Sometimes a story is so much better in person than in the retelling. Like the story where you once saw a bear and your friend asks “did it eat you?” No one seems as impressed as your racing heart insisted they ought to be when you describe the white knuckle details. So don’t get too excited, because this is one of those stories.
Like many tourists, I was surprised and excited to see a rhino just doing his thing, so close to us in the middle of this village. I immediately trained my video camera on him and with my eye pressed against the viewfinder I could see all the other tourists slowly approaching him, cameras outstretched, all with the same idea. I was a little more timid, content to let the 10X optical zoom do the job, when I noticed that some people were moving the other way. I lowered the camera and with both eyes now, I could see all the locals running the other way. They were running up trees and climbing onto some of the elephants standing around waiting to haul tourists here and there. I quickly realized I needed to join them, and it was suddenly hilarious to watch all those other stupid tourists, peering through their cameras, moving towards the rhino. Ha ha! Stupid tourists!
Rhinoceroses have a simple survival strategy. They mind their own business and ask that every other creature do the same thing. To illustrate this desire to live and let others live, so long as it’s not too close, rhinos will charge anything (except maybe an elephant) that gets within about 15 meters of them. If Anything in question is too stupid to run away, professor Rhino will trample it to make sure the lesson is clear. The locals explained this to me while I was panting on top of an elephant and wondering which European tourist was going to get a nature lesson beaten into him.
The next morning at dawn we took a canoe ferry from the village across the river to the Royal Chitwan National Park side of the river for our walking safari. The Chitwan park in Nepal is home to monkeys, bears, tigers, and rhinos and is separated from the village by a wide, shallow, slow moving river, that a hiker, or rhino, could easily wade across. The river represents the park border, for villagers, but the rhinos didn’t get the memo. Or maybe they trampled the messenger.
We met our two guides there and discovered it would just be us two and the two guides walking around for hours in the jungle. “This isn’t a zoo,” they warned us; “there is no guarantee we’ll see any animals at all.” That’s a good thing, I thought, because all they had with them to protect us was a long straight cane. “It scares the monkeys…” our lead guide informed us. I just hoped it would do the same if we encountered another rhino or a tiger. I mentioned that a large rifle would scare the monkeys, too. We’d probably be spared becoming tiger lunch though because they hunt at dusk. That was enough to get us going in a hurry. No one wanted to be late.
The two previous days we’d been on an elephant safari and a jeep safari through this region. The elephants are very safe as everything in the jungle leaves them alone and as long as you’re on top of this bouncy, four-legged flat-bed you’re as safe as can be. Just hold on for the slow, bumpy ride.
The jeeps are almost as safe, so long as the ignition works reliably. Two days before we had stopped to observe another rhino in the road about 20 meters up ahead of us in our Russian surplus jeep. The rhino mostly ignored us, after all, we were out of his range, and he wandered up the hill a few paces. One of our German passengers with a long zoom on his camera asked if we could “move ah little clohsa.” I glared at him like he was nuts; this rhino had to be about as long, and certainly as heavy, as the jeep we were in. What had he bought that zoom lens for anyway? The rhino looked up, his ears wiggling and started raising his nose to sniff the air for nature students. The driver was familiar with this signal and started getting the jeep started again. (Or maybe he was trying to grant the German’s request.) But the rhino started pawing the ground and began to accelerate his giant mass in our direction. The driver was now frantically trying to get the old jeep started and the German and I were finally in complete agreement that we needn’t get any closer now. The jeep sputtered, and the wheels skidded in the dirt, as the driver pushed the accelerator down as if all of our lives depended on it. At this point the rhino’s charged petered out, having achieved its desired effect. That’ll teach them, he surely thought smugly.
Today, though, we wouldn’t be in a jeep or on an elephant. We’d be walking around with these two Nepalese guides and a cane. I asked our guide if they paid him well because maybe hazard pay was in order. It didn’t take long before the cane came in handy either! Just as promised a group of monkeys decided to check out if we had food. The were very bold and only lots of cane swinging scared them off. Later he poked a small mugger crocodile with the tip of the cane to show us it was sleeping and not dead. He wasn’t dead. Now, he was awake and grouchy!
We saw another rhino. We were walking single file through pretty dense forest so at first we didn’t notice it. What we noticed was our cane toting guide running towards us, pushing on all three of us and telling us to turn around and run! I kept imagining that this was just an act to excite the tourists, but I can’t figure out how they got the rhinos to play along. We looked back and saw, now at a safe distance, an older pimply butt rhino munching on grass. Our guide said he’d seen that one a few times before and he’s grouchy in his old age. I proposed we walk back the other way.
Late in the day, after we had sat on the side of the road eating our lunch and talking, our guide suddenly silenced us by raising his hands and placing one before his mouth. He gestured to the tall grass about four meters away. We just looked at him puzzled while he stared intently at the grass and we waited. The he pointed and mouthed the word “Tiger” to us. With that, our eyes widened as we too, stared at the tall grass and I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the path behind us, indicated that this seemed like a good time to get going.
We waited and stared for a good long time, when finally, he spoke up “I was sure I saw a tiger in there…” and as soon as he spoke, a huge noise erupted from the grass we’d been looking at so intently. Something, I’ll never know what, bolted at the sound of his voice (who even needs the cane!) That something had been watching us for minutes and never moved a muscle or made a sound and we never caught so much as a glimpse of it. After plenty of startled “what-was-THATs!” and “let’s-get-out-of-here’s” we backed quickly out of there and staggered home, our knees weak from the adrenaline.
I can’t be sure whether it really was a tiger or just an entrepreneurial guide who knows how to get good tips, but I can assure you it was an exciting safari–even if nothing really did happen and I didn’t get eaten. Or even mauled.
Check out some more pictures from this trip.