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Nepal: Land of the brave

A journey across Nepal reveals the mountain country at its most steadfast and stoic, whether it’s maroon-robed monks perched in lofty monasteries, or courageous forest dwellers, listening to the long grass for the tell-tale signs of rhinos

Nepal: Land of the brave
A guide from Nagarkot, being shown a shortcut on a trek from Nagarkot to Dhulikhel. Image: Slawek Kozdras

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How do you stop a rhino with a stick? This isn’t a joke — I really want to know. Do you jab it on the nose? Throw the stick and hope the rhino bounds off after it like a puppy? I’ve been amusing myself with the question ever since we clambered out of the wooden canoe and made our way into the park. But suddenly the correct answer seems important, because a snort has just come from the elephant grass to my left. The sort of snort made by something very big and very close.

And now the bamboo hiking sticks clutched by our guide, Hemanta, look flimsier than they did before. The grass cracks and swishes a few short metres away, and my chest vibrates with the rumble of heavy feet moving fast over the earth. “Quickly, quickly!” Hemanta whispers, ushering my friend Bob and I along the trail. After 30 seconds, we stop and Hemanta raises a hand for silence as he cocks an ear at the 12ft wall of grass. But there’s a thrashing in some branches, and we’re off again, almost into full stride before Hemanta calls us back. Just macaques in the mid-canopy. Heartbeats fill my head. Our second guide, Bissow, returns from scouting and announces the all-clear. This time, the rhino has bolted in the other direction. This time.

“We call it ‘adrenalin grass’ when it’s tall like this after the monsoon,” says Hemanta, leaning on his stick. “It hides everything, so you can get near a rhino without realising. And a startled rhino will charge.”

Hemanta has been guiding in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park for over 20 years — we couldn’t be in better hands — but he doesn’t pretend walking here is risk free. Fourteen villagers were killed by wild animals in 2017, and one notorious elephant nicknamed Ronaldo is alone responsible for the deaths of 15 locals. In other countries, an elephant like this would have been shot, but not here. In fact, Hemanta speaks of Ronaldo with a certain fondness, chuckling over a recent incident when he dismantled the wall of a hotel kitchen.

It’s rare, such tolerance of threat, such restraint in the face of repeated grief and destruction. Perhaps it stems from a belief in karma and the cycle of life; perhaps it’s a manifestation of the fatalistic Nepalese expression ‘ke garne?’ (‘what can you do?’). Whatever the reason, the will of man seems less forcefully imposed on this landscape. Guides carry sticks, not guns. A sign at the entrance to the park reads ‘Do not intimidate the animals!’ Fat chance. We’re on foot, and the wild is around us in tooth and hoof.

I’ve not often felt so thoroughly put in my place, so conscious of being an outsider in the domain of another. We turn onto a trail through a forest, a passage hemmed in by straight-trunked sal trees. Somewhere, a jungle fowl crows like a cockerel, but there’s no mistaking this for a farmer’s track. A deer barks and woodpeckers beat their drums. You’re in our territory, nature seems to say. We skirt a midden of dung, knee-high and warm, and I imagine the rhino recently passing along this narrow corridor, its bulk pressing against the same trees I’m now touching with my fingers.

The sun is fading when we turn a corner and come face to face with it. A male greater one-horned rhinoceros. He’d been crossing the track, from one stand of trees to the other, but is stock still now, his head turned pointedly in our direction. He weighs more than a jeep, stands over 6ft at the shoulder and can reach speeds of up to 30mph. And he’s only 50 metres away.

Hemanta inches backwards towards a spindly tree, and we do the same, until the four of us are all lined up like cartoon burglars behind a lamppost. The rhino stares us down. His body is extraordinary; segmented, as though a sculptor has built him up from overlapping layers of clay. Ribs show like hoops in a wooden barrel. He lifts his horn and sniffs hard, opening his mouth to take gummy gulps of air, tasting the scent of us, contemplating his next move. Behind the tree, we wait and try to make ourselves thinner. Then, an eternity later, he swings that vast head back around and continues across the path and into the undergrowth.

We’ve just been eyeballed by one of only 2,500 single-horned rhinos on the planet. Chitwan was declared a national park in 1970 specifically to conserve this species, and since then numbers here have grown from 95 to over 600, a quarter of the world’s population. Nepalese army units guard against poaching, and local communities are rewarded financially for protecting the wildlife. The result is an uncommon conservation success story. Between 2014 and 2017, only one rhino was lost to poachers in Chitwan. By contrast, poachers slaughtered 1,028 of South Africa’s rhinos in 2017 alone.

Tonight we sleep in a wooden watchtower beside a curve of still, black water. The tower is akin to something from a prison-camp film, but inside are bedrooms with electric lights and fans. There’s even a flushing loo. I rise early, leaning on the balustrade as the darkness is slowly replaced by the grey light of dawn. We’re outside the national park now, in the so-called community forest, or buffer zone, but it feels no less nature’s patch. Crows start to caw and a fish eagle cackles like Mr Punch. Something twitches in the gloom at the edge of the oxbow lake below. An ear. A rhino is wallowing, silent and hippo-like, with only its ears and horn above the surface.

Later, as we leave, back along the path we’d followed yesterday, I ask about a small plaque I’d noticed on the wall of the tower, dedicated to a nature guide called Basu Mahat. “He was my friend,” comes the reply. “A rhino killed him.” Hemanta pauses, lost in thought. “Being a guide is dangerous,” he smiles, “but also fun.” Then, with immaculate timing, as though everything has been building up to this moment, he halts, crouches and says: “Tiger!”

He’s smelt the animal’s urine on the leaves, and as we crouch beside him we can smell it too, a muskiness that catches at the back of my throat. Bissow finds a paw print heading towards the tower. “Very fresh. A tiger came here last night,” he says. Perhaps as we slept, perhaps as I watched the dawn. Walking the route we’d walked. And not that far behind.

Durbar Square, Bhaktapur. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Goodbye, happy Buddha
Next day, we depart Chitwan, driving five hours east. Negotiating Nepal’s roads can be a hair-raising experience; all around us, cars beep and mopeds buzz, swerving the potholes and overtaking three abreast. But the faces at the heart of this mayhem are strangely calm, as though submitting to currents and eddies beyond their control. Buses are brightly painted with fatalistic messages like ‘Born to Die’ or ‘One Miss, Game Over’.

We pass a temple and a drifting plume of smoke. “An open crematorium,” replies our driver when I ask. “You hide death in the UK. But we are all born to die.” I think of those rare occasions in the night when my mind has alighted upon the inevitability of my own death; fleeting, private thoughts left unshared and quickly suppressed. In Nepal, there’s no such existential angst. Whether you’re a villager in Chitwan or a banker in Kathmandu, mortality is something very visible and present.

That was never truer than in April 2015, when one of the largest earthquakes in the nation’s history struck 48 miles north west of the capital, killing 9,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Landslides swept through villages in the valleys, an avalanche claimed the lives of 21 climbers on Mount Everest (the deadliest day in the peak’s history) and centuries-old monuments were reduced to rubble. It could’ve been worse; the quake came at midday on a Saturday, when many people were outside rather than in offices or schools. But as we travel into the country’s central region, the scale of the disaster is made palpably clear; everyone I meet has been affected in some way.

One man I speak to recalls dust rising from the mountains as distant buildings fell. Another was shaken from his moped. Niraj, our guide for the day, describes being on a bus when a hole opened in the highway ahead. Back at home, some of his wife’s family died. Now wooden props line the streets of many towns, wedged against walls scored with black cracks that flash like lightning as we speed past. In the ancient village of Bungamati, I watch women in headscarves re-laying bricks in the main square. In the city of Bhaktapur — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — men tap away with hammers at temples caged in bamboo scaffolding. There’s endeavour wherever I go.

No one personifies that spirit more than Dhruba, who meets Bob and me at our hotel in Nagarkot, 20 miles east of Kathmandu. Dhruba tells us the remote mountain village where he grew up was wiped out by the earthquake, and he spent two years scrimping and saving to build his parents a new house in a nearby valley. “They don’t like it much — apparently the valley is too hot,” says Dhruba with a wry smile. He does everything with a smile. In fact, his smile has shaped his life. “I used to be a mountain porter, but tourist groups would say, ‘You’re so happy, Dhruba, you’d be a good guide.’ Then someone paid for me to do my guide exams. I thank them,” he says, smiling.

We’ll walk 15 miles today, through part of the Kathmandu Valley. Himalayan peaks loom above Nagarkot, although our trek will be a gentler challenge. Bob, a wildlife nut, is keen to see what we can spot amid the mixed vegetation that grows here at 6,500ft.

As we set off, Dhruba points out the entrance to a porcupine’s den. With a sheepish smile, he recalls how, as a child, he hunted porcupines by smoking them from their holes and dropping pumpkins on their quills. Then something cat-sized with a dark and bushy tail breaks across the track ahead and leaps out of sight over a sandy bank.

“A yellow-throated marten!” Bob exclaims. “They’re nocturnal, very rare.” The bank it had scaled so effortlessly is 6ft tall, at least. “Now that’s a super-charged predator,” he adds.

Woodland makes way for hills contoured with paths through green potato fields. These terraced slopes — mile upon mile of them — have been dug by hand. It must be a tough living, and the earthquake didn’t make it easier. We reach a vast mound of crude clay bricks that I struggle to comprehend was once a farmer’s house. Rocked to bits. Beside the mound is a small shanty made from a few sheets of corrugated iron.

“The family will live in that until they can afford a new home,” explains Dhruba. I wonder whether that time will ever come. Four years have already passed since the quake, four seasonal cycles of being alternately baked and frozen inside an iron box.

Six hours later, we reach the town of Dhulikhel, where a car is waiting. We’re tired, hot and hungry. Bob slumps into the passenger seat, his paunch prominent beneath his damp shirt. “Goodbye, happy Buddha,” Dhruba waves cheerfully at him as we pull away — an oddly appropriate farewell, given that we’re off to spend our final night with Buddhist monks.

Rhino in the early morning most, Chitwan National Park. Image: Slawek Kozdras

Spectators in the wings
Namobuddha Monastery, an important pilgrimage site, sits at the top of Gandha Malla Hill. When we report to the visitors’ quarters, we’re told we’re just in time for dinner but have missed the hour-long session of silent pre-dinner meditation. So, with sighs of feigned disappointment, we hurry off to find the dining hall. No easy task. The monastery complex is a maze of stone staircases that zigzag between different terraces, themselves bordered with spinning prayer wheels and doors going who knows where. Eventually, we follow a passage that leads to a sea of empty sandals and a hall full of monks, and we’re ushered towards four benches at the back. The walls are lined floor to ceiling with 1,000 identical golden statuettes of Buddha. In front of us sit rows upon row of monks in maroon robes. There seems to be a hierarchy to the seating plan, with senior monks at the front and the youngest at the back, some no older than seven or eight.

Perched alongside us on the benches are a dozen other tourists, some in tie-dye trousers, others wearing serene smiles, eyes closed in earnest contemplation of higher things; there’s also a surfer dude with a pony tail and a rather smug expression. All sit cross-legged except me; my middle-aged knees preventing me from assuming this classic Buddhist position.

A gong sounds, and the monks begin to chant. At first it’s just a few of them — while the others continue to talk among themselves — but one by one the rest follow suit and the chant coalesces into a haunting rhythm that floats and falls through the hall. Several monks appear with pails and move along the rows ladling a thin broth into pewter bowls. The chant is soon replaced with slurping and scraping, and I wonder what the main course will be. But there is no main course — dinner is done, and without further incantations or niceties the monks stand and file away.

Half an hour later, Bob and I are eating noodles at an open-fronted shack on the road below the monastery — playing truant, before the gates are locked for the night. From behind the monastery walls, a hubbub rises in the evening air, a noise like many hands slapping something while an audience cheers them on.

The cause of the sound is a mystery to me, as is much of this wonderful country. I can’t know the true trials of a monk or a farmer in an iron shanty. Or what it is to face daily danger on the paths of Chitwan, or to keep calm in the face of fate’s capriciousness. I’m an onlooker, an outsider, walking here under licence. Ke garne? I think to myself. What can you do?

Essentials

Getting there & around
Various airlines offer one-stop services to Kathmandu from Gatwick or Heathrow, including Oman Air, Turkish Airlines, Etihad and Jet Airways

Average flight time: 14h.

While there are internal flights, most travel in Nepal is by road. Travelling any distance by bus can be uncomfortable because most are overcrowded and roads often badly maintained. If you’re with a tour operator, transfers will be by private car, which is more relaxing.

When to go
October-December is dry and temperatures (around 20C) are pleasant in both the lowlands and on higher ground. The rains stay away until mid-April, with monsoon season typically from June-September.

Places to stay
Hotel Manaslu

The Rhino Residency Resort

Sweet Home Bhaktapur

Hotel Country Villa

How to do it
TravelLocal is an online platform connecting travellers with local tour operators, providing local experiences that benefit communities. It offers a 10-day trip to Chitwan, Kathmandu and the Himalayas from £1,520 per person, including accommodation, breakfasts, all excursions, transfers, driver and guide. Price excludes international flights. 

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)