Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

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The Chitwan, Part 2 – Surrounding lives and other gems

In part 1, I described the fantastic time we had on our jungle excursions. In this part, the focus is on the surroundings – the villagers, their livelihoods and interactions with the national park.

Wood enough for another day; an elderly woman on the way back from the forest.

Wood enough for another day; an elderly woman on the way back home from the forest.

We arrived at our hotel (The Hermitage) by the river in Sauhara at about 1.00pm and after a bit of time to get settled, set off for a visit to the elephant breeding centre, with a tour of a local, tribal village, en route . I have to say that I didn’t expect much from the tribal visit, but the histories described by our guide, the ever patient Mara who acted as our jungle guide the following day (see part 1) made it a bit special.

Cattle being driven home in the evening, to the safety of the village.

Cattle being driven home in the evening, to the safety of the village.

Villagers ploughing the rice paddies by hand, ready for the rains - the distant hut a nighttime lookout for marauding rhinos.

Villagers ploughing the rice paddies by hand, ready for the rains – the distant hut a nighttime lookout for marauding rhinos.

Drawing water from a household pump.

Drawing water from a household pump.

Buildings in the village - note the transition from mud, dung and thatch, to concrete block and tin roof. Sad, one might think, but the thatch has to be replaced every year and mud-walls rebuilt every three - are you going to do it?

Buildings in the village – note the transition from mud, dung and thatch, to concrete block and tin roof. Sad, one might think, but the thatch has to be replaced every year and mud-walls rebuilt every three – a tough job.

Before the 1950s, the Chitwan wilderness spread across a vastly larger area; home to tribal forest people who are collectively known as Tharus. With a peculiar genetic resistance to malaria and other insect borne diseases, they claimed virtually exclusive rights over this part of the Terai (the Nepalese lowlands). Here, for centuries, they maintained a physically demanding but independent life based on a shifting cultivation of rice and other grain crops, supplemented by hunting, fishing and gathering the fruits of the forest, right up to the 1950s. However, elsewhere in Nepal, since the 19th Century, as non-Hindu tribals, the entire Tharu nation was consigned to low-caste exploitation by the ruling Nepalese in Kathmandu. They lost land and other rights to become a source of bonded labour, a practice only outlawed in 2000. In the meantime, in the 1950s, the Nepalese  government embarked on a campaign to eradicate malaria from the area. Though Mara is only in his mid-30’s, as a Tharu himself, he vividly described how the government sent in inspectors to spray the area every two weeks for over ten years. Though we could not use such insecticides today, the fact is that the Chitwan has been malaria free since the 1960s.

two month's supply for cooking, gathered by hand, the old way.

two month’s supply for cooking, gathered by hand, the old way.

A replacement for forest-wood? Gas from manure deposited in the covered pit in the foreground, is piped into the houses for cooking through the year.

A replacement for forest-wood? Gas from manure deposited in the covered pit in the foreground, is piped into the houses for cooking through the year.

But that, of course, has cost the Tharu dear. No longer threatened by this mosquito born disease, and attracted by the fertile soils of this wide valley area, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese and Indian peasants flooded into the area, converting much of the former wilderness into productive farm-land.  Given their low-caste status, many more Tharu were pushed out of their old villages in this process and became increasingly marginalised in a fast evolving society.

Happily, since the turn of this century and the end of the civil war, Tharu rights have been improved and the survival of their village culture in places like the Chitwan has at least been respected in managing the park. Thus, while the villagers are no longer allowed to hunt in the park on the scale they once did, some individuals retain grazing rights for cattle and buffalo, while others are still permitted an annual quota of wood for firewood, at least for now. Hopefully, the flow of tourist dollars and government grants will continue, allowing the Tharu to move to more Chitwan friendly fuel supplies (either electricity or the natural gas production referred to in my picture) and to better paid activities in the burgeoning tourist industry.

River, man, fish - a 10,000 year old story.

River, man, fish – a 10,000 year old story.

Which reminds me of something which my host, Norden, in Kalimpong said, concerning his own conservation efforts. “We started out wanting to preserve this unique habitat [the Teesta river and surrounding hills and mountains] but after a while we realised that we couldn’t solve the environmental issues, if we didn’t solve the people issues, first”. And chief amongst those issues is overpopulation and its effects. For the moment, the Chitwan is being maintained by a close cooperation between the government and the local community, both aided by tourist and overseas dollars. But stories we heard from locals suggest that other areas in both Nepal and India are still suffering rapid loss of habitat to the pressures of population and farming. Nepal has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. Yet, this remains the least discussed issue on the environmental agenda; the one that no one seems to dare talk about. The Chitwan and the traditional ways of the Tharu seem safe for now, but for how long?

The Chitwan, Part 1 – Jungle encounters

Before this trip, I had always thought of Nepal as a mountain country, dotted with monasteries and small, isolated villages. Those things exist of course, along the Northern border with Tibet, but on this occasion, my instincts took me into another terrain altogether – the Chitwan.

The Chitwan National Park is one of the largest nature reserves left in lowland Nepal and is generally regarded as the most important. A vast area of flood-plains and swamps surround the East Rapti river which, because it doesn’t arise in the Himalayas, is much warmer than most rivers in this area and therefore supports a wider range of tropical wildlife.  After the end of the civil war, the army has cleared the area of poachers and many rare animals including the Bengal tiger and the Indian rhino are growing in numbers again. It is one of the most succesful conservation programmes in the  sub-continent. There are also wild elephants, sloth bears, deer and monkeys, and many smaller animals, too.  To aid their conservation efforts, the Nepalese government recently banned overnight stays in the park itself, and most of the hotels are now concentrated around the riverside town of Sauraha, where, we spent a total of two days. There was so much to take in, that I have divided this posting in two – part one relates to the wildlife, and part two to the life of the villagers.

Part 1 – Jungle walks and encounters

A rhino seen crossing the river - a first day sighting by our eagle eyed guide. The figure to the right is an uber-confident ranger

A rhino seen crossing the river – a first day sighting by our eagle-eyed guide and a terribly lucky one. The figure to the right is a park ranger – one of the 3,000 or so rangers, troops and policemen who keep the wildlife safe from poachers and the villagers (sort of) safe from the wild-life.

Our timing was excellent; arriving in a gap between larger parties, we had the undivided attention of two guides on our second day, the ever calm and unflappable Mara and his shorter, quick moving colleague, Nitesh. With just us two people to shepherd, our guides enjoyed the walk more themselves. They explained that if there are more than, say, five in a party, they rarely have the time to track things properly and in any case, the noise become too much for most of the animals.

The day begins with a trip up-river by dugout canoe - this a picture of another party

The day begins with a trip up-river by dugout canoe – this a picture of another party. Just one guide – I wonder if he’s told them about the crocodiles, yet.

Mara, leading us into the jungle; the stick he carries his, and our, only defense.

Mara, leading us into the jungle; the stick he carries his, and our, only defense.

After a journey up-river, bird spotting along the way (the colours on the kingfishers were magnificent, but beyond my camera skills to capture) we alighted on the opposite bank and entered the jungle proper. Now, the reality is that you can easily go a whole day on one of these walks and never see any of the larger animals at all. They are wary of humans and will tend to hear (or smell) you and move away, long before you get near enough to see them. To add to that, we were there pretty late in the season. The long jungle grasses had already reached two metres in places  – so we were pretty happy just with the odd signs of passage that Mara and Nitesh pointed out along the way.

The mark of a passing rhino? So reckons Mara.

The mark of a passing rhino? So reckons Mara.

But then, after a steady walk and a couple more photos of smaller beasties, our guides both froze at the sound of a loud rumble forwards and to our right. So began our first encounter with the rhinos that day…..

Mara shows me where two rhino were catching a little sun, before we (evidently) got too close and disturbed their rest.

Mara shows me where two rhino were catching a little sun, before we apparently got too close and disturbed their rest. Just behind us, the grass was still wet with a little wee – the rhino’s by the way – in case you were unsure.

I never actually saw the rhinos – but later worked out that Mara had got me within 30 m of this spot when we heard them get up. This is not far. This is in fact, rather close. Very close – an angry rhino can cover 30m in less than three seconds at full pelt. The above picture, by the way, was taken by Jules. She was up a small tree at this point – a doubly smart move really, because it put the best photographer in the tree and the best runner on the ground!

So, although we waited and Jules watched for a while, we didn’t see to o much of these two, nor the next two that we heard a little while later, fighting some way off. By that time, we had left the open grass lands and were threading our way along woodland pathways, pausing every so often as Mara or Nitesh pointed out the tracks of wild boar and deer, or the holes left by sloth bears rooting for termites.

Nitesh with Julie

Nitesh with Jules

Rhino tracks in a small wallow, overlaid with boar, deer and wildcat,... apparently.

Rhino tracks in a small wallow, overlaid with boar, deer and wildcat,… obviously.

A gray langur female and youngster

A gray langur female, her baby and a youngster. And a first for our guides – the youngster had previously been in the arms of the younger (sister?) the first time Mara had ever seen such group care, amongst these monkeys.

Eventually, about an hour late, we made it back to the river crossing (nah –

perfectly on time, bhai[1] – this is the Nepalese jungle, not Times Sq) thence to a late-afternoon ride on an elephant.

Two of our party following across the river. Happily, our mahout (driver) persuaded ours NOT to give us all a refreshing bath half-way across

Two of our party following across the river. Happily, our mahout (driver) persuaded ours NOT to give us all a refreshing bath half-way across

Those three grey bits sticking up out of the water are the ears and horn of a young rhino. Honest.

Being on the back of an elephant means that the animals generally ignore you – This a taken from about 5 m – those three grey bits sticking up out of the water are the ears and horn of a young rhino relaxing in a water hole. Honest.

We were incredibly fortunate and priveliged to see all this in just a single day and a bit. In total, we saw or heard five of these incredibly rare rhinos, besides deer, boar, monkeys and wild chickens. And it was a real eye opener to walk and talk with our guides. They are all highly trained (it takes about two years to get a licence as a guide, and it shows). They patiently pointed out and explained all sorts of things, from tracks to tree species and how to tell the difference between the two types of crocodiles on the river (one can eat you – the other can’t). And it was a real education to watch the way they moved through the terrain – not so much silent as “with-it” – always alert, but equally at ease – armed with only a metre long stick and a lot of nous. And yes, we did ask them about tigers, and yes, there are some in that area (we saw the evidence in the skull and rib cage of a long-dead, but large male deer) but yes, unless you have the time to track them (like a three or five-day trek) there is little chance of seeing one.

Thank goodness there are those in this world – governments and people – of sufficient vision and care to intervene and save these habitats and the beasts that live in them, despite the many pressures to do otherwise.

Part 2 in a few days time.


[1] “a familiar term of address in Nepalese – it means “little brother”.

Around home

Today I woke to the latest in a series of dry and sunny days that we have had in the UK, after weeks of rain, snow, wind and rain, again. Finally, I had a chance for a walk in my local woods and fields, and the weather to do it in. Very few pics, but that is because I was trying to resist the camera in favour of the moments (see Cameradrama 2) of which I am pleased to say there were many.

Aroundhome1In a couple of weeks’ time, I shall be off on my grand tour around the world, so much of it so very different, but to this I will return – how fortunate am I?

Which brings me to something that I am curious about – in each of these shots that I preserved out of so many, why the roads or corridors or pathways that go off into the distance? Is it just me, or is this one of those archetypes of imagery that everyone is drawn to? Is it what is in the picture, or what lies as yet undiscovered, just beyond that gate, those trees, that corner?

 

Aroundhome2

 

 

 

Aroundhome4

Newfoundland journey

Boy, this is a remote and challenging place. Our journey across the island to catch the ferry to Nova Scotia has taken two days. Along the way, I have marvelled at this wide-open, empty land and the majestic mountains that have loomed out of the snows and mists along the way. I have few pictures because we haven’t really the time to do any sightseeing stops – in any case, even the light winds lend extra bite to the minus 7ºC temperatures, so trips outside the car are rare and quick.

We came from back there, a way....

We came from back there, a way….

For an hour or so on the second day, I take my hand at the driving. After all, this is part of what I am there for, right? Though my brother John might well deny it, I think he may be a little dubious of the handover from the very capable Phyllis, his wife. She has driven in much worse snow and ice than this (she grew up in Alberta where -38F is not uncommon) whereas I am a soft-handed resident of southern Englishman who drives on the wrong side of the road – I also haven’t driven a standard (manual) shift either there or on the right hand side of the road since I scared an ex-girlfriend sh*tless doing both in Greece, five years ago.  But I have not told them that story and besides, I am insistent. It’s hard and boring work being a rear passenger on a long drive in a foreign country – easy to feel like a sack of low-value potatoes and you really don’t get much of a view or an idea of where you are.

But driving is great. There are long stretches of the highway that are completely empty, both ahead and behind. Banks of ploughed snow line the outer-verges, while the further-off evergreens still carry a light icing from the storms the week before. The occasional lumber-laden truck roars past in the opposite direction, trailed by a small tail of lesser vehicles, while we pass a pick-up with a complete flower patterned bed and mattress tied down in the open rear.  Not long after I get into the driver’s seat, we are overtaken by a rushing ambulance, lights blazing. But later, just a few kilometres further on, we find it stopped, somewhat off-parallel, lights still whirling, at the side of another stretch of empty road. We are sobered by the conjecture that the position indicates an emergency stop and an attempted resuscitation which may be in progress as we pass.

Sea loch NewfdlndAfter the ambulance passes us again a short while later, lights still blazing, we talk a little of the distances between the few major settlements and hospitals across the island, linked by this 900km single highway (and helicopters when it’s safe to fly). But, this is an exhilarating landscape where locals still fish and hunt to supplement paid work and where lonely side-roads or tall mountain slopes offer great skiing of both kinds (according to John and Phyllis – this is a pastime that has so far left me cold). (They also have caoe camps and golf-villages, but somehow, I can’t quite see Tiger making the pilgrimage). It is great to drive such a landscape, even for a short-while, before I happily hand control back to Phyllis as the skies lower and the snow starts to fly past us in gathering gloom.

Eventually, we descend from the last of the eastern, lake-filled valleys into a narrow coastal plain that is known as the Wreck-House. A few kilometres run along the side of the sea with a growing number of houses to either side and suddenly we are in Port aux Basque, day 2 of our journey over.  The ferry comes tomorrow.

Port aux Basque (with the contrast turned way up!)

Port aux Basque (with the contrast turned way up!)

Nature’s little Christmas offerings

Today, I got outside for the first time with a new camera – intent on enjoying the first really hard frost of an English winter. With all the moisture frozen out, the air was as clear of fog and haze as you ever get it – like the inside of a temple dome of sharp, clean blue.

Now normally, I might expect to continue in this vein – after years of close-in city living, the sense of the wide roundness of the earth and our smallness within it never ceases to get to me. But today, the camera took me to a different world of miniature magic. With apologies for some of the quality issues, here is a little of what I found –

Privet rebel

Privet rebel

Here was this small burst of growth in the middle of my neighbour’s carefully crafted hedge. It’s not that there isn’t something attractive in a well ordered garden, but surely this is what it is all about – the irrepressible and unstoppable urge for growth.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, just around the corner….

Wired

Wired

 

 

 

 

 

And, on a pathway nearby,

A starling's christmas dinner?

A starling’s christmas dinner?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What more can I say, except “Thank you”?

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