Saturday 14 April was a long haul across Nepal, my first meet and greet with a domestic elephant, and settling in to the rather luxurious jungle camp. That evening, after a satisfying dinner in the camp’s central lodge we had a group briefing from JBS during which we were allocated our elephant teams and agreed to a 05:30 rise for 06:00 am departure the following morning.
We all trooped off to bed, expecting that to be the last of it all until the morning…
…but that was not to be the case.
When the wind blows
Having settled into our beds, Tessa and I chatted for about thrity seconds before I turned over and let her read a few chapters of her book.
I think I slept, but I can’t be certain. There was so many great memories of that day to think through and cherish. I may have simply been lying with my eyes shut, reliving the best bits when the tent canvas began to flap violently.
Tessa and I had mutually agreed not to bother zipping up the outer flap of no. 9 tent. I had some vague romantic idea of waking up with a view of the river. However, this meant that the zip had begun to knock insistently against the central metal pole at the tent entrance. I got up in the dark and negotiated my way passed the insect net panel so I could draw the zip to the ground. I stood for a few moments pondering whether or not to bother securing the two horizontal zips along the bottom, but decided that was far too much hassle – expecially if one of us decided we needed to visit the ladies in the small hours. Instead, I simply pressed the velcro of the insect net closed all the way round and got back into bed.
Ten minutes later, the annoying zip noise having stopped, I began to drift off. Only to be awakened by a tremendously loud tarpaulin shudder as the entire tent seemed suddenly to be shaken in its entirety. My eyes snapped open instinctively and I pushed myself up onto an elbow to look through the tent window above my bed, just to check that it was only wind. All seemed well outside, although the surrounding vegetation was being blown about rather a lot.
I lay back down and allowed myself to feel slightly thrilled by what was clearly going to turn into a storm on our very first night. Almost to order – I had flung a comment out earlier that I loved being in a tent during a storm. Thunder rumbled in the far distance and the weight of the weather could be felt in my eardrums, sinuses and the rising thud of my heart.
The bouts of wind bashed across our tent with increasing violence. Lighting lit up the world, even through closed eyelids. I lay in my bed quietly smiling to myself, remembering the two strong trees outside, standing sentinal, supporting our tent with ease.
Rain began to fall. Vigorous and loud.
My mind wandered to our luggage on the floor at the end of our beds. Right next to the horizontal zips I hadn’t bothered closing earlier. “Should we get up and move it further in to the tent?” I wondered.
Tessa lay as quietly as I did. I couldn’t tell if she was asleep or also lying and appreciating the entertainment being laid on all around us. I left her. Our luggage would be fine. The rain would have to be falling almost sideways to get passed the reasonably extensive porch and through the bottom of the entrance.
I heard the storm lamp tip over and turned over in bed so I could open one eye and check for flames. Nothing. All was well in that regard. The storm lamp could lie on its side for the rest of the night without me worrying about it.
I lay and continued to listen to the chaos going on around us. The tent taking the brunt of it all as we lay inside, cosy, comfortable and dry in our beds. Only once did the situation reach such a frenzy that I found myself considering the possibility that the tent might actually give way. But that didn’t last. Soon the rain gave up, the wind died down and I fell asleep.
Our first full day in the jungle dawns
Tessa’s alarm buzzed us awake a neat five minutes before Ram Din’s wake up call. We rose and got dressed quickly.
We found our luggage had indeed got wet – but not so much that it worried us. The day would be hot enough to right all wrongs before we returned home at lunch time anyway.
I was first outside to check on the devastation left by the storm. The matting outside our tent had flipped over, neatly protecting my boots from the rain. What blessings! I collected up the plastic cup and our toothbrushes that had been tipped over, but again neatly, into the sink. I righted the mat and stood the storm lamp upright. Other than that, no.9 tent had taken no damage.
A few minutes later, both Tessa and I were tucking into peanut butter cookies, washed down with cups of tea in the main lodge. I say that, but for the record, Tessa hates peanuts and didn’t ever ‘tuck into’ one of those biscuits. However, there was little other choice most breakfast times so she ate what was on offer. Over this rushed breakfast snack we listened to the storm tales from our fellow expeditioners.
Carolina Hanley and Villa Piche, who had arrived together from Brazil and were sharing the tent a few down from ours, seemed to have faired the worse. Their tent would have completely collapsed had the night guards not come to their rescue. They had spent a damp night and had to get up and put on wet clothes this morning as a result. However, they survived their experience admirably and their tale gave me great faith in the night guards.
Whether the weather is hot…
Discussion soon unearthed the facts that this type of weather was highly unusual in this region at this time of year. The locals believed these unusual bouts of weather were a result of climate change.
Indeed, while we were working in Bardia, we routinely found ourselves walking through patches of burned grass, stepping over smouldering logs and even standing across the road or river from what was occasionally a raging fire.
Sadly, almost immediately after we left Nepal the unusually windy conditions helped fan the many small forest fires that were breaking out all across the park. On 26 April, the BBC reported that forest fires had broken out in 225 places across Nepal. At this point, some remote communities were already struggling to control the flames. Then, on 3 May, as I sat once again at my desk in the UK, I was devestated to read the headling; Nepal forest fires ’cause big wildlife loss’.
According to Navin Singh Khadka, an Environment reporter with BBC News, nearly 70% of Nepal’s Bardia National Park had been consumed by fire in the few days preceeding publication.
“We have not been able to assess the loss immediately because the fire is still raging at some places,” the park’s chief conservation officer Tika Ram Adhikari told BBC News.
“But given our past experiences, our estimate is that around 40% of small mammals, 60% of insects and significant number of birds have been lost in the fire.” Extract from Nepal forest fires ’cause big wildlife loss’ by Navin Singh Khadka, Environment reporter, BBC News
Horror! Although it is gladdening to know that the larger mammals, including elephants, rhino and tigers, would have escaped unharmed.
I contacted JBS to ask if he might in turn contact our friends in Bardia and ask them directly for some news. I hoped very much that this report was sensationalising the situation. But sadly, this turned out not to be the case.
We received this email from Chandra Thapa at Tiger Tops:
“The news about the forest fire in Bardia National Park is true. As a matter of fact, there was fire at the Tented Camp where the group stayed after about a week or so of your departure that came from the hills on the northern part of the Park. Fortunately, no damage was done to the camp and the property. The staff were very active and doused the fire on time. I spoke with Rajan [at the Karnali Lodge]over the phone, and he confirmed that the forest fire they had in Bardia fortunately did not do much damage to the wildlife but reckon must have killed lots of insects, butterflies and not to mention the plant life.etc. It was good that the staff were still there at the Camp site as they hadn’t quite transferred the tents and other equipment back to the lodge. As you know this type of fire occurs mainly because of some irresponsible people throwing the cigarette butt or the burning match sticks into the grass.
You also must have heard about the flash flood north of Pokhara on Saturday that came as a result of land slide near the main source of Seti river where it blocked the flow coupled by an avalanche that triggered the flood. Near about 2 dozen people have been feared killed by the flood and approx 5 dozen are still gone missing including 3 Ukrainians. Experts say, the death toll may rise further. The flash flood came at about 09.00 hrs. There would have been more casualties had this flood came during the day time or the afternoon because the village people had gone up to the higher areas to attend some religious ceremony in the morning and were returning in the afternoon.”
Extracted from an email by Chandra Thapa, General Manager Tours, Tiger Tops, to John Blashford-Snell, 7 May 2012
This news is hard to hear. It is difficult to imagine all that beautiful forest burned and devoid of wildlife. However, there is hope that new growth will come quickly and nature has an amazing way of recovering. I only wish that might be the case for those poor Pokharan villagers who have suffered loss of life.
Sad news indeed.
Which makes me realise how important it is for me to continue writing about my wonderful experience while there, before these disasters occured. With the weather in a state of flux, and climate conditions still out of contol and threatening our current ecosystems, we really need to do everything we can to preserve and appreciate what we have now.
Lesson no. 12: nothing in this world is permanent