EXPLORE: Encounters with a rhino

Chitwan (The Nation/ANN) - The tiny mountain nation of Nepal has long held an irresistible allure for travellers from all around the world. Crouched between the gigantic wall of the Himalayas and the deep jungles of the Indian plains, it's a land of snowy peaks and Sherpas, long-haired yaks and legendary yetis, sophisticated monasteries and mesmerising mantras.

Chitwan National Park, Nepal's first, is one of the country's natural wonders. Officially a four-hour drive south of Kathmandu, the journey often takes far longer as the roads wind their way up and around mountains.

As our group of 13 squeezes into the mini bus, we immediately realise there is no space for our luggage. That apparently goes on top of the bus, where it is hand tied by the driver and his bus boy.

Driving in Nepal requires skill and nerves of steel. With the hand of every single driver almost permanently on the horn - no one naps for even a minute or even dreamily enjoys the scenery. Apparently, while vehicles should stay on the left of the road, this is at the discretion of the driver, who can pass anywhere and at anytime. Honking before you pass someone means "I'm going to pass you, watch for me". Honking several times before passing means "I can't go through, move over". In the big city, horns are to show impatience and disapproval. The fact that here, the sound is both courtesy and message, comforts me a little but I'm still gripping the seat when we arrive at our destination.

Chitwan National Park, recognised as a Unesco Natural Heritage Site in 1984, is at the foot of the Himalayas. It is one of the few remaining undisturbed vestiges of the Terai region, which formerly extended over the foothills of India and Nepal. In the old days, Chitwan was a favourite hunting ground for Nepal's ruling class during the winter seasons.

"This park is home to single-horned rhinoceros and is also one of the last refuges of the Bengal tiger," says our guide.

Children are giggling and pointing at the elephant while waiting for their turns to ride on its back. The park officer tells us to be as quiet as we can while the elephant is walking through the jungle.

This is not the first time I've been on elephant back and I'm always amazed at how different each experience is! This time, the seat is like a big square basket, and it can accommodate four, one person on each corner.

The rhythmic movement of the pachyderm makes the children scream again but they soon get used to the pace and enjoy the ride.

We are supposed to cross the stream to another side of the jungle but some elephants decide that they need a bath instead. They sway their trunks, spraying water all over their bodies and move their tails in great joy.

My elephant sticks to the trail. We all try hard to keep our voice as low as possible, except for our mahout who calls out to his friends on other elephants and speaks loudly in Nepalese. Then he orders the elephant to walk away from the group. I look around trying to spot some wild animals. I see peacocks, wild birds, monkeys and barking deer but no signs of a rhino or tiger. With every step, my heart pumps faster, hoping that if we walk far enough from other elephants, we might be able to spot the rhino or even a tiger.

While roots and leaves are the bane of walkers in national parks, on elephant back, it's branches that prove to be our worst enemy and as our pachyderm passes graciously through the thick branches, those on the back have to duck quickly to prevent being clobbered,

We are busy ducking when our mahout whispers, "Rhino, rhino". A small sprig smacks me on the head but I am too excited to duck. In the bush, a one horned rhino with armour-like skin is staring at us with wide eyes. As the elephant walks closer, the ancient-looking animal looks up, as if greeting an old friend. They exchange looks then the elephant snorts in farewell before walking away.

The magic moment quickly passes but the great joy of seeing one of the most beautiful animals in the world more than compensates for that long and scary road trip.

Tips and tricks

>>Don't panic when you hear several hard bangs on the bus as it moves out of the parking space. The bus boy is letting the driver know he should stop before hitting another car.

>>Do relieve your bladder at every planned stop or you might end up being forced to use a very basic and filthy toilet along the road. Also keep some tissue with you and a clean hankie to hold over your nose.

>>Prepare your own toiletries and body lotion since many hotels in Nepal do not provide them in your room. A pair of slippers in your luggage will guarantee you will walk comfortably in your hotel room.

>> Tap water is not safe to drink. Always drink bottled water or else you may spoil your whole trip.

The writer travelled as a guest of AirAsia.

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