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A tiger roared

A tiger roared

In 2010, for a holiday spree with my wife and two daughters, we visited the Island Jungle Resort in the Chitwan National Park (mid-west Nepal). At the time, several safari resorts operated within the national park perimeter, as did the Island Jungle Resort. 

With the memories of our previous visit to Sauraha still fresh, we yearned for a new wildlife experience, something off the beaten path. And so, with a stroke of luck, we found ourselves at the Island Jungle Resort in Bandarjhola, a unique and secluded spot about 35 km northwest of Narayanghat. 

The choice we made paid off. Nestled in a dense riverine forest and surrounded by vast grasslands, the Island Jungle Resort in Bandarjhola, about 35 km northwest of Narayanghat, offered a unique setting. Unlike the resorts in Sauraha, it was hemmed in by the river Narayani on two sides, with the other two sides ringed by the river’s subsidiaries, giving it the charm of an island. The resort’s name was a perfect fit. 

And, what’s more, my two daughters were thrilled to bits when we took a boat ride across the Narayani River, the only approach to the resort. With no other nearby resorts, the wilderness seemed absolute, as wild and natural as possible. “Wow, it’s different from Sauraha,” our youngest daughter, Bubul, hollered gleefully. The rest of us nodded, grinning from ear to ear.

In 2012, the government announced the closure of luxury jungle safari hotels inside the protected zone, citing possible harm to the park’s ecology, and issued eviction notices to all seven luxury resorts there, including the Island Jungle Resort. The decree, however, allowed the resorts to relocate outside the national park perimeter.

Upon arrival at the resort, our excitement snowballed to find the setting done in genuine aesthetics, in harmony with the natural surroundings and small cozy cottages amidst a spacious garden decked with diverse trees, plants, and shrubs. The dining hall was delightfully expansive, with a well-stocked bar and seating arrangement that extended outdoors with a wooden deck almost at arm's length to the rippling waters of the Narayani River. Sheer bliss! 

Our schedule was packed with thrilling activities, including a jungle walk, a canoe ride, and the much-anticipated elephant ride. The sight of our elephant, Laxmikali, and her mahout, Kumal, working in perfect harmony was a sight to behold. The elephant ride itself was a wild adventure, leaving us all exhilarated. 

The first hour of the safari offered close views of deer, including the imposing sambars, along with a motley of birds such as jungle fowl, black partridge, a covey of quails, and the ubiquitous peafowls, not the least startled by our approaching elephant—appearing almost tame.  

But we fancied seeing a lumbering rhino, if not the most elusive of all, the mighty Royal Bengal Tiger, albeit we knew it stood a fat chance—one in a million. 

But the real excitement began when our elephant, Laxmikali, led us past a freshly stirred mud wallow, followed by fresh footprints. It was clear that a rhino had recently taken a mud bath and wandered into the woods, leaving a hot trail. ‘A rhino,’ Kumal whispered, and our pursuit began as we followed the footprints. 

Kumal masterfully navigated Laxmikali through the elephant grass, the woods, the seemingly impenetrable scrub, and thickets with spiny thorns—nothing seemed to stop Laxmikali.

The trail suddenly went cold when we assumed we were closing in. It was almost 6 pm, and the fading light reminded us that we had very little time before it would get too dark to continue. Kumal led Laxmikali to take a detour. With our fingers crossed, we kept our eyes straining hard to penetrate the thick undergrowth, trying to catch sight of our quarry as our tusker lumbered. 

As the setting sun reddened the horizon, sending diffused crimson rays through the woods, the jungle burst into life. The bulbuls, the barbets, the orioles, and a myriad of avian species that abounded the rainforest commenced chattering their loudest.

Jungle fowls fell in, calling each other lustily, and then a distant peafowl let out a shrill ‘meow’' All the resident birds seemed to join in a chorus to announce that dusk approached close—time to turn in for the day. Wait a minute! We suddenly stumbled upon the lost spoor! 

With renewed hopes and a redoubled pace, we crashed through the foliage. Twice, my foot got trapped in jungle creepers, swinging branches lashed at my face, thorns clawed at my arms, and I virtually got banged by overhead branches for all I cared.

My co-riders (my wife and daughters) were in no less harrowing condition—but no less excited. We continued our pursuit, albeit the chances of spotting the animal appeared slim. And as Kumal nudged Laxmikali back towards camp, our heart sank. Hang on! We had barely taken a few strides when we virtually bumped into it! “There it is,” Gun Bahadur Kumal called, almost in a whisper, and pointed to a clump of thorny bush.

And there stood our fearless quarry eyeing back at us, almost five feet at the shoulder and nine feet long, the pride of the Chitwan National Park, the inimitable Greater One-horned Rhino. Our pursuit had paid off.  

On our way back, Kumal suddenly stopped Laxmikali at a spot, dismounted, observed closely at some footmarks, and even ran his fingers over them. To our amazement, they were the fresh pugmarks of a male tiger. ‘Darn it! We missed the tiger by just a minute or two,’ said Kumal, shaking his head. We all froze in awe. ‘Only a few minutes? Oh, no,’ said Smi, my eldest daughter, sounding frustrated. The tiger had eluded us, leaving us in awe of its stealth. 

Back at the resort with a mug of chilled beer, I sat on the deck close to the water, enjoying the bracing breeze as I watched the nearby Narayani roll by in the darkness, the ripples mirroring the glimmer of the moonlight.

My mind kept recalling the day’s mind-boggling ride—a real humdinger. The only thing that bugged me was missing out on the privilege of clapping eyes on the king of the jungle, the Royal Bengal Tiger. Dang it! I said to myself and swore aloud. 

Just then, a night heron wailed plaintively close from the darkened river bank. Then I froze, goosebumps exploding all over my body. From the deep recesses of the jungle, a tiger roared.


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