Our safety talk was brief. The guide said, “Ok, I tell you safety thing.” Aude and I leaned in grim faced, but determined to learn the ways of the jungle.
“I say run, you run. Only thing. Ok?”
“That’s it, if you say run, we just run?”
“Anything else?” I was hoping for advice on how to run circles around a tree to slow down an elephant or something.
“No. Just run.”
“Right, when you say run.”
“Cool, thanks, great talk.”
Our main goal was to seek out some rhinos of which there are several hundred sprinkled around the giant Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. Tigers are far more elusive but then again, we were on foot, so that’s probably a good thing. The most dangerous of all were the wild elephants, and we were informed that a tourist had been killed just two weeks before by one not far from there. Rudyard Kipling visited the area in the 1890s and was so enchanted by the landscape and animals that he wrote what eventually became The Jungle Book.
The previous day Aude, a French woman I met trekking in the mountains, and I had taken a bus ride from Pokara to Chitwan which was supposed to last six hours. The dirt road descends from the Nepalese Himalayas down to the hot jungle below. The road is a major route through the country and is congested with colorful buses and trucks, endless vehicles and thousands of resigned people, all cloaked in a thick cloud of dust.
Our bus, lacking air conditioning, allowed a fine white dust to swirl in the open windows, coating our hair and skin. After three hours the bus stopped completely and with no explanation, remained stopped in the long silent line of traffic for fourteen more hours. The sun poured in the window, unhindered, and scorched our skin. I stared bleakly out at the unmoving world for hours. We had no food, no toilet, no extra water. Time staggered by and flies settled on my face and arms as I swept at them in futility.
Only partially recovered from the bus ride, we booked this walking safari in the jungle. We had a main guide who did all the talking, and a second guide who didn’t speak at all. He helped to keep us alive though. The guides were totally unarmed.
So, setting off after our safety talk, we slogged through tall grasses, vine covered trees, a number of cobwebs and lots of mud for most of the morning. We were actively seeking rhinos, but so far had only seen hoof prints. We did come across some tiger poop, which I meticulously photographed from many different angles.
We finally found a rhino. We were at quite a distance, at the edge of a line of trees, and the rhino was out in some tall grass about 200 meters from us. The guide put his hand up signaling us to stop and he froze staring at the rhino. I was snapping photos, but he was too far, so I was just getting tiny rhino-dots. Our guide then started moving towards the rhino and beckoned us to follow him, but quietly. Aude and I looked at each other wondering if this was a good idea. We shrugged and started to creep after the guide on tiptoe, the sub-guide behind us. As we got closer, the rhino flung his head up to look in our direction. The guide crouched down, so we did as well. The rhino looked away, and we moved a bit closer, still half-crouched. He looked at us again. We froze. He looked away, we moved, he looked back, we froze. We were right up on him then. He looked off to the right as if thinking about leaving.
"Ok, now run."
"Yes! Run! Run! Run!"
“Ok, ok! Take photo! Take photo!” the guide whispered loudly. I obeyed, clicking away, feeling slightly giddy.
Then, the rhino started to move a few steps towards us and we all staggered back. I stopped taking photos at this point and just looked at him. The rhino then moved slowly off to the right, as if to leave. We all heaved a sigh of relief. But he was just kidding; he looped back very casually, pretending not to look at us, and then all at once started trotting straight at us.
“Ok, now run.”
“Yes! Run! Run! Run!” the guide yelled, shooing us with frantic arms.
I turned around and sprinted for the trees, zig zagging through the tall grasses and mud, the other three right behind me. I burst out laughing and shouted at Aude who was now running next to me, knees bouncing up and down, “Is this really happening?” She answered me by swearing in French. When we got to the trees, I stopped and turned to catch my breath and see what the situation was. The shrubs closed behind us, and I couldn’t tell if he was still chasing us. Everyone stood there panting for a beat, and I thought we must be all clear.
“You can climb a tree?” the guide asked me. I studied the tree. The first limb branched out above head height, which meant I would have to haul my body up over my own head.
“Because, Madam, rhino is coming.” I realized I could hear the grass rustling. It turned out I could climb a tree. I grabbed the limb over my head and walked my feet up the tree base until I could hook my arm over that first limb. I managed to get a foot lodged up by my armpit in what can only be described as a vertical pigeon yoga pose, but it was at least wedged in the v of the limb and the trunk. Then I had to pull my body up and over this higher foot, using my arms, my hands grasping at branches and the trunk, wanting anything for traction until my weight was over the foot enough for my leg to take over the work, in a one legged squat-thrust. In the process I scraped all the skin off my arms. I made it.
I still wasn’t quite high enough though, I figured. I tried to ask the guide if I was quite high enough. But he was too busy working to haul Aude up another tree. She could not climb a tree. The second guide had gotten himself up and had her by her two long arms, and was trying to pull her up while the first guide had his hands on her butt trying to shove her up from below, her sneakers scratching ineffectually on the trunk in front of her.
My tree was covered in really large black ants, and I winced back from them, nearly de-treeing myself. But the rhino was almost upon us, so I placed my hands in amongst them, scattering them in frantic waves as they redirected themselves. I gingerly moved up another level, testing branches listening for cracks, keeping my balance in strange twisting positions, arms starting to shake. Aude and the guides were finally all safely up their tree. The ants walked around and over me, business-like on their tiny feet, only slightly put out by my intrusion. Since I had a bit of a free moment then, I wondered if they were the kind who could gang up and eat me.
Of course, the rhino lost interest once we disappeared up into the trees which was exactly what he had wanted. He made his point. Satisfied as such, he meandered off to the right again and we could hear the cracking branches slowly fade in the distance. The four of us clung to our branches in silence for a few more moments.
“Ok!” the guide called out as if it was time to wrap up a fun craft activity. He dropped down and I watched as they struggled to get Aude back out of the tree. I slid down reluctantly once it was inevitable. We gathered our composures.
“We look to more rhino?” the guide asked un-facetiously.
“I think I’m good. You?” I looked at Aude. She didn’t look enthusiastic either.
“Let’s find some different animals,” I said, flicking another large tree ant off my bleeding arm.
“Ha, ha, that rhino naughty,” the guide remarked.
We trekked around in there for the entire long, sweltering, insecty day. I was jumpy as fuck. We saw other animals: some odd-looking deer, and lots of peacocks, and some monkeys. No more rhino though.
When we got back to the hotel, Aude was so startled by a small plastic crocodile decoration lurking in a flowerbed, that she shrieked and grabbed me, causing me to also scream and jump back, which reignited yet another series of shrieks from Aude, causing a group of Nepali guys watching us to collapse on each other laughing.
They had seen rhinos, but lazy ones who barely glanced at them.
Later that evening Aude and I had beers in the lush restaurant garden and recounted our adventure to some other tourists. They were all super jealous; they had seen rhinos, but lazy ones who barely glanced at them. They all wished they had a story to tell about getting chased by a rhino to go back home with.
“You know,” I commented to Aude, “it strikes me that we endured that horrific bus ride yesterday to come to here, just to walk all day in that miserable jungle, and get chased up a tree by a rhino who could have killed us. And, that’s it. Nothing else. And now, tomorrow we just drive back out on that road to Kathmandu. No, I’m sorry, but sometimes travelling is just beyond stupid.”
Maybe it was the beer and the heat combined with our frayed nerves, but this struck Aude and I as incredibly funny, and we started laughing and laughing and laughing so hard and for so long, that the others began to look concerned, until tears finally poured out of our eyes and we shook with shuddering sobs.