So, 7pm the night before we were due to leave for Chitwan, and we hadn’t booked any transport or any activities or a hotel. We had very little idea of what we were doing, with the added complications of Georgina’s Indian visa potentially needing to be collected, and Nathan’s illness calling into question whether he even wanted to come.
Having been emailing back and forth with several rafting companies, we settled on one at last, and negotiated for a little while to make sure we could pay on arrival and get all our transport included. It cost us 3880 rupees ($40) and was absolutely worth every penny.
In the end, Georgina left her passport with the Indian visa office and came with us, Matt decided he probably couldn’t afford it, and both David and Nathan stayed at home. Matt got the super fast bus at 4.30am, so he was well on his way before we even woke up, and we headed to Thamel to get our bus and meet the guy we had to pay.
I couldn’t really believe how smoothly the whole thing went: we arrived with ten minutes to spare, met Raj from the company we’d booked with and paid him, bought a quick cup of tea and a donut for breakfast, and hopped aboard the bus, ready to leave. It was the first nice tourist bus we’d been on, and compared to the local buses it was absolute luxury, with seat covers and fans (ok they didn’t work, but still) and room for your whole body and not just parts of it. We spent the majority of the bus journey catching up on the sleep we’d lost by getting up at 5.30, and it passed without much incident, except for a brief half hour traffic jam mid way up a mountain road. Most of our fellow passengers were tourists on their way to Chitwan or elsewhere as well, so it was quite a sociable atmosphere – though one guy did eventually begin to grate on me as he thought it would be fun to whistle the entire back catalogue of Michael Jackson songs whilst we drove.
We arrived at our stop at about half 11, and a few others got off with us as well, making up a pretty large group of rafters (reassuring, as all the advice says it’s safer to do it in groups with at least 2 rafts). We were given helmets and life jackets and paddles, and left our bags in a jeep to be taken down to the end point (I nearly brought my iPod with me to take pictures in a waterproof bag, but decided against it in the end – which I was later glad of). Georgina also decided that it was crucial to bring her sun cream with her, so gave it to Dan to look after.
After that the group was led down to the rafts, where we were split into different raft groups – one for Asian tourists (no joke), one tamer raft, and one ‘extreme’ raft, which the guide promised would involve capsizing a lot and going for the biggest and best rapids. Dan and I naturally speedily volunteered for that one, and Georgina joined us, while Cat sensibly opted for the safer one.
We had a quick lesson in how to raft – how you paddle, what to do if (aka when) you fall out, etc. etc – and then we were off. Immediately we were set on by the waves, and it was the biggest adrenaline rush as we powered through and over them, all paddling as hard as we could. Our instructor was sat at the back shouting out instructions, and generally having a right laugh about how crap we were. For the whole ride it was very hard to tell whether he was telling us to paddle hard and fast because it was necessary, or because it amused him to see us panic and frantically try to go as fast as our little arms could manage.
We hit every bit of white water on the river, sometimes sailing through it, sometimes being submerged by the water and being thrown out. The instructor introduced a new instruction, whereby instead of saying “stop” and letting us ride out the waves, he would shout “HOLD ON” and we had to grab onto the rope at the side and hunker down into the raft. Of course, when someone is loudly shouting that at you it’s very hard to remember any of your previous instructions, so invariably every time he did that we would manage to stay in the raft for all of 4 seconds before being flung unceremoniously into the river. The first time this happened, we lost Dan to the other boat for a while, and the sun cream fell out of his pocket into the water. However, our instructor took it upon himself to save the sun cream, so we paddled across the river and one of the boys scooped it up.
That was all fine. That was what we had signed up for.
There was a slightly hairy incident during one of these times, where we all agreed that we genuinely felt somewhat like we were about to die, and even now I’m not entirely certain whether it was intentional on the guide’s part or not. We were merrily headed for another rapid, when suddenly the guide shouted, “All back! Harder! Faster!” We back paddled as much as we could for the few brief seconds before the call of “HOLD ON” came, and after that it was chaos. We tried to take cover inside the boat, but within a few seconds we were tossed out and into the water.
In the water it was turmoil: we’d been pitched into the middle of a whirlpool, and while I vaguely remembered that you were supposed to curl up into a ball and just hold tight in that situation, I’d slightly forgotten to take a breath before entering the water, and that fact was occupying most of my attention. I was also clinging into my paddle for dear life, because that was the one instruction that I had retained: whatever you do, don’t lose the paddle. Through the dark swirling mass of water I could make out the shapes of other people and the boat which was above me. After a good fifteen seconds under water, at least three seconds more than I thought I could handle, I emerged, gasping for air and swallowing half air and half water.
It wasn’t quite over; the current pushed and pulled me about for a bit longer, sometimes under and sometimes upwards, and it was a good minute before I was floating on top of the river and able to breathe properly. It felt nice to be alive. Looking around it was absolute carnage: every single person had been ejected from the raft, and were floating about like flotsam in different parts of the river. The other boat was looking on, half in terror, half in amusement, though Cat later said that out instructor had been stood on top of the capsized boat, riding it down the river, perfectly in control – quite reassuring really.
We eventually began to be rescued one by one: I made it into the other boat quite quickly so had a very good view of the rescue efforts. Everyone who was still in the river looked very shellshocked, having swallowed about half a litre of river water, and it was a while before normality was restored. Georgina was the last to be rescued, wide-eyed and pulled along by the rescue kayak. Once she was back aboard she told us about the worrying moment in the river where she almost lost her trousers to the current – funny how things like that still concern us even when we might be about to drown.
So our raft lost half its occupants, Dan got briefly swept away, Georgina lost her dignity and her suncream, not necessarily in that order and both of which she regained, and all in all… It was an adventure.
We were all quite exhausted by the end, though, and very happy to get a refreshing al fresco cold shower by the side of the road and change into some dry clothes (not by the side of the road). After that we waited a while for the next bus to Chitwan and bought some very overpriced crisps and Coke.
We got to Chitwan at about six o’clock, negotiated our way onto one of those infuriating local buses which leave whenever they feel like it and to the hotel that Matt had booked us all into. We were completely knackered.
We managed to arrange for our activities the next day (kudos to Matt) and then went straight to bed after dinner and slept forever (aka until 6 the next morning). We decided to pack in a full day, just to make sure we didn’t miss out on anything, and managed to get everything for 3500 rupees – canoe trip, jungle walk, and an elephant trek. Very pleased.
So anyway, up we got at an unreasonable hour for our boat ride and headed out to the travel agent (not even late by Nepali standards). We met our guides and set off fairly quickly for the first part of the day. It was still misty and almost cold at that time in the morning, and we were still much too asleep to cope elegantly with boarding a narrow canoe on the river.
The journey was actually really nice in itself; it was very relaxing to be on a river without imminent threat of capsizing, and being powered by someone else. The whole experience was made a lot better by the fact that we saw a crocodile, and then a rhino, just chilling out by the bank. It was one of those things where you have to remind yourself that yes, this does happen in real life as well as on telly.
We all took hundreds of out-of-focus pictures of a half-submerged rhino’s head, and pretty soon after we beached the canoe and got out to commence the jungle walk.
This part of the experience was less pleasant. Chitwan is a very hot and sweaty place, even at half past 8 in the morning, and jeans were my only clothing option as of the day before, when Cat borrowed my loose, comfortable trousers to raft in and promptly ripped a largish hole in them within minutes of boarding the boat. Also I was still ill, and I’m pretty sure any significant wildlife would have heard us coming from a hundred paces what with my constant coughing and sniffing (there are no tissues in the jungle). It was still pretty cool though, especially with the excellent dramatics added by the guide, who stopped and shushed us every so often, walking a few steps ahead to ‘check the coast was clear’ before motioning us to follow.
We had had a brief chat at the edge of the jungle about how we should behave during the walk, including some solid advice like ‘make sure you stick together’ and ‘please keep silent’, all of which we cheerfully ignored. We casually tramped our way through the greenery, stopping to take pictures of gross bugs and stuff whenever we felt like it, with Cat quizzing the guide on exactly how one should react in the event of a tiger attack, and other useful pieces of information. He did very little to reassure her: he didn’t really seem to even grasp that she needed reassuring. In answer to her questioning as to whether there were many poisonous snakes in the Chitwan jungle, he responded that most of them were. Hilarious for us, terrifying for Cat.
We had a nice walk, all making appropriate appreciative noises whenever the guide pointed out a tiger’s footprint or a particularly large patch of rhino dung, and thinking that it was entirely plausible that the guides just get up a couple of hours early and go and scratch a few trees to pass them off as claw marks and whatnot. We were very ready to head back to the air conditioned sanctuary of the hotel, however, so it was with some relief that we emerged back into the open, hopped (or in my case, stumble) back aboard the canoe, and headed back to town.
Once back we had a quick peek at another crocodile through some binoculars, before heading over to the elephant bathing centre, which has to be a highlight of the whole trip. As Ben had told us, it was a heartwarming experience for less than one of your British pounds; what’s not to like about sitting atop an elephant and letting it squirt you with water from its trunk?
So that was a very pleasant end to what had been a tiring morning, after which we went back to the hotel to collapse into a stupor on our wonderfully clean sheets. There was a good three hour gap before our next planned elephant excursion, and I personally took the opportunity to nap, very happily.
At three o’clock, back we went to the travel agent and got into a very rickety pick up truck masquerading as a jeep, and headed to the centre from where we’d be climbing aboard an elephant for a couple of hours. There were loads of other tourists there too.
We split into groups and mounted the steps to the platform (you can’t really just get a leg up for elephant riding), and set off, four people per animal.
Elephant trekking is not comfortable, let me tell you now. You are wedged into the corner of a kind of square saddle, with a wooden post between your legs and three other people jammed up against your back. It’s not comfortable – but it is pretty awesome.
We plodded around on the elephant for a while, with a few exciting incidents when we (and all the other groups of tourists) saw a rhino in a clearing, and shamelessly wandered up for a closer look, poor thing. It quickly waddled away once it realised that it was encircled by a herd of elephants mounted by a load of gawking tourists, and we continued on our way. It turns out that it’s very difficult to manually focus a camera on elephant back (my auto-focus is broken), so it remains to be seen whether I will actually have any pictures of the rhino sporting adventures.
After a couple of hours we went back to starting point, elephant riding excursion over, a bit sore but pretty happy with the whole experience. The best part was that our initial worries about the welfare of the animals seemed to be pretty much unfounded.
All in all it was a wicked, if exhausting, day, but after it we were so so ready to sleep. We went to the beachfront to watch the sunset, before heading back to the hotel and collapsing once more. Matt and I went in search of potential next day entertainment, but ended up buying some useless (but nice) crap from a fair trade shop, and some Chitwan home made honey from a lovely man in a shop near where we were staying. Strange things always seem to happen when me and Matt shop together. He genuinely ate about there tablespoons of honey, insisting that he needed to taste test every one several times before deciding that he would get one of each type to take home.
We elected to all just get the tourist bus home in the morning, which proved to be the right decision – we left at 9am, the bus was spacious and actually had working fans (not sure if I’d seen that on a bus in Nepal ever before), and we didn’t get back until after 4 o’clock that afternoon. It was long and tiring, and though I took an amusing video of Georgina asleep on the bus, head lolling attractively from side to side, it was not particularly fun.
So we’re back home again, and into our last week, and marvelling at how the time has flown. Soon enough the volunteers will be returning from Dang, and we’ll be saying our last goodbyes, and I will have to somehow come to terms with the fact that marrying a Nepali so that I can stay out here is probably not a viable plan.