Last night whilst walking home from the village, I bumped into a man called Jurgen (a German film maker) who the locals affectionately call Ganesh Dai. He has been living here and on off for about 10 years now and usually stays at the original guesthouse where I was placed. He observes that he hasn't seen me around at mealtimes and I explain that I moved hotels. He says that he is looking to use somewhere else in furture also as he's not happy with the standards anymore. I tell him Dal and Wild Horizons and he says he will definitely come and check it out with his wife. He also informs me that there is a banda coming up - a political strike - and no transport will be operating. He thinks that it will start on the 26th and last for about a week. Needless to say, this worries me greatly as I'm meant to be heading back to Kathmandu on the 28th. He tells me quite a scary story of a previous banda he was here for and, eager to catch his flight, he ignored advice not to travel and set off on his motorbike. During his journey on the windy cliff roads along the Tisuli River, he stopped for gas and when he set off again, he realised that some 'rebel' type soldiers had stolen his petrol cap. As he drove away, some of the 'rebels' actually tried to set light to his bike by flicking lit straw at his now unsecured petol opening. YIKES!
I reached the guesthouse, worrying and fretting. Dal assured me that even if there is a banda, they will let the tourist buses through without too much problem. I really don't need anything else going wrong on this trip so I sincerely hope so. Dal then told me that he had booked us a on jeep safari tomorrow and has already informed the Headmaster type guy that I won't be teaching until the following day. I'm pleased to be going on a jeep safari but a bit put out that on the flip side I am missing out on my prepared English lesson with the women. Dal says it will keep and that they are only too pleased for me to be seeing a bit more of their surroundings. He goes on to further surprise me by telling me that he has booked an elephant jungle safari on Thursday - with Sundur Kali! YES! Now that definitely lifts my spirits :-)
We spend the rest of the evening chatting about random stuff such as Dragon's Den and The Apprentice which leads us to discussing "gaps in the market". I am desperate to go and see Buddah's birthplace after learning that it is only about 3 hours from here but no one organises such a tour. I'm hesitant to set out alone and find overnight accommodation so I'm stuck - and frustrated. Dal agrees that this would be a great tour to organise so we put our heads together and work out ways he can do it in the future. All the while, a resident blind mouse is running back and forth from the French doors (bang!) back to the bar (bang!), round the side of the bar into some stacked boxes (bang!). He rests for a few minutes and then starts again. The French doors are actually open but the poor thing never manages to aim in the right direction. And on other nights when he does make it outside, he registers the cold - so it seems - and darts back in, only to resume his headbanging assault course all over again. It's just one of the things I've learned not to really notice anymore lol
So anyway - onto today. After breakfast, I am feeling a bit lazy. Homesickness has set it. I spend a completely self indulgent few hours, snuggled in my sleeping bag, reading and wishing I could just pop home for a cup of tea and then come back. Dal knocks on my door at about 11:00am and tells me that I should not wear bright colours on the safari - especially not red, pink or white. I consult my wardrobe and root through my red, pink and white tops and other brightly coloured clothing and start to worry. In the end I find a bluey/greeny top and a pair of green combats. By 12:00pm, I am sat having soup for lunch. By 12:45pm, I am holding my breath as we cross the river in a wobbly Nepalese 'canoe'. By 1:15pm, I am bouncing along through tall elephant grass on the back of a safari jeep, happily taking in the scenery. And by 2:00pm, I am stood by the side of the jeep watching an out of control fire about 12 feet in front of us and wondering how cross my mother will be with me if I don't get out of here alive?
Setting out on our safari - it was all going so well ...
Our canoe - basically a hollow log
Everything was going so well. The six of us sat in the back - me, a Canadian couple, an American, a French guy and a Brazilian guy. Dal was up on top of the jeep cab with his binoculors and telling us when he had spotted some deer or some beautiful bird. We would stop, oooh and ahhhh, take pics and then be off again. Two other jeeps were behind us but we were all spaced out enough not to notice. The elephant grass on either side is very tall - I estimate about 9 ft. It is difficult to see through to the lake but that makes it all the more fun when we do manage to spot something. Further up the track, Dal draws our attention to some sunbathing crocodiles. They are HUGE and I'm very glad we are on the other side of the lake.
Entering the forest
Rudolf on holiday
Black Crane drying its wings
Our bumpy but fun jeep safari continues - we leave the elephant grass and enter some thick forest. When the forest eventually clears, we are back in the elephant grass for a while - and then forest again. In and out like this for about an hour. It's very beautiful and I love looking at all the trees which I have silently named Helter Skelter trees. They are massive - wider than your front door - and around them are thick tree-like vines which wind their way up from the root of the tree all the way to the top. Just like a helter skelter! :-)
It is when we reach another section of tall elephant grass that we sense a problem. First, the air around us has suddenly got warm and as we continue along the path, we can definitely smell burning. The six of us in the back strain our necks to see if we can see the source. Rounding the next corner, we are confronted with a lot of smoke and as the wind blows across the path, beyond the smoke a raging fire comes into view. There is a jeep in front of us, stopped, and people are milling around wondering what to do. The fire has caught on both sides of the path and rages and leaps and then goes quiet again before the flames shoot up bigger than before. The six of us exchange nervous glances and I catch Dal's eye. He gives me a look that says I shouldn't worry and gallantly jumps off the top of the jeep and goes to speak with some others. Some local men are frantically trying to stamp out some of the smaller flames which are nearest to the road, ignoring the fact that right next to them are flames as high as a house. We all get off the jeep and some of us - me included - film the scene in front of us. The flames are getting bigger and hotter so we quickly get back in the jeep to await instructions. Dal comes running back and explains that help is on the way but, in the meantime, we have to try and get to the other side of the fire "just in case". I'm sorry, did I hear that right? We have to get to the other side? So, you mean, willingly go through the burning flames on either side of the road. Okay, I know I am not running directly through the flames but the prospect of flying cinders and possible burnt skin or loss of my eyesight etc seems scary enough. Everyone is getting out of the jeep again and I follow their lead. Before I can utter a word of doubt about this 'plan', our jeep roars off and - due to the bump in the road - it does a Starsky and Hutch jump with the flames licking on either side. I must admit - despite the element of death - it looks quite cool. Then, quite suddenly, Dal is ushering us through "quickly, quickly!!" and we are expected to follow the path the jeep just took. Everyone is ahead of me so I just blindly follow, hoping that my stupid sandals don't trip me up (why didn't I wear my trekking shoes today??). It is seriously HOT as we pass through the flames and can feel the hairs on my arms sizzle from the intense heat. We continue to run up the path, far away from the main fire (there are lots of other little ones springing up around us now as the wind has carried the lit straw and grass) and we eventually come across our jeep. Dal is still hurrying us along and yells at us to quickly get back on the jeep. We all jump up and, with some of us still hanging onto the back with one leg in and one leg out, the driver roars off up the road. We stop after about 3 minutes and everyone gets their breath. Dal says that for one frightening minute, he really didn't think the fire was going to let us out. Oh ... my ... god.
Stopping to observe the fire - not that we had much choice
Doesn't look like much from this angle but it was big and it was hot and we had to run through it. Scary times!
Drama over, we continue on our safari - although seeing some deer through the trees or grass no longer holds the kind of wonder it did before we all nearly died, ha ha. We continue to spot them though, along with more crocodiles and birds. "Yeah yeah, where's the Black Rhino - only one of those bad boys could top the fire", we all joke. We come across a crocodile breeding centre and Dal says we will stop here for a 20 minute break. Anyone who wants to go in should pay 100 Rupees at the booth and be back at the jeep in plenty of time. Dal accompanies me inside and the poor bloke ends up taking the rest of our jeep-friends on a guided tour of the croc dens. The crocs are very sweet - I conclude that they would make super pets if they didn't have an urge to eat you.
Cute baby crocs
Back in the jeep, we continue on our safari. More deer, more birds ... the sun is starting to get lower and it's certainly getting colder. Everyone in the jeep is a bit down because we haven't seen any rhinos, or tigers, or bears. Dal shouts into the driver's cab and at the next 'junction' in the forest, we veer right and the other jeeps veer left. Having survived the fire, I'm not sure we should tempt fate and go off the beaten track but Dal seems quite pleased with himself. The jeep stops every 100 yards or so and we stay deathly silent. Every so often, the driver and Dal will both get off the jeep and stalk into the forest or the grass, leaving us tourists as prey it seems. Everyone has, by now, given up. We are cold, a little hungry, and just want to get back really. The jeep sets off down the bumpy track. I am looking to my right, admiring the beautiful lake and the orange sun setting and thinking, if it wasn't so dangerous with all these animals 'supposedly' living here, this would be the most ideallic setting for my mom to build a log cabin.
Just then, the jeep stops suddenly and Dal says in a hushed voice "look, look!". To our right is a massive Black Rhino - literally less than 20 steps away from our jeep and as big as a small elephant. I am totally mesmorized - and aware that he could kill us all in an instant. But he doesn't seem bothered by us - he is lazily pulling at some vegetation having his dinner. I balance on the back of the jeep with one leg almost touching the road. Everyone is eager to get a couple of photos and just as I finish reviewing a couple, I look over again and find the rhino staring at us. Our jeep takes off without warning, causing me to nearly end up on the road! Dal explains excitedly that the Rhino had made eye contact and would have charged if we had stayed around. We stop around the corner and wait. We can hear the rhino coming through the vegetation - loudly. Just as we see his big black head appear out of a bush, Dal bangs furiously on the top of the driver's cab and we are speeding off again. The rhino steps out onto the road and watches us fade from his view. Dal is laughing, my jeep-friends are all saying 'wow' and 'oh man'. Me? I can't stand any more excitement! Pleeeease just take me back to the comfort of the guesthouse where I can crawl into my nice safe sleeping bag and forget about random fires and charging rhinos. Neffy The Intrepid surrenders - I don't think I'm cut out for this :-p
Ooooh! Black Rhino!!! (centre)
Wow, right? Just wow.
And so - after another wobbly canoe ride, a cold walk home, some freshly made thick cut chips, and a bowl of warm water for my frozen tootsies - that's exactly what I did. Snuggle snuggle Phew. On reflection, it was an absolutely incredible day and I'm soooo glad I got to see the infamous Black Rhino. A lot of other tourists go on this safari and don't even get a glimpse. Not sure I would do it again though, my nerves are shot!
Let's hope the elephant safari tomorrow is a little less eventful ...