After our exciting first morning on elephant back, we returned to camp for lunch and to take cover from the midday heat. Following a debrief, during which we shared our individual group experiences from that morning, JBS asked if we would prefer to spend the afternoon in jeeps or on foot.
Tessa’s log Earthdate 15 April 2012
15:30 several jeeps and a walking tour went out.
- Group A Rajan, Cathy, David, Angus – to the north
- Group B Bhim, Duncan, Siv, John E, Tony, David DW, Graham – waterholes and survey
- Group C Ram Din, Carolina, Jack, Susannah, Sarah L – walking to the south
- Group D JBS, Hari, Raju, Barry, Mandy, Sarah A, Villa – jeep to army camp
Naturopathy with Ram Din
I decided a walk would be just the ticket for stretching out my back and knee muscles following the morning’s efforts and found myself grouped with Dr Susanna Curtin, Carolina and young Jack. We were to head south of the camp, on foot, and look for evidence of wild elephant while taking advantage of Ram Din’s knowledge of the local ecology. Carolina had been tasked with keeping a plant list and gathering information on the medicinal properties of the forest flora.
Armed, as was quickly becoming the norm, with both my stills camera and camcorder – each tucked lens down into a pouch that was both slung round my neck and looped through my belt as well as being individually secured by neck straps – I joined my designated group and we set off in single file, Ram Din up ahead and a second Nepali guide taking a protective position at the rear.
We walked at a relatively easy pace along the road before cutting into the bush about a kilometer out. Almost immediately Ram Din stopped to pick up a beautiful, glossy brown leaf from the forest floor at his feet. It was shaped symmetrically about its mid-shaft, its two large lobes forming a rough heart shape. He explained that it was called Bauhinia in latin and koiralo in Nepalese, but refered to locally as the camel-foot vine; a much better description of its shape of course. He gave it a quick twist at the stalk end, forming it into a cone.
“It is used as a cup,” he explained. “Also, women use it to create large hats for protecting themselves against the sun when the are bending over to plant rice.”
This was to be the first of many, fascinating botanical lectures that we enjoyed en route south. Ram Din was both knowledgable and a good teacher. He would stop at a particular tree or bush, pluck a leaf or indicate the bark or root and expound on its uses as a natural medicine. Most he was able to illustrate additionally with an anecdote of a time when either he, his father, or another close relative had taken said medication and been relieved of tooth ache, heart palpitations, liver problems and various other maladies. Each use was accompanied by a specific preparation. Leaves would need to be boiled in water to make a tea, for example, or a twig would require chewing. Most recipes seemed relatively straight forward. Until we came to the strangler fig that is…
We halted in front of what appeared to be a tall, elegantly sculpted tree trunk. Ram Din took his walking stick and poked it into a small gap in the outer skin of the great trunk in front of him.
“You see?” he asked. “It’s actually completely hollow.”
We all gathered round him and peered into the dark cavernous depths of this tree-like plant.
“It’s a strangler fig,” Ram Din explained. “It attaches itself to the top of the tree and grows downwards, wrapping itself around the tree, attaching its roots to the trunk and sucking the water right out of it. Eventually it covers the whole tree which slowly rots away, leaving this space in the middle of the fig.”
My brain suddenly realised it was looking, not at a tree at all, but at a very mature vine that had finally killed its host and now stood, petrified in the shape of the original tree. I was rather amazed and awed by this brutal act of nature. The result was extremely beautiful and rather eerie.
“This vine has many medicinal uses,” said Ram Din. “Its root is very good for low blood pressure and dysmenorrhea.”
“What’s that?” asked Jack innocently.
“Dysmenorrhea,” repeated Ram Din in his most teacher-like voice. “Dysmenorrhea, it is a period problem.”
Jack looked quizzical, clearly struggling to follow what Ram Din meant.
Ram Din, ever the patient teacher, continued; “Period not on time. Late. Early. Painful. Maybe clotted blood.”
“Menstruation,” I stated clearly, grinning as Jack’s brain suddenly understood what he was being told and his usually cheeky countenance faded into what was as close to a blush as I ever saw on him.
“OK. Ok,” he muttered, trying desperately to get Ram Din to understand that he had understood and needed no further explanation.
Like a naughty child at the back of class I spent the next ten minutes trying to choke back laughter so I wouldn’t interrupt the lesson or look immature enough to think this situation was hilarious. Ram Din was in full flow however (*smirk* pun intended) and simply ignored me completely.
Interestingly, unlike his previous cures which had each been relatively quick and easy to prepare, the recipe for the dysmenorrhea cure involved digging down about three feet deep at the base of the vine to locate a piece of root about two inches in diameter and two to three meters long. This then needed to be stripped clean, chopped up and boiled in water for several days before being ingested over several weeks.
As we walked on, Susanna, Carolina and I huddled and discussed the idea that, when suffering from period pains, Nepalese women were expected to leave their husband and children, come out into the forest, and spend three days digging roots and boiling them in water. Yes, we agreed. That sounded like it would work well. The whole root digging and boiling bit might be unnecessary however!
As previously mentioned, Jack Evans is only 19. Having spent the previous four months travelling alone across Australia and Borneo as part of his gap year, he had joined our expedition on a ‘leadership training’ ticket. A keen ornithologist he was a walking encyclopedia of Nepalese birds and had been given the task of keeping a bird list. He was also extremely interested in insects and could regularly be found poking at spiders webs, moth cocoons and beetles.
More than once I would be walking along in a daze when a tap on my shoulder would incite me to turn and find Jack with some small bug sitting on an outstretched finger.
While birds were his claimed focus, insects seemed to excite him more. I thought at the time that this may have been because he internalized his enjoyment of birds a lot more. Whereas, when he found an insect, he would immediately seek someone to share the find with. No doubt in the hopes that his audience would be creeped out. Although, when I think about it now it’s far more likely that he realised that I liked insects more than birds and I was seeing life from my own perspective.
I found Jack great company. He was funny and generally happy – although he had his grouchy teenage moments when tired. He is smart and will study chemistry at Durham University. Like me, he is a rather touchy-feely kind of person and craves physical contact, perhaps more so having been alone for the past four months. I was initially shocked when, during this first walk, he reached out and voluntarily rubbed my shoulders. However, he was a skilled masseur and I decided to enjoy the experience rather than make more of it than he had intended. It was plain that he was simply being kind and didn’t recognise traditional boundaries. I can relate to this. I find boundaries, especially those claimed by the British, to be a bore.
Jack and I quickly recognised a kindred spirit in one another and we were to spend the rest of the expedition testing each other’s boundaries. I thoroughly enjoy the company of interesting young people and Jack had a deep, quiet intelligence that reminded my of my younger son and a sparkle that echoed my eldest. He managed to remind me of both my children, and myself as a somewhat over-confident, fearless youth, all at the same time. I quickly found myself adoring him and, as I am want to do with those I adore, I began to try out affectionate nicknames for him.
“Ho! Jack Rabbit,” I called. “Can you be my cameraman for a few minutes?”
Hmmmm…. that wasn’t quite right. Although he did happily respond and turned out to be a very competent videographer. More interestingly, he was also a natural in front of the camera and happily brought insects to be filmed, explained paw prints and animal scratchings, or climbed trees to collect seed pods. A budding young wildlife presenter if ever I saw one. Although I’d never discourage the pending degree in chemistry either.
Several hours later we had just done another excruciatingly awful ‘to camera’ piece with me in front of the lens (I’m far from being a natural) and Jack on camera. I motioned a cut by appearing to slash my own throat and Jack stopped recording and bounded towards me.
“Thanks spratt,” I said. Yes. That was it! Jack Spratt suited him perfectly.
Dressed for comfort
Having reached the river bed to the south of camp, we scouted around looking for elephant prints or dung. Sadly we found nothing fresher than month-old droppings.
Soon the sun began to sink turning the distant mountains purple. Ram Din asked us to pick up our pace and took us back to the road. We then marched back to camp in what quickly became total darkness.
Being in the forest at night is exciting, although the insects become so thick you can feel them knocking against your skin as you walk. Luckily, I had elected to keep my long trousers and long-sleeved shirt on to protect myself from thorns and the sun. Having been treated with insect repellant before departure from the UK, my clothes prevented insect bites too.
Unfortunately, my left foot was suffering by the time I got back to camp. I was praying it wasn’t my beautiful new jungle boots – JBS had admired them back in Kathmandu and I loved them. However, there was no denying the large patch of blood on my left sock when I was able to eventually take them off that evening. I have to admit that I was so stiff at that point I couldn’t lean down far enough to see what was actually making my foot bleed so at some point after dinner, I snuck off and found the doctor.
Dr John Etherton, quickly refered to by us all as simply ‘Dr John’, has a wonderful bed-side manner and an incredibly soothing voice. He was able to administer to my foot without my being the least bit uncomfortable, even when the issue turned out to be as ridiculous as a badly cut toenail digging into the flesh of the longer toe next to it.
“Although it is recommended to cut your toenails straight across to avoid issues of ingrowth,” explained John in his gentle, almost cooing tones. “It makes sense to file off any resulting corners before going on long walks.”
When I think back on this I realise just how miraculous this man is. How on earth did he manage to help me out, file my nail down, and plaster me up to make me completely comfortable almost immediately without my being in the slightest bit embarrassed? It’s such a daft situation to find myself in that I should have been at least a little embarrassed! He really is a wonderful doctor and we were lucky to have him with us.
However, I find myself ahead of the story a little and must ask you – as readers – to turn your minds back to when we were walking through the dark towards camp, my foot still grieving me with every step.
The wanderers return
Ram Din, Susannah, Carolina, Jack and I all rolled into camp tired and hungry but hugely satisfied with our afternoon…
…only to be met by a bunch of zealous peers all jabbering over one another to tell us about the wild elephants they had seen!
Tessa’s log Earthdate 15 April 2012
My group in jeep with drove to the military post nearby where the soldiers informed us that elephants had just passed 10 minutes previously. On foot we soon found them on the opposite bank (in long grass), and then a big bull coming into the river from our side.
Great photo opportunity, plus dung samples taken, rangefinder measurements (66 m away) and footprints (21” diameter = 10´6”). Later identified from Adrian Lister´s elephant file as Bhim Gaj. He was clearly in musth.
The survey group arrived there soon after we had left to return to camp, and had a good sighting of the whole herd and bull in the river.
Here was my first lesson in learning to accept my own experience, rather than wish I’d been with another group who happen to have had what sounded like a more exciting time.
Tessa’s team had seen a lone bull. The survey group had seen an entire herd of females and young, followed by what was likely to be the same bull. The main lodge was stuffed with people discussing ear shapes (a good way to identify individual elephants). Past records provided by Professor Lister (a paleontologist from the Natural History Museum in London who had carried out previous studies of Bardia’s elephant population) and Tessa’s notes from a previous expedition were being researched, drawings of ear ragging and tusk lengths compared to photographs and names bandied about. Others sat with their noses pressed against other images counting the herd, close-packed and crossing the river.
“Count the legs then divide by four,” advised JBS, beaming from ear to ear. He was in his element.
Eventually it was decided that the bull was most probably Bhim Gaj, while the herd contained at least 17 individuals. The buzz was intense. The expedition was finally beginning to bear fruit. Tessa had even managed to collect the first few samples of fresh dung for our DNA study.
Those who had participated in the groups that had not been lucky enough to see the elephants had to listen to the excitement and live it all vicariously. It was easy to fall into the trap of being disappointed and jealous.
I let this matter sink in and felt my stomach tighten in frustration. But then my brain kicked in. I’d had a wonderful afternoon and had enjoyed every minute of it. It may not have had elephants in it, but it was a fine experience none-the-less. I became determined to appreciate what I had had. Not dwell on what might have been. ‘If only’s had no place on this expedition for me. If I was going to get the most from it, I had to learn to be happy that wild elephants had been found; not regret not having seen them myself or begrudge my fellow expeditioners for having had the pleasure.
On this very first occasion I learned to swallow the bile whole and became able to be genuinely glad for Tessa for having seen her bull, and glad that the survey party had seen the herd. Duncan was on the survey party and he had the best long lens. He had some fantastic photos!
This was possibly the most valuable learning exercise of the entire expedition. This was, of course, not the last time that others would come home with stories of sightings one might have wished to have shared.
Lesson no. 16: Suck it up and learn to be glad, even if you weren’t the one to see the elephants