Deep inside the sal forest on the southern bank of the Reu river, a massive commotion stopped me dead in my tracks. The sun approaching its zenith, and the humidity levels rising, songbirds had come out to feed, and, well, sing. To my untrained ear, it was a mass cacophony, albeit a very pleasing one. To my guide, the naturalist Krishna, it was a means of identification. He closed his eyes and looked beatific for about five seconds. Then he started reeling out the names: velvet-fronted nuthatch, black-naped monarch, white-bellied erpornis. “You can tell all this by their calls?” I asked, frankly astonished. He grinned shyly and said, “Yes, but I can see them too.”
I was three days into a steep personal learning curve about the ways of the jungle at the Chitwan National Park. Like most people, this vast forest in the Nepalese Terai wasn’t the first thing I’d think of when ‘the most mountainous country in the world’ sprung to mind. It would be Himalaya first, Himalaya second, and the Kathmandu valley third. But my first view of this vast forest quickly brought home to me how unfair I’d been to this diverse Himalayan nation.
Krishna had promised me a full day of jungle walking, and despite fears that the rains might have obliterated the trails in the forest, we decided to take our chances. A thick mist shrouded the river as we neared the point where the two rivers met. The boat docked under a looming sandbar beside the Reu, and we clambered up it, and right into impenetrable elephant grass. This was prime tiger territory, Krishna said, as he led me off the main track into dense forest, to show me a stream that was much frequented by tigers, especially early in the morning. There was little water, though the wet earth beside the stream was littered with pugmarks, mostly old. But one set was very fresh; Krishna reckoned about an hour old. Frankly, I was glad to see that the tiger that had made the prints was going in the opposite direction.
Soon we came to the outliers of the hills. There was plentiful deer in this stretch of the forest, as well as stray wild boars, and we would have almost stumbled on one, had it not been for Krishna’s keen eyes. We waited and watched as the boar, with its young, made its way across the trail, before carrying on up a trail into the hills. After climbing for half an hour, we were clear of the canopy, and the Reu, the Rapti, the Narayani and the huge forest lay below us in a wide panorama.
It had already been a pretty successful day of sightings, but the best was saved for last. Just before heading through the elephant grass back to the boat, Krishna led me to a long swamp called Munda Tal. We wanted to catch sight of a mugger, but what we got was a bonanza of rhinos. There were at least eight individuals there, including three cubs, languidly cooling off in the water, their gnarled, wet hides glistening in the midday sun. Egrets stood on their backs, pecking for insects. A Himalayan flameback woodpecker diligently pecked away at a sal tree, while a stern-looking drongo stared at us from another.
We hung around for the longest time, looking at this wonderful scene, until an irate langur tried to piss on us. We’d overstayed our welcome, and, this final lesson learnt, it was time to head back.
The above has been excerpted from an original article by Bibek Bhattacharya for the Outlook Traveller. Click here to read the full article.