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A foggy winter visit to Chitwan.


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A foggy winter visit to Chitwan, Nepal.  

In January 2020, my wife Agnes and I had the opportunity to extend a business trip to Nepal with a visit to Chitwan National Park. A chance not to be missed.  Chitwan is one of the very few places in the world where the legendary ‘unicorn’, the one-horned or Indian rhinoceros, survives.

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Rhinos are Chitwan’s main attraction. Big, impressive, prehistoric. A sight to behold. They are bigger than black rhinos, a bit smaller than the whites. Their weird skinfolds are draped like medieval armor. 

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At sightings on safaris, the Indian rhinos behave rather quietly, although a bit wary. The eyesight is not very good, the rhinos try to locate the intruder by listening and sniffing attentively.

The logistics of our trip to Nepal have been quite straightforward: an international flight to Kathmandu (with Thai Airways, via Bangkok). From the Nepalese capital we took a domestic flight to Bharatpur, with Bhudda Air (a short 25 min flight in an old ATR 75turboprop). You can to travel by car from Kathmandu to Bharatpur, the distance is just 90km ‘as the crow flies’, 150 km by road over the mountains, but we were advised against it, as the journey by car seems to be unpredictable as even minor traffic accidents or roadworks can cause long delays. 

Air traffic in Nepal is -in winter- very much hampered by fog. The valleys in the foothills of the Himalayas are often covered in a thick layer of morning fog. It can take hours for the skies to clear, with cascading delays for all flights as a result.

From Bharatpur airport the lodge picks you up for a 45 min drive to Meghauli. After some research on the internet, we booked the Meghauli Serai. This lodge was a wonderful surprise for us, perfect for what we had hoped for. We had just 4 nights in Chitwan. Next time, I would spend at least a full week at this lovely place.      

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Meghauli Serai caters for all needs: the rooms are very comfortable, food is excellent, the atmosphere is tranquil and quite sophisticated. The guides/ naturalists/drivers are very skilled and eager to make the best of each safari trip, by boat or by jeep. 

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It was our first safari with simplified (much lighter!) photo-gear. After many years of traveling with the beloved but too bulky Canon 600 f4 II, we sold all our Canon stuff, and went for the Nikkor 500 Pf and  Nikkor 80-400, both on a D500.

The best season to visit Chitwan seems to be winter, up to March. The summer is too wet. The forest roads and the Rapti River become impassable in the rainy season. During our stay in January, the weather was quite chilly, with nights at 3-8 degrees, dense morning fog, daytime highs around 20° (warmer when the afternoon sun breaks trough). The evenings were too cold for outside dining.

The best month for wildlife viewing -according to the naturalists of the lodge- is March, that is before the heat and the rains, but after the annual burning (in February) of the high grasslands

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There was dense fog on every morning of our stay. In general, on safari, we want to go out early, even before dawn. A start at 9.00 was still very foggy. We had to cross the Rapti River in a small boat and could barely see any shore. DSC_0632.jpg.00ff26f84e15020267ea129f28d56bd6.jpg 

Chitwan park lies opposite the Rapti river. The jeeps were waiting on the other side. The lodge has its own safari jeeps. You can book for a full day or half a day. This seems to be very different from the other Chitwan village, named Sauraha, about 30 km away, closer to the Bharatpur airport. We’ve not been to Sauraha, but apparently it is much more crowded, with a communal jeep safari system for all the lodges. It is in Sauraha that you can see the gharial breeding center, do the (controversial) elephant rides, and visit the elephant breeding center. By contrast, Meghauli is remote and quiet, with just 2 lodges. We encountered only one other jeep, once, in 4 safari days. 

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The rhinos have no natural enemies here. Under rigorous protection against poaching, the numbers went up to a level where the carrying capacity of the park may now be reached. Rhinos are straying into farmland. There is a project to protect villages with fences, and a relocation program to shift surplus rhinos to another Nepalese park.

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These rhinos can be dangerous to humans. Fatalities occur. Indian rhinos attack by biting with their incisors. 

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The park seems to be well protected by the Nepalese army, with outposts, checkpoints, and patrols on elephant back.

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We didn’t see a tiger. But I’m sure a tiger has seen us. There is a good tiger population in Chitwan. Fresh pugmarks are everywhere.

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We’ve seen very fresh pugmarks on the sandbanks in the Rapti river, right in front of the lodge, we saw scratch marks on trees, and fresh tiger scat. But don’t expect to see tigers in Chitwan. It’s very well possible, but not very probable. The vegetation is very thick. The forest is not ‘divided’ in forest blocks, nor crisscrossed by forest roads, there is no way to go around a forest block to wait for a tiger to come out, once you suspect on the basis of pugmarks and alarm calls that a tiger is around.  

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Tiger prey species are abundant in Chitwan.

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The boat safari from the lodge goes leisurely downstream the Rapti river.

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On the banks we saw the legendary Gharial, next to the more common Mugger crocodile.

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Waterfowl thrives on the riverbanks, such as barred geese, ruddy shelducks, kingfishers, egrets, herons, ibises and raptors. DSC_1589.jpg.fdd57d79bbc4368b7a47d4f201e905ea.jpg

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The Cheetal, or spotted deer are the most obvious mammal species. These are beautiful animals, underrated, like impalas in Africa, because they are too common.  

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The biggest deer species in Chitwan is the sambar deer.

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A hog deer, with a black stork.

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The muntjac, or barking deer.

 

Chitwan has colorful tropical jungle birds.

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The biggest of them all is the great hornbill. We saw them on every safari trip. These are impressive birds, with a mighty whooshing wingbeat and a raucous loud voice.

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The remarkable density of these big birds seems to me an indication of the good quality of the Chitwan forest, as these hornbills need fruiting trees all year round, and old high tree trunks with cavities for their nest holes.  

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The Oriental pied hornbill.

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The mysterious red-headed trogon

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Plum-headed parakeets.

Apart from the rhinos, we were hoping to find at least one of the remaining ‘big five’ that is tiger, elephant, sloth bear, dhole and gaur. Wild elephants are rare in Chitwan, only a few bulls are roaming around, attracted by the female domestic elephants of the Nepalese army.

From the sloth bear, we saw the claw marks and prints, and the obvious damage inflicted by these bears on termite mounds.

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A big bull gaur stood next to the forest road, massive, strong and healthy. He was alone, and just gave us a few seconds for a picture before he disappeared behind the jungle curtain.

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Our stay in Meghauli Serai was too short. The Chitwan jungle holds much than what we were able to see in our 4 days. Due to the foggy misty late mornings, the available safari time was drastically reduced. I am quite sure that, with some more time, our photo-trophies would have been much more. A sloth bear should definitely be possible. I would also invest more time in birds, from peafowl (abundant) to jungle fowl (plenty) , pheasants (we saw the Kalij pheasant), colorful forest birds such as minivets, trogons, barbets, broadbills, and I would love to spend more time on the Rapti river banks with the crocs and the waterfowl.

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The Oriental darter, in the morning fog.

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The mugger crocodile.

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Unlike in many tiger parks, the drivers and naturalists of Meghauli are not focused on one species. The rhino is the flagship species of the park, and of course it should not be missed. We saw rhinos on almost every outing. The guides are looking for all the other species, it makes the safari more enjoyable, no hectic, no racing , no crowds.

The naturalists are local, self-taught in most cases, going after every bird and plant, explaining in detail as much as you like. The staff in the lodge is local too, a whole community lives from this lodge.

We left Chitwan in the last week of January 2020. On the return flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok, the flight attendants had masks on their faces. In Bangkok Airport all the Asian people had masks. At our arrival in Brussels, no masks were seen at all.

Soon after our return, the pandemic mushroomed. Even on the day of our departure from Chitwan, as we learned afterwards, it was already spreading in Nepal.

The lodge will be empty now. A tourist season is lost. Will safari-goers return? Our thoughts are with the lovely people from Chitwan and Meghauli Serai.

JM

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Zubbie15

Thanks for sharing, some lovely photos and a very nice narrative.  And welcome to ST!

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michael-ibk

Also from me, welcome. A very ebjoyable Chitwan feature with great pictures.

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janzin

lovely report about a park I didn't know much about. Thanks for posting and welcome to ST!

 

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Bush dog

Lovely pictures.  This is recalling me a trip I made in the Chitwan in December 1981.

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Game Warden
26 minutes ago, Bush dog said:

This is recalling me a trip I made in the Chitwan in December 1981

 

Better get a crackin' on your trip report then @Bush dog and maybe scan some old slides? ;) 

 

Matt

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Game Warden
4 hours ago, ajma said:

A foggy winter visit to Chitwan, Nepal.  

 

Welcome aboard @ajma and what a first post! 

 

Matt

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gatoratlarge

Fantastic photos!  I think the Indian rhino may be my favorite rhino---like a living dinosaur!  Other great photos as well --- I would love to go back to Chitwan some day....thanks again for sharing!

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Earthian

Welcome to ST, @ajma

 

Beautifully presented report. Made me want to go there at once. But unfortunately we can't. Not just yet. Yes, i do feel (on hindsight) that we were quite complacent in tackling the virus.

 

Thank you for sharing. Could you share more details about the lodge?

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jmharack

Beautiful pictures!  The fog creates a lovely context for your pictures and report. Sounds like a great park to visit!

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Alexander33

@ajma

 

Thank you so much for posting this report, and welcome to Safaritalk. Most appreciated. I’ve had Chitwan on my radar for a couple of years, but, relatively speaking, there’s not that much information out there, so it is great to have a firsthand report like this as a resource. Thanks again. 

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Thank you all, for your kind welcoming words in reaction to my first post. I was a zero contributor until now, but I will catch up, I have some more trip reports on my shelve. SafariTalk has been a precious source of information to me, so I am happy to  contribute, at last ! 

@Earthian ,asking for more information about the lodge, here is the link to the website

https://www.tajhotels.com/en-in/destination/hotels-in-chitwan-national-park/

JM (ajma)

 

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Atravelynn

What a debut!  Fog and Chitwan are good partners and your photos made the most of the fog.  Nice bird shots too, especially the magnificent Great Hornbill.

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elefromoz

@ajma, nice report from a little reported on place. Really enjoyed the Hornbills

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mtanenbaum

Thanks for sharing!

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TonyQ

Excellent report, really well written and great photos. Thank you

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Chakra

Nice one. Your comment about moving to 500 mm PF intrigued me. Seriously considering that as my aging biceps start complaining sooner rather than later nowadays .  That lens seems to be getting rave reviews but a first hand experience is always more trustworthy than so called experts.  Any regrets at all  over losing that 100 mm? Did you use any TC   ? 

I love that Trogon. In fact I love all types of Trogons.  

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12 hours ago, Chakra said:

Your comment about moving to 500 mm PF intrigued me

Thank you for your reaction. Here’s my story on the 500 pf. I had the Canon 600 f4 II since 2010, after a decade with the Canon 500 f4. The 600 served me very well, I have traveled with it around the world, it performed flawlessly. But it is heavy, a tripod, monopod or beanbag was needed anyway. With time, three problems were spoiling my fun. Firstly, the 600 was too big and too heavy for the overhead bins in the planes, limitations were getting tougher and more and more enforced. Secondly, the 600 was too cumbersome to carry for a walk (I was stealing my wife’s Canon 100-400 instead), and thirdly while on safari (self-drives) my ageing biceps and shoulder got painful and tired from wrestling the 600 from the backseat  to my front seat at every sighting. A good friend had the 500 pf. I was immediately convinced. We sold our Canon equipment, and swapped it for Nikon, not because of the cameras (Canon suited us very well) but for the sake of the lightweight 500pf lens. So we have now  2x D500, a Nikon z6 + kit, Nikor 80-400 and 500pf, TC 1.4.  

I am very happy with it. I feel free now. I can go out for a stroll in the forest, with the 500 pf hanging over my shoulder, shooting free-handed. In a safari vehicle, I was slow with the 600, but with the 500 I am happily snapping away. In a small boat as it was in Chitwan, same thing. I miss a bit the reach of the 600, for smaller birds, but I rarely put a TC on the 500pf (but it works fine). The Nikon D500 is a crop camera. Of course, the background ‘bokeh’ of a 600 f4 is better than a 500 f5.6, and one stop of light is lost, but the actual ISO-performance in modern cameras is getting better all the time, also the vibration reduction in the lens helps with slower speeds.  As you like trogons, here’s two from Thailand with my old Canon 500, the red-headed and the orange-breasted trogon. Enjoy, JM

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Chakra
10 hours ago, ajma said:

I am very happy with it. I feel free now. I can go out for a stroll in the forest, with the 500 pf hanging over my shoulder, shooting free-handed.

 

 

That's what I really want my friend.  I'm convinced, now need to convince she who must be obeyed. Thanks for sharing your first hand experience and those stunning trogon pics.  

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xelas

@Chakra, now you only  need to convince one other person :D.

 

@ajma welcome to the forum, and with what a bang! The trip report is excellent, as are your photos. Those of rhinos are special, however I like even more the birds.

 

Some of the foggy day ones has a kind of "foggy aura" around, like an "anti CP-L" effect, Was that because of the fog in the air, the fog on the lens, or a PP thing?

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Photo-Kiboko

Thank you for pictures and all the informations.

Chitwan is on my to-do list for 2021.

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5 hours ago, xelas said:

Some of the foggy day ones has a kind of "foggy aura" around, like an "anti CP-L" effect, Was that because of the fog in the air, the fog on the lens, or a PP thing?

 

Thanks for the comments. The extra-fog was added in lightroom , with the vignetting lens correction tool 

JM

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