After our amazingly busy day on the Tuesday, the following morning felt like a return to ‘routine’. We awoke at 05:15 once more, to be ready for a 06:00 departure. Even at that time in the morning it was already 24 degrees centigrade and the winds had died away to nothing leaving us all having to deal with the realities of more traditional Nepalese conditions.
So what, after only three full days in the jungle, did my perceptions already class as ‘routine’?
Tessa’s log: Earthdate 18 April 2012
Temperatures: 06:00 24°C 14:00 38°C 19:00 32°C
- JBS, Mandy, Villa
- Duncan, Siv, John E, Cathy
- Barry, Carolina, Sarah L, David R
- David DW, Peter, Jack
- Tony, Tessa, Angus
- Graham, Sarah A, Susannah
06:00 departure by jeep to the elephant pick-up at Gaida machan. Elephant safari picked up lots of tiger trails including remains of kill, but no tiger.
Our jeep found the herd near the road, with Bhim Gaj. The other jeep found a one-tusked bull not far away.
Evidence of a kill
After our usual early morning snack of tea and peanut butter biscuits, we all got into the jeeps and headed off to meet the domestic elephants. This morning I was back on Saraswati, with tall, slim David Read beside me to balance Barry, who sat next to Carolina behind me.
It was a relatively uneventful safari. There was one point when our phanit and Hari became excited and we found ourselves following some fresh tiger tracks, but this chase fell into confusion after about half an hour of searching. Having been joined by Raj Kali, we were sent to scout a small path along which a boar had clearly run soon before. However, that too led to nothing and it was on our way back from this fruitless trail that we spotted the back leg of a deer lying in a grassy glade. Fresh tiger kill, and it was no more than four meters from where the tiger tracks had first been spotted. If we had turned right, instead of following the path straight ahead, we would have caught the tiger feeding. Sadly we had been unlucky. Now, all that remained were a few bloody bones, bits of plucked hide and a skinny hind leg, complete with hoof.
Saraswati stood as we took photographs, but she was still uncomfortable being around this area. It stank of tiger.
The rest of the morning was spent in semi-trance as we scouted up and down a riverbed. I was on the side of the houda nearest the bank so had a fabulous view of the dry cliff face that stretched up above our heads. When the waters had been high, the river had sliced through this land, dragging away the layers of pebble strewn sand in which the jungle had grown. Trees clung to the cliff edge, roots half in the bank, half hanging loose, creating fantastic shapes, all creeping and twisted.
As Saraswati plodded along the natural river valley I was able to look back up the gulleys left in the bank by rivulets that had run perpendicular to the main flow. These were crisscrossed by roots and full of animal burrows. Dark, deep holes of all different sizes suggesting residents that might range from voles to porcupines. Even sloth bear are known to dig, although it wasn’t until days later I was shown clear evidence that a particular hole had been made by a bear. At this point, my experience extended only to porcupines.
David Read was a quiet companion. A retired carpenter from Chippenham, David had been on a previous expedition with JBS and had helped construct a watchtower to aid wildlife conservation in Burma. Interestingly, for this expedition JBS had paired David up to share a tent with young Jack. David had also been asked to ‘look after’ Jack. Unfortunately, this was a task born to disaster and poor David, who took the responsibility seriously, was to receive the disapproval of his young tent mate who had reached exactly that point in his life when the very idea of being ‘looked after’ was perceived as an insult.
Throughout this trip, I admired nearly every single decision JBS made with regards to his team. I was clearly delighted to be paired with Tessa and not just because we got on so well at a personal level. Pairing us up made us stronger as a team than we would perhaps have been as individuals. I blush at the idea that I might be of any aid to Tessa, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that having Tessa around made me more efficient on a daily basis. I was also impressed by the decision to pair Susannah and Captain Sarah. What might have seemed an odd pairing at first, became a clear boost for both of them. Sarah’s practical streak balanced Susannah’s calming influence beautifully. However, I’m afraid that the David Read / Jack pairing was to turn into a small drama that had both of them winding each other up until, by the time we got back to Kathmandu, there had to be a subtle rearrangement of hotel rooms to ensure no one ended up like the deer, nothing but a skinny, bloody leg lying in a grassy glade.
I, however, found David R perfectly enjoyable company on the back of the elephant and we sat side-by-side in companionable silence for most of the ride. It was calming. It was hot. There were times when we were negotiating the jungle branches. There were also times when we walked in open grasslands and had to suffer the direct sun. This was all classic elephant safari experience now. This was almost routine.
A hungry herd
Around 11:00ish we met the jeeps by the road and dismounted the elephants. Rather than bother with ladders at this point, our phanits simply asked the elephants to lie down as close to the jeeps as they could. All we had to do then was extract ourselves from the houda and step off onto the jeep seats a few feet below.
Soon we were heading back to camp for our brunch and to get out of the increasingly hot sun. We all sat in a slight daze as the jeeps drove. Now used to the jostles and jolts of the jungle tracks, our bodies relaxed and simply going with the flow of the vehicle.
I was in a jeep with JBS and Ram Din. They sat up front with the driver. There were perhaps six more of us in the back. Two rows of three, our knees intertwined in the middle of the vehicle, backpacks tucked under the seats and our legs, cameras always accessible round our necks.
Suddenly Ram Din pointed forward at a bush and the driver ground to a halt. The bush was right next to the road. It rustled wildly and parted to reveal a massive bull elephant. We all stopped making noise and sat staring at the enormous animal, less than twenty feet in front. A noise to our left then drew our attention to the large group of females and babies, all standing munching on leaves and staring at us from a group of trees about fifty feet into the jungle. We had come to a halt directly in front of them.
A few moments of concern as JBS and Ram Din assessed the situation. Luckily the bull, who was later identified as Bhim Gaj once again, decided we were of no harm and turned his back on us, delving deeper into the thick bush he was slowly devouring. This meant the other elephants were also relaxed about our presence. They too were far too busy eating either to worry about us, or move away. Ram Din instructed the driver to switch off the engine. JBS took up the radio and quietly informed the other jeeps. We all got our cameras and videos out and arranged ourselves as quietly as possible so we had the best view we might each afford.
Typically, my video was still out of action at this point. All five of my batteries had been sent up to the lodge to be recharged. I did however have my camera and was using the video on that.
We watched the group of elephants as they tore down a tree, ripping the branches from it and devouring in a matter of minutes every bit of green it had spent so many years growing. A tiny baby elephant, the same one I had spotted the previous day being helped across the river between two adult females, stood under its mother suckling from her as she munched on leaves. It was a wonderful experience watching them from the relative comfort and safety of the jeeps. They stayed there eating for nearly fifteen minutes before slowly drifting off into the deeper forest.
Luckily, we didn’t see the bull again. He may have followed his herd, although he may also have remained in the bush to keep an eye on us all. No one from the second jeep was daft enough to want to check.
Just as we drove off, I spotted another tree being pulled down from the distant treeline. It reminded me of a scene from the American TV series ‘Lost’. One minute the tree was there. The next it was gone… almost as though some great beast had plucked it from the ground!
Upon our return to camp, we discovered that the second jeep had also spotted a lone bull elephant. This one had only one tusk and had also been grazing close to the road, not far from the main herd. It was interesting, from a scientific perspective, to note the two bulls and there relative relationships with the herd.
Over lunch stories were told, notes were made and photographs were shared. Once again, having been in the one jeep that had got all the way back to camp without seeing anything, Cathy was spitting bullets.
Lesson no. 27: Never ask someone to ‘look after’ a nineteen-year-old who has just spent four months travelling alone through Australia and Borneo