WORDS PRIMROSE MONTEIRO-D’SOUZA
PHOTOGRAPHS T KRISHNA PRABAKAR
GREAT FROM India
GREAT FOR A close encounter with nature
The promise of an experience comes to you in waves. Not the delicate hand movements of royalty, but waving with both hands, with the whole body put into it. The staff that waves you into Meghauli Serai, a Taj Safaris Lodge in Chitwan, Nepal, will set the tone of enthusiastic welcome for the next few days.
Perched on the banks of the Rapti, the luxury lodge enjoys access to Chitwan National Park just across the river. Which means the Indian rhino that is the sanctuary’s star may wallow in the water just below your villa and wild elephants may visit to woo the lodge’s pachyderm. Even if this doesn’t happen, Meghauli Serai has proven ways to feed your nature itch.
The most obvious is a jeep safari into the forest. Patrolling by the Nepalese army ensures that the 932sqkm park is a zero-poaching zone, and a welcome committee from among the 600-strong rhino population awaits you in the elephant grass. They stand, serviced by jungle mynahs that pick insects and other irritants off their impressive plates of armour, with a stolid insouciance, though they can rouse themselves to speeds of 40kmph if challenged. There are also tigers here, though rarely sighted in the dense undergrowth, and the more easily-seen monitor lizard, spotted and barking deer, and sloth bear. Chitwan’s roster of 544 avian species includes green hornbill, drongo, red wattled lapwing, Asian open billed stork, egret, little cormorant and the under-conservation Bengal florican. Safaris can be taken anytime between sunrise and sunset, and the lodge’s naturalists will ensure that you get your fill of the beautiful deciduous forest.
Return, then, replete, to your Rapti Villa, to be enveloped in nature-inspired luxury. The decor is influenced by the Tharu, the ethnic people of the plains around. Which means the roof is thatched with elephant grass, the furnishings sport Tharu designs, a spectacular mural depicting Tharu life adorns one wall, and Tharu silver jewellery is framed as artwork. Design elements – a private plunge pool, a bathtub held up by cherubs, and an outdoor shower set-up – are informed by the closeness to the river. Leave your cocoon again only to indulge in a Nepalese barbecue by candlelight along the river.
The next morning, fortify yourself with an early breakfast of porridge, laced with whisky or Irish cream if you wish it, and cut fruit and cookies before you go on elephant back into the buffer zone. This is admittedly a fairly lurchy ride that takes some getting used to, but it allows you to see rhinos from very close quarters. Back at the lodge, spend some time with Anjali Kali, the lodge’s own pachyderm, who considers the Rapti her personal bathtub but will tolerate your feeding her and climbing down into the river to scrub her.
In the early evening, step into a canoe to ride down the Rapti, marvelling at the endangered gharial basking on the banks and surprising a wallowing rhino as you glide towards the confluence of the Rapti and the Narayani rivers, where, on a sand bar dotted with Chitwan’s distinctive river stones, you settle down at a low table for a sundowner and a dramatic sunset.
Make time during your visit to wander through the Tharu village of Bhangaha. Many of the youth now work in the Gulf, which means there are some bright modern houses to startle you, but most homes are still plastered with clay, cow dung and hay. Almost every dwelling has its own shrine, granary and pigeon house, all elements you will identify at the lodge’s own Tharu village, where the cultural programme serves as an appetiser to the delicious local dinner that follows. Give in to the invitation to join in the dancing; keeping in step with the friendly Tharu will also ensure that, when you finally leave, you will wave goodbye to the predominantly Tharu staff with as much enthusiasm as they do you. Wave with both hands, please – you’re coming back.