On Safari in Nepal

Mahouts and their mounts waiting to take lodge guests on an elephant safari.

Mahouts and their mounts waiting to take lodge guests on an elephant safari.

In a market where luxury is often a relative term, Meghauli Serai, which boasts 13 hotel-style rooms and an opulent presidential suite alongside 16 spacious pool villas, has set the bar high. Apart from their stunning riverside location, guest quarters and common areas have a rustic beauty that is elegant but understated. The focus on local materials and artisans—exemplified in touches like subtle, hand-painted murals and the elephant-grass-and-bamboo furniture in the main lodge—makes the place seem like a natural addition to the landscape. Even the spout of my villa’s marvelous outdoor shower was a stone carving, reminiscent of a tiger’s head, from which the water splashed as though it was being poured by an enormous pitcher.

Paneer paratha with yogurt and chutney.

Paneer paratha with yogurt and chutney.

Chef Lekhraj Dangi, a Nepalese veteran of several top Taj properties in India, uses the hotel’s two organic gardens to delicious effect, creating a diverse menu from the cuisines of the country’s many different ethnicities. Presented artfully on the traditional banana leaf or in simple copper bowls, dishes like his chicken choyla (a pungent Newari favorite) and shapale (a Tibetan meat pie) provide a convincing argument for placing Nepalese food alongside Asia’s better known cuisines. And what Dangi doesn’t grow himself he  sources from nearby farms, enhancing Meghauli Serai’s contribution to the local economy.

But as I’ve discovered over the course of half a dozen safaris, the true measure of a wilderness lodge is the quality of its guides. Low proficiency in English and reliance on rote learning all too often give South Asia’s wildlife guides a sort of robotic quality. That’s why Taj Safaris, at the behest of andBeyond, introduced a longer and more detailed training program for its guides and naturalists. In contrast to the two-week orientations typical of other outfits, Taj Safaris’ guides spend three months and its naturalists spend four to five months developing their existing knowledge of local plants and wildlife and learning how best to communicate their vision of the forest to English-speaking foreign tourists.

The results were evident whenever I stepped into Chitwan, whether for a jeep ride through the towering sal trees, a stealthy hike through the grasslands, or a rolling elephant ride along the riverbed among the herds of hog deer. A birder by inclination, Dipu, who spent several years at the Taj Safaris lodges in Madhya Pradesh prior to being posted to Nepal, was quick to spy swift, darting songbirds like the wagtail and Indian roller from the jeep and canoe. He offered a wealth of knowledge of jungle signs—from an ant lion’s nest to a sloth bear’s attack on a termite mound—when we got down and hiked. And the thrill of the sighting or discovery was never lost in the rhythmic incantation of tour-guide spiel.

It was a rich tapestry. During a jeep ride with two other British guests on my first morning in the park, we saw the pencil-nosed gharial (fish-eating crocodile), the rare great hornbill, half a dozen rhinos, herds upon herds of spotted deer, and countless exotic butterflies and birds. Later that afternoon, by boat, we floated lazily down the river past a bathing rhino to spot an open-billed crane and a pied kingfisher, before stopping for sundowners on a spit of water-smoothed stones at the confluence of the Rapti and Narayani rivers.

Birders can look forward to spotting a bevy of feathered species in Chitwan.

Birders can look forward to spotting a bevy of feathered species in Chitwan.

The forest walk the next morning offered a more intimate jungle experience, as Dipu, Mankumar, and I hiked past a ficus tree still smoking from a controlled burn undertaken by the forest department, startling a heavy-antlered spotted buck. This was a rare treat for me, as only one of India’s national parks (Satpura in Madhya Pradesh) permits walking tours, which is the only way to appreciate the forest’s small details. This was also when we tracked and sighted the mama rhino and her calf.

After a big second breakfast and a short rest, I came back down to the riverbank for the other highlight of my journey: an elephant bath. I’d been reading about the cruelty of captivity and the occasional elephant rampages associated with elephant rides in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia. But to tell the truth, I couldn’t resist that chance to get up close and personal with one of the world’s most charismatic and intelligent animals.

With a little trepidation, I fed the sad-eyed female a few parcels of unhusked rice and jaggery.  Then the mahout slid down and I stripped off my shirt to clamber aboard, straddling the elephant’s huge neck as she lumbered toward the river. When we reached a swift flowing patch of smooth water, the mahout urged the elephant to sit down, and she lurched to her knees, one at a time, and then ponderously listed to the left—20 degrees, 30 degrees, hang on!—until I splashed off into the river, a bit panicked about two and a half tons of pachyderm rolling onto my leg.

The mahout handed me a stone, and we set about splashing and scraping her down. (It turns out that when you’re scraping a back the size of a small car with a rock, you think a lot about sensitive skin.) Then I climbed on again and got my own version of a bath, as she splashed a few gallons of river water on her back with her trunk.

Later, the same mahout and elephant took us on a long excursion down the riverbed—not into the park itself, but through a “community forest” that is regulated and maintained by local villagers. I couldn’t help but think of the wild bull elephant that had greeted me from across the river on my arrival, and the tenuous boundaries that always exist between tourism and conservation. Would that tusker someday abduct the elephant cow I was riding and take her away into the forest, I wondered?

It was a foolish, romantic notion. But as we scared up a herd of rust-colored hog deer and sent them darting through the silver-green milkweed, I crossed my fingers for her, and for Chitwan.

THE DETAILS

Situated on the northern edge of Chitwan National Park, Meghauli Serai (977-56/695-304; doubles
from US$590) is a four-plus-hour drive from Kathmandu; a better bet is to book the 20-minute flight with Buddha Air to the town of Bharatpur, 30 kilometers from the resort.

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine.

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