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Wilderness on Your Doorsteps

Bardia National Park captivates visitors thoroughly, whether they are inside the wilderness or in their hotel rooms.  

The bus stopped at a security check post on a dark road. Two people alighted, shouldered their large packs, and walked toward the road’s edge. The bus revved up and moved on, its taillights glowing in the darkness like two red eyes. As those lights got further, getting smaller and smaller, the place became darker. It was dark even in the sentry post where the soldier whose job it was to take down details of passing vehicles sat, perhaps slept. A flicker of light came from a hut nearby. The two figures moved towards it. 

   

Almost like the opening scene of a film—at least the hour and setting were dramatic enough to make for one. But the two figures were that of my companion and mine. We had gotten off from the bus after seventeen hours, from Pokhara to Ambassa, a small cluster of army barracks and houses beside the East West Highway. From Ambassa a graveled road went south to Thakurdwara, the Tharu village contiguous to Bardia National Park, Nepal’s largest protected area in the lowlands. That was our destination, twelve kilometers away.

    We had found a woman, wrapped in a shawl to keep out the morning chill, shuffling about outside the hut. She agreed to make us tea, and we put our backpacks on the mud-plastered floor of her veranda. I went out to use the washroom. 

I looked down at the graveled road and thought that it was fitting that our trip into the wilderness began with a sense of being in the middle of nowhere. The manager of the resort we were going to stay in had told me over the phone the day before that their only vehicle had broken down, so we’d have to either walk or catch a ride with someone to the resort. All I could make out in the darkness were the tops of sal trees, which stood on either side of the road, turning the place even darker. I decided it was too dark to begin our walk any time soon; we’d have to wait until dawn to start out for Thakurdwara.  

When there was enough light, we got up to leave, and I asked how much I owed the lady for the four cups of tea we had drunk. Twenty rupees, she answered. I was taken aback a bit. Did I hear her right? Didn’t she realize that we were in the middle of nowhere, that her place was the only place we could have gotten tea at that early hour? Only a fortnight ago I had paid two hundred rupees for a liter of hot water in a popular trekking destination. The high price, the owner of the lodge there had explained, was because firewood had to be carried up by porters. But I knew it was partly also because trekkers couldn’t do without hot water in a place where water froze inside rooms. 

Even though my backpack’s straps bit into my shoulders, I relished the walk. Children gawked at us; some came up to strike conversations with my foreigner companion. Not one car, bus, truck – any vehicle that we could get a lift from – went by. Bullock-drawn carts with rubber wheels, known as dullop, ambled past. (The name is a corruption of the tire company, Dunlop, whose tires were probably the first ever fitted onto the carts.) I wanted to ride on them for the simple joy of doing something I had done as a child, but they were all heading in the opposite direction. Buffaloes with glossy tufts of hair on their heads that looked like they had been gelled led to an easy joke about how they resembled my hairstyle.

On the Threshold of Wilderness
Thakurdwara is on the fringe of the wilderness. The resorts are like extensions of the jungles themselves. Giant sal trees that have reached heights of seventy feet or more over hundreds of years rise in front of them. Gardens alone can have several dozen bird species flitting about. Cranes feed on paddy fields behind resorts. Beside the temporary presence of animals, the fields have other, permanent, reminders of its closeness to the wilderness. Wooden towers, known as machan, rise from them. Some are rigged up in trees on the edge of the fields. They are watch towers in which farmers keep vigils to protect their crops from ravenous elephant herds that frequently come out of the jungles like uninvited guests.

But Bardia is not only about the wilderness and wildlife. A stroll down the main dirt road toward the national park entrance will take you past Tharu homes. (Thakurdwara remains, in essence if not in composition, a Tharu village.) Theirs is an architecture of simplicity and their building material reflects the bountiful world that surrounds them. Old men and women sit braiding ropes or winnowing—chores not too demanding for their age. The adults of the households toil in the fields, working the rich soil that was once jungle floor. Children play with toys fashioned from wood and mud. A Tharu house, from the water pitcher made from dried gourd to the ropes made from elephant grass, is an ode to the jungle’s bounty. But this is achieved not by accumulating objects or extracting too much but by the age-old wisdom of reducing, reusing and recycling.

At times, the wilderness arrives outside your windows, like it did on our first night in Bardia. In some ways, it was to be expected. Bardia Adventure Resort, where we were staying, had once earned itself a mention in a popular guidebook for a leopard that was in the habit of showing up at night in a clearing near the resort’s gate. On this particular trip, a civet caught and ate a mouse sitting in a tree outside our window, filling the night silence with the sumptuous (to him) and disturbing (to us) sound of crunching bones.  

Yet Bardia is also anti-climactic. You could see wild animals from your resort but when you enter the jungles, with the sole aim of seeing animals, you often end up waiting, walking, driving or riding for hours without seeing anything beside the ubiquitous chital and a few common birds. This is surely Bardia’s most frustrating side. It is also its most overlooked one. Tigers are often talked about in client and guide circles as if they were an item on some menu: you only need show up with the desire to see one and it would appear. A day in Bardia’s jungles can be a disappointingly clear lesson that desire counts for nothing. Spending an entire day in the jungle, walking from one hideout to another, the only animals of note my companion and I saw were an otter and a fishing eagle. 

I realized only in hindsight how traveling to Bardia in a bus had actually eased me into a pace of life that often delights and then quickly frustrates city dwellers. Seventeen hours to cover a couple of hundred of kilometers (a Scot I’d once met in Bardia had chuckled at the thought of a bus ride from Pokhara being longer than his flight from Kathmandu to Scotland) another three hours of walking, followed by hours of waiting in a single spot. In the jungle, the way to make the most of your time is by abandoning all sense of time. The spiritual becomes literal there: the quieter you are, the more chances of seeing things, and the more you see, the quieter you want to be. 

But it is also real, and reality means that you could sit on a sandy bank counting trees, wondering how on earth the guide can keep so quiet, mistaking a deer in the distance for a tiger and the rumbling of your guide’s stomach as the growl of a tiger, feel your buttocks grow numb from being on the cold sand for too long and still not see anything worth seeing. Spending a couple of hours under a tree at least brings you to the humbling jungle truth: Patience is a virtue; but virtues are no match for superior senses and camouflage. I decided it was time to go to a place where sightings were guaranteed. 

The Last Herd
Our trip to see one of the most endangered animals in Nepal got off to the most inauspicious start possible: our ticket-collector got left behind. It was incredible that such a thing had happened; everyone thought he was riding on the roof or hanging from some part of the bus—the preferred way of traveling for ticket-collectors. Our bus turned around, and we drove on the dusty road flanked by sal forests. We finally met up with our talisman walking forlornly. He had a pained look in his eyes, like he’d been betrayed. Then we drove another kilometer or two just to find a place to reverse. Something told me this was an ominous sign. 

    The incident turned out to be nothing more than a peculiar occurrence and we arrived in Bhurigaon, where after a long wait we found seats in an ailing jeep. My companion got a seat in front while our guide and I crammed into the back with half a dozen other people. A canvas hood covered the jeep’s open back, with a flap to seal the rear exit. This contraption did keep out some of the dust. But the vehicle’s exhaust system somehow diverted most of the fumes inside the jeep, turning the back into a gas chamber. The flap was alternately swung wide open and drawn tight as half the passengers wanted to keep out the dust and the other half wanted to let out the diesel fumes. 

    After a minor exercise in yogic breathing that was the jeep ride, we alighted at the little strip of shops and homes that made up Khairapur. There was a large grassland north of the village—the Blackbuck Conservation Area, home to Nepal’s only, and the world’s northernmost, wild herd of blackbucks. We soon found ourselves filling out a form for my foreign companion under the benevolent gaze of a certain Mr. Singh, who himself was one of the last remaining specimens of the Large-mustachioed civil servants.   

We crossed from the road right into the grassland. Less than fifty meters from us a herd of young females got up lazily, and sauntered away. I had been there once before and had found the blackbucks too tame: their responses to human presence were all in slow motion. I wasn’t too impressed with their behavior, though a blackbuck’s svelte body, marked in dun brown or black and white, with its spiraling horns and big eyes make it the most attractive of Nepal’s herbivores. It was like they were making it easy for us deliberately. We snapped our fill of photos.  

There have been times when going into the jungle seemed to me the most worthless thing to do. Either we walked for hours on end, seemingly without purpose, stopping only to study a pugmark. Or we would sit in one of the hideouts that had been used so frequently by guides and clients that it had become more of a landmark – a bald patch made by the backsides of visitors – than a place to conceal oneself. Sometimes we’d climb up a machan, named Tiger Machan because it stood on a spot famous for tiger sightings. (My guide, one of the oldest plying the trade, told me almost no tigers had been seen in the area after the machan was erected.) 

Of course, I never did appreciate the magic of those long hours on the river banks, distilled into mere moments, as much as when they happened as when I was back in the city, where it was as important to smother silences with talking, typing, or honking.

The real beauty of a primeval place like Bardia, at least for me, goes beyond the photo of the gharials or the wild elephant herd that becomes your laptop wallpaper. It’s not that I don’t go to Bardia hoping to see wild animals; in fact, I have returned to Bardia at least once just to try and spot a tiger. But the image of Bardia that has stuck the most in my mind is that of the person sitting still, although uncomfortably, for hours, doing nothing, waiting patiently—my quiet side. It is to reclaim that little corner of myself that I return to Bardia again and again.