As we crept through the foggy jungle of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, a loud chomping noise up ahead betrayed the presence of our quarry. Slowly, a patch of mist solidified into a large grey animal grazing in the long grass. Only a few metres separated us from the iconic, and critically endangered, Asian rhinoceros. Tracking him on foot, there was nowhere to run if he took a dislike to us.
Rhinos all over the world are under renewed pressure. Many blame the economic rise of China and the perceived medical benefits of rhino horn in traditional medicine. Poaching internationally is on the increase, and British museums have even been raided for the ancient horns on Victorian hunting trophies.
Our search thus far had been fruitless. We’d had a close shave the first night, when we woke up to discover rhino footprints in the flower bed right outside our door. No-one had warned us that these enormous creatures regularly wander into town to forage, and only a few hours earlier we had rolled in from the pub completely unaware of the risk we were running.
We had also spent several hours bouncing around on the back of an elephant in search of a rhino encounter. The advantage of safari-ing on horse or elephant-back is that the larger animal disguises the people riding it, allowing you to get much closer. While we had been able to get very near to some deer, a crocodile and some monkeys, Chitwan’s headline animals had all eluded us.
No matter, we tried a jeep safari. But tall elephant grass kept most animals safely hidden from prying human eyes, and thick exhaust fumes drove most fauna far away from the road. Over four hours of driving the forest trails, we had scored a few more deer, and crocodiles scattered on the river banks. The highlight had been a stop at the park’s gharial breeding centre, where the numbers of these exceedingly rare reptiles are being coaxed back from the brink, and literal piles of hatchlings await release.
But Chitwan is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to walk in a national park full of wild animals. The walking safari was my last chance to see an Asian rhino in the wild. The initial omens were not good, as a thick mist blanketed the forest all morning, and my guide suggested I book another one for tomorrow, just in case. But tomorrow I would be on a bus back to Kathmandu and it would be too late.
Safari-ing on foot is a special experience that peels back hundreds of years of technological development and really levels the evolutionary playing field between man and beast. Safety had gone glaringly unmentioned by my guides. As we hiked, I ran through the brief notes I had memorised for dealing with the various dangerous animals we might encounter. With tigers, sloth bears, leopards, elephant and rhino all roaming free, there seemed a lot to remember. I hoped I would recall the correct evasive manoeuvres for the relevant threat in the heat of the moment.
Foremost in my mind was the report I had read of a recent fatal tiger attack down in India’s Wayanad district. There, villagers headed into the forest wear special masks on the backs of their heads. The thinking being that a tiger won’t attack if he thinks you can see him, and the fake faces ward them off. While there were no masks for us, each of my guides wielded a bamboo stick. So that was alright then.
To be fair, they also ensured I was always sandwiched between them, the tracker leading. During the long hours walking through a misty Nepali dawn, I had watched as the guide in front of me moved effortlessly and noiselessly, despite his skinny jeans, converse trainers and denim jacket. I, for all my expensive hiking gear: walking boots, water-repellant, zip-off trousers and light-weight microfleece, rustled and crunched with every step I took, painfully aware of the racket I was making and the clouds of DEET billowing around me.
On foot, you rarely get close to the animals. Human scent on the wind, and the cacophony of my goretex-clad struggles ensured that most animals stayed well away. Without the distraction of an elephant, the most we saw of the park’s many species of notoriously-flighty deer was three different coloured bottoms springing away into the forest.
The one exception was when a panicked hind exploded out of the undergrowth to one side of the path and barrelled straight at the rearmost guide. She had been surprised by park workers moving on the other side of the thicket and had been driven in our direction. In true cartoon style, this majestic and incredibly agile creature seemingly changed direction in midair, avoiding the guide by inches and accelerated into the bush on the other side of the path. The guide had not even had time to raise his protective bamboo rod to ward off the danger. But as we all started laughing at his fear, the relief was palpable.
After having trudged for several hours in the fog, my tracker divined rhino tracks in the seemingly featureless dust. He signalled for silence and we moved as quietly as we could. Away to the left, I could hear the crunch of grass being uprooted and chewed, and I stared hard into the mist.
At first, my rhino was just an undefined, masticating shape in the gloom. I willed him closer, but as he continued to approach, grazing all the while, I swiftly changed my mind: twenty metres was plenty close enough, I thought.
My first feeling had been excitement, but it soon gave way to apprehension. As he kept coming, the size and weight of a car, I recalled the advice to climb a tree in the event of an attack. I surreptitiously checked my exits, but there were no trees. An angry rhino’s sprint tops out at 40kph, far too fast for me to outrun, but with notoriously poor eyesight and weighing in at a tonne, agility is not a rhino’s strong point. Next best to tree-climbing is running in a zig-zag, but the thin path on which I stood, hemmed by thick elephant grass, did not seem to offer much room for manoeuvre.
Thankfully it didn’t come to that. Instead we watched him happily chomping his way through the thick grass. We backed off as he wandered close to the path, but he seemed either unaware or unfazed, by our presence.
Later that evening, I celebrated an incredibly satisfying day covering many mosquito-bitten miles in the park with a well-earned Gorkha beer. During a refill, the barman politely asked if we would like to see the rhino. My travel companion hadn’t fancied taking her chances on an even footing amongst the elephants, tigers and bears. Instead, she put down her cocktail and strolled to the end of the garden, pleased as punch with her own rhino spot. He had crossed the river from the national park, and was happily grazing in the meadow next door, oblivious to the bar full of people gawking at him.
We checked the garden around our riverside cabin very carefully before we went to bed that night, as in Chitwan you never know when a rhino is going to show up.
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Copyright © 2016 Alex Jones