We shared the birdwalk with another couple, Charlie and Miriam. Charlie was very interested in birds and photography. He also proved to be a great companion that morning. With John and Sitaram, we set off from the lodge following the river towards the official national park gate entrance. Falling back Burney and Sitaram started the birdlist with various “common” species calling: Asian Koel, Greater Coucal and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters. Then something different, Green-Pigeons. The female showed a lovely patterned tail while the male had an orange breast, as John indicated. Lovely!!
Moving further away from the park administration compound, our group stopped by an Asian Elephant with its “mahout” lounging atop her back. The mahout was a relative of Sitaram, who provided tourist excursions into the park. (That was something about which Burney had serious reservations. Many elephants suffer serious back weakness after carrying too many people on large seated platforms. Furthermore, the young ones are taken at a very early age from their mothers for training whereby both parties suffer enormous emotional stress.) John tried to explain the importance of trained elephants in an emergency. As an example, he related that tigers never attack an elephant, therefore if there is a rouge tiger terrorizing the villages or if a visitor has taken refuge in a tree due to tiger attack, elephants are used to rescue the situation. Furthermore, when flooding occurs they have been used to retrieve stranded victims from drowning. Having taken that on board, we were nevertheless, walking.
Along the softer sandy paths, animal tracks were found! Deer, Rhino and Tiger!! Sitaram could estimate when the tiger had passed and which way it was possibly heading. Then shortly thereafter, a tiger scat was dissected to reveal a clump of short white hairs. “Possibly Spotted Deer, a tiger’s favourite meal”, we were told. It was very exciting. Coming to a lovely creek crossing, we stopped for an early morning-tea snack of freshly made samosas which John produced from his backpack . It was there that Charlie invited Burney to play “Pooh Sticks”, he was quite a character. It was also there, that Burney said she heard Pitta calling, “We need to get onto these, guys!” She was very eager to see an Indian Pitta, a lifer.
And it was Charlie who gazing through his binoculars quietly said: “What’s this…it’s got a brown head, a bit of blue and a bit of red?” “THAT’S IT!”
We all got great views as a pair flew across the stream then proceeded to jump about the forest floor. Never close enough for a great photo but definitely a great experience. It was also there that we had an uncluttered view of a White-rumped Sharma, its bluish black head and orange belly contrasting with a very long black and white tail. Not a bad birthday treat, for us all.
A little later while some of us were viewing other birds, Charlie and Sitaram came rushing up saying they heard a tiger growling…Yikes! Should we follow the sound or move away? John said move away. So a little disappointed, we moved on, but our senses were enormously heightened. For defense, all Sitaram carried was a long stick. Burney decided she was the oldest and the slowest so therefore everyone else was in a better position for survival. Surveying the terrain she found some pretty good climbing trees. No worries, then. One tree with deep scars showed were a tiger possibly sharpened its claws while another held other marks where possibly a Leopard had climbed up the trunk. That had us looking into trees for more than birds!
Quietly perched in the shadows of tall well-foliaged trees was a family of Grey Langurs. Their black faces were lost in the gloom however the fringe of silver hair bordering their heads like a halo gave them away. Although we were seeing them for the first time, they are apparently common in forests and also around habitation. Sometimes called the Common or Indian Langur, their range extended from as high as 3500m in the Himalayas to throughout the deciduous forests of peninsular India.
The day grew hotter as it approached midday. We rested in the shade by a river however the once rickety bridge was too dilapidated to risk crossing. Well, for most of us… John decided to have a scout on the other side….. While we all watched him scamper over broken slats of wood, Charlie gave a fabulous impersonation of David Attenborough. In hushed tones he commented on “the green-backed Baboon risking his life in search of a fertile mate in the forests of Bardia….” “There he goes, will he be successful, will we see him again?” Hilarious
With the heat, most of the wildlife took refuge, as did we. Apart from a herd of Spotted Deer moving through the woods and a Woolly-necked Stork flying overhead, all was still. A dry 38 degrees heat with shimmering mirages and perspiration. Gratefully, after phoning ahead and arranging a motorbike meet him at the entrance gates, John ran ahead. By the time we arrived at the gates, he had brought the safari jeep from the lodge and was waiting to whisk us back to the comforts of home. Many, many thanks, we were very distressed by the heat.
Our accommodation, which we only viewed in day-light that morning, was delightful. Strongly influenced by the indigenous Tharu style, it was one of several huts made from local mud and clay with artistic relief work adhered to the front wall. Our hut had depictions of birds and elephants. A network of ponds surrounded by flowering trees and shrubs separated and screened the dwellings from each other. Near the ponds, a couple of follies or tea-houses provided ample shelter to double as a bird-hide when photographing the resident White-necked Waterhens or gorgeous Sunbirds.
Our arrival the previous evening was very late. After long deliberations, we had decided not to wait another day for the bus strike (Banda) to cease but instead hired a driver to take us from Bhairawa, the next 280 kms by private car. Fortunately, the roads were not as hazardous and we stopped every 2 hrs, stretching our legs and partaking of the local chai (milky tea made with cardamom and cinnamon spices) or the regional version of Dal Baht. It was in the actual vicinity of Ambassa, just 13km from the national park, that we had sump scraping moments and slow rocky dry river crossings. Darkness and no street lighting added to our hindered progress. Then, once in the village of Thakurdwara, numerous accommodation facilities lined the river bank. Like a welcoming beacon, we turned into our lodge driveway (thank you Google maps) and all was good.
Ochre yellow buildings glowed warmly in the lighting, little bamboo bridges transported us across the ponds resounding with frog call to our room. A huge comfortable bed complete with mosquito net and prints of wildlife adorned the walls. (We were later to learn that John Sparshatt had taken all those brilliant photos.) After a much needed shower in a very large western style bathroom, we settled down in the dining room for home cooked food, beers and to make plans for the following day. Bardia NP birdwatching for Burney’s 60th birthday. We had made it. It was close but it was a sure thing.
Above a large dining area, John had a viewing storey built. It was there that we were to spend many hours watching for birds and waiting for a cool breeze. Burney also observed the lifestyle of the neighbouring villagers ploughing the fields with water buffalo as they have for centuries and also the domestic duties of Sitaram’s family. Their typical Tharu hutment adjacent to the lodge consisted of a long house with the extended family’s bedrooms, a separate cooking hut with huge clay urns built into the walls or as partitions held kilos of stored rice. The gas-fired burner was fueled by theirown buffalo dung processor. Another building held farming equipment and housed the animals. One dwelling had been damaged by a recent storm. The offending tree had been harshly pruned and the damaged awning was under repair as each clay tile was removed, cleaned and replaced once new bamboo supporting struts had been installed. Turmeric slices lay drying on tarps in the garden, goats and chickens ran untethered nearby. (Our morning eggs, no doubt provided fresh from the hens.) In the lodge garden, a pizza oven provided inspiration for a fabulous meal of oven-roasted pork. Succulent!! We were very happy to be at Wild Trak Adventure Lodge in the great care of John and Sitaram Chaudhary and his family.
With the sunset approaching and the heat of the day relenting, John took us all to a favourite river side spot near the elephant breeding centre, on the closing of the 15th. The facility held several females which were serviced by wild elephants from the national park. One had a youngster tethered nearby. The baby, being a female, was either destined to be a breeder or trained by a mahout…..
Back to the river, birds worked the far water edges while local lads swam/struggled against the fast flowing stream in our immediate foreground. As the sunset colours took the skies and the hazy golden globe ebbed, a Rhino was spotted in the distance. It was Rhinosarus Unicornos, the One-horned Rhino of Asia. Just near it the huge antlers of a Swamp Deer vied for attention. WoW, not everyone could say they saw that on their birthday!!
Before returning to our lodge, we stopped at the local “watering hole” where local guides and visiting folk gathered in the garden. It was there, we met Krishna who was also a guide, a keen mountain trekker and a friend of John’s. As the beer flowed topped with a shot of straight whiskey, we eventually heard about Krishna’s narrow escape from a tiger attack. As related, he had been guiding and tracking with a guest from Holland when they were confronted by a very angry female tiger. Apparently she had cubs in the area and was not allowing anyone in the vicinity. Fortunately, the guest being an agile rock-climber scaled a tall tree while Krishna distracted the tiger and was thus badly clawed in the leg by the angry mum. Krishna told how he took stock of the situation and rising up as big and ferocious as he could, he charged at the tigress with his stick and sent her off into the scrub. Then after running a distance in an attempt to gain mobile reception, he phoned to alert a rescue by a mahout and his elephant.Retrieving the Dutch guest from out of his tree, they heard that the tigress had returned and was warily circling below his perch.
Now, that was the pub story to top all pub yarns.
But it was true. We saw the scars and muscle loss and had the tale further confirmed the next day by Sitaram, a senior guide in the community. We learnt that Bardia was once a royal hunting ground with seriously depleted stock but now supported 85 Tigers plus two recent cubs. The likelihood of seeing a Tiger was far greater in Bardia National Park than in the more popular Chitwan Park. May, being a hot summer month before the onset of the monsoonal rains further increased the chances as wildlife came down to the narrow bands of river water to drink and submerge themselves. Guides, such as John and Sitaram, attempted to remain well informed as to where the current Tiger sightings were, and where to steer clear of defensive mothers and their cubs.
Okay that was a very memorable May 15th, but more was yet to come. This was not a one day birthday. This was 5 days in Bardia.