Bardia National Park, Nepal
The Baria River in early morning light.
"If rhino charges, you must run zig zag pattern," Bishnu whispered, making short choppy motions with his hands, "not like the snake, not smooth. And remember, rhino attacks down like this then up." He put his hand on his forehead, made a horn of his finger and mimicked the rhino's movement. "Run zig zag. Not straight and not like snake."
"Right," I whispered back, "zig za... Wait, what!?" But Bishnu, my trusty Nepali jungle guide, was nowhere to be seen. He'd disappeared into the tall grass to find the Bengal Tiger we'd heard roar a few minutes earlier.
On my bicycle ride around the world, I had many strange and wonderful experiences, but the day I spent in the Bardia National Park in the lowland jungles of Nepal ranks near the top.
It was halfway through my second week of riding the Mahendra Highway, the main east-west road north of the Nepal/India border, when, while I was stopped at a military checkpoint, a young man approached. "Good afternoon, sir," he said, "may I ask if you have booked a hotel room for this evening?"
"No," I said, "I'm just going up the road a couple of kilometers to the next village."
He smiled. "I have a very fine place of lodging not far from here where you may see elephants, rhinos, crocodiles and, perhaps if you are very lucky, a Bengal Tiger."
"Uh-huh," I said, "how much and how far?" I'd already clocked over 100 kilometers in the scorching jungle heat and I was ready to call it a day.
"Only 400 Rupees and only 13 kilometers."
I did the math. 400 Rupees figured out to about four dollars, and 13 klicks wasn't much farther than the next village, plus, there was the wildlife. I'm a sucker for wildlife. "Ok," I said, "let's go see the tiger."
The elephant ride is the only touristy attraction at Bardia.
Bardia National Park is massive, encompassing more than 350 square miles and is one of the last sanctuaries in this part of the world for the Bengal Tiger. During the 10-year Maoist uprising, which ended in 2006, rebel poachers nearly wiped out the Bardia tiger population. But today the big cats are protected and their numbers are steadily growing. Still, sightings are rare.
We arrived at the Jungle Base Camp Resort half an hour before dark. The resort is a small compound carved out of the lush jungle foliage in the buffer zone just outside the park boundary. Bardia, unlike Chitwan, the more well-know Nepali National Park, is still raw. With relatively few visitors and rustic accommodations, you get the feeling of how it must have been 100 years ago when Westerners were just discovering this amazing place.
Bishnu led me to my room, a red clay, dirt-floored hut complete with mosquito netting over the bed and a colonial-era electric ceiling fan. A single dim light bulb dangled in a corner from its wire. Bishnu had informed me that it would cost another $40 U.S. for the walking tour. That would blow my budget, but how often do you get the chance to see a man-eating beast in the wild? I signed up and at 5:30 the next morning, we started out.
It took about an hour to reach the Barbai River. We found a shady overlook on the bank and took up our positions. I sat propped against a tree trunk while Bishnu scurried up a nearby tree, perched on a branch and scanned the countryside with his binoculars. I dozed most of the morning and early afternoon, and by 2:30, I was figuring the whole thing was a bust and was about to say so.
That's when we heard the roar. Bishnu had known exactly where to look and when he had the big cat spotted, he scrambled down the tree, grabbed me by the arm and hustled me along the riverbank and down through the water to this spot in the high grass. That had been, what, fifteen minutes ago? Now I crouched alone on the savannah, waiting for Bishnu to return with news of the tiger...
Soon, I heard the grass rustle off to my right, and I spun in that direction. Bishnu appeared, a wide, excited grin on his face. He bared his teeth and made his hands claw-like, the sign, I supposed for 'tiger'. He wheeled back around and signaled for me to follow. We hurried through the grass in a low crouch, finally coming to a high point. We belly-crawled the last few feet, then, Bishnu pointed toward the far bank. A pool had formed in the river about 200 meters away, and standing chest-deep in the water was a full grown, 500-pound adult male Bengal Tiger. He was looking right at the spot where we lay.
The hairs on the back of my neck bristled and all my senses snapped to full alert. Everything around me suddenly seemed somehow more real. The sky looked bluer, the scent of the river was more pungent and I could now hear subtle jungle murmurings that, until that moment, had gone unperceived. It was a thrilling experience I'll never forget and well worth that paltry 40 bucks.
Darby Roach is a designer, writer and adventurer. He recently completed a round-the-world bicycle trip and has written two new books chronicling his odyssey: Right Lane Ends and How To Ride A Bicycle 'Round The World.
You can follow his travels at BikeAroundTheWorld.org.