“There are five types of aggressive animals in this park,” says Deepak, a Nepalese man of about thirty whom Brian and I have hired as our walking safari guide. He is perched on the edge of a wooden boat and Brian and I are huddled in its middle as we float towards the entrance of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.
“Rhinos, tigers, sloth bears, elephants and buffalo,” he ticks them off on his fingers.
“Tigers?” I whimper.
Deepak looks at me and gives a reassuring smile. “Not to worry. Just pay attention to my instructions and you’ll be fine. “
“If a rhino chases you, climb a tree. If you can’t climb a tree, hide behind it. If there’s nowhere to hide, run in zigzags every six meters.”
I blink in the morning light as my brain tries to process what I’ve just gotten myself into.
“If you see a tiger do not run. Make eye contact and back away slowly.”
“If an elephant charges run into the bush and hide. For bear, join together in a big group and make noise.” He says it all simply, flatly, like he is reading off his grocery list.
“You understand?” asks Deepak.
“Yep!” replies Brian enthusiastically.
Our boat knocks ashore and Deepak nods. “Let’s walk.”
I lean in to Brian and say, “Yep? Just yep? He says ‘run in zigzags to save your life’ and you say ‘yep?!’ I do not think this is okay! Is it even safe?” I am nearing panic.
“Don’t you think it’s a little too late to worry about that now? Let’s just follow the guide and we’ll see how this goes.”
“Famous last words,” I mutter.
And so against my better judgement we set off on foot into Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. It is early morning, an active time for wildlife. In addition to the beasts already mentioned, Deepak tells us Chitwan is also home to leopards, wild boar, and crocodiles.
“Sadly, we cannot guarantee an animal sighting,” he says, as we turn off a gravel road and onto a narrow path overgrown with tall reeds and grass.
“Thank god for that,” I mumble, watching the jungle for any sign of movement.
Our guide Deepak and his assistant
The park is beautiful. We walk through grasslands and open fields, stopping periodically to climb ancient lookout towers. The day warms from stifling to scalding and we duck into the shade again, hiking along tiny, barely-there paths through the deep-green density of the jungle.
As we approach a clearing where we plan to stop for lunch our guide stops suddenly and holds up his hand. “Rhinos!,” he whispers, and there, thirty yards away, are two massive rhinos sitting in the river like giant queens in a bathtub.
It is unbelievable. They are huge and prehistoric and wild, splashing around right in front of us. They are so close I can make out the hair on their ears, the color of their eyes.
“If they run at us climb this tree,” says our guide, pointing to a tree a few feet from where I stand.
I sized it up. “I can’t climb that tree, Deepak!”
“Don’t worry, I’ll push you.” And in my head I see the scene: Me, trampled by a rhino while a small Nepalese man tries with all his might to push my over-sized American butt into a tree.
I turn my attention back towards the rhinos, willing them to stay where they are.
We eat lunch on the riverbank. The rhinos diplomatically stay in the water. Soon, we march on again. Monkeys shake the trees above our heads and deer crash through the underbrush. Our guide leads us to a lake, a watering hole used by tigers, and we sit on a felled log to watch and wait. The guide and Brian are hopeful a tiger will appear. I am hopeful it won’t. I snap my head like a rubber band at the jungle sounds behind me.
Our guide hides in a tree waiting for tigers
Peacocks and wild boar roam about the lake but we see no tigers. Near sunset we leave our perch and cross the river once again, this time to sleep in a tiny village. We sit down for dinner with two men from Sweden. They’d been hiking just thirty minutes behind us when they came upon a tiger. It had walked onto the path only twenty meters in front of them. I ask to see their photos.
“Were you scared?”
“Not a first,” said the Swede. “But when the tiger stopped in his tracks and looked directly at me it scared me. And then he bared his teeth.”
“Oh,” I say, “not in a smile.”
“No, definitely not in a smile.” He turns to his friend and they laugh in the kind of way that means, “Man, can you believe we are not a pile of bloody stumps right now?
I sip my beer, nod, and silently thank the universe that it hadn’t been me. Something tells me I wouldn’t have handled the encounter quite so well.
This is what Brian calls my “safari face”
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