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Nepal 2011
Scouting Trip

A Indian or One-horned Rhino, a lovely young girl in Pokhara, and a cremation in Khatmandu.

At the end of our India Tiger Photo Safari Scouting Trips we had the opportunity to travel on to Nepal and Bhutan on a scouting trip. Frankly, I knew little details of either country, with my knowledge of Nepal limited to two facts -- the Himalayas Mountains run through much of the country and Tiger Tops, a famous tourist lodge, was located somewhere in the jungles of Nepal. Not much to go on.

Our scouting trip, however, was a real joy, and the day to day experiences are recounted below. In late May I'll have the Bhutan trip posted as well as Mary and I get our editing completed. The Nepal trip had three real highlights. One, the endangered One-horned Rhinoceros was extremely easy to photograph, and very interesting to shoot, from our lodge's elephants at Tiger Temple. This lodge turned out to be the most centrally located and convenient for photography, and smaller and more intimate than the more famous Tiger Tops lodge. Two, the town of Pokhara and the people and culture and landscapes was a great destination. The people of Nepal were friendly and photogenic, if not beautiful, and the cultural subjects we photographed were fun and interesting. Third, from Pokhara we had great views of the Himalayas, and the mountains are breath-taking, truly magnificient.

The following is our day-to-day account of the Nepal trip. Next year, we are hoping to include Nepal in our itinerary, where we will do tigers in India for several days, then fly on to Nepal where we'll do landscapes, people, and the one-horned rhino in Chitwan. Our lodge, as well as the other lodge inside the park, may be forced to move outside of the park boundaries, and if that occurs the wonderful opportunities and convenience of shooting one-horned rhinos will certainly be compromised. We want to offer this great trip when it is truly at its best.

Day 0. We had a morning game drive in Park Four, before a 3.5 hour drive to the city for our flight back to Delhi. We didn’t arrive in Delhi until after 9M, and upon reaching the hotel discovered that we needed two passport pictures for our Nepal visa. Although we had had two each, we couldn’t find them and spent nearly three hours, after 11:30PM, tearing through our luggage to look. In the meantime, I spent nearly two hours going back and forth with the hotel’s business center, trying to get their printer, simply using Windows software, to print a useable picture. Although successful here, the pictures were printed on plain, flimsy paper, but they should work. Mary still needed to rearrange and pack, as Eric and Lana and Carolyn were all taking some of our luggage home so that we would not need to carry US weight and numbers on to Nepal and Bhutan. The result, we didn’t get to bed until almost 5AM, after having awakened at 4:30AM 24 hours earlier for our game drive in Park Four.
Day 1. Delhi to Khatmandu, Nepal.
Our India tour company representative met us at 8 for breakfast and to go over last minute details, where we decided he should take a thumb drive and try to get ‘real’ passport pictures at a good printer. We’d meet him at the airport with the pictures, if all went well. It did, and he met us with new, photo-quality prints, and we were on our way.
Our flight in to Nepal was uneventful, except for the nearly one hour spent circling Khatmandu as a tremendous thunderstorm had closed the airport. From our window the black thunderhead still towered over us, probably reaching 60,000 feet. We landed through a cloudbank and in a light rain, and then entered the near chaos of the Khatmandu airport terminal.
While our India tour representative had called Nepal, and been assured that our flimsy pictures from the business center would work, no one told him that there was an instant photo service available at the airport for the required photos. That fact would have saved us three hours of anxiety and loss of sleep! As we passed through customs, a luggage tag checker stopped everyone at the door where, we discovered, our boarding pass, with our claim tags attached, was missing. Fortunately, after showing him our luggage tags and saying it was us he let us through without a hassle.
The outside was true chaos, with guys trying to hussle us in cabs and people everywhere waving or trying to attract the attention of folks exiting the airport. It was raining, and our guide wasn’t in sight, but Mary soon spotted a small sign and we were on our way, with two vehicles, two drivers, and three company representatives to smooth the way. All had worked out.
It was now nearly 5PM and our planned afternoon activities were cancelled so that we could finally get some rest. Nepal, in contrast to India, has a real third-world feel about it, with older buildings, crowded, busy streets, and the blare of motor bikes and vehicles everywhere. We were very happy to be driven, as negotiating the traffic would have been far too challenging for us. Our hotel, the Crowne, is beautiful and huge, and for the first time in 7 weeks I had beef – a huge hamburger for din
artistDay 2. Khatmandu.
Our guide, Noor, and our drive, Raju, met us at 9AM for a city tour which ended up to be a blast. We headed into the old city of Patan and the outskirt city of Bhaktapur, where we toured some old palaces and walked narrow, brick-lined streets reminiscent of the old city in Zanzibar.
Lunch was above a busy city square where we had a bird’s eye view of the activities below, which included watching street vendors hawking wares and colorful Nepalese simply walking the streets. We did a lot of people photography, with Mary using a 28-300 for detail shots of windows and doors and distant candids, while I worked close with a 16-35 on people or on general scenic. The people were friendly and very photogenic.
Some highlights: Our guide took us to an Art College, where students ranging from beginner status to grand masters worked on 2x3 foot canvasses of traditional art that required 4 to 9 months to complete. We watched them work, stippling in green point after point to create a texture on a hillside, or repeating thin black lines of varying shades to give depth to a background sky. All work would eventually be for sale, and our host showed us, via a magnifying glass, the fine detail of a painting, where faces a third the size of an pencil eraser’s top all had different expressions or character. Some paintings were purely geometric designs that descended, in tightening squares, into smaller and smaller boxes, creating a sense of depth, while others were grand mythical stories. The painters worked cross-legged on the floor or upon small stools, lined up along the windows for soft, directional light that also worked wonderfully for photographing the artists at work.
Architecture was fun to shoot, too, with some of the woodwork, like that of the Palace with 55 windows, truly ancient. The wood used was Sal, the same wood that comprised much of the forest of one of the parks we visited in India.
manWe visited a tributary of the Ganges, Bagmati, where along the banks ten square platforms were evenly spaced along the river. On several of the platforms bodies were being cremated, with the attendant families and friends sitting in the background. The fires, surprisingly, were not large, comprised of bales of straw or wood about three feet deep in depth, and the white columns of smoke were not rancid. At the conclusion, principle mourners either walked to the edge of the extremely foul river and poured water over themselves in a ritual bath, or, more prudently, went to a public fountain where they commenced with the ritual bath.
Rhesus monkeys stalked the canal edge and buildings, and several fakirs, or Holy Men …  or as our guide called them … sat along the paths, chumming for photos. We took the bait, of course, and immediately the colorful, adorned men adopted a limp, contrived pose consisting of one hand held up in an OK symbol. We told them to act natural, and one of the fakirs whacked another on the shoulder and told him to put his hand down! Again, I worked close, and Mary did some great portraits from the side, with the models concentrating on me and not her, making great shots.
Our very full afternoon concluded with a visit to a Buddhist dome, the largest in Asia, where monks, and tourists, circled the large dome in a clockwise direction. Below, in a small room, several large prayer wheels were spun by worshippers, and other wheels lined various paths. It was raining lightly, and a thunderstorm was somewhere nearby, and we joked that as we walked the walk lightning would strike the dome and, on the wet cement, we’d be zapped as well. So we prayed, hard, to cover our bases.
Day 3. Our flight to Pokhara, Nepal, was delayed more than an hour as flight-seeing trips to the Himalayas were delayed due to weather, and a VIP flight preempted other flights. The domestic airport is crowded and noisy and would be a bit overwhelming if it wasn’t for Noor, our guide.
Our flight to Pokhara, in the foothills of the Himalayas, went uneventfully, with haze and cloud cover obscuring the mountains until, with one break, a peak rose above the clouds. As such, it wasn’t very spectacular, but that would change.
girlOur lodge, the Fishtail Hotel, is located across the waters of a small lake and requires a boatman to literally reel us in by pulling on a rope which he carefully rolls into ever widening flat piles. Shortly after checking in Noor took us on a tour of Pokhara, which, at first, was the typical and awful  tourist run. We visited Devi’s Falls, where a British tourist in the 1960s was washed away down a slot canyon when the dam flood gates were opened and the woman, deafened by the roar of the water, failed to hear the warning sirens that heralded high water. Litter and trash lined the river bank and vegetation, although with the potholes and hanging stone bridges from erosion Mary did manage to make a couple of OK shots. The contrast was terrible, and I passed with my 16-35mm.
We visited several other tourist sights, including an interesting Bat Cave, a monastery, and a shrine. The Bat Cave caught us completely unprepared, as we didn’t have anything but our 7D’s built-in flash and no focusing light. We paid a guide to show us the bats, and we did the best we could with his weak flashlight. Today was New Year’s day for the Nepalese, and the cave was crowded, and periodically a group would enter and begin to holler or scream – one wonders how the bats put up with the disturbance.
A Tibetan refugee camp and monastery offered a few photo ops, including our first glimpses of the Himalayas. It had been raining but the clouds were moving fast and, completely unexpectedly, a mountain peak appeared impossibly high in one of the cloud breaks. I love seeing a high mountain in this way, as a cloud cover masks the height of any mountain and, when it appears, above the clouds, its presence is even more striking. We exclaimed in shock and awe at this first glimpse, and that brief view only intensified as the sky continued to break.
Our day’s highlight, however, was an unexpected stop at a neighborhood of Pokhara that features homes built in the 17th century with interesting windows similar to those in the Palace of 55 windows. While those portals were photogenic, we quickly grew distracted by the people – truly beautiful children who posed naturally and completely unconcerned. A neighborhood Shiva celebration, where a heavy litter-borne shrine was carried from one home to another, attracted quite a crowd. The shrine is transported quickly by eight bearers, accompanied by a flutist and drummer, to a home marked by a mark of blood or paint. The residents meet the shrine with offerings of fruit and breads, and some worshippers go all out, carefully placing a very sumptuous feast before the shrine before meticulously positioning each offering inside the shrine. We shot the event from every angle, and the people, too, who were friendly and agreeable.
monksAs we returned to our hotel the entire northern horizon was clear, and the Annapurna Range’s peaks all shone in the late evening light. I’d planned to do a star-trail and moonlit shot of the mountains, but after dinner the clouds had rolled back in and the mountains vanished.
Day 4. We awoke at 4:30AM for a 5AM departure to the World Peace Pagoda, a Buddhist temple set atop a small mountain ridge. From our hotel or the town itself the Pagoda does not look like a major rise in elevation, but when framed against the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas heights or elevations are relative. Fortunately we were able to drive to within a few hundred meters of the Pagoda, as the steps and stone-paved pathway were steep, and our knees, back, and lungs certainly felt the exertion of the climb.
The northern and eastern horizon was clear, and the Annapurna Range stretched starkly black against the predawn skylight, just kissed by a hint of light purple and faded yellow of an imminent dawn. The sky brightened and alpenglow touched the highest peaks, painting their sun-facing slopes with a soft orange that eventually glowed sharply in the low but rising light. As the sun rose, the background sound of a beaten drum and chant grew more intense and soon a group of Buddhist monks ascended the steps, faced the sun, and chanted. The group of six were oblivious to us, darting about as inconspicuously as we could, and to the two white dogs that engaged in a growling, snarling spat.
We had a breakfast and a big nap, recovering from the early start. Noor met me at 1PM for another trip to the Bat Cave where I hoped to shoot again with better preparation. This time, I had a 550 flash, two powerful SureFire flashlights, and I arranged for a guide with a torch and our driver to hold the flash or the focusing light. The cave was not as crowded today, and at times rather quiet, although various groups move through, screaming and shouting for whatever effect they hoped to achieve. The shooting, however, was good.
In late afternoon Mary and I visited the nearby shops, where we parted with cash for scarves, a granite chest set, and other items, before parking ourselves a t a streetside bar/restaurant where we had a surprisingly tasty pizza and more beer than we needed. As we turned in, the mountains were in clouds, but we hope that we’ll have another shot for more images at dawn from a closer overlook, high over the lake.
Day 5. Pokhara to Tiger Temple Lodge
We awoke at 4:30AM to clear skies and high hopes as we ascended another road to a vantage point closer to the Annapurna Range and foothills. As we neared the northern horizon looked misty, and indeed when we arrived all but the very tips of a few of the peaks were hidden in the clouds. We waited, contenting ourselves with telephoto shots of undulating ridges that faded in intensity as they led towards the sun. The clouds parted and the mountains became visible, but only as a tease as the mist in the air masked details and the grandeur itself was lost. Still, it was a great scouting location and well worth several visits to insure that THIS is the shot to get on any subsequent visit.
We left after breakfast for a 4 hour descent to Chitwan National Park and our lodge at Tiger Temple Lodge. As we drove down through the river valleys the steep repetitive ridges and hillside – mountains anywhere else – reminded me of a drier, less green Rwanda. Homes and farms were carved out of the ridges, with snaking trails that led from the road, or river, high into the hills. Several foot suspension bridges crossed the now rather placid river, and some of these bridges looked like the pedestrian version of the Golden Gate. They were substantial.
Our vehicle was air conditioned so it was a bit of a shock to step out of the car along the banks of the N…. River where we met our boatman who would take us across the river to the jeeps that would transport us the rest of the way to our lodge. It was hot and humid, and after the coolness of Khatmandu and Pokhara, it was oppressive. Our boat ride went uneventfully, except for spotting Little Pracincoles, tern-like shorebirds that often perch along open river banks, and a couple Little Ringed Plovers, their whiteness reminding me of our endangered snowy plover on the East.
The lodge is rustic and reminds me of what a typical SE Asia frontier must be like. Rooms are on stilts, the dining area is screened in, and the general bar and meeting air spacious and airy. All of the rooms overlook a large swamp where, shortly after we arrived, two Indian One-Horned Rhinoceroses appeared in the elephant grass and lowered themselves shoulder-deep into the waters. White-Throated Waterhens, Darters, Adjuctant Storks, Open-billed Storks, and Common and Stork-billed Kingfishers flew about, and a new bird, a Rufous-crowned Bee-eater, flew about in small flocks. While we ate lunch a Barking Deer stepped onto the grounds and both Mary and I took a break from lunch to stalk and follow this usually elusive deer, giving us our best shots and looks at this peculiar small ungulate.
At 4PM we did our first elephant ride, skirting the swamp where we’d seen the Rhinos. Within minutes we were within frame-filling range with our 70-200mm zooms as two different rhinos wallowed or soaked in the marsh. The One-Horned Rhino is truly the most prehistoric mammal we’ve ever seen. While the armored, scaly pangolin or armadillo have reptilian features they simply seem a throwback or a bridge between mammals and reptiles, although they most certainly are neither. The Rhino, however, looks and acts as one might expect a dinosaur to do so. The horn is small, almost unimpressive compared to the massive horns of both Black or White Rhinos, but their size looks huge, although they are smaller in size than the African White. What sets the Indian Rhino apart is the hide, consisting of several bony plates that cover the shoulders and hips. These are studded with rounded small growths, furthering the dinosaur-like appearance and reminding me of the Ankylosaurus, a bony-tailed, shell-covered dinosaur.
In the course of the afternoon elephant ride we had six or more Indian Rhinos, in the marsh, moving through the forest, soaking in a canal, or grazing in the elephant grass. The light was soft, with a haze that turned coppery as the sun lowered, as smoke from grass fires filtered the air.
Day 6. We left at 5:30AM, about 15 minutes before sunrise, for another elephant ride. Although the haze masks it, our marsh and camp lies in a small valley, revealed only when the rising sun crests (or sinks beneath) and defines a distant ridge. We encountered a few rhinos in the forest and elephant grass before coming upon a pair of young males, head-to-head, that appeared ready to fight. The rhinos faced each other, and sometimes one or the other would almost delicately extend their semi-prehensile upper lip in what looked like a grooming behavior. Or, they’d lower their heads and butt, pushing quickly until one or the other lost his nerve and turned and ran. We followed the pair for about a half hour, and watched one brief but serious encounter as the rhinos charged, dropping to their bellies as they clashes. One-horned Rhinos have sharp tusk-like canines which they use for slashing, and perhaps dropping to their bellies protects their flanks from being horned or bitten.
Another pair of tourists joined us, and their elephant had a youngster that tried following our elephant, too. At one point we had a bit of a chaos as the baby caused some type of disturbance, provoking screams and trumpets from both adults. As the rhino fight dissipated we headed back to camp for a breakfast, before leaving again by jeep for a jungle game drive.
That drive was rather uneventful, distinguished only be two separate sets of fairly fresh tiger tracks and a Nightjar perched along the road. Our ride concluded at the N River where six tourists, two boatmen, and our guide floated downriver to the pickup base where we crossed yesterday. We saw several Gharials, or Gavials, one of the most endangered crocodilians. 400 are said to exist, and about 40 in Chitwan. We saw several, including one male with its bulbous nose ball that basked in the shallow water, its mouth agape, and its snout covered by a strand of weed. Gavials are fish eaters, and are, as crocodilians, supremely adapted for this diet, possessing a long narrow snout adorned with long, sharp teeth. The slender snout allows a Gavial to slash through the water with little friction, in contrast to other crocodilians with broader, heavier snouts that are as likely to be used on mammals and birds and not simply fish. After the Gavials the boat ride became merely that, with a few birds spotted, some shallow fast water that we bounced through, and little else. However, for the Gharial, or Gavial, the boat ride was certainly worth the time.
PM. We had a very complete schedule this afternoon, starting with an ‘elephant briefing’ where our guide gave a 45 minute talk on elephants. I learned a lot, and the most surprising piece of information was how the height of an elephant can be estimated by the circumference of its front foot. We guessed that the circumstance times 6, 8, or 12 would give an elephant’s height at the shoulder, but indeed it is only two! Our guide laid out a rope around the elephant’s foot, marked it, and the length was surprisingly long. Doubling that, and holding it up to the elephant, we had its height!
Indian Elephants differ from African in multiple ways: 1. The African elephant’s trunk is segmented and rough, whereas the Indian elephant’s trunk is basically smooth. 2. AE trunk tip has 2 fingers, while IE has only one. 3. Both sexes of AE have tusks, where only male IE have tusks. 4. AE tusks curve, while IE tusks grow much straighter. 5. AE heads are one flattish shape, while IE heads have two large humps. 6. IE are hairier. 7. AE backs are concave, while IE backs are convex or dome-like. 8. AF have 4 toes in front, 3 in the back. IE have 5 toes in front, 4 in the back. 9. IE ears are spotted behind, while AE are plain gray.
The big hit of the talk was feeding the elephants rice cakes wrapped in grasses that the elephant took from our hands, and, once we all grew confident, petting or stroking the elephant’s trunk and head. Later, we visited the mahout village where we watched an elephant get saddled for the afternoon walk.
Mary and I did another elephant ride, and we were hoping to get tight 500mm shots of Rhinos in the water, blowing bubbles as they do when submerged. We missed that, but had some great portrait opportunities of rhinos feeding in the water, and our clearest views yet of rhinos in short grass. On two occasions our elephant sat down to give us a lower perspective, although the third time we tried the rhino, unfamiliar with that position, trotted off. Later, as we were returning to camp we heard a very serious rhino fight, with horns bashing and screams, and a defeated rhino running some distance through the elephant grass.
rhinoOur challenge was the elusive Hog Deer, a rather nondescript tan colored deer that inhabits the tall elephant grass. Finding one in the open is a challenge, but getting an elephant to stand still at the moment one hopes to click the shutter is an even greater one. We missed more opportunities than we caught as the deer, probably named because it did resemble a feral hog running, hump-like, through the grass, briefly showed itself.
As we returned to camp we were greeted by an excited staffer who said a Tiger had just passed by. We went looking, following the alarm calls of Langur Monkeys and Barking Deer, but we couldn’t find the cat. Remarkably, almost everywhere we looked another camp staffer appeared, so, apparently, they have little concern or fear of being on foot when a tiger is about. During an early evening slide show by the naturalist-guide we could still hear Barking Deer giving their alarm barks so somewhere the tiger still lurked.
Day 7. We did another boat ride after an uneventful jeep ride to the river. We departed from our normal entry point, so as we headed down river we floated into increasing human habitation, which meant no wildlife and no gharials. We did see a Blue-rumped Bee-eater pair along the river, but otherwise nothing.
At the conclusion of the boat ride we had breakfast on the sandy beach, followed by an elephant ride back to camp. It began to sprinkle as we departed, and the skies to the north looked ominous. En route we had a Kilgril’s Pheasant, a blue tinted bird with a red mask, and two shy rhinos. As the weather looked threatening we headed back, and lucky we did.
Less than twenty minutes later a freak pre-monsoon storm blew in, with heavy winds, sheets of rain, and dime- and quarter-sized hail stones. Several trees were knocked down around camp, with two flanking either side of our cottage. The heavy rains soaked many of the buildings, and would have been devastating for us had we not been home, as rain would have blown into our windows and ruined at least Mary’s computer and whatever camera gear we had on the floor.
After the rains termites emerged, and our camp was alive with bee-eaters, Dollarbirds, nuthatches, bulbuls, and others that would fly up to make an easy catch of the slow flying insects. Before lunch, Mary and I and our guide spent 15 minutes birding the swamp from the viewing platform, and easily added 10 new birds from that vantage.
PM. We did another elephant ride, with a sprinkle dissuading us from taking our big lenses. Shortly after we departed, however, the rains stopped, but as it turned out we didn’t need the big lenses. We worked on rhinos, and several times had our elephant sit down for low vantage shots, one of which worked. Alarm calls signaled a tiger, and we saw fresh tracks and came tantalizingly close when Lapwings swooped and cried alarm calls but we couldn’t find the tiger.
Day 8. We were scheduled for an all-day jeep ride through the forest, leading us to the eastern/northern end of the park not reachable in a normal game drive. We had, quite literally, an all day adventure.
We left at 6:30, following the same river route we’d taken previously for our boat trip, and again found very fresh tiger tracks on the sandy trail. Two broad, inch-deep streams cut through our jeep track where, had we the time, we thought we’d love to sit and wait, figuring that eventually a tiger would move across or down the stream.
By 8:30 the northerrn/western sky was leaden with impending rain and, from our experience yesterday in the tumultuous hail storm, we knew we needed cover. We passed Tiger Tops, the famous tourist lodge of Chitwan, and crossed a smaller river, the R….., where our ford was marked by a series of crossed bamboo sticks flanking either side of the safe track.  Our guide told us there would be shelter ahead, having just passed Tiger Tops, at an Army camp, but a tin pole barn not far from the river was closer and we pulled under the peaked tin roof for shelter. Our guide and driver pulled out a flap of plastic sheeting which we rigged across our jeep’s roll bars to help block any rain or wind, and we  waited.
A mother Rhino and baby charged through the grass, passing close to our shelter as they made their way towards the safety of the trees. Elephants, even those mounted, may panic in a storm, and we heard some amusing stories – for us, not for the poor tourists involved – where frightened elephants charged through the jungle during storms. On one occasion, a mahout apparently got off his elephant with one German tourist left aboard and the elephant took flight, crashing through the trees and brush for hours, stripping the man nearly naked from the wear and tear.
The storm came, darkening the landscape so that, inside the open-sided tin pole barn, we were merely black silhouettes to each other. It was as dark as twilight, and then the wind came. And the hail, with withering stones the size of nickels and quarters, pounding so hard on the tin roof that it was impossible to hear each other, had we anything to say. While protected from above and on the windward side, the storm was so strong that hail still landed upon our seats. We were happy for the protection, and only learned later that a hiking group from Tiger Tops that we passed previously had been caught in the storm and hail. Their trails were obliterated from the rain, and they bush-whacked back to the lodge, soaked and muddy.
Anticipating the worse we had secured all of our camera gear and we missed shooting the storm, the wind-lashed elephant grass bent sideways, pounded by hail, and distant, solo sal trees just muted silhouettes in the driving rain. The storm lasted 45 minutes of hard  rain and hail, and continued to rain for another hour. Afterwards, the grassland around our little shelter was a lake, and the route we followed was often little better than a muddy stream.
With the soaked elephant grass we hoped that any tigers moving about would be forced to the jeep tracks as we continued onward. By noon we arrived at a Gharial, or Gavial, crocodile breeding farm where the Nepalese government is attempting to propagate this very endangered narrow nosed crocodilian. Each year, flood waters or high water released from hydroelectric dams wash gharials downstream. Those that arrive in India may die from gharialpolluted waters. Those anywhere else, Nepal or India, may simply starve to death from over-fishing. Several captive females are producing eggs, and the grounds had at least 20 pens housing various age groups of young gharials. Male gharials are huge – they are among the largest of all crocodiles, exceeded in length only by the salt-water and American alligator, if memory serves me, and the males odd bulbous nose balloon is distinctive. Their teeth remind me of the dolphin-like dinosaur, the Icthyosaur, or the long-necked Pleisosaur, sharp, pointed, and prominent. Mary shot one face-on view of the male that looked especially menacing, with 8 or so gleaming teeth ringing the round muzzle.
Our driver’s wife accompanied us from camp to visit a Hindi shrine almost adjacent to the Gharial farm. Here thousands of pilgrims gather to circle a small shrub in the forest, marked by a barricade of ropes and lined by brass bells. The area around the tree was bare of any undergrowth from the crowd, but as we looked about nothing stood out to make this particular bush distinctive. Our guide explained, saying that a village Holy Man had entered the forest and here encountered one of their Gods, marking this tree as a sacred site. While we photographed the Gharials our driver and his wife visited the shrine, presenting their offerings before returning a short time later.
By 2 we were headed back to camp, stopping for a ground-level view of a mud-caked One-horned Rhino that stepped out of the forest and walked in front of the jeep. I was hoping for some ground-level shots which the jeep would have provided, had we had a cooperative rhino, but it was fun shooting literally from the ground, with the jeep beside me  as insurance should the rhino become curious.
Our guide spotted an Indian Monitor Lizard, the first I’d seen, that scrambled up a tall Sal tree, pausing about 20 off the ground where we photographed it. The monitors will hunt and live in trees, so a lizard off the ground was not unusual. The track stayed wet and muddy, and several times we had to skirt trees that had been blown down on the trail, and more often we slid or stalled, almost getting mired in the muddy track. Eventually, though, we reached the river that we had forded earlier, to find our bamboo markers gone and the river level feet higher than it was when we had crossed. Our guide attempted wading across to determine whether our jeep could pass, but he turned back when the water reached mid-thigh. We were stuck, within view of Tiger Tops, and 18 km from our lodge. It was 3PM.
Fortunately, there are cell phones. Our guide had been in contact with Noor, our in-country guide, throughout the day, and we ‘quickly’ arranged to have another jeep drive from Tiger Temple to Tiger Tops to pick us up. We waited an hour before an elephant was free from Tiger Tops to cross the river, pick us up, and, with tripod, lenses, and our guide and the driver’s wife, we boarded the elephant for the crossing. In the distance, Valentine, a large tusked wild Indian Elephant, roamed the grasses, and our mahout hustled our elephant to get within the shelter of the forest before Valentine spotted us.  Our driver, meanwhile, parked the jeep back at the pole shed and returned to the river, which he waded across, the water waist deep and where he was subsequently chased by Valentine.
We waited, and while we sat upon the veranda of Tiger Tops the northern sky cleared and the top snow-capped ridges of the Annapurna Range came into view, a stunning sight when framed by a tropical river and riverine rain forest. By 5PM we were told that our Temple jeep was stuck in the sand and another jeep had been sent for. Later, we heard that that jeep was blocked by a tree, and it was now up to Tiger Tops to give us a ride as far as the blockage. Meanwhile, we waited, and ate popcon and drank tea that TT generously provided. By 7 it was dark and we still weren’t sure if TT would be driving us to a rendezvous point. I went looking for our guide in the dark who was talking with one of the managers who assured us we’d be leaving shortly. Soon, one of the big, heavy jeeps TT uses arrived, with six people aboard, presumably to ride shot-gun. While it was late and we were tired, we were excited, hoping to see a tiger on the tracks at night.
Although the trails we’d been on previously were muddy, apparently this section of the park was very hard hit and the trails were even worse. We slid along in the dark, seeing nothing through headlights that periodically dimmed to a dull yellow that barely illuminated the track. Several Army outposts line the forest tracks, guarding the park from poachers, and as we approached the first one of these on our returning journey I was reminded of a prison camp movie. Beyond the concertina barbwire we could see bright spotlights piercing the foggy blackness, and as we arrived at the checkpoint we created quite a stir. Through the babble we intuited that the guards were arguing with our guide and Tiger Tops driver about letting us pass, and we thought we might indeed be spending the night at TT.  They sorted things out and assigned two guards to accompany us and we were on our way.
We reached another outpost and the same excitement ensued, and despite the presence of the Army guys it looked as if we were facing the same obstacles. Again, loud excited voices, flashlights passing over us as if to confirm identities, more talking with our guide and driver, and we were through. We hadn’t traveled far when our vehicle almost slid into a swamp, as fast water had eroded the bank of the jeep track and made the track a mucky quagmire. Everyone piled out and in the light of our headlights started gathering grasses, piling boards, and chomping out hunks of mud with a hoe to create more solid footing along the edge of the track. We passed through and continued in the forest under a now clear sky, Orion’s belt shining above the track before us.
After over an hour we could see lights waving in the forest, where four men were standing, waiting for our jeep. We piled out of the jeep and, in the dark and confusion, managed to sort out gear, giving tripods or shoulder bags to those we hoped would be going our way. We had, between us, one flashlig with about 10 watts of power left, and two cell phones whose LCD display provided sufficient illumination to barely see the trail.
It was soon clear why we stopped when we did, as our track descended a steep river bank where we waded a sand-filled and muddy shallow stream. We didn’t remember this ravine, nor the next one we crossed that was just as steep, nor the third where our new jeep was parked. We climbed in, turned around in the soft mud, and headed out, and were stopped almost immediately by another small stream and steep, muddy track that defeated our jeep. We tried several times, with the six guys in the jeep jumping out and pushing, but all we did was churned up more mud and buried the tires deeper. Another man relieved our driver and took charge, and promptly pulled out the gear shift of the jeep!
With the light of a cell phone he went about repairing, and with a sharp clack got the metal rod back into the gear box. We were now in 4-wheel drive, and with the help of the guys pushing we crawled up the bank, slipping and spinning but keeping forward progress, and rounded the crest that had defeated us. Another jeep waited a short distance away and we switched vehicles again, being told that the other jeep needed to be fixed.
We continued, hitting another slick spot where our jeep stalled out and our guide laid his head on his knees, in a joking gesture that showed that he too was seemingly overcome by the setbacks. Our driver got out, and again with the help of a cell phone’s LCD he did something under the jeep hood, and the jeep came back to life. We started on, sliding the entire time, and only as we climbed a final hill, and one we recognized, did we know we’d make it back to the lodge this night. We did, six hours after our jeep’s progress was stopped on the banks of the R… river.
Our guide, Noor, was standing, waiting for us, and relieved that we had arrived in good spirits. We were relieved, too, to learn that the other tourists had safely survived their river trip, taking shelter beneath their upturned boat on the river bank as the hail fell. Dinner was held and waiting, and after a meal and some beers we retired, now exhausted from the day.
Day 9. We slept in, foregoing a last chance for an elephant ride for more rhinos or a possible tiger. The lake in front of our lodge was much fuller this morning and the cool air from the night’s cloudless sky created a cloud-like fogbank that glowed brightly in the morning light. We had hoped to get up early enough to do some birding, and to knock out a final 11 birds for a trip total of 200, but laziness, and the knowledge of one more trip to come, kept us in bed those extra hours.
The Annapurna Range was visible from our lodge this morning, and jutted clearly above the long row of blue-green hills that framed the foreground forest. One of our biggest worries had now vanished, as the last two mornings had the pre-monsoon storms and we were not looking forward to crossing the river, with our luggage and dressed for travel, if another storm was imminent. We’d be crossing the widest stretch of river and doing so as a storm neared would be imprudent, if not suicidal. As it was, we crossed on lake-smooth waters, reaching a bus that transported us to the private hire car that took us to the airport.
Our hotel, in Khatmandu, is the best in the city, a recreated palace-like complex with antique window frames, carved posts, brick mortar work and courtyards, and a room that almost needed a roadmap. The Dwarika’s Hotel is indeed grand, and the place for anyone making a statement in visiting Nepal. We overdid lunch, with steak sandwiches or salads, milk shakes, and ice cream or banana splits …. Mucho calories of Western food we apparently craved.
Our last evening was at a traditional Nepalese restaurant, complete with a native dance show, where, during the show we sat on the floor on mats at low tables, and at dinner itself at a typical western table. That night, perhaps due to the overdose of ice cream I had a GI bout that had me a bit worried as tomorrow we leave for Bhutan.

gitl woman

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