A Safari to Bardia // Himalaya Travel Magazine

It was one of those dreary days when my email inbox brought nothing but pressure selling and questionable products…when suddenly my world was brighter…“Congratulations! You have won the Himalaya magazines wildlife safari competition!” With a smile on my face bigger than a child’s on Christmas morning I immediately contacted my daughter Roxanne to ask her if she would be my travelling partner to which she readily agreed!

After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting we found ourselves after a long journey south, boarding a Oman Air flight to Kathmandu for the start of our adventure. We enjoyed the hospitality and delicious food together with plenty of good music and films to while away the 3622 miles to our brief stopover in Muscat. After changing ‘planes we continued our 1691 miles to Kathmandu and landed safely and on time.

Tired but relieved to be there at last we were collected by taxi and taken to our first residence, the lovely publisher’s house in a upmarket residential area. A slight hitch and communication problem meant we had to contact someone to allow us into the house and then some locals rallied round to sort out some supplies for us and eventually travelers fatigue took over and we slept well during our two night stay. This gave us time to wander in the local area, taking in the sights and sounds of this quieter part of Kathmandu. Before we knew it, it was time for our transfer onto Bardia.

Our flight in a small plane courtesy of Yeti Airlines took only 55 minutes and this was when our real adventure began! The views of the snow-capped Himalayan mountain range during our flight, was breathtakingly beautiful and the memory of it will be forever imprinted in our minds. Arriving at Nepalgunj airstrip we were met by Ashik from Tiger Tops and we were on our way; a real chance to sit back and relax and enjoy the amazing scenery stopping en route to admire fishing Gharials, Marsh Crocodiles and Softshelled Turtles.

So, Tiger Tops – my goodness-.what a delightful place! Think luxury, think beauty, think gastronomic excellence.. Kate and her team are the best in their field and we were spoilt rotten! Myself personally being a complete self-confessed “foodie”, enjoyed the fresh natural produce and perfectly served and presented food and without wishing to sound patronising it really was like being on the set of “Master chef” at every sitting. Breakfast and lunch on the lawn- evening meal in the ambience of the candlelit indoor dining/bar area, was pure culinary indulgence.

We occupied room number 12 at Karnali Lodge and enjoyed the serenade of forest creatures to lull us to sleep and awoke to birdsong ringing out through the early morning mist .As our visit coincided with the late monsoon, the humidity was very testing at times but we coped admirably and the enthralling sights, sounds and experiences far outweighed the discomfort of the unrelenting heat. For our five day stay we teamed up with chief naturalist Ramdin who became our guide, protector, educator and above all dear friend and together we all merged into the landscape of Bardia , sometimes on foot and other times by Jeep accompanied by driver Krishna and guide Ashik. Sunrises and sunsets brought magic and wonder, the birdlife satisfied the bird watcher/wildlife photographer in me and my camera was always on full alert! We studied and marvelled at pug marks from both Leopard and Tiger although we were not lucky enough to come across either, it didn’t detract from the privilege of being in their environment.

Now, once or twice in a lifetime you experience something that is both amazing and terrifying at the same time. Something that makes you realise your mortality and your aliveness in the same intense way and what happened on one excursion into the forest on our trusty elephant, Laxmi, left an indelible imprint on both heart and mind. All was serene in the forest, the ride through the lush grassland and paths, to be honest not an entirely comfortable ride due to the gait of the mighty creature that is an elephant but all the same a pleasure As we headed towards the fringes of the river bed after being lulled into, I suppose, a false sense of security suddenly everything changed in the flick of our elephants ear! We had been tracking Rhinoceros,, following their tracks and dung deposits….in what seemed like an eternity when in fact only a minute or two, from out of the screen of Elephant Grass, came a charging female Rhino protecting her young calf, she hurtled up the bank straight towards us and Laxmi and the two other elephants that accompanied us both hit defence mode…trunks raised, ears flapping, their bodies shaking beneath us like a earthquake…vocally trumpeting and stamping as if ready to charge themselves. Luckily for us they stood their ground until the Rhino backed off and disappeared from view – we really did see our lives flash before us and thanked God that the elephants natural instinct to retaliate was overridden by their bond and commands from their mahouts to keep calm. Both Roxanne and myself thought we were about to meet our maker and it left us shaken and tearful, not just from the fear, but for the amazing encounter itself. Pure nature in the raw and we were right there amongst it. It is still and will remain one of the most memorable wildlife experiences that I will ever have the privilege of in my lifetime. We certainly could not stop relaying the story for a long time after the event and we are happy that we have lived to tell the tale! As we found out, our elephants were not the regular elephants that are used for this excursion; they were on loan and because of this had never, as far as the mahouts were aware, ever encountered Rhinos! Credit must go to the wonderful mahouts and their enviable bond with the elephants that a potentially dangerous confrontation was averted. Probably we bore the brunt of the Rhinos distaste at our presence as Roxanne and I were on the lead elephant!

On a lighter, more relaxed outing we visited local Tharu communities, such a humbling and richly rewarding few hours mingling with the people that live and work (very hard I must add). We marvelled at the skill of the basket weavers, clay workers and fishermen/ women, to the hard working women and men that provide income and small comforts for their families and each other. The children, as always, were a constant source of delight, running into the streets with smiling faces and shouts of “Hello! Hello!” or “Jeep! Jeep!” whenever we passed through. Back at Tiger Tops we were introduced to Surya who is pioneering organic farming practices on site and he gave us a guided tour of the gardens with interesting banter and information on his project. Long may he continue – he was certainly an enthusiastic and engaging character. That same evening, after the heat of the day was slowly sapping our energy we sat near the gardens on a bench and got lost in nature’s magic beneath a large tree that was sparkling from top to bottom with Fireflies. I have seen them many times but not in such great numbers and with such glory that it brought tears to my eyes from the sheer beauty of the spectacle. Certainly another unforgettable Nepalese experience!

All too soon it was our last day and the mood around the place was a little subdued with the news of the tragic air crash in Kathmandu resulting in a terrible loss of life. We personally were a little shaken and unsettled as we were to be flying back to Kathmandu via a small plane. Concerned friends and family back home were worrying about us, having heard the news back in the UK and at the time were not aware of exactly when it was that we were flying back. We were able to reassure people that we were safe and well via the internet with kind permission from Tiger Tops staff as we had been unable to obtain a mobile phone signal to respond to worried calls and messages.

In the evening we had a relaxing game drive to the banks of the Karnali River and our hosts provided drinks and chairs to enable us to sit by the rivers tranquil bank until the sun went down enjoying good company and conversation. The return to Kathmandu went without a hitch until our taxi driver could not locate where it was we needed to be and the language barrier made it too difficult so we asked to be dropped near the local centre and we made our way back to the publishers house on foot which was no mean feat as it meant negotiating rough roads, walls and stony paths with all our luggage! All part of the fun I guess and it did aid a good night’s sleep before our return to the UK.

So to sum up, what can I say? A memorable, exhilarating trip and one which more than sated my wanderlust and quest for new richer experiences and we both personally wish to thank Himalayas Nepal magazine, Oman Air, Yeti Airlines and the staff at Tiger Tops forworking together to ensure this was a prize worth winning!