The writer relates a jungle adventure at Tiger Tops, 121 kilometres south-west of
Katmandu in Nepal.
Six of us headed down the Narayani River for Tiger Tops, a private game lodge.
Located on the edge of the jungle in South Nepal, Tiger Tops is world-
renowned for its concentration of Asian wildlife. We were going there primarily
to see the great Indian one-horned rhinos and Royal Bengal tigers but my
introduction to this wild and wonderful world began right there on the raft. Up in
the tall sal trees, that line the banks of the Narayani, were gray langur monkeys
perched happily on limbs. Down below on the river banks, we watched what we
thought were big logs come suddenly to life and slither into the water. Just as we
pointed to them, the guide said 'Crocodile' and we all froze. I immediately
wondered why I hadn't taken the plane from Katmandu to Tiger Tops. It was only
a half-hour flight, and while the option of this three-day river trip was nice, it
would have been great to be on solid ground right then.
Our raft bypassed the main lodge and we made our landing at Tented Camp,
situated on its own island, 11 kilometres west of the main lodge. Our first outing
was in a native dug-out canoe called a dunga. The guide directed the boatman to
pull over to the side of the river so that we could get out. Silently, we followed him
through the forest to a spot where we sat on the river hank. It was late afternoon,
and this is a place where rhinos sometimes come to take waters. We sat for what
seemed to he an eternity. Then, all of a sudden, there was a snap, crackle and
pop in the forest and three rhinos came trotting out. One stayed on the bank, the
second went in for a dunk, and a third got into the water. They got no wind of us,
and we were able to watch these animals in fascination.
Darkness fell and we headed back to camp on foot, walking in single file, as
quietly as we could, through the woods. After a solar-heated shower and a
satisfying dinner, we talked until late in the night. We were waiting to see if a
tiger would show up. The bait - a young buffalo - had been put out but so far, the
runners reported, there had been no takers. We sat in the darkness long after the
fire went out, but finally gave up sometime after midnight.
Our last chance to see a tiger would be at the main lodge where we were
headed the next morning in a Land Rover. We barrelled down tree-shaded dirt
roads, turning this way and that before arriving at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge. The
place was alive with people, elephants and jeeps. I took a quick catnap before
venturing out on a walk with one of the Nepali guides, or shikaris.
He and I traipsed through the woods for an hour's walk. We kept going at a
good clip, and then suddenly the guide stopped. He pointed down to the trail and
said, 'Tiger.' There, indeed, were the footprints, pugmarks, as they are called, of a
tiger. They sent a chill down my spine. 'They are fresh,' the guide said. 'It wasn't
very long ago that the tiger passed through.'
The afternoon offered a safari on elephant backs in search of one-horned
rhinos. Each elephant has a phanit, or handler. He sits on the elephant's neck
while four passengers sit in a box-shaped saddle with railings. And so we entered
the dense reeds to find them. In some areas you couldn't see more than a metre
ahead of you because the grass was literally higher than an elephant's eye.
Finally, we came out of the grass for a breather and were just about to re-enter
when the elephant stopped and stood still. The phanit dug his toes in and gave
some orders to the elephant which proceeded to move on. There was a strange sound in the reeds, and just as the elephant drew close, a big agitated female
rhino whipped around and angrily confronted us. She was on the warpath, and
we saw why. She was shielding a baby behind her, and we had got too close. Our
elephant held its ground with aplomb. It didn't budge, and finally the mother
rhino stopped dancing, turned and shepherded her baby into the reeds.
Night had fallen by the time I got back to camp, and the bait for the tigers had
already been put out at six o'clock. If an animal came, so said the information
bulletin in the room, a bell would be sounded to alert guests. It was my last night
at Tiger Tops, and so far the only bells I had heard were from my alarm. But then
it happened, and everyone was off to the dining-room like a fireman to a fire. We
were told to go quickly to the Land Rovers. The vehicles, with as many passengers
as could be squeezed in, took off down a dirt road. After only a few minutes, my
jeep stopped and the driver asked us to get out. We had to walk ten minutes
along a path to the tiger blind, he said. We followed a path up an incline, many
of us stumbling here and there over tree roots, and unseen twists and turns until
we found our footing in the darkness. Not knowing what to expect or where we
were going heightened the excitement. Finally, we reached a spot where we were
asked to take our shoes off and remain absolutely still-no talking, sneezing or
coughing. In front of us was the machan, or blind - a viewing shelter made out of
thatch and grass that we could enter to see the tiger. About ten of us were let in at
a time, and we lined the wall of the blind, standing in front of the window slats.
When we were in place, an attendant switched on the floodlights, and there
below us in a clearing was a magnificent example of the biggest cat of all.
We were able to use binoculars but no cameras. The tiger did not seem to see
us, and the floodlights did not bother him at all. He just lay there, about fifteen metres in front of us, occasionally looking up from his kill.
Without warning, the lights went out and the tiger disappeared. We had just
got out of the jeeps back at the lodge, when we were greeted with an announcement that a leopard had been seen at the leopard blind. We were off again, this
time on foot, to see it. Coming right after the tiger, it was a wonderful stroke of
luck because the similarities and differences between the two were so vivid.
When we got back to the lodge we found that another tiger had been seen, and
a jeep was ready to take us back to the original blind. It was an immense male.
He had come in to feed only after the first tiger we saw had left. It was amazing to
see the difference between the two. This tiger was massive, really huge, and his colouring was very light, bordering on yellow, not orange. A little wary he would
stop eating, look around furtively, tilt his head and listen intently to make sure
he was safe before going back to his meal.
When you check out of Tiger Tops, you have a choice of going back to the
airport by jeep or by elephant. On elephant-back, it is about a two-hour trip, but
who could possibly resist this warm-blooded taxi service? The bags go on ahead,
and you can take one last, lingering look at the wildlife of Chitwan as your
elephant moves along: the rhinos in the tall grass, a wild boar, perhaps, the
monkeys in the trees, or the crocodiles. At the Meghauly airstrip, which is a little
piece of tarmac in the middle of nowhere, the plane waits. The elephant lets you
down and soon you are off.