Chitwan National Park in Nepal, was no doubts one of my most intense experiences while travelling, not only for its amazing nature and fauna but also for the memory of the adrenaline running in my body after a rhinoceros was chasing us.
It was one of my first destinations in Nepal right after visiting Lumbini, the birth place of Gautama Buddha. I passed the night in a local guesthouse in the nearby village home to the "Tharu people", a local ethnic group with unique traditions, inhabiting the Terai valley and calling themselves people of the forests.
In the morning I reached by feet the tourist center of the park, and to my surprise I was the only visitor, being the beginning of April not high season for tourism (this story is from the time when I was solo traveling before meeting my partner Oti).
I still wanted to visit the park even alone, so I arranged a jungle walk + river rafting with two of the guides of the Chitwan National Park Center. The other options available where to go by jeep or on a elephant back: but I didn't like both ideas.
Using a vehicle is impacting the animals' environment, despite being a safer option, and it is scaring the fauna with noise, decreasing the chances to spot them. At the same time I would have liked to experience going on an elephant back, but I didn't like the idea of exploiting these wild animals.
Later I would have had the confirmation of my choice, when while walking in the nature we met some "trainers" domesticating a baby elephant, that basically meant beating him as strong as they could while he was galloping, screaming and crying.
When I went for a jungle walk in a Periyar Wildlife Reserve, a National Park in India, I was surprised to see how the guides where carrying some 50 years old rifles to protect us. But even worse than that was here in Chitwan, where our only defense was a cane, not a big discouragement in a park inhabited by tigers, leopards, rhinoceros and bears!
Before starting the hike, the guides explained me how to behave in case we were meeting any dangerous animals: never give your back to a tiger, climb a tree, run zigzag or throw something if a rhinoceros is running after you, etc. All interesting stuff that I was following very carefully, after all it was a matter of my life! But as you'll read later in the story at the first dangerous encounter, my guides started to panic and to react like scared kids!
Exploring by boat Rapti River
The hiking tour was like a loop, with the exploration starting by boat along the Rapti River, and the way back by feet through the jungle.
We embarked in our wooden raft, moved by a cane pushing the bottom of the river rather than rowing. Apparently in this area canes can be multifunctional.
I knew that there were crocodiles along the river, but I was assured that in that season we could have met only Gavials, a fish eating crocodile, and not the more dangerous Mugger Crocodile not present during that season.
The trip by boat was really relaxing, you somehow feel protected, it's like watching a documentary flowing on the sides of the river, but you know that it's something real.
The advantage of the raft is that it is extremely silent and animals are not getting scared and running away: that's why we saw plenty of big and small birds of every species, lonely, in flock or while building their nest in the sandy cliffs. Further on we met monkeys and spotted deers on the river banks, and we also had a close encounter with a Gavial crocodile, in the water right in front of us before he would swim away and stay safe on the shore. At the end of our pleasant trip on Rapti River, we had a first unexpected surprise: a Mugger Crocodile 4 meters long just a few steps from us. That's when I started to doubts about my two guides!
Jungle Walk in Chitwan National Park
After securing the raft, we went on the land and we started to walk. It was late season, that meant the grass was quite high and dangerous because the beasts could easily hide behind it. Sometimes we were just following the jeep track that was cleared and with a higher visibility, but others we were going through the forest or the high grass.
Our first notable encounter while walking in the jungle was a Sloth Bear, one of the 250 exemplars that are inhabiting Chitwan National Park. The size of the Sloth Bear is quite small compared to its cousins, and he's feeding mainly on termites and other insects; but for the same reason he can be more aggressive than other bear species, because he feels more in danger. Thanks goodness, in our case he was more scared than us, and after spotting him not far away, he just run away as fast as he could.
Eventually we reached a wooden observation tower that we climbed, a very nice place to rest a little bit, and to reduce our levels of adrenaline in a protected environment. From the observation tower we were able to have a much wider view over the territory, not possible from the ground because of the high grass. And in fact not long after, we saw the first couple of Rhinoceros walking through the grass and then leaving toward the jeep track.
It was a mother with a calf, so I was happy to be able to enjoy so close their magnificence, while not risking the fury of a protective mum. For the guides it was apparently an ordinary day, and one of the two decided to take a nap while waiting for something more entertaining.
A face to face encounter with a Rhinoceros: "In the woods!!!"
When the rhinos were out of sight and no other animals were at the horizon, we went back to the ground to continue our hike through the National Park.
We were approaching streams of fresh water on our way, to try to spot the Gangetic Dolphin, but with no luck. Sometimes these sources of water were at the same level as we were, other time they were a little bit lower, creating a small sandy cliff. After more than half a day in the jungle I was starting to feel more comfortable and sometimes even to take initiative and lead the small group of hikers: me and the two guides.
Seeing a stream not far away, I approached it and from the top of a 4-5 meters (14-16 feet) cliff I saw a rhinoceros bathing in the water. He didn't recognize my presence and I was getting ready to take the best photo of my trip, while at the same time gesticulating to make the guides approach, but quietly. I wasn't even able to press the shutter of my camera, that as soon as they arrived they started to run away and to scream "In the woods"!
The first rule they taught be before starting the tour was not to panic and to try to silently get out of sight if caught in a dangerous situation. What they did instead was exactly the opposite, and the poor Rhino clearly recognized our presence, felt in danger and started to run after us. The only thing I could do was to start running too, my guides being ahead of me. We wisely split going in different directions, one to the right, one in front and me to the left. I was running as fast as I could and when I turned back for the first time I saw that the Rhino stopped and wasn't interest on us anymore. We were quite lucky considering that they can run faster than humans and there are several casualties every years because of Rhinoceros attacks.
After this experience I can say that I felt really lucky not managing to spot the Bengal tiger, considering the improper reaction my two guides could have had.
We knew that she was around looking at us, because of fresh footprints on the jeep path, she was there to witness how much animals are more sensible than humans.
After finishing the hike, I went back to the Tharu village and I enjoyed a nice evening show of local dances: it was what I needed to relax after the close encounter with the rhinoceros!