Go native in tiger country

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am


When most people think of travelling in Nepal, they conjure up images of trekking in the snow-capped Himalayas or visiting the temples of Kathmandu. But there is another side to Nepal, a much flatter and greener zone. Here, dense jungles and waterways are home to a plethora of wild animals, including the king of the jungle, the Bengal tiger.

Chitwan National Park in south-central Nepal is known as one of the best tiger habitats in the world. The region was a favourite hunting ground for Nepal's ruling class in the late 19th century, but now the park, established in 1973 and granted the status of Unesco World Heritage Site in 1984, helps preserve the habitat of threatened and endangered mammals, birds and reptiles.

The more than 900 square kilometres of alluvial grasslands and subtropical deciduous forests are an ideal place to spot not only tigers but also leopards, sloth bears, marsh crocodiles, Asian rhinoceros, honey badgers, flying squirrels and the very rare wild dog.

The best part of a visit to Chitwan, however, is taking a safari on an elephant's back - an option offered by most lodges in the park. Being transported through the forest high above the ground, as the giant beast's steps set a rhythmical sway, is a magical experience. The higher vantage point also means spotting game is a little easier and increases your chances of getting closer to dangerous animals, such as bears, rhinos and tigers.

Several lodges in and around the park, at different budget levels, offer all-inclusive packages of one to three nights that include twice-daily forays into the wilds. Visitors, however, should be prepared for a rustic experience: there will be insects in your room, the generator-powered electricity supply is generally turned off after 11pm, and forget about a spa and or gym.

You will, however, be able to enjoy an unforgettable, more natural spa experience - bathing with elephants - and exercise in the park comes in the form of jungle walks and canoeing. There is also plenty of downtime to relax with a cold beer, read a book or chat to the friendly wildlife guides about their encounters with park fauna and flora over the years.

The monsoon, starting at the end of this month and running until September, brings heavy rains that allow the grass to grow very tall and make spotting animals difficult. Book your visit in the next few weeks or wait until October when the rains ease and the temperatures cool. Visiting in June has the advantage of it being low season, meaning lodges may discount their advertised rates, and there will be fewer visitors to the park.

Daily public buses run from Kathmandu to Chitwan and surrounding towns, or travel agents can book a private car. The journey takes about four hours from the capital. Upmarket lodges in or around the park will also arrange direct transport, which often involves completing the final stage of the journey on an elephant's back. Flights from Kathmandu to the tiny airstrip of Meghauli only run according to demand during peak season.