We did not even imagine that our casual elephant safari ride would turn into a hot pursuit.
It all started when our elephant, Laxmikali, passed by a freshly-stirred mud wallow followed by equally fresh footprints. Apparently, after a refreshing mud bath, the animal had sauntered into the woods, leaving behind a hot trail. Thus began our stalk, as we closely followed the marks.
We followed the footprints through the elephant grass, the woods, the seemingly impenetrable scrub and thickets with spiny thorns—nothing stopped Laxmikali.
When we thought we were closing in on our quarry, the trail suddenly went cold. It was almost 6.15 p.m. and the fading light reminded us we had only 15 to 20 minutes before it would get too dark to continue. With sinking hearts, we detoured and with our eyes straining hard to penetrate the thick undergrowth, we lumbered on.
As the setting sun reddened the horizon, sending diffused crimson rays through the woods, the jungle burst into life. The bulbuls, the barbets, the orioles and a myriad of species that abounded the rainforest commenced chattering their loudest.
Jungle fowls fell in, calling each other lustily, aand then a distant peafowl let out a shrill ‘meow’. All these resident birds joined in a chorus simply to announce the approach of dusk.
Lo and behold, we stumbled upon the spoor!
With renewed hopes and redoubled pace, we crashed through the foliage. Twice my foot got trapped in jungle creepers, swinging branches lashed at my face, thorns clawed at my arms and I literally got banged by overhead branches.
My co-riders (my wife and daughter) were in no less harrowing condition; but no less excited. We kept on our pursuit but the chances now appeared very slim. Disappointed, we turned back towards camp but hardly had we taken a few strides when we virtually bumped into him!
“There it is”, called Gun Bahadur Kumal, our mahout, almost in a whisper and pointed to a clump of thorny bush.
There stood our fearless quarry staring back at us, almost 5 ft at the shoulder, 9 ft in length, the pride of the Chitwan National Park, the inimitable one-horned Rhino.
Kumal urged Laxmikali to get closer enabling us hurried snapshots of the magnificent animal. On our way back, Kumal stopped to point us out fresh pugmarks of a male tiger.
My family and I had this thrilling safari ride in the Chitwan National Park (Midwest, Nepal), at the Island Jungle Resort, Bandarjhola, some 35 km from Narayanghat (145 km from Kathmandu). Set amidst dense riverine forest and interspersed with large tracts of grasslands, the resort then boasted a unique location with river Narayani hemming it in on two sides while the other two are ringed by the river’s subsidiaries (all jungle resorts inside the park were closed later).
Back in the comfort of the resort’s well-stocked Tharu (Tharus are an ethnic community from the lower Terai plains) bar with a mug of chilled beer and river Narayani at arm’s length, my mind kept going back to the mind-boggling ride we had.
Kumal’s charismatic expertise and Laxmikali’s rapport with her tamer was just spectacular. Upon being asked about some of his memorable experiences, he had a hair-raising story to tell.
“The incident took place while I was doing a safari ride for two foreign guests,” Kumal began.
“I had with me the same elephant, Laxmikali.”
Suddenly, we ran into a sloth bear right on our track,” he continued. The bear happened to stand guard for her 6-month old cub perched on a jamun tree branch some 15 feet above the ground. Normally a lone bear, except for a brief display of aggression, does not pose a real threat; but she can turn real nasty if accompanied by her cub.”
Laxmikali stopped in her tracks, but did not take alarm. Kumal thought it better to give the bear a clear berth. Too late! The mother bear turned around sharply and without so much as a warning charged at a run with a blood- curdling growl baring her fangs.
From 15 yards, the bear drew closer in a bound, and still kept coming! At a couple of yards, she suddenly stopped, stood on her toes and baring her fangs, snarled viciously. Laxmikali froze, so did Kumal.
The silence at the back on the hauda also spoke of the guests’ plight. As Kumal’s concern was the safety of the guests, the only course left for him was to make a slow retreat. Just as Kumal gently nudged with his toes for Laxmikali to back off, the bear struck taking a nasty bite of Laxmikali’s trunk.
All hell broke loose as Laxmikali went berserk.
She retaliated immediately. An ear-splitting trumpeting that shook the ground could be heard for miles.
Kumal’s dismay knew no bounds when Laxmikali instead of turning upon the bear dashed for the tree and lashed her trunks on to the branch pulling down the terrified cub which clutched at the branches. Stunned by this unexpected move the bear backed off but still kept at her vicious lunges. So far, thank God, no harm had come to the guests,
But he realised the situation was getting out of hand. Try, though he did his best, no amount of coaxing or even sharp clouting with his iron hook helped to curb Laxmikali’s fury. Enraged, she kept on pulling down at the cub.
All this while, the mother bear’s challenging snarls, and lunges appeared feeble against the animal 10 times her size.
Suddenly there was a loud crack and even before Kumal could gather his wits a stout branch came crashing down hitting him on the chest and the side of his face, almost knocking him off of Laxmikali’s back.
He blacked out, a searing pain gripping his chest.
The traumatic state must have lasted just a few seconds when he slowly recovered. He instinctively felt for his face to find a badly bruised lip and a deep gash on the side, his fingers coming back sticky with his own warm blood.
Apprehensively, he looked back to find one of the howdah supports broken in two but his guests, though badly shaken, safe.
With blood streaming down his face he wearily took stock of the situation. Laxmikali’s whole body twitched with an intense rage and she seemed ready for another attack. The mother bear, not more than two meters away with the fallen cub huddled behind her, still stood her ground and continued growling menacingly.
Thank God, for that very moment, two safari elephants converged on the scene to Kumal’s rescue.
Guided by the shouts and the commotion, they had rushed to the spot. Upon seeing two more elephants as back-ups the bear thought it wise to slink away with her cub—thus ending a gory drama.
Kumal had to have seven stitches to his face and it took almost a month for him to fully recover.
As Kumal wound up his story and left for his quarters, a night heron raised a plaintive wail from the banks of the Narayani river. Then, moments later from the deep recess of the jungle I heard a tiger call.
Then, moments later from the deep recess of the jungle, I heard a tiger call.
Singh is a 65-year-old outdoors man, lost in his own little adventures. Interests? It used to be hunting; it stopped during the Maoist insurgency. Then came fishing followed by mountain biking. So, his passions are writing, mountain biking and fishing. Ambition? Ride his mountain bike from Beni, Baglung, to Lo Manthang and Upper Mustang.