I stifled a yawn in respect for the clutch of Ruddy shelducks, exceedingly alert on their early morning flight over the Rapti River. It was 5.30 am and all attempts at rubbing the sleep away from my eyes resulted in only making them look more glazed. An eerie grey veil of mist hung over the river as our locally-made dinghy glided smoothly from the lodge towards the jungle on the other side. Our naturalist, Saket, infused some enthusiasm by telling us to keep our eyes peeled for rhinos.
Our group of three was a world away at the edge of Chitwan National Park in Nepal, off for our first on-foot experience of the jungle. Barahi Jungle Lodge, where we were staying, lies right across from the park. For a wildlife enthusiast, a trip to Nepal without visiting the UNESCO-accredited Chitwan National Park is heretical.
And for those who like life in the slow lane, a walking safari is ideal for spotting rhinos. While safaris on wheels help cover ground, walking under the thick canopy of riverine leaves one with an inimitable connection with the wild.
Eyes still anchored on the ducks to the left, I forgot to pan my head 180 degrees—as one should in forests—when Saket nudged me. Right in front of us on the grey canvas of mist, a shape of a rhino started to emerge. Usually, they calmly make way for boats, moving into the canopy of undergrowth, but with the limited visibility and the lure of fresh weeds in the shallow water, it must have missed us. When it realised the intrusion at breakfast, it was too late.
We were barely a few feet away, mutually anxious. Mouth still full of droopy weeds, the lone one-tonne tank of a herbivore made a dash to the shore and disappeared into the woods. The only glitch—we were to alight at the same spot it had charged into.
After assessing its movement, we gingerly stepped out of the boat and followed Saket into the opaque jungle.
The silence of the forest broke with the crackling of dry leaves under our feet. Tall saal trees shot up towards the sky with birds chuntering away to the their tops.Wedged between Saket and the guard at the back, we walked onto muddy trails created by rhinos. On and off, we would come across of a heap of poo. Inspecting it with keen interest, Saket would check how fresh it was and decipher if it was safe to be on the same trail or veer off to another. Necks craned upwards to spot birds and then swinging to see if there was a rhino close by, we legged ahead.
Occasionally, a jungle fowl would scoot out of the bushes or barbets would break out into an incoherent chatter. At times, a family of deer would peep nervously through thick undergrowth. We walked for over an hour and came to a riverbank. In the distance, crocodiles redefined lethargy by laying still for hours, mouths agape.
A mid-jungle breakfast in the middle of the safari was planned in a large clearing with a mammoth fallen tree-trunk for a dining table. Just as we turned to go back, there was a soft rustle from the untamed grassland behind us. Peering through the honey-toned grass, a rhino with her baby met our eyes. This time, there was a glade of grasslands between us. No rude intrusions. No tense getaways.
Getting There: From Kathmandu, take a connecting flight to the postage stamp-sized Bharatpur airport at the edge of Chitwan National Park. Ask the lodge you’re staying at to arrange for a pick-up at the airport. Most of the accommodations lie 30 km from here.
Stay: Barahi Jungle Lodge is at the Meghauli side of the jungle, which takes 1.5 hours driving time to reach. www.barahijunglelodge.com
Top Tip: Wear comfortable semi-open sturdy shoes as the plains are relatively warm. Dull-coloured clothing, sunscreen, hats and a light camera with zoom lens for birding is recommended.