If big family get-together, large meals, drinking, gambling and merrymaking becomes much too overbearing during this festive season, opt for first class travel with Tiger Mountain Group into the deep jungles of Chitwan and beautiful surroundings of Pokhara.
We are driving from Meghauli in a sturdy, dark green Land Rover to Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, deep in the heart of Chitwan National Park, one of Asia’s richest wildlife sanctuaries. There is a feeling of adventure, but passing through the grasslands spread out as far as the eye can see, you get a quiet and tranquil feeling.
After a 20 minute ride, we reach the stony banks of Rapti River. Here two boats are waiting to take a bunch of us to the other side of the river swollen by recent rain.
Roofless, antiquated Land Rovers take us further through riverine forest of Sal. Driving through a narrow jungle path squelchy after monsoon rain is a little difficult, but you don’t mind that as you take in the fresh forest air.
After completing formalities at the army check point, we reach the lodge, a sort of an oasis in the middle of the jungle. We are greeted inside the Gol Ghar, a round building with a huge domed roof which contains the spacious dining hall and lounge area. Lodge attendants hand us cold towels and welcome drinks to beat the heat, humidity and grime. A tall English lady, who is the Guest Relations Officer, briefs us about the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge which was established in the year 1964. She tells us that the unique tree houses and bungalows are built on stilts because during the rainy season the place gets flooded and the lodge gets closed for few months. Dark wood, bamboo and other locally available natural materials were used to build the lodge around an ancient tree. Although the lodge is made with guests’ comfort in mind, but she says one still shouldn’t expect all the amenities of a resort hotel including cable TVs and internet (frankly I was running away from both).
“Because we are in the middle of the jungle,” she says. She tells us that the rooms don’t have locking system (from outside), but we don’t have to worry about our belongings. But if we are wary about it we can still hand over any expensive items to her for safe keeping and give her our mobile phones if we need them to be charged (there are no power cords for mobile recharging, television or laptop in the rooms). All fine! We head to our allocated rooms to freshen up before coming down again to opt for either an elephant ride or jeep safari.We opt for an Elephant ride. Most of us are excited about the prospect of seeing tigers as we go in search of the wildlife of the park. In the two-hour ride through the tall grasslands (also called elephant grass), we see few spotted deer, hog deer, a herd of gaur (wild ox) a lone rhino and after a while a mother rhino with her calf that immediately entered the thick bushes after seeing the approaching elephants. But tigers live up to their name as the elusive big cats of the jungle and afford us only a glimpse of their mighty paw prints at the river banks. Evening sets in.
We get back to the lodge. After a while, it is time for slide presentations by the naturalists. The Chitwan National Park is home to a diverse species of mammals and reptiles besides 400 species of birds. After a few round of drinks, a lavish four course dinner (continental) is served. Kristjan Bahadur Edwards, owner of Tiger Tops, including resident naturalist Dhan Bahadur Tamang join us around the dinner table and tell us about the range of conservation programmes the lodge is involved in including environmentally responsible Ecotourism in close coordination with the Department of National Parks and the International Trust for Nature Conservation.
Later, we are told about the A-list guests the lodge had entertained in the past and who include European royalty, rock stars like Mick Jagger, Hollywood stars like Cameron Diaz, Eva Mendes and Leonardo Di Caprio (the Titanic star is also an active environmental activist). The fully-stocked bar is open until the last guest retires. We head to our rooms in the three-storey bungalow overlooking the dark jungle at around midnight. As sleep comes to me slowly deep inside the jungle, I fancy that I could be sleeping in the same room where Cameron Diaz might have spent the night when she was here. I sleep and see tigers in my dreams!
The next morning we are served a full English breakfast with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, baked beans, and an orange juice. After that we head to the nearby Rue River to watch elephant bathing. Some of the guests go on a nature walk to explore the rich flora of the park or a boat ride to search for the endangered Gharial crocodile.
We pack up our bags and say goodbye to the wonderful staff of the lodge. On the way to Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge, we see a herd of spotted dear quickly dash across the forest trail.
As the boatman paddles the wooden boat along the Rue River, we see egrets flying low over the river (infact it’s the boatman who tells us that the milky white birds are egrets. The Tiger Tops guides and even lodge staff know not only the names of most of the flora and fauna found in the park, but even their scientific names). The light breeze gives us some relief from the mid-day heat. Enjoying the pleasant cool feeling, a journalist friend tells me she got her Zen back! After about 45 minutes of boat ride, we see the ever-smiling Tharu Lodge staff waiting for us at the river bank.
We ride on an ox cart through the community forest and reach the Tharu Lodge at the edge of Chitwan National Park. We are again greeted with refreshing welcome drink and cold towel. This lodge is built on high ground overlooking verdant forests and villages.
The soft-spoken GRO tells us that the lodge is inspired by the rich culture and lifestyle of the indigenous Tharu people. He says the lodge is constructed in the traditional longhouse style, and built from locally available materials (elephant grass for the thatched roofs, mud and wood for the wall and floor that keep the place cool during summers and warm during winters). The lodge’s lush and tranquil garden setting also has a swimming pool, tennis and badminton court.
After a delicious lunch, we go on an ox cart ride to the Tharu, Bote and Mushyar villages with the GRO to learn about the local culture. We are also taken to a pre-school run by Tiger tops and Swiss Air Staff for underprivileged children in the village. After it starts to drizzle a bit, we shelve our plan to go on a sunset river safari. The GRO tells us that the lodge’s garden is home to variety of bird species. He also informs us about a range of conservation activities Tiger Tops is involved in.
We were told wild boar, leopard, jungle cats, sloth bear and many more varieties of animals frequently visit the forest nearby, but the night we stayed the villagers were beating drums to scare away rhinoceros that venture into the fields and destroy crops.
Before dinner, we are treated to a cultural show in which local village youths danced to folk songs and music. Then one by one we were also made to participate in the dance as we reveled in the fun and joyous mood.
After a pleasant night of sleep in the comfortable room, I woke up fresh the next morning and went bird watching with my group. After breakfast, we made another six hours drive to Pokhara to savor the luxury and elegance of staying in one of the top class hotels of Nepal - the Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge.
Situated on a scenic hilltop amidst a small village just half an hour drive away from the city proper, Tiger Mountain lodge is an exclusive boutique hotel in Pokhara.
The spectacular views of the Machhapuchhare and three other mountains above 8,000m - Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu -, the fog, the tranquil surroundings is just a perfect getaway from the fast pace of everyday living.
We also learnt that the hotel has won several prestigious awards including the PATA Heritage and Culture Gold Award and Conde Nast Traveler Magazine Ecotourism Award.
The hotel has just nineteen rooms in beautiful individual houses scattered around the hilltop ridge to provide guests top class personal service. The place truly sets the standard for luxurious accommodation.
After taking a dip in the swimming pool, it was time for dinner. Marcus Cotton, who runs the Pokhara lodge, is one of the best hosts I ever had. He joined us for dinner and talked a great deal about the lodge and the varied activities they provide include hikes, village walks, spa therapy, bird watching, among others.
The next day we woke up soon for the sunrise and panoramic views of the mountains. But the day was not clear and we didn’t get a view of the mountains. Soon milky-white clouds came up the hill and enveloped the place. But a while later they disappeared and the beautiful Pokhara valley appeared in sight from my room. Later, we went on an hour-long walk with one of the naturalists of Tiger Tops and slowly, far in the distance, the Machhapuchhare shimmered among the clouds.
The mountains were mystical, but the tigers remained elusive.