the lakes perimeter, we got some great views of an array of water birds such as egrets, darts and kingfishers as well as at least twenty small mugger crocodiles.
On the other side of the lake a group of spotted deer flitted out of the woodlands and began grazing on the lakes bank. Their usual company of peacocks also followed out of the trees. The male peacock fancied his chances and started to display towards the two females. It was an amazing show and from across the lake you could hear as he vibrated his feathers to make them glimmer in the sunlight.
Whilst admiring the colourful display of the peacock I noticed the bushes moving behind on the forests edge. Staring into the vegetation to find the animal who made the disturbance, my binoculars suddenly snatched onto a large grey back slowly moving through the shrub. Sure enough, our first one horned rhino. Feeding on the wrong side of the bush it was hard to get a good view. However, we could appreciate the size of the beast as he slowly got his fill.
After determining the rhino wasn’t going to come our way, we continued down the track following the lake side. We disturbed a large flock of whistling ducks which made a wonderful racket as they flew away. As the sun was setting and we were nearing the edge of the park, we saw a safari jeep looking at something in the distance. Being on foot we were able to edge closer through the grass. It turned out to be a huge rhino with its calf. We edged closer to get a better view when we realised the pair were heading straight towards us. Oblivious the rhinos continued walking as the jeep swung around to try get closer. Unfortunately, the jeep spooked the adult, making it extremely unpleased. The rhino decided he would show us his size and we had to shuffle behind the jeep to avoid been on the end of a charge. Once safe, we slinked behind the jeep and continued to make our way to the parks edge.
Arriving at the edge of the park we had to jump on a bus used to take park staff back to their villages. Of course the bus was full of locals so we clambered up the ladders and sat on the roof of the bus. This turned out to be a blessing as the journey was about 25 minuets through the parks boundary forest, meaning we had a free wind-swept safari.
As the sun was about to drop under the horizon we arrived in our overnight village. It was clear that we had underestimated just how traditional the village would be. It was one of the most authentic villages I had ever witnessed. Kids running around with sticks as their parents heated the fires ready for the night’s dinner. Small mud huts with thatched roofs barely bigger than the families buffalo shelter. Despite recently receiving electricity, the village was very much a step back in time. We were greeted with a pot of hot chai tea as the women prepared our meal for the night. We were invited to eat inside the kitchen, where a fire pit on the floor was somehow able to produce one of the best dahl baht I had ever had.
Waking up early again, we soon learned that the thick mist was a common feature of the mornings at this time of the year. We left the village behind and quickly entered into a deep sal forest. We followed the bank of a small stream and quickly became excited as it was littered with tiger prints. Our guide pointed out that it must have been a mother and cubs playing on the bank as there was a mosaic of tiny prints beside a stationary, patient mother.
Leaving the river, we entered back into the lush green forest. Under the big trees there was evidence of the morning traditions of the local bears, digging out termites and scratching the trees trunks to sharpen those claws. We found a small ‘jungle cross road’ and sat a while to see if the tiger family or bears would treat us to a visit.
The gamble didn’t pay off and we continued to make our way, re-joining the river. Despite not seeing the tiger family, it was exciting enough to be on the trail of such a majestic creature. Crossing a small stream our guides tried to make stepping stones but it didn’t stop us getting our feet wet. As we got to the opposite side, we realised there was an old sleeping rhino just 20 meters away from us, tucked up in the grass in the middle of a small river island.
The birds of Chitwan are truly incredible, every 20 minutes you come across a new species. One of the most fun to spot was the tiny owlets, small mottled brown they would camouflage so well with the trees that it was almost impossible to find their glaring stares.
We were heading to the tiger tops hotel, once a prestigious hotel for hunters and game viewers, now abandoned for years. On our way into the grounds, now taken over by the jungle, we saw a huge yellow throated marten, the slender mammal shot up a tree and stopped to stare at us a while before leaping back onto the floor and scampering off into the shrub.
Walking through the old resort we decided to have lunch on an old elephant loading station. With a beautiful view of the bending river we sat and watched as the pygmy woodpeckers and colourful minivets fluttered around us. We could see large groups of deer spread along the river banks, perfect tiger food.
Crossing the river after lunch we found a spot on the river bank where we could sit and hide in the vegetation, giving us a clear view however down both directions of the river. We sat for two hours to see if a tiger would cross, it didn’t.
As dusk approached, we had to cross the river and walk along the opposite side to get to the next village. As we were walking a huge rhino decided to pop out of the long grass and cross the river about 30 meters in front of us. We waited and let is cross as the sun started to set, giving the rhino the most majestic back drop.
Between us and the village was a very wide, fast flowing river. We were instructed it was safe and were told to take off our trousers and put our bags on our heads. The current was extremely strong and we needed sticks to steady ourselves. As the guide turned to help my dad across the dangerous parts, he suddenly exploded and pointed back across the river from where we came. There staring at us in the distance was a tiger. We didn’t have our binoculars as they were in our bags on our heads, but we could see the tiger standing tall, as if to prove that he knew we were there all along. As the tiger waltzed off into the long grass, a mother rhino and calf came out almost exactly the same spot, as they crossed the river, so did we.
The next day we decided to head back to the same river bank in the hope that the tiger would come back and pay us a visit. But first we had to cross the river again. Luckily the guides had discussed with a villager and found the whereabouts of a small canoe that we could use to punt our way across the river.
The first few hours sitting against the tree was a little dull as the mist was so thick you could barley see across the river. We sat there for eight hours! No tiger. We did however see three different rhino crossing the river and watched pleasantly as two pied kingfishers darted up and down the river all day.
Half way through the day we did have a visit from a family of gaur, hurtling through the trees behind us to make their way to the river. These huge bovines were essentially giant, wild cattle. In the late afternoon we heard a choir of deer alarms down the river, this could only mean one thing, tiger.
We rushed over to where we heard the calls and sat a while to see if the call came again. We sat where we could see the point of which the tiger mocked us the previous day. As we sat there a large great hornbill came and landed in the tree just above us, just like us he sat there scanning the landscape.
The light started to drop so we had to abandon the hunt. As we waited for the guides to collect the canoe from the other side, a pair of bar-headed geese flew past, low against the river. An impressive sight as these birds hold the record for the highest-flying bird in the world, migrating each year over the worlds tallest mountains.
With the feeling that we had come close the day before, we decided to try again in the same area. The morning started off well as we saw a large rhino having his breakfast fill in the misty grassland. We started the day on the opposite side from the previous stake out, as this was where the tiger calls had come from the previous afternoon.
As the mist lifted there was a tremendous noise above our heads, we then spotted a great hornbill feeding party. With fruit dropping high from the canopy we could catch flashes of yellow and hear the beating of their giant wings as the large birds hustled for the best feeding perch. There must have been at least ten of these giant birds above us. Now and again one of the birds would hop into view and sit twisting its neck as it digested its morning feast, giving us some incredible views of these enchanting birds.
Of course, when we finally heard the alarm calls, they were on the opposite side of the river. We decided to go back to our original spot and wait a while there. As we made our way down to the banks, we came across a huge mugger crocodile. The guide thought it would be a good idea to throw a stick near the beast to get a reaction. And a reaction is exactly what he got, the croc leapt into a small waterhole making a great commotion which then startled a rhino that must have been feeding in the grass behind, the grey grass eating machine came hurtling out of its cover and sprinted across the river about 15 meters in-front of us. A chain of events the guide was not expecting.
As the afternoon set in, we went back across the river as more calls could be heard on that side. We walked around the forest, changing tactic from sitting and waiting, to actively trying to seek out the tiger. We followed the days pug marks and came across scats, following small trails into the bushes. We were making progress until we saw evidence of wild elephants. The guides got spooked by the prospect of bumping into the elephants and so we headed back to the river side.
We sat back in our spot as the sun went down, hoping the tiger would give us a send-off. Unfortunately, the tiger never materialised but we were treated to our final rhino sighting as a large adult slowly made its way across the river.
We didn’t quite get the tiger sighting we set out for, but at least we saw one. We had a fantastic four days on the trail of these majestic creatures and were treated to an array of beautiful bird sightings, tonnes of rhino encounters and not to forget our early sighting of a sloth bear. Trekking though Chitwan was an incredible experience, but we were glad to get back to the town for a beer, a good meal and a comfortable bed.