“Namaste” – same word, same meaning but different language – we’re in Nepal! Country 34 on our trip. We are all excited about the prospect of hiking in the Himalayas but first want to explore some of the Terai first, the flat bit in the south. We entered the country at Banbasa, a small border post in the far west, turning off the main road through the closed village market we took the single width tar road through the forest to a river. Across the top of the dam sluice gates was an incredibly narrow 400m bridge. We paced out the width, working out we would just fit on, paid our toll and gave it a try. Early in the morning it was just a few pedestrians, cyclists and motorbikes that were crossing, we were waved on quickly while it was quiet, just squeezing on with a few centremetres each side. There were a few little platforms on the side for pedestrians to squeeze onto but most people just waited at the end apart from one ice cream seller on a bike. Even though we were almost over, he decided he couldn’t wait and was going to take on a truck. Eventually he squeezed himself onto a platform and angled his bike half through the fence but his ice cream box was still out in the road. I wanted to help but couldn’t open my door, we waited another age while he untied his box and lifted it onto the platform, surely it would have been easier to wait a few seconds on the opposite bank. On the other side it was quiet and peaceful, so different from some of the crazy frenetic borders we sometimes have to cross, it took just 4 sets of ledgers in different buildings to be filled in and 2 searches to leave India. Then 3 sets of forms; $300 visa fee (Lucy was free); a couple more ledgers we we were on our way. New adventures awaited us; the sun was shining; the roads were far quieter than we’ve been used to; and the driving appeared to be good – big smiles all around.
We found a wonderful camping spot just outside Bardia National Park in the gardens of Bardia Ecolodge. Narayan, the owner, had been involved with commercial overlanding companies in Kathmandu for years, that side of his business might have almost completely dried up but he had kept them in mind when planning his hotel. He even had an old Encounter Overland truck he had bought when they went bust and was turning into a bar. It was a perfect spot, there were birds everywhere and the park was just on the other side of the river just outside. We needed a couple of days to relax and catch up with jobs. Walking through the village outside the park in the afternoon, school girls came over for a chat and everyone was so friendly. We made sure that we were safely back at the truck before nightfall, there were lots of stories of leopards taking dogs and goats from the village.
The possibility of tigers and rhinos soon lured us from our stupor. After the advice we received from locals in Zimbabwe about not walking with the girls anywhere near big cats, we declined the more popular hiking and opted for a jeep safari. Supposedly although completely wary of people, the cats focus in on any children in the group. We survived hiking through lion territory in Africa with rangers before we’d been advised it wasn’t the best thing to do, we weren’t going to try it with tigers now.
We hopped into the jeep with a friendly English couple and set off taking the scenic route all morning through the Sal forest to a spot on a riverbank. Out of the jeep we found several other groups of people waiting in the shade, eyes peeled on the opposite bank. Steve took a little nap; Alisha read her book; and Lucy made mud pies in the dirt, it was very relaxing but not much to see. Just when we were about to all drift off the guide came running from a little further down the bank, “Rhino!” he whispered. Sure enough there were 2 rhinos crossing the river about 250m away, they were then joined on the opposite bank by 2 more, it was lovely to see. About half an hour later, just after the rhinos had ambled into the bush, another whisper came “Tiger!” A lone female came out of almost the same spot in the bush as the rhino, and lounged on the bank. By then our small group had been joined by a group of Nepali professional photographers and 2 TV cameras, everyone with a big enough lens got happy clicking away. Even for our 300mm wildlife lens it was too far away to get any decent shots and you needed binoculars to see clearly but everyone else was happy. As the tiger lounged, Alisha got talking to the photographers about wildlife photography, “I’d love another shot like this,” Alisha said showing them her tiger photos from India on her point and shoot camera. They were gobsmacked and passed her camera round enviously, even taking a photo of her with her photo. We realised then how lucky we had been to see those 3 tigers in the Indian parks so closely.
Can you see the tiger?
As the sun started to lower on the horizon, we piled back into the jeep. At the entrance of the park we had a chance to meet and feed a blind rhino, that had been orphaned as a baby and therefore couldn’t be released into the park. It was very strange to be so close to such a magnificently powerful animal that we had only been able to admire from a distance before. The girls weren’t keen on getting too close to it, especially as we’d met a couple of backpackers who had been charged by a rhino that morning.
That night we joined Narayan, some of his friends and the English couple round the fire for beer, chicken and stories. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to have a campfire, something that had been an integral part of our journey in continents like, South America, Africa and Australia.
Unfortunately our respect for Nepali driving came to an end when we hit the foothills combined with larger volumes of traffic. It didn’t help that a 33km section of the main road to Kathmandu had been badly damaged by the earthquake in 2015 and was being rebuilt. The trucks our way had been stopped until 3pm, we arrived unexpectedly perfectly at 2.45, as parts of it needed one way traffic. Unfortunately no one had stopped the trucks going the other way. It was a painful and incredibly dusty squeezing around rockfalls as we wound through the foothills. After a night off the road in a hotel carpark, overlooking the confluence of the Trisuli and Marsyangdi Rivers, we were ready to face the rest of the journey. The rest of the road to Kathmandu was just as winding but easy compared with the previous day. As we topped the last hill, we saw the Kathmandu valley spread before us.
Yes, it is a double wardrobe on a bike cart…only in Asia.
After leaving the truck parked up on the outskirts of Kathmandu we headed into Thamel to find a hotel to base ourselves for a few days exploration.