Monday
Jan262009

Nepal 1 - first impressions

Namaste (pronounced na-ma-stay) is the traditional greeting in Nepal, and I think in other south Asian countries too. It means ‘I salute the devine in you’ and is used as an everyday greeting - anything from ‘hello, how are you’, to ‘see you again soon’. When you say ‘namaste’ you put your hands in a prayer-like position, a gesture which is the equivalent of westerners shaking hands. But shaking hands has also become a normal greeting, especially in towns and between men.

 

This mix of the traditional and the modern, the eastern and the western, is typical of Nepal. It is a land of contrasts. From the flat lowlands (200-300ft altitude) to the Himalayan mountains with eight of the ten highest peaks in the world (each one over 25,000ft). From the elderly men in traditional dress to the youngsters in western dress (yet nearly all the women wear traditional dress). From the ox-cart to the luxury tourist buses (private cars are almost unknown). And where else would you find women collecting cow dung (to mix with straw to dry and use as fuel) next door to a private temple with a satellite dish on top? Well, maybe in other poor Asian countries, but I haven’t visited them yet to find out.

 

Another contrast - the Nepali people themselves are quiet, hardworking, friendly, honest, and laid back. People always seem to be doing something, but are never in a hurry. Until, that is, they have to get on or off a bus. Then there is absolute panic, a certainty that a moment’s delay will mean missing the bus, or missing the stopping point. One man would have climbed over me in his desperation to get out, though I couldn’t move out of his way until the person in the aisle had moved. And he would have had to climb over her too! There was no chance of such a formality as letting passengers off the bus before the next ones got on - it was a free for all with people climbing over each other, and each other’s luggage.

 

Those are just a few impressions. With a country that is so totally and utterly different in culture, language, attitude, scenery etc, from anything I have previously experienced, it is hard to know where to begin. So I’ll try with the moment we arrived.

 

The guide books tell you that as soon as you get through the airport doors, you will be assailed by ‘boys’ wanting to get you into a taxi, and wanting to get you to a hotel - preferably an expensive one where they will be well tipped. Hem (our local contact) had told us that someone would meet us with a placard bearing our names. He (and the boy with the placard) were waiting right opposite the entrance, and we extricated ourselves from the crowd without too much hassle. The boy almost followed us into the taxi, demanding a few dollars, but Hem pulled him out, gave him a dollar bill, and he reluctantly rejoined the crowd of other boys. Hem knew how much to tip, and prevented the lad ripping-off these naive newcomers to the country. In fact, the great advantage of having someone organise the trip for us, was that we always had an escort, someone to do the dealing, get us on the right buses/planes and hand out tips as necessary. We just had to sit back and enjoy it - though it did take some getting used to being waited on hand and foot!

 

It was six o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and Kathmandu was going home - Saturday is the official ‘rest’ day. The city, or at least the bit we saw of it, was alive and active. Pedestrians, cyclists, people in rickshaws, people in buses and taxis, people moving, doing things, shops still open, open fires on the sidewalks where sidewalks existed. A funeral cortege, but with the body being carried on an open pallet to the funeral pyres next to the river. The typical bustle of city life, yet not a typical city at all.

 

At my request, Hem had found us a hotel outside the city. A new hotel with accommodation that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in the western world. We had two rooms, with en-suite facilities, a large satellite TV, a gas fire and two single beds. Two singles are the norm in Nepal, though occasionally you come across a double bed - two singles pushed together! We hastily refreshed ourselves, and went back to the hotel restaurant to meet Hem and Badri.

 

They were the representatives of a company called Nature Safari, run by a group of naturalists (mainly birdwatchers) who organised trips on an individual basis (like ours) or for tour companies operating from Britain, USA or anywhere else. We couldn’t decide whether Badri was a really naturalist, but he was certainly the business and finance officer of the company. Hem is respected as THE ornithologist in Nepal. He is well-educated, including spending time as research assistant at Cardiff University while completing his PhD thesis for a Dutch University. His English is excellent, his manner good, his enthusiasm infectious, and his knowledge of Nepal’s birds extensive. Over a large supper, we talked a good deal, and generally put the world to rights, as you do.

 

You would expect meals in Nepal to be different, but the guide book says that real Nepali food is distinctly dull. Nepalis eat two meals a day, mid/late morning, and evening. Both meals consist of dal bhat tarakari. That is Dal (lentil soup of gravy), bhat (rice) and tarakari (curried vegetables). Actually it’s quite pleasant, so long as you don’t have to eat it twice a day, every day. Restaurants catering for tourists may have it on the menu, more likely they will have some Indian dishes, perhaps some Chinese dishes, and some dishes that go under the heading of continental. These are vaguely European - stroganoff, bourguignon, etc, but served with curried vegetables. Dal bhat was not on the menu, and we had vegetable thali, which I thought Hem said was local, but which we were later told was from Kerala in southern India (so why it was listed separately from the Indian dishes on the menu?). Wherever it originated, it tasted pretty good. Hem and Badri had ‘continental’ meals, for them it was a complete change from the dal bhat they ate every day at home, but on Nepali wages, was still considered an expensive treat at about $8 each.

 

Having travelled for 33 hours, and having five and three-quarter hours of jet-lag to contend with, we were ready for an early night. The heater in the room was welcome, as was the extra thick additional blanket. But we still cuddled up in one bed for warmth - Kathmandu nights in January are close to freezing.

 

part two

Monday
Jan262009

Nepal 2 - first birds

Saturday morning dawned cold and misty. The boys in the restaurant were glad to see us - an excuse to light the gas fires and warm themselves too. Fortunately, hotels catering for tourists do provide breakfast.

 

We had decided to have the first day to ourselves - to relax, soak in the local atmosphere, get to know a few local birds, and possibly to explore the nearby Sivapuri Watershed Wildlife Reserve. First, though, the hotel grounds (5 acres) were full of birds the likes of which we had not seen before. (That’s not quite true - the male painted buntings I saw in Florida a few years ago would be at home in Nepal and also our common kingfisher, which does occur in Nepal too).

 

It was another kingfisher that took our eye here. He was BIG - 11.5 inches from beak to tail. Ok, not quite as big as a belted kingfisher, but nearly twice the size as our common kingfisher. His back, tail and wings were iridescent blue, his head and flanks chocolate brown, his beak bright orange, and he has a huge white bib. Then a rufous treepie (that is tree-pie - at first I pronounced it treepee), a kind of magpie with a brown back, buff underparts, and a slate grey head and tail. It delights in the scientific name of Dendrocitta vagabunda, and appropriately hangs out in small noisy gangs. Next was a drongo. The field guide showed a whole page of these, and it took a while to work out that this was a black drongo - actually they are all black, but with different shades of iridescence (rather like grackles) and different shaped tails. During the whole trip, we saw six of the eight species.

 

Then there were the jungle mynas - not spectacular, but big, noisy, tame and going around in large groups. Red-vented bulbuls - not quite as big, noisy or tame, but they let you know they were there just the same. Of course there were some smaller birds too, like the green and brown common tailor-bird skulking in the bushes, and a tiny black-and-white bird that we decided must by a little fork-tail because that was the only tiny black-and-white bird in the book. House crows (crows with grey neck and belly) and house sparrows (yeah the same ones that are everywhere else in the world) made their presence known.

 

Just looking through the book showed that identifying birds in Nepal was going to be a challenge. There are some 850 species recorded - that is 10% of the species in the entire world found in an area 500 miles east to west by 120 miles average north to south. The reason for this incredible diversity is that incredible range in altitude (200ft to 29,000ft) with the bottom bit being in the tropics. And it’s not just the birds. There are over 600 species of butterfly, and 6,500 of tree, shrub and wildflowers, including 300 kinds of orchid. Fortunately, as it is winter, we don’t have to worry much about the flowers and butterflies, they can wait for another trip!

 

Eventually the early morning mist lifted somewhat, and we started up the road to the Sivapuri Watershed Wildlife Reserve (by the time we left Nepal, it had been upgraded to the Sivapuri Watershed National Park). This is a large area of forested hills a few miles north of Kathmandu. It’s where the city gets most of its water supply, and so in the last decade or so the government have taken steps to maintain the area. The main problem is deforestation as local people need more and more firewood for heat and cooking. There is also a problem of pollution as few dwellings have any kind of toilet, and laundry is done in the rivers and streams. There is no such thing as garbage collection, at least, not outside of the towns, and I’m not too sure about inside the towns either. But now there are programs in place to help the local people be more environmentally friendly, and according to the booklet about the reserve, these are having a beneficial effect.

 

The route to Sivapuri was straightforward, or so we thought. But before we were out of the village of Budhanilkantha, a teenage boy stopped to ask where we were going. He said we were on the wrong road, and he showed us another road. We were puzzled as neither the guide book nor the hotel people has said to take a right turn. The lad continued with us, saying he was a student and wanted to practice his English. He told us something about the area, the local people, the crops they grew. He explained that the buffalo being butchered by the roadside was in preparation for a festival the next day, as was the liquor being distilled over woodfires outside some of the houses. And all the time we were going along a level dirt road instead of uphill into the reserve. Eventually he admitted he was taking us a longer, more scenic route.

 

Then we started going uphill, close to people’s houses, and even through their gardens, it seemed to me. We made it clear we wanted to stop to look at birds, somehow we seemed to have got into the mind-set of keeping your host happy. But we hadn’t asked him to be our host, he had just taken it upon himself. Eventually we crossed a dirt road, and then more steep uphill to a Buddhist monastery. The boy disappeared for a few minutes to find someone to open the building for us, and we at last had a chance to catch our breath.

 

The monastery was an amazing place. The decoration inside comprised mainly paintings of Buddha-type figures on the walls, and statues, some behind glass, of several male and female Buddhas. The colours were all muted and earthy, embellished with gold. After the heat and sunshine outside, the inside was cool and calming. Nepal is primarily (and officially) a Hindu country, but about 8% of the population are Buddhists, 4% Muslim and less than 1% Christians. However, Hinduism and Buddhism are somehow combined and often impossible to separate. All religions, including some kind of animism practised by some remote tribes, seem to come out as one, with everybody quite happily celebrating everybody else’s feast days as well as their own. I can’t help thinking that the rest of the world should follow suit!

 

We started down the hill by a different route, and stopped on the dirt road where we found a bush full of birds - the little brown birds that are difficult to identify at the best of times, and more so here because they were all so unfamiliar. We did our best, though it wasn’t til much later that I realised amongst them had been the Spiny Babbler. This brown, thrush-sized bird with a very distinctive white ring around its eye is found only in Nepal, and Sivapuri is apparently the best place to see it.

 

I said I would rather go back via the road. Walking down a steep hillside is no fun - you have to spend so much time looking where you put your feet that you can’t enjoy the view or see what is around you. The boy was horrified ‘Madam, it will take too long’ he said, ‘I take you a different route down, through a place with many birds’ . Bob agreed to this, and I reluctantly followed. It was not pleasant, it was not that different, and we certainly did not go through a place with many birds, although we did continue to see new ones from time to time.

 

Back at his village, the boy said he hoped we had had a good day, and if we would like to pay him something, now would be a good time. I was angry, though I hope I didn’t show it. We had not asked for his guidance, and he had not asked if we wanted a guide, and he had not even taken us the correct route (the park had been deprived of our entrance fees). I offered 100 rupees, he was disgusted, other people, he said, paid him $50 each. In the end we paid him $10 - tomorrow we were going out with an ornithologist guide, and that was only going to cost us $35 including lunch and transport! Well, it’s one way to learn how a country works.

 

I won’t bore you with tales of birds seen the following day, save to say there were lots and lots of them. We wouldn’t have had a chance of identifying many without Hathan, our very experienced guide. Hathan arrived at 6.40am, apologising for being 10 minutes late. He had gone to a bookshop to find us books on butterflies and reptiles (we had mentioned to Hem that we would like these) expecting the shop to be open at 6am, but it had not opened til 6.30. We were amazed that shops should be open so early, especially as we later found that they stayed open til 8.30pm. But it seems that working from dawn til dusk and beyond is normal in this country. We went by taxi to the top of Pulchowki Mountain, the highest point around the Kathmandu Valley, and a place with a good reputation for birds. From the top we saw the snowy tops of the Himalayas above the smog and mist of the city. And then walked slowly downhill through the forest, taking all day to reach the bottom. It was a much more fulfilling experience than the previous day.

 

part three

Monday
Jan262009

Nepal 3 - health

Every person we spoke to before going, and every book we read, emphasised that there were health risks in Nepal. Don’t drink the water, don’t have ice in your drinks, no ice-cream, use bottled water to brush your teeth, only eat raw fruit or vegetables if you can peel them first, etc. Someone commented that it was the only place you could visit and come back having lost weight - but for the wrong reasons. Consequently we took half a pharmacy with us - water purification tablets, anti-diarrhoea powders, rehydration powders, malaria tablets, three kinds of insect repellent, plus the usual Paracetamol and Neurofen as general painkillers. As we stayed at places geared up for foreign visitors, there was always boiled or bottled water available, and the only change we made to our normal routine was to remember to used bottled water for cleaning our teeth.

 

Malaria tablets were recommended for anywhere under 1000 metres (3000ft) all year round, and everywhere except the mountains in summer. We saw two mosquitos, and so far as we know, we didn’t get bitten. The tablets taste foul, you start them two weeks before you leave home, and continue until four weeks after your return.

 

Sunday evening Bob said his stomach was complaining. He had a bad night, and by the morning he felt like a balloon about to burst. The idea of a flight on a small (20 seater) plane with no toilet was not inspiring. It was easy to work out what he had eaten that I hadn’t - a sachet of sauce with Sunday’s packed lunch, the sachet was leaking and he said the sauce tasted bad. Still, we were committed to the journey.

 

Badri took us from the hotel to the airport. We were waved through by security at the gate on account of us obviously being tourists. In the car park, boys eagerly grabbed out bags and took them inside, putting them straight on the x-ray machine. My heart sank as I read the notice that said it was not guaranteed safe for film. Fortunately all my film was in my waistbag, except for the films actually in the cameras, so all was not lost.

 

The Royal Nepalese Airline no longer has a monopoly on internal flights, and the check-in desks advertised ‘Mountain Air’, ‘Spring Air’, ‘Buddha Air’ - almost anything except Hot Air! Badri had got our tickets, and sorted everything out at the check-in desk. Wait until they call Buddha flight no 207, he told us, it was delayed because of the morning mist. The domestic terminal was not the most pleasant place to wait. Bob checked out the toilets, and hoped he didn’t need to use them. We whiled away the time watching fellow passengers, and decided that you could not recognise a Nepali native on sight - there were so many Asian faces of different types (Nepal has twelve major ethnic groups) that had very little in common.

 

Eventually our flight was called and we went through one lot of security, and then another lot, and then wondered how other passengers were at the door ahead of us. Then we realised that there was a departure lounge, that Badri hadn’t told us about, and of course everyone else had gone through before us. At the plane we had to confirm each of our bags before they were put in the hold. I had a seat on the left side of the plane - the side with the Himalaya and Mt Everest in view above the clouds.

 

At Biratnagar we met Som, the naturalist at Koshi Camp where we were to spend the next six nights. It was an hour’s drive by landrover, along a tarmac road, then dirt roads. Somehow this area was more of a culture shock than Kathmandu. The landscape was flat, and I mean flat. This was part of the Indo-Gangetic plain, about 2-300ft above sea level, and an area that used to flood regularly during the monsoon. Then the Indians built the dam, but more of that later.

 

The first thing that was obvious was the lack of cars, and that there were more bicycles than we had seen in a lifetime, never mind in a one-hour journey. Most people, however, were on foot, and flip-flops were the usual footwear. Also on the road were goats, cattle, pigs, a few sheep, buffaloes, and buffalo carts and ox carts, and rickshaws. We stopped for fuel, and watched them pump the diesel out of 50 gallon drums into smaller cans, and pour it into the fuel tank. There is no petrol (gasoline) and private cars don’t exist. If you can afford a car, you can afford a driver, and you make that vehicle earn its keep.

 

But back to the health situation - Bob was still suffering. I watched out the window, and was not surprised to see a man defecating out in a field. But I was surprised a few minutes later to see one within a few yards of the road, and another actually on the roadside. Houses rarely have bathrooms, and I hadn’t read anything about communal facilities either. In fact, privacy as we know it in the ‘west’ doesn’t seem to exist in Nepal. People walk in and out of each other’s homes - it seems the buildings only serve as shelter, from the cold nights, and the monsoon. Cooking, eating, washing, everything is done outside. The water came from stand-pumps, and people bathed right there. Somehow they do it while remaining dressed, both men and women. And soap is a luxury that few can afford.

 

Everything that can be recycled, is recycled, and anything that doesn’t rot down, remains where it was thrown. Litter is becoming a problem in some areas. While this area did not have the same pollution level as Kathmandu, there was still the pervading smell of smoke from dawn til dusk. So it was no surprise that Nepal has health problems, if this was an example of everyday hygiene. Infant mortality is still high, hence most families will have six to eight children. Medical facilities are few and far between with, on average, one doctor per 50,000 people (according to one book). It is not a good place to get sick!

 

Bob’s problem lasted only 24 hours, needing a couple of paracetamol, one sachet of re-hydration powder, and a good dose of peace and quiet, to sort it out. I didn’t return unscathed, having picked up a virus that gave me a stuffy nose, sore throat and a cough for the last five days of the trip, and continued for two weeks afterwards.

 

part four

 

 

Monday
Jan262009

Nepal 4 - Koshi

Koshi Camp was a haven of peace, tranquillity and wildlife. Right from the moment we arrived, we felt this place was special. Beyond the screens on one side was the hustle of everyday village life, on the other was the Koshi Tappu wildlife reserve, the only Ramsar site in Nepal. (A Ramsar site is a wetland of international importance under criteria set down at a convention in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971)

 

Koshi Camp camp has a staff of eight - Som the naturalist, Badri (another one) the camp manager, Krishna the cook, Chakra the waiter, Gauri the driver, Shiva the room boy, Dika the assistant cook, and Shamser the nightguard. The accommodation was walk-in safari tents, each with two beds, and a thatched roof above the canvas to keep the daytime heat out, and the nighttime heat in. Not only were all meals provided (and plenty of food there was too) but during supper, Shiva put a hot water bottle in each bed - and the bottles were still warm the following morning!

 

The first meal, a late lunch eaten outside on the dining room verandah, took a couple of hours, and we didn’t even finish the dessert. The problem was the birds. Various small warblers in the reedbeds and scrub near the dining room, so we had to investigate and identify each one. A green bee-eater hawking insects from a nearby tree, common myna birds and oriental magpie robins wandering about the place, various kinds of herons and birds of prey flying past, including a black-shouldered kite hovering just beyond the camp fence. Bob even forgot about the delicate state of his stomach for a while.

 

The rest of the afternoon was given over to a look at the ponds just beyond the reedbeds. Bob elected to stay close to the tents and toilet block, so it was just Som with me and my camera looking at ruddy breasted crakes, cinnamon bitterns, chestnut winged jacanas, red wattled lapwings, painted snipes and all manner of other things. It was getting dark as we returned to the tents, and Som pointed out a couple of jungle cat kittens playing in a corner. They had been born in the compound, and didn’t mind too much when people were around.

 

The night sounds were interesting. First there was the village people. This is an intensive agricultural area, but wild animals are a problem, particularly the wild water buffalo that live in the nature reserve - the only place they live wild in Nepal. They wander off the reserve at night to feed on the crops, so the farmers have little look-out shelters in the fields and each night a few people stay out on guard. When the miscreants are sighted, the noise starts - shouting, yelling, whistling, drumming etc, until half the village is awake and joining in the battle to send the creatures back where they belong. After a while things quietened down, and then the jackals started howling. The sound is more musical than wolves howling - more a song of yelps. As the first group finished, they were answered by a more distant group, who were answered by a yet farther group, and then back to the nearby ones - they were even seen inside the compound one night. And then the sounds of humans again before dawn - the Muslim call to prayers, the sounds of radios and chatter as people started their day.

 

Just after dawn, I was standing outside our tent looking at the mammal book to see what jungle cats really look like, when the three kittens came waltzing past the tents without a care in the world! They are like slightly large, pale domestic tabby cats.

 

The rest of the day was spent in birdwatching along the embankments of the reserve. Back in the 1960s, the Indian government built a barrage across the Koshi River (just on the Nepal side of the border) to control the monsoon floodwaters downriver. The river is not particularly deep here, but as it takes most of the water from eastern Nepal, the volume during the monsoon is huge, and the river becomes several miles wide. As well as the barrage, there is an embankment on each side of the river, totalling some 40 miles. The reserve comprises about half the area within the embankment, and is a mass of grassland between the banks and channels of a river that changes course every year. Like all National Parks and Nature Reserves in Nepal, this one is guarded by the army who patrol the perimeter on elephant-back, and from whom permission has to be sought to even watch over the reserve from the embankment. We met these elephant patrols from time to time. I won’t bore you with a list of birds, but we did see over a hundred different species during the course of the day.

 

The second full day, (Wednesday by my reckoning, though time did not seem to mean anything on this trip) we had a raft trip down the river. The weather looked uncertain, and soon after the inflatable raft had been launched, we were being blown upstream. The sky was black, and just when we thought it had passed, the rain came down - absolutely bucketed down. Somehow we got the raft ashore and turned upside-down so we could shelter under it. The rain passed, and we continued the journey - paddling and drifting slowly downstream, stopping to look at birds, especially distant raptors, from time to time.

At one of these stops, we were looking at small birds - mainly pipits, wagtails and larks, on an area of heavily grazed grass. Som pointed out a brown lump on the ground and said it was a Bengal Fox. Using the cover of a tree, I crept closer with the camera. The fox was sleeping, but every so often raised its head and looked around. I crept closer and closer, on my hands and knees now, and in full view of the fox, who knew I was there but didn’t seem too bothered. Eventually he decided I was close enough, and disappeared down a hole just a few feet from where he had been sleeping. We added quite a few birds to our list before going back to the river bank. A short way down-stream about 30 Eurasian vultures were hanging out - there was a buffalo carcass half submerged, and they had been feasting on it. I took quite a few photos there too.

 

The weather remained unsettled, with a sandstorm blowing up in the distance, and a cloud drifting downstream at ground level. Half way through the afternoon we stopped to look at a pond that sometimes had some interesting birds, according to Som. However, before we were back in the raft, it rained again, and this time turned to hail. We sheltered under the trees as hailstones an inch in diameter hit the ground. Later we heard that six people had been killed in this area as a result of the hail and lightning, and there had been considerable crop damage.

 

On Tuesday two more British birdwatchers, Lee and Nick, had arrived at the camp with their guide, Suchit. On the Thursday we all went out as a group, Bob and myself benefiting from the extra telescopes they carried. We started at the reserve headquarters where we were adopted by a chital (spotted deer). She had been taken in as an injured baby, and was quite at home with humans. But as a sociable animal, she needed a herd, and we fitted the bill nicely. For me it was a welcome change to be able to take photos of a mammal at close range, though the others did get annoyed at times when she rubbed against the tripods and threatened to send (expensive) telescopes hurtling to the ground. Lee was especially happy as we spent time overlooking the reserve with birds of prey in the distance - Eurasian vultures, cinereous vultures, long-billed vultures, white-backed vultures, eagles of various sorts, kestrels, lesser kestrels, and goodness knows what else.

 

We then walked slowly along another part of the embankment, but had to make a detour to avoid a wild elephant. All we could see of this animal was the top of its back over the tall grass, and it was probably quite happily munching away and minding its own business. However, wild elephants have a reputation, and Som and Suchit were taking no risks with our safety.

 

By now, I have to admit, I had had my fill of birds. It’s always nice to see new things, but you can have too much of anything. We had seen 250 species, most of which were new to us, in six days - averaging some 30 new birds each day. There were many bird families we hadn’t heard of - munias, minivets, ioras, barbets, babblers, grassbirds, minlas, yuhinas, etc. Although I’d seen all of these new birds, usually because Som had lined them up in his telescope so all we had to do was look, I had no idea what we had seen - there were just too many to remember. Even the field guide did not list the birds in the same taxonomic order we use in Europe, and the index had all the page numbers wrong, so we had difficulty finding anything in the book. I can’t work up enthusiasm for little birds, usually seen in silhouette, high in the canopy. I like birds to be big and/or close enough to see them easily, even better, close enough to photograph. So far, I had really just grabbed pictures, usually of distant birds, whenever the opportunity arose. This was not the trip I had planned. All I wanted to do now was sit in a hide for a few hours and see what came my way. So Thursday afternoon I elected to stay at the camp while everyone else went to another section of the embankment. It was a peaceful afternoon, and I did take a few photographs. But the real pleasure came more from having time just to watch birds, without being called to see something new every few minutes.

 

Before going to Nepal, I had told Hem that we were interested in bats. So he had asked Som to take us to see some fruit bats. This fitted nicely with Friday’s planned excursions, although I would have liked the option of another quiet half day in the camp. It was a grey day again, and we stopped along the roadside to look at various birds in the fields. These included a distant cinereous vulture (it used to be called the black vulture, but the name has been changed to avoid confusion with the American black vulture which is only half the size) which was being teased by a crow. I got the camera on the tripod, took a picture, moved the tripod, and the camera, with the long lens attached, rolled down onto the road. Aaaaarrrgh!!!! At first I thought it was only the automatic metering that had been damaged, and continued to use the camera on manual settings, but then realised that the casing had cracked too. So that camera and lens was put away for the remainder of the trip, and I continued using the second camera with the shorter lenses - not suitable for bird photography! (Both camera and lens were written off by the repairers, and have been replaced).

 

We did eventually get to the bats, about a hundred Indian fruit bats hanging in a tree next to a village. All the villagers turned out to see these strangers looking at their bats and having lunch under the tree!

Saturday was another joint excursion with Nick, Lee and Suchit (they had done their raft trip while we were looking at bats). This time we went north, to an area of forest well upstream of the reserve. Bob has often said he is not a birder - he doesn’t have time to look at birds, although he probably knows more about them than I ever will. However, in the company of Nick and Lee, he was obviously enjoying every new bird, rushing to the nearest telescope whenever something was found. Being in woodland, most birds were high in the canopy, and I soon found other things to look at. Up til now, we had seen common tigers and plain tigers - butterflies that is. But now there were others, starting with a large white which did not look quite the same as the same species in Europe. Then there were browns of various kinds - mostly they landed on the leaf litter with their wings closed, very well camouflaged and difficult to find again if I took my eye off them for a second. But I enjoyed myself - here was something that I could photograph at close range, even if I couldn’t identify them (there is no field guide). Later there were glassy tigers, and other more colourful butterflies. And just as we were leaving the forest, a troop of Rhesus macaques and grey langurs (monkeys) came to the edge of the road to give us the once-over.

 

And so our time at Koshi came to an end. It was definitely a place to go back to, and one that set the standard for the whole trip. Could anywhere else match up to it?

 

Part five

 

Monday
Jan262009

Nepal 5 - bus journeys

Because there were only two of us, it was more economical to travel by public bus than to hire a care or mini-bus. If you hire a car, you have to have a driver too, and if you are going outside of the Kathmandu Valley, or want the vehicle for several days, that works out very expensive. Actually it is impractical drive yourself, as we discovered that the rules of the road in Nepal are certainly different to those in Britain, even though they also drive on the left hand side of the road. In America and mainland Europe, you may drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, but at least the general rules are the same.

 

And so, on the Sunday, we set off before dawn in the Landrover to meet the bus, a half hour drive away on dirt roads. I’m not sure what time the bus was due, but the Nepali people do believe in being at the bus stop early – as I said before, they have an absolute fear of missing the bus, or missing their stop. The first thing that strikes you about traveling in the dark, is the lack of lights. The lack of street lights is not surprising, after all, there is not much electricity in a poor country like Nepal. It’s the lack of lights on vehicles that is rather worrying.

 

In Britain, if you cycle without a front lamp, the police will stop you and issue a caution. In Nepal, bicycles with lamps were the exception, and no-one would think of taking a torch when walking. Similarly, few vehicles, even buses and trucks, seem to have working headlights. We waited at the edge of a village where there was a long straight road (the main east-west highway). We heard buses and trucks as they approached, but often as not, they had no lights. And we whiled away the time trying to guess whether it was a bus or a truck that was approaching next. Buses came, buses went. Some stopped, most went straight past. Our bus was long overdue, but the driver of another bus said it would be the next one to come, and eventually it did come – and it did have headlights.

 

Hem had said that someone would accompany us on the bus journeys (there would be another one in five days time), and we were delighted to find on this journey it was Som. Like the other staff at Koshi Camp, Som came from Chitwan originally, and was now taking the opportunity of a few days vacation to see his family. He got us all on the bus, found us seats (they had been pre-booked, but all seats were full so someone had to move), and got our luggage on the roof (where luggage normally travels in Nepal). Later he made sure the luggage was protected from the rain. We waved goodbye to Gaura and Hathan who had taken us to the bus.

 

Although this was an express bus, a Greyhound it definitely wasn’t. It was noisy, and it was cramped, and there was a chicken amongst the passengers. On a local bus, one that stops at every village, there would probably have been goats as well. There were three sources of noise – the passengers, the cassette player and the horn. The horn is a vital part of motorized transport, and seems to be used at every opportunity. You have to remember that most road users are pedestrians, cyclists and animals. Animals in particular don’t respond much to engine sounds, but they do usually take note of a horn sounded suddenly at close quarters. The driver doesn’t distinguish between people and animals, and so blows the horn at anything – just to let them know he is there. Most large vehicles have the words ‘push horn’ in English or in Hindi/Nepali on the back. So, when you come up close to such a vehicle, you blow your horn. This lets the other driver know you are there, and then he can move over to let you pass. Oh, I forgot to mention that all vehicles use the middle of the road, until something comes along to make them move over! That is a reflection of how little motorized traffic there is on the roads. Mind you, cattle, goats, sheep and buffalo tend to behave the same way, somehow just keeping beyond the range of the vehicles.

 

According to the Foreign Office Website, multiple fatality accidents were not uncommon, and it was soon clear why. Bus drivers are not content to potter along, they have to go at top speed, sounding the horn to clear everything else out of the way, not forgetting to overtake every other bus on the road. We were glad to be on the main highway in the lowlands, going through a hilly area on dirt roads would have been a little too nerve-wracking. The surfaces on those roads are not good, and buses hitting potholes and overturning on slopes were the main cause of such fatalities. Not that the surface of this main road was anything to get excited about. For a main road that had been completed only a few years ago, it was still pretty rough, and barely wide enough for two vehicles.

 

There was no such luxury as a toilet on the bus. Any time that the bus stopped, several people (mostly men) would get off and hurry into the bushes. When we stopped for lunch, everyone headed for the rest rooms – Bob wasn’t too impressed with the facilities, and I avoided drinking anything so I that I wouldn’t need to go.

 

There was another inconvenience to travel by bus. The Nepalese Government called a state of emergency at the end of November. The Maoists were not happy with the fledgling democracy, and had been stirring up trouble. Now the army was on full alert, with checkpoints set up along the roads. Usually all passengers had to disembark, wait around for a while, be searched, have their luggage searched, and eventually be allowed to continue their journey. As foreigners, we were searched only once on this trip, security checked labels on our luggage saved us the inconvenience of future searches. Local people, however, had to go through the process time and time again.

 

Our second bus journey, from Chitwan to Bardia, was more problematic. There had been more trouble in the western half of the country, and the army was more scrupulous about the searches. Add that to thick mist on the morning we left, and the bus was always running late. And it had to stop for a half hour while a flat tyre was replaced – I don’t know what would have happened if there had been a second puncture! Unfortunately the road also goes through Bardia National Park. National Parks close at sunset, so the bus had to get into the park early enough to get out the other end in time. The army had set that time to 5.30 (well before sunset), and there was a speed restriction through the park, so if they didn’t get in by 4pm, vehicles were not allowed through.

 

Our bus was well behind time, so Mohan, our escort for that trip, got us off the bus before we reached the park, and onto another bus to Nepalganj, the nearest town. The second bus was a three-wheeler micro-bus that managed to carry twenty people, plus bicycles on the top, and the conductor hanging out the door. In Nepalganj he quickly organized two rickshaws to take us to a hotel where we would spend the night in relative comfort – it was an old hotel. Riding in a rickshaw was quite an experience. It was quiet, reasonably quick considering it went by pedal-power, and should have been ecologically sensible. But the buses, trucks and other traffic throw out so much pollution, that riding a rickshaw seems more of a health hazard!

 

The next morning Mohan sent for two rickshaws before dawn, and we were quickly and quietly (and without lights of any sort) taken back to the town center to catch an early morning bus. There wasn’t much other traffic on the road to throw out those nasty fumes either. He found the bus, and got us and our luggage installed. After about ten minutes someone got on the bus and started a discussion with the driver. It sounded to me like they were discussing where the bus was going that day. Sure enough, we had to get off because the army wanted it to transport 80 soldiers – three ordinary passengers couldn’t compete with that! Mohan took us across the road, and got us on another bus, a smaller one with other passengers – less likely to be requisitioned.

 

We arrived at the checkpoint at Bardia National Park with five buses and several lorries ahead of us. One of these buses, said Mohan, was the one we had been on the previous day. It would have gone into Nepalganj for the night, and passengers would have slept on board. Mohan walked to the checkpoint, and about 20 minutes later returned with the jeep from the Forest Hideaway resort that we would be staying at (Mohan was the managing director there). Once in the jeep, we went past the other vehicles and through the checkpoint with a barely a glance from the soldiers.

 

If that sounds like a big fuss about finding our way by bus, I should point out that the Nepali language is written in using the Devanāgarī alphabet – characters that are completely different to the Roman alphabet that we use. So you couldn’t just look at the front of a bus to know where it was going. Nor would you recognize the name of a town written on a sign, so how would you know when you got to your destination? Add that to a country where few people speak English, and we speak no Nepali, and even Nepali is a second language to most of the indigenous people (they speak their own tribal languages – up to 200 have been recorded – until they go to school, where lessons are in Nepali) and you have a recipe for a nightmare. How European students manage to take off for such countries, and survive when they get there, causes me some amazement. We were more than a little grateful for Hem arranging for us to be escorted on these journeys.

 

Part six