I hurry behind my guide through dense jungle. I keep pace as he brushes aside head high grass and leaps over broken branches. My guide suddenly raises his hand, strengthens his grip on his bamboo stick and stops dead still. My heavy feet stumble and my momentum carries me forward into him. He listens intently at the chattering of birds and chants of nearby monkeys. He then stops my heart with two words: “Tiger coming”.
I am on a private walking safari in the Bardia National Park of Nepal. I couldn’t convince Jasi to come, but I am starting to think that maybe she was right. My little Nepali guide, Prem points to a tree, removes his sandals and climbs up the tree. I quickly follow and hastily find a fork in the tree to wedge myself in. Prem stares intently over a small clearing surrounded by long grass. 30 minutes pass without spotting a tiger, without a word between us. Then I freeze again, as Prem whispers “Tiger, 100 percent”. Two seconds later a 200+ kilogram, mighty, male tiger sleeks from behind the tall grass into the clearing.
The tiger walks straight at us. 100 meters away then to 80 meters, 60 meters, and then to 30 meters away. I summon the courage to steal a quick picture with Jasi’s SLR camera. The camera shutter sounds and instantly the Tiger freezes and stares directly at me. Time stops as my eyes lock directly with this incredible animal. 20 seconds pass, the Tiger hisses and bares his teeth and finally bounds away back into the long grass. Prem turns to me and through a half laughing ecstatic whisper says, “I was scared”. Breathing a sigh of relief, I then quickly realize, that we were still 8km deep in the jungle with a tiger knowing our position.
To my horror, Prem signals that we will follow the tiger into the long grass. Words escape me, and I give a hesitant “OK”. We enter back into the long grass, swiveling our heads for any noise or movement. We hide from Elephants and Rhinoceros as they blast their way through the jungle. We tiptoe around creeks careful not to entice waiting crocodiles all the whilst monkeys swing and laugh above in the jungle canopy. This was the National park of Bardia, Nepal, alive and dangerous!
Bicycle touring is certainly a cheap way to travel, but bicycle touring in Nepal is almost free. A hotel room can set you back 3 USD and a Nepali Thali (all you can eat arrangement of stewed dishes) is 1.5 USD. For these reasons and the fact that tigers and wild elephants roam the surrounding National parks, we have decided to keep our tent packed away and our camp cooker gathering rust.
Here, the Nepalese are certainly quite poor, but their smiles reflect a peaceful, happy existence. We have cycled through small villages where we received smiles and waves from men, women and hundreds of children. All members of the village seem to be very busy and maintain a strong sense of self sufficiency. Here in Nepal’s rural communities we sight very limited influences from the western world.
In the cool early hours of the morning we cycle past typical mud houses in Nepal to find, women crushing wheat, men using water buffalos to sow fields, families crouching in gardens hand picking this season’s produce, animals surrounding and foraging for food and children neatly dressed in their school uniform waving their little arms at us with delight. We often pity the poor, but here in these little villages of Nepal, I’m sure they pity us on bicycles, away from our families and homes.
Since entering Nepal our GPS has been for the tourist town of Pokhara, the starting point for some of the worlds best trekking. Travelling West-East through Nepal, one can avoid the terrors of daily 4000-meter climbs by following, naturally enough, the East-West highway. For our first week of Nepal, we were incredibly surprised to find ourselves a little bored with the constant flat and straight highway.
The Indian influence is still strong amongst the lowland villages and towns of Nepal. We found ourselves still receiving piercing stares from Indians. On occasions I am too curious, and I simply ask the men staring at us, “Are you from India?”, my suspicions were always correct. The Indian influence and boring roads all changed the moment we left the East-West highway and headed North.
Due to the monsoonal rains, recent earthquakes and roads that are built into rock faces, there is one constant with Nepali mountain roads. That is, they are ever changing. I received advise from a Nepali man whose name was ironically, Sumit. He told us to “keep looking up as you cycle” falling rocks and landslides are a weekly occurrence, we would no longer be bored.
Once we entered the middle lands we sat roadside with locals sipping chai and dunking Nepali doughnuts every day. We felt so comfortable and relaxed with these people. I found myself needing to express to Jasi, just how happy I was to be in Nepal. “I love this country, I love these people”, I just had to tell someone over and over again.
After three weeks in Nepal, we have decided on simply the word “beautiful” to best describe it. Beautiful warm smiles, beautiful little children (Jasi repeatedly tells me that the Nepali children are the most gorgeous children of the trip yet) and of course beautiful landscapes.
Nepal has re-sparked our love for bicycle touring. India had certainly taken the wind out of our sails. In India we were surviving, whereas here in Nepal, we are again thriving. We again walk the streets at dusk, just to soak up a little more of the warmth of the friendly Nepali people. We are again excited to ride in the morning.
We now have decided to give the bicycles a rest for three weeks and test ourselves with the Himalayan Alps. The famed Annapurna circuit awaits us. A 15-16-day trek that will take us to 5400 meters altitude for some truly incredible views.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that god-damn mountain.” – Jack Kerouac
Jasi and Matt