Monday, January 16, 2012

15-meters from a tiger in the jungles of Nepal

(This is a continuation of an earlier post, so if the beginning doesn't makes sense, go back a week or two and catch up)

On the morning of December 29th, I awoke, after 4 hours of real, lying-in-a-bed sleep (bus ride sleep doesn't count) in my small but nice room at Mr. B's Place (highly recommended!) on the boundary of Bardia National Park, Nepal.

Somehow, several weeks ago, I'd arrived at the conclusion that I should try and see a wild tiger while in Nepal, seeing as I might never again be in such an advantageous opportunity to do so. The elusive tiger-spotting hadn't happened during the preceding 4 days, which I spent in Chitwan National Park, so this was my last opportunity to do so, since I had a flight booked to Bangkok, Thailand, on January 6th.

I got out of bed without any plans for the next 4-5 days, flying by the seat of my pants, as usual. I ordered breakfast at the lodge, and sat down at a nice straw-umbrella covered table to eat and chat with John, a Canadian who will be the topic of the next paragraph.

There are few things that bother me more than “country-counters.” I don't know if anyone has coined this phrase yet, so if not, DIBS! So, this asshole casually dropped “...I've been to 82 countries, and ...” blah blah blah. Dude, no one cares. Stop trying to impress me, stop interrupting me every time I try to say anything, and recline in your chair for once, for God's sake. You don't need to pound your fist on the table every time you finish a sentence. I hope that if I try to sound “holier than thou” wise because of the number of countries I've visited, someone will kick me in the nuts. It would be well deserved. Wisdom isn't derived from spending a weekend in Uzbekistan. Sorry for the spiel.

After breakfast, but before setting off to wander through “town,” I went back to my room to get my photography stuff, and discovered that the bottom third of one of my tripod legs was gone. How this could have happened is still a mystery. I was on an overnight bus the night before, and my backpack was stored in the aisle next to my seat for the duration of the ride, so taking anything would have been nearly impossible, since at least someone was always awake during the ride and would have presumably noticed a super-obvious theft taking place. I would understand the entire tripod missing – this would imply someone stole it, which would have sucked but would have at least made sense. But one third of one leg of a tripod? I don't get it. The street value is $0, even in Nepal. And I can't come up with a way this could have happened on it's own. One of life's little unsolved mysteries, I suppose.

Tripodless, I wandered through the village, whose name I have yet to figure out, even after a 5-minute search on Google, Google Maps, etc. Hopefully I'll figure it out later. It took 5 minutes to reach town, and another 5 to make it through. It consisted of a dirt road with two schools, probably 6 or 7 fried-food shops, a store that sold backpacks, one that sold gardening supplies, one that sold school supplies, a few that sold packaged food, 2(?!) barbershops, two butchers, and several buildings that were closed. Most of the buildings were constructed in the typical Tharu fashion – single story mud huts. Obviously, nightlife-related distractions wouldn't be a problem for the next few days. During my time at Bardia, the only of these buildings that I'd visit would turn out to be the fried-food shops. A typical lunch between December 29th, 2011 and January 3rd, 2012 consisted of a few cups of milk tea, 2-4 Nepali-style doughnuts, and 4-8 samosas, which are not to be confused with mimosas, as I did on my first daytime meal in Nepal, now just short of 4 months ago, on the streets of Kathmandu with Katie. Such an extravagant lunch would set me back anywhere from 40 to 80 rupees ($0.50 - $1).

On my first afternoon in the Bardia area, I wandered around town and discovered a group of white-haired, black-faced monkeys (common langurs) partying in some trees only a hundred meters or so from my hotel. So that's where I spent the rest of my evening, taking pictures like it was going out of style. Some of these pictures will be posted in the soon-to-be-posted “Nepal Album 4 of 4.” Later that night, as I had dinner with a New Zealand couple who'd come into Nepal on bicycles from India and a bunch of the “Stans” (Pakistan, Tajikistan, etc.), Mr. B volunteered to take us on a bird-watching trip the next day, for free! C'mon. Who's going to turn that down, except perhaps worms. (Because the birds would eat them. That was a joke, and it was funny.)

Bird-watching turned out to be uneventful, and I spent a few similarly uneventful days wandering through the area around the still-unknown town. I borrowed a bike, and rode it for about an hour to the “Dalla Community Forest,” where it was supposedly fairly common to spot rhinos (I failed in this endeavor), but I did manage to hurt my ass and balls because of the combination of a 1950's cruiser bike-ride and a dirt road. This night ended up being one of the most boring New Years celebrations of my life, but I was able to get through this depressing fact by remembering that I was in Nepal, had just spent 5 weeks trekking to Everest Base Camp, and would be in Bangkok in about a week. I was asleep before midnight, and was awake early on the first morning of 2012 in order to do next to nothing. It rained all day.

January 2nd was a different story. I walked through Bardia National Park on a private tour with two guides, each armed with a bamboo pole to fight off tigers / rhinos / elephants / etc. The primary guide, Indra, has been a tiger-tracker for 16 years, and has seen tigers on over 200 separate occasions. Unfortunately, we saw neither tigers, nor any other particularly interesting large animals. We saw deer, but these do not qualify as interesting. I've seen enough deer and elk in Colorado. At the end of the day, I felt happy that I'd gone on the walk, because I did finally see the National Park itself, but I didn't see any large animals that I'd come to Bardia to see.

I'd already booked a bus back to Kathmandu for the next day (January 3rd) at 4PM, but figured that there was no way I'd regret spending an extra 1500 Nepali Rupees ($20) for a roughly half-day private walking tour, and hoped that on my last opportunity, I'd finally see a tiger. I'm sure glad I did this.

On January 3rd, I wandered through the park with Pame, another tiger-tracker. Right away, we talked to some workers in the park – they were, of course, riding on the back of an elephant as Pame spoke with them – and they mentioned they'd seen wild elephants, rhinos, and a tiger the day before in an area of the park which we were presently walking away from. Pame asked if I wanted to go in that direction, and I asked him what he thought we should do – he's the expert after all. So we turned around and wandered towards the area the workers had seen the animals in the day before.

Early in my walk, I could tell that Pame was more into the job of finding a tiger than Indra. We found tiger tracks early in our walk, and he followed them one direction, and then another. It was obvious he knew what he was doing. Recent (less than a day old) rhino tracks seemed to be following roughly the same path as whatever tiger we were following, so my hopes were high that we'd see something.


At about 9:45 on the morning of January 3rd, we were following some tiger tracks in a dry riverbed. At 9:49, it all happened, and it happened so fast it's hard to describe. Pame and I were following some tiger tracks in a riverbed that is only filled with water during monsoon season, when, approximately 5 meters in front of me, I saw Pame look to his right, and an expression of shock filled his face. I followed his line of sight and saw a full-grown tiger asleep on one of the wildlife-formed paths that lead from the surrounding jungle to the riverbed, a mere 10-15 meters from us. Something one of us did awoke this terrifying creature, because in the next 2-3 seconds, the tiger had awoken, glanced at the two of us, and run away. I had a big camera almost ready for a shot, of course, but by the time I had it pointed in the right direction, Pame and I were again alone. I really wish I'd have been able to get any shot, even just an orange-and-black streak flying out of frame, but it didn't happen. I did get a shot of the claws-extended paw print left on the riverbank, which is hardly any form of consolation, but I'm happy to have both this photo and my life, considering that by 9:50, both Pame and I could have been tiger food, if this particular tiger had been especially hungry. A minute or two later, I tried to write some notes in the notebook I carry everywhere with me, and was almost unable to do so because of the fact that my whole body was shaking from the adrenaline rush instituted by my first wild tiger sighting. An amazing and terrifying experience that could only have been made better by a National Geographic cover shot. But I'm alive today, which is a pretty good consolation prize.

Pame later told me that this was one of his scariest tiger-sightings. He had one story that made this experience seem like a children's fairly tale. Some years back, he accidentally came upon a mother tiger and her cubs. The mother had false-rushed him 4 times, on each of these occasions coming only 5 or so meters from him. Apparently, the false-rush is much more common than the real rush, but I'm sure that to Pame, this distinction was of the highest importance.

Later on the afternoon of January 3rd, I found myself on a 17-hour bus ride back to Kathmandu, where I'd spend a few days doing little more than eating cake and cookies prior to my flight to Bangkok.

And that's it for Nepal. It was an amazing 4 months, and although I hate to rank countries in order of my preference as a tourist, it would be hard to put Nepal anywhere below #1. Seriously. Nepal is amazing. It's so cheap that it's almost free (aside from the plane ticket to get there), beautiful, and full of the most friendly people I've ever met. If you've got the time and money (you do, whether or not you can admit it to yourself), get your ass there.

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