Part 2 – Trek on the elephant –
It is 6 am when I wake up to the sound of large leaves falling on the roof of the bungalow together with thick dew drops, so thick that it feels like it’s raining. It is still dark outside, and a thick fog makes matters worse. At the reception the manager of the hotel, chilled to the bone, informs me that the guy in charge of buying my ticket is still queuing at the Royal Chitwan National Park office. He recommends me to head off towards the starting point.
At seven o’clock I’m already climbing a platform on stilts that takes me straight to the top of an elephant. The pachyderm has a wood-based four-seater platform attached to its back, geared with soft pillows and bamboo railings to hold onto. The sky is clearing up; the big animal that will carry us around looks quite old, but thinking of it, it is not easy to give an age to an elephant. This one has had both fangs removed. The mahout (elephant rider) sits on the beast’s enormous neck and spurs its movements, first with guttural sounds, and later with blows given with a heavy iron bar to the back of the mastodon’s head. The skull emits a hollow sound as if was going to crack at any moment, but the beast does not seem to mind: it continues walking with slow steps as if nothing happens.
I must say the platform we sit on is not as uncomfortable as it first looked; we are part of a column of three elephants with tourists on board, and for at least half an hour we follow paths between shacks of indigenous people busy in their daily chores: some light a fire, some wash the children, others pound rice. There is cattle feeding on grass under thatched shelters on stilts on top of which huge colourful bedding hung to dry. Women peel cobs, and not so far away there are grazing goats, barely visible in the thick mist. Each shack has its own neat vegetable garden nearby where the greens grows lush and abundant. Some of the shacks emanate the dense smoke of burning fireplaces that mixes up with the fog.
Finally we enter the national park. We spend a good hour in grasslands in the company of colourful peacocks; the grass gradually reaches up to five meters high and plants are teeming with rare birds that make amazing noises. We spot a couple of antelopes, but as soon as they hear us they escape through dense vegetation. Our elephants slowly wade a couple of rivers and a marshes, and this is where I start to worry: what if they were to fall on one side? Trapped as we are in big wooden cages, we would not have much chance of escaping under their heavy weight…
Meanwhile the sky has cleared up, but of rhinos there is no trace; the mahout realizes that if he wants to encounter them we must part from the rest of the group, and so he begins to move gradually away. We are soon out of the path and in the midst of huge plants and a grass so high that it has wetted our shoes and trousers. Our elephant proceeds forward, opening the way with the help of its trunk. Every now and then, it takes its time to relax, cutting off huge branches from trees and taking them to its mouth, chewing them voraciously and at the same time discharging stinky cakes of dung the size of giant turtles from its anus.
Patience and extreme silence are rewarded in the end when we spot a pair of prehistoric-looking beasts. These rhinos are peacefully eating grass and the mahout takes the opportunity to approach them with caution; one of the two is enormous, as tall as 1.5 meters at its shoulders. They must have noticed us, but they do not seem particularly annoyed by our presence. It might be the only time I see a rhino live in the wild and I am quite excited. We are now only a few meters from them, it is an incredible feeling and I’m enjoying the moment so much that I feel sorry to have to take pictures, to use technology in such a situation of symbiosis with nature.
We observe them with great attention: they are wild and gigantic, with menacing horns and a solid shell that resembles asbestos. And then it happens: the mahout incites the elephant, who decides to charge forward. The rhinos immediately flee and our elephant begins to follow in pursuit, knocking down a couple of trees in the process. Everything is so exciting, but the rhinos are faster than us and the hunt is short.
Now we are on the way back and the sun is relatively hot; my pants are dirty, my shoes soaking wet, I have got pins and needles in my feet and my legs are aching from all the swaying, but I am satisfied with the whole experience. Three and a half hours on board of an elephant in the National Park of Royal Chitwan is not an every day thing…
CHITWAN on the INTERNET: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chitwan_District