Bardia National Park is a 1000 square kilometer protected area in the low-lying Terai region of Nepal, on the border with India, where we spent several days in search of the big five: Bengal tiger, Asian elephant, one-horned rhinoceros, leopard, and sloth bear.
The main goal in the Bardia wildlife safari competition is to spot and to photograph the most large mammals, with the grandaddy being the elusive Bengal tiger, and of course to talk about it later in the lodge and boast with your photographs. There are winners — like the French couple who saw a tiger five times the day before we got there, or the lady from Chicago and her son who only had one day in the park and managed to see a large herd of elephants, several rhinos, and a tiger — and there are losers . . .
We knew the challenge would be tough from the beginning after being introduced to our competition and taking in their safari wear, their cool European accents, and their cameras weighing almost as much as our children.
Day one consisted of a full day expedition by jeep. We were so excited driving through grassy fields, crossing shallow rivers, enjoying the early morning jungle sounds. We were rewarded immediately. Within 15 minutes at our first stop there was an explosion of excitement as our guide spotted a tiger at a distance lying in the tall grass. After 15 to 20 minutes of greedily snatching the binoculars from each other and whispering “amazing”, “spectacular” and “unbelievable”, our “tiger” stood up on two feet and walked towards the forest carrying his large camera. A photographer lying in the grass! A truly memorable moment with a hearty cross-cultural laugh.
Following is an overview of the rest of our day:
Hour 1. We arrive at a bank overlooking a wide, grassy and sandy expanse where two rivers converge providing a popular spot for wildlife to come during the heat of the day to drink water. We are glued to the binoculars in excited anticipation of the tiger who was about to come. A furry swamp deer rests in the foreground.
Hour 2. The deer is still there. We entertain ourselves commenting with the hushed whispers of narrators of a TV nature program. We enjoy the sheer beauty of this peaceful spot. We wonder if something is wrong with the deer.
Hour 3. Forgetting about the tiger for a while, he’s probably going to wake up soon, our attention turns to the surrounding jungle and the banks, which suddenly come alive. We watch a brilliant kingfisher bird for a while, “beautiful enough to name a beer after” says Coalter referring to the same-named Indian lager. The “log” that it was hovering near for so long suddenly grew legs and stood up to amble back into the water, a mugger crocodile. A male peacock appears fanning his feathers and doing his incredible, over-the-top dance which resembles a solo salsa, and a female peacock appears as well, apparently buying the whole number. Is something wrong with that deer? It’s becoming a little harder to focus.
Hour 4. That deer is so stupid, it’s right in the open, doesn’t it know there is a tiger lurking in the grass, go away you stupid deer, you’re going to die.
Hour 6. After hours of quiet contemplation, deep thoughts and revelations set in like… maybe we could all learn from that calm and composed deer because isn’t there always a tiger lurking nearby in the grass, and… I had no idea my kids could sit still for so long without a screen.
Hour 7. “Show yourself you black and orange striped devil” hisses Coalter. An inconsiderate tourist group with obnoxious cameras and video equipment noisily tramp in wearing bright colors (a safari no-no), preparing to set up their equipment, including bright lights, for the night. We hate them and it’s all their fault we didn’t see anything.
Well, you get the picture and you probably guessed that even after two whole days in the jungle we never did see that tiger. But there were so many other delights and excitements. We crossed a rickety bridge that looked like it belonged in a state fair fun-house, bouncy and tilted a little bit to one side with no handrails and a few missing planks here and there, over a river where we had seen a crocodile a ways back (that sounds really bad as I write it, I don’t think they eat people). We saw langur and rhesus macaque monkeys, incredible birds like the wooly-necked stork and the crested hawk eagle, swamp deer, barking deer, hog deer, spotted deer, mugger and gharial crocodiles, mongoose, a herd of wild boar, and lets not forget the tiger man. We saw tiger paw prints everywhere and had exciting moments when the jungle animals let out their loud warning cries that a tiger was in the vicinity. We decided we would become birders. We had wonderful drives through the grasses and airy jungle watching two amazing sunsets. Mother Nature finally gave us our large game consolation prize and offered up a spectacular rhino show for us. We watched three one-horned rhinos, including a mother and baby, bathe in the river with the baby nuzzling alongside its mother and climbing on her back (to the delight of the mother spectators), and the two big rhinos getting in a little fight (to the delight of almost everyone else). And, as the parting gift, we came upon a lone, white-tusked bull elephant ambling through the tall grass at the edge of the jungle under a bright orange sunset, just as an elephant should be, with 10 minutes left to spare in our safari. Although we were not the top contenders in the Bardia wildlife game, and our competitors saw tigers the following day while we were back at the lodge doing our laundry, it was pretty darned incredible.