Bardia National Park offers an authentic experience of jungle safari by foot. Here animals are really wild, unaccustomed to the presence of human beings, from whom they normally flee. Getting to see them requires good guides, with the skills to read the signals the jungle provides. I went for two jungle treks during my stay, and it was a thrilling adventure. Here is the account of a day tracking tigers in Bardia.
It’s 6 AM when the alarm clock goes on. It’s early June, the monsoon is coming, and we need to take advantage of the early morning hours, before temperatures reach 40 C. Then it will be harder to walk. John, my host, a zoologist and jungle expert, owner of Wild Trak Adventure, is already preparing, while Deep, the local guide is about to arrive. We take four litres of water each and some food in our small backpacks, rigorously green, just as our clothes are, to be as mimetic as possible with the jungle environment; then the three of us set off to the entrance of the National Park.
The beginning of the walk is relatively easy, following a trail in the bush and grassland. We go through an area where we know live some leopards, but no sign of them this morning, the cat is elusive as usual. The river, one of the many canals in the Park, runs on our left side. Not one hour has passed when we see a couple of big crocs floating, spying with their yellow, reptile eyes our movements, and disappearing underwater as soon as we get too close.
Just a little further it’s our turn to get wet, the first of many river crossings to come. As we enter the muddy, brown water up to the waist, my thoughts go to those two crocs. I hope they didn’t decide to follow us. My companions look relaxed about it, so I don’t say anything, and on we go. The jungle is really quiet, nothing much is moving, or at least it appears so to my human eyes. However, it is never silent. Many birds chirp in the background, and as we go John and Deep point out one or the other sound, explaining to which bird it pertains. Occasionally, I manage to take a shot at them, when they lay still on a branch and they are not hidden in the thickness of the jungle, as it was the case for this beautiful blue King Fisher and Indian Pitta.
We stop at an old bridge for a quick rest, the heat is starting to hit us, our clothes are moist with sweat, so we take advantage to check the surroundings with binoculars. it’s already past 10, we’ve been walking for almost four hours, and no signs of tigers, or anything else. We continue, for another half an hour, until we reach a spot the locals call Bellor Tree. Here we take a long pause, as Deep climbs up a tree (he loves it) and checks around.
Suddenly, he calls us: there’s a rhino in the canal behind that tall elephant grass, which covers our line of sight. Things start to move. I climb on the tree too, I see the rhino and point my camera at it. That’s when it happens. The rhino abruptly breaks into a run out of the water, and towards the bush! What could have scared him so much, I ask naively. Deep and John reply almost in unison: there’s only one thing that can scare a rhino in this jungle.
Deep takes action quickly, leave the bags he says, no time to lose. We jump in the canal to cross it, and end up into sharp, skin cutting elephant grass taller than us, then onto an unbeaten part of the bush. No trail here, we have to follow the shape of the jungle to make it through. We reach the other side of the canal, now on our left. Deep keeps checking the water, the animal is moving, but we have to walk, as silently as possible, crouched on our legs, for another 10 minutes before he gives us a sudden stop sign. Tiger, tiger, he quietly and excitedly shouts at us, come quickly.
Finally, there she is, at about 60 to 80 metres from us, a beautiful female. She is eating the remaining of a spotted deer, and she is not alone. Three more rhinos are hanging out in the same canal. One, the closest, probably sniffs us out, and disappears. The other two are really close to the tigress. She doesn’t like that, not one bit. She snarls at them, as to say, get out of my way, and the rhinos, without panicking this time, respect her wishes, as though the order was coming from the queen herself, and slowly walk out of the water, and into the bush.
We remain there for a good 20 minutes, observing, taking photos. She is far, but I know she would flee if we try to get closer. That’s how it is in Bardia National Park. Tigers are not used of the presence of human beings, they can be found, and seen, but with patience, and good tracking skills. I know I would have never seen her if it wasn’t for my two guides. It isn’t easy, but it’s really rewarding when you get to see one of these wonderful animals. Even more if, like in my case, it’s the first time.
At one point, she decides to stand up and get out of the water, her meal is over. It doesn’t look as though she’s seen us, she walks for few metres in our direction, never looking at us straight. She passes behind a small bush right on our line of sight, and she does not show anymore. Disappeared! We waited for a while, but nothing. Perhaps it’s instinct, or perhaps she had seen us after all, but didn’t bother to give us even a faint look, and just went her way. Who knows?
The day isn’t over yet, more emotions have to come. We go back to where we left our bags, and have some lunch. Now it’s really warm and humid, we sweat without moving, lots of bugs around. At one point, the weather threatens a big storm, we can hear thunders nearby, but not a drop of rain where we are. It would have been a blessing. We decide to continue for another few Km, through the grasslands and the bush, up to a place called by the locals Upper King Fisher spot.
Here, again, nothing happens for quite some time. All seems just still, and silent. There’s some Hog Deer on the other side of the river, but they look unalarmed. Deep and John go for a nap, I keep looking around, aimlessly, drops of sweat sliding down my cheeks. More than an hour goes by, when Deep suddenly wakes up and says: something is weird, something is happening. John stands up right away, he wasn’t deeply asleep after all. We look at the Hog Deer and they all quickly move away from us. The guys look on the left side, on our side of the river, in silence. Not a minute goes by and another tiger appears.
It’s a female again, far away, at least 100 metres. She walks towards the river, unconcerned, and sits in the water right away. John says, let’s try to get closer, and off we go. We take our bags this time, and we try to move as fast as possible in the cover of the bush, following the river, trying not to make any noise. We are upwind, but her eyesight is spectacular. We get closer and closer, she is still there, she hasn’t seen us.
We keep advancing, we are about 50 metres away now, but at one point we are obliged to get out of the bush, on an uncovered river stone area, for about 15 metres. We do it as quickly as possible, crouched on our legs. Then we run towards the next opening, Deep first, he tells us to go, quickly, John gets there second, and fires a series of consecutive shots with his camera. I get there third, a matter of seconds later, and the tigress is not there any more. She saw us, and ran into the elephant grass. John managed to take a photo.
I am a bit disappointed but excited for the short chase, this is fun! We keep moving, it’s about 4 PM now, we start the trail that will take us back. We walk into the elephant grass pretty much where the tigress went into hiding. I can’t see anything, it’s very thick, and my arms are all scratched by it and burn. A sudden noise makes us jump, right on our right side. What is it? Is it her? Or a deer? We can’t tell, and we continue out of the elephant grass and into the grassland, and then another bush trail, until King Fisher spot.
Half joking and half hoping, I tell my guides after two females would be nice to see the king of the jungle. Indeed, John explains that there should be a male around. He would normally cover the territory of four females. I am thinking I couldn’t be so lucky, when John puts a hand on my shoulder and says, there it is. Deep confirms. I can’t see it, where? Deep gives me the binoculars, and points them through an empty spot in between tree branches, a small triangle really, through which we can see a male tiger resting in the water, on the other side of the river.
I am speechless. He is just a beauty to watch. So confident, so careless, so strong! He is almost completely inside the water, yawning (featured photo), but after only one minute he stands up, he looks around, and slowly gets out of the water, giving a last look behind his shoulders, and disappears in the bush. Again, we had no sign that he was aware of our presence. Perhaps it was just time for him to go, evening hours were coming, time to get moving. But I prefer to think that he knew, and that was his way of telling us: you can look at me, but not for too long, this is not your place!
I am widely satisfied, three tigers in one trek, wow! But it’s not over. Twenty minutes go by when we hear deer signaling the presence of a predator. Something is happening again. Suddenly, we hear a big noise from the bush, and two rhinos come out running at full speed. We think they are going to cross the river and come towards us, but they turn right and they run for a full minute along the river, on the other side. Then they separate, one turns on the right, putting distance between us, the other one turns on the left, on our side. Then silence.
Few minutes later, we hear something big approaching at our shoulders. It’s the second rhino, unaware of our presence. He is very close, perhaps 20 metres. John runs in the bush, trying to get even closer to take some photos, I climb on a tree, and from there I manage to get some close ups of his powerful horn popping up in between the trees. So emotional! Then the rhino realizes we are there, turns around and slowly goes his way.
What a day! We walk back towards the entrance of the park, through an easy trail in the grassland, and a last river crossing. Here there are many families of spotted deer, observing us from a safe distance. It’s 7 PM, it’s been a long, tiring day, a day full of emotions, a real jungle experience like only in Bardia National Park one could get. A great story to tell!
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