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Hunting for tigers…

As we were in Nepal right in the middle of the monsoon season and we’d already spent a lot of time in Kathmandu the remainder of our trip was a slightly rushed whip around of the country. We chilled out in the beautiful lake town of Pokhara and visited the Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini. Pokhara was a kind of traveller holiday resort situated around a lake. Apparently in season towering snow-capped mountains adorn the lake, but combined with our bad view karma the monsoon clouds cancelled out this view. Lumbini was no more than a small dirt town with a surprisingly low amount of tourists for such an important place. We’d been told by other travellers that is wasn’t worth the effort to get there but we really enjoyed pottering around the monuments and various temples that surround the stone that marks the exact spot where the Buddha entered the world, even if we did take a few wrong turns into overflowed lakes. Then we ventured out into Nepal’s wild west to spot some wildlife.

It was a long day travelling on the brightly coloured, battered and bumpy Nepalese buses. A Nepalese bus is like a moving event; a travelling circus. Once the bus is full (by our standards) the bus takes off with two men hanging out of the bus door constantly recruiting more and more passengers and negotiating fares. The bus fills up to the brim (full by Nepalese standards). The driver is even sharing his seat. Passengers get off and more pile on. The bus touts never stop; shouting, running, hitting and jumping on and off and climbing over the moving bus recruiting more and more passengers to ride with us.

After about 9 hours of this bus chaos, we finally reached Ambassa, the drop off point for Bardia National Park. National parks in Asia are protected jungle area where animals are allowed to roam free in the wild. At Ambassa we were met by Shankar, the owner of Bardia Wildlife Resort/Paradise where we would stay (I jokingly asked if he was undecided on the name but he didn’t really get it). Ambassa was a small village composed of three mud brick houses and one mud brick hotel with no electricity and rather large holes in the walls. As it was raining and the river had risen we couldn’t cross to Tharu village where our resort/paradise was based. We stayed in a small dark room in the village hotel. We were cooked the Nepalese traditional dish, Dhal Bhat by a friendly old woman before being sent off to our wooden beds (no mattresses) with a candle. The sign outside our room said ‘Beware. You are in a tiger area’. I was nervous that I was seeing this sign through a great big hole in the wall. I suppose the glass had not yet arrived for the window…

We were woken at 5am by Nepali music and at 6am said goodbye to the villagers and set off with our backpacks to cross the river. Although it was much lower than the day before, the combination of cheap flip flops, 20 kilo backpacks and sinking mud required effort. Once on the other side we jumped in the back of a jeep for the bumpy ride to Tharu village. At Bardia Wildlife Resort/Paradise we were shown to our own little cottage before being introduced to Shankar’s wife and 2 year old son named Season. We also met some Nepali guests who worked for the charity Room to Read and were holding training sessions at the resort/paradise. I was very excited to meet them and learn about the groundwork of a charity that I’d read about and raised money for in the past. There was a school in Tharu Village that was funded by Room to Read and one of the course leaders sat with us and told us about all the projects he had going on. He was currently giving librarian training to local Nepalese from remote Western areas. He told us that Room to Read works with locals to build schools and supports them for three years, before allowing the school to run autonomously within the community. It was very inspiring to hear him talk about the projects. He was quite coherent in English and probably younger than us.

Due to the monsoon we had to relax in our cottage for a few days and listen to tiger roars from a distance, but finally the sky cleared and we were able to go hunting for a glimpse of a tiger in the wild. I thought that there’d maybe be a fence or a wall that we would stay behind, but this wasn’t the case. We walked right into the flooded jungle. We waded through the muddy water which at points came up to my waist. Our legs sank into mud and sand and we gripped nearby branches to pull ourselves out. After about 20 minutes of this Shankar turned to us and told us to watch out for crocodiles. I laughed but this was no joke. We were trudging through the burst banks of the nearby river; the same river that  we were approaching to look for crocodiles, and the same river where the tigers come to drink. I started to wonder why we hadn’t chosen one of those nice jeep safari.

We emerged from the jungle river into long grass which came up over our heads. On the muddy floor Shankar pointed out  some recent tiger prints to us. I remembered a fact that a friend had recently told me; ‘tigers are fifty times more likely to see you than you are to see them’. Logic, I thought to myself, would say not to walk through long grass with tigers around. But Asia doesn’t run so smoothly on logic. We climbed out of the grass and up a rickety old watch tower from where we saw three elephants coming our way. They strolled past the tower without a care in the world and into the cool river to bathe. We shared the tower with 2 other couples and their guides from other resorts/paradises. Whilst their guides used binoculars and carefully searched our surroundings for a glimpse of a wild animal, our guide Shankar went to sleep in the slither of shade that the tower provided. One of the other guides let Carl borrow his binoculars prompting Carl to mutter repeatedly, ‘what would Mears do in this situation’ as he squinted through his new toy from the watch tower.

We were happy to see elephants bathing, monkeys playing, a rare black bore swimming and a crocodile lurking but no tigers or rhinos. Surprisingly neither Carl or I were really bothered by this. The views from the watch tower were amazing and if we had seen a tiger on the grounds beneath us I most definitely would not have been going back down into that long grass. We walked back through the flooded jungles with another group. These guides seemed to take us a less flooded route; they were very passionate about the environment and the animals that inhabited the park. One guide could tell where tigers had been and at one point he could smell them. He stopped us all suddenly. We stood very still in rather ridiculous poses, but no tiger came. He let us take in the smell. Turns out tigers smell a lot like wee. We made it out of the jungle alive and back to our resort/paradise to pack our things and travel onwards to India.

It was after leaving Bardia that I found out my Grandma had passed away. Our first thoughts were to come home but after speaking with the family we decided to travel onwards to India. The country where my Grandma lived during the war and the country that held a special place in her heart. This post is dedicated to the memory of my Grandma.

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