Monsoon and Mahouts

Got up at 6.00am to the sound of the rain pounding down torrentially outside; it had been pouring down relentlessly most of the night, and the paddy fields outside our rear window looked even more flooded.  We had been due to take a ride along the river in a boat made from a hollowed-out tree trunk, but looking at the deluge of water coming down outside we wondered whether or not it would happen.

Getting washed and dressed, I put on some cropped jeans and flip-flops, a t-shirt and, of course, my trusty 100% waterproof cagoule.  Trevor and I then made the mad dash through the dripping trees and splashed our way along the path to the dining room, and we thankfully climbed the steps up to shelter.

Anal and the hotel guide who had been assigned to us for our adventure here in Chitwan explained that we may have to change some of the planned activities around because of the inclement weather; this was OK by us and certainly didn’t come as any surprise.  He therefore said we’d postpone the canoe ride until the rain stopped/eased off, but in the meantime we enjoyed a good breakfast of cereal, fresh fruit, toast and omelette while the rain lashed down outside, and we watched the few people who had ventured out make their way up the street.  Most of them were covered head to foot in capacious rain ponchos with hoods, but occasionally we saw people with umbrellas; one guy was cycling along placidly, one hand on the handlebars and one hand holding his brolly over his head.  🙂

Monsoon rain lashes down outside our lodgings in Chitwan

After breakfast was finished, at which point everyone was moaning that they could have had an extra half-hour or so in bed, it was agreed that we would reconvene at eight o’clock to go to the elephant breeding centre, which we’d still be able to visit even if the rain continued.  As I use my Samsung phone to take photographs, I put my phone into its waterproof case on its lanyard around my neck.  Finally, the rain appeared to have eased off slightly, so we all got on the open-sided bus-type vehicle for the 15 minute ride to Bharatpur.

Because our vehicle was open-side and its only protection was a tarpaulin roof, the rain lashed in the sides and front, and soon we were all looking a sorry sight with our hair plastered to our heads, and my mascara running down my face in black streaks.  At least it was warm and not like the rain at home, where you are cold and miserable as well as wet.

Eventually we alighted and followed our guide on foot through some long and extremely waterlogged grass that went over the tops of my flip-flops.  Although my cagoule was longer than hip-length, anything below that (i.e. the exposed legs of my cropped jeans) were soon soaked through.  Small spiked grass seeds caught in the material of my jeans and scratched my skin; it took a while to pick them off, just for more to be added.

Soon we arrived at a river bank and now the fun started; we had to get a hollowed-out boat across to the other side, where the elephant breeding centre was situated.  There were no seats or benches in the boats and the rainwater sloshed around inside; you either had to hunker down (uncomfortable) or kneel (in the water) while the guy punting the boat across the rapidly-flowing river, balanced perfectly and looked bored with the whole thing.

It only took a few minutes to get across, but now I didn’t care if I got wet or dry and just took it all in my stride.  We enjoyed a brief respite from the rain in the information centre which explained the breeding programme, the lives of Asian elephants, the main differences between the temperaments of the male (bull) and female (cow) elephants and how they are trained, from an early age, to recognise and obey the commands from the mahout, the elephant handler and driver.

We then went along to a place where some guys were sitting cross-legged, making up some food parcels for the elephants.  The parcels consisted of grass, a large handful of which was fashioned into a pouch into which was placed some rice and molasses; more grass was then tied around the parcel to keep it together.  There were large parcels for the adults and smaller ones for the baby elephants, who weigh 170 pounds (over 12 stone!) at birth.

Then we followed our guide to the shelters where the mothers and babies were tethered up.  I had mixed feelings about looking at the elephants chained up by their front legs; the chains didn’t look very long so they would severely limit the elephant’s movement.  We were assured, however, that the elephants were well-fed and were exercised every day; I suppose we are just not used to seeing working elephants.  After all, we use working horses at home and see animals on farms, and we can only hope that they are treated humanely by their owners.

After we’d seen as much as we could (and during which time it continued to rain, although not quite as hard), we made our way back to the river bank, and had another wet crossing back to the other side.  Then it was back onto the open-sided vehicle, where we opted to remain standing for the ride back as all the seats were soaking wet.

Once we arrived back at the lodge, our guide advised us that some of the activities that were planned, such as a trek through the rainforest and a visit to the river to watch elephants bathing, would have to be postponed or even cancelled, as the weather was too bad.  With any luck, however, the rain would abate by this afternoon to allow us to go on our guided safari with a mahout on elephant-back.  All we could do was sit it out, but we agreed to reassess the situation after lunch at 12.00 noon.

We got back to our room and thankfully removed all our wet clothes; my jeans were once again covered in the little spiked grass seeds.  I was pleased to see that my phone had remained completely dry in its waterproof pouch; definitely a worthwhile buy.

We got dried off any changed into clean clothes and spent the time until lunch just pottering around; resting, reading and watching TV.  The monsoon rain, if anything, looked to be coming down harder but there’s not a lot we could do about it.

At lunchtime we enjoyed another hearty meal, consisting of local and western-style dishes; we started with a hot bowl of home-made soup which was slightly spicy and very tasty.  There was no hurry, so we just took our time, enjoyed a cold bottle of beer each, and got all excited when we looked up into the sky and thought we could see the sun trying valiantly to peek through the clouds.

Our guide told us we’d meet again at 2.45pm, no matter what the weather, to go out on our elephant safari which, for some people, would be one of the highlights of our stay here, so we didn’t want to miss it if it could be helped.  So once again we adjourned to our room to while away the time, during which the weather did indeed improve and the sky brightened considerably, with only a very fine shower of rain falling.

I decided not to bring my phone with me on the safari as I wanted to view the scenery, and any animals we’d be lucky to spot, with my own eyes and not through the screen on my phone.

At the arranged time, off we went again in our dry clothes; the rain had tentatively stopped by now and the air was humid and sultry.  The guide had also dried off all the seats in our open-sided vehicle so we could sit down for the 20 minute ride to where the elephants and their mahouts were waiting for us.

The guide explained that all the elephants that were used for the rides were mature females, as they had a more placid nature than the more-aggressive males, who were sometimes stubborn and didn’t always obey the commands of their drivers.

Each elephant, in addition to its mahout, carried four passengers in a padded wooden frame strapped to the elephant’s back.  You had to climb up some wooden steps so you were the same height as the elephant, then step across and somehow shoehorn yourself into the carrier.  Two passengers faced diagonally forwards, and two faced diagonally backwards; Trevor and I were at the back, looking down at the side and rear of our elephant, who we later learned was called Basanti, which is a Hindu girl’s name meaning “of Spring”.

Off she plodded, through the long grass and into the trees and undergrowth.  We could observe at will the elephant following us and it was fascinating to watch; the elephant’s trunk was never still (do you know that an elephant has over 40,000 muscles in its trunk alone?!) and, as it walked sedately along, the trunk grabbed at chunks of grass and pulled them up, knocking the soil off the roots before putting the grass in its mouth.  It ate the succulent, sweeter part of the plant before biting off, and discarding, the roots.  At one stage our elephant, Basanti, stopped and put her trunk up into a tree to get some juicy leaves, but after the mahout gave her the order to continue, which she ignored, he gave her a prod with his stick and she answered with an irritated trumpeting noise!

Whilst the elephants just plodded along slowly and we didn’t feel unsafe riding on them, we were still in a precarious position, high up among the trees, and we kept getting poked, prodded and scratched by tree branches which pulled at our clothing and (sometimes) sprang back hard against our skin.  We therefore had to keep a close eye on any branches or other plants as well as trying to look out for wildlife. In addition, our elephant kept switching her tail from side to side, and every now and again it lashed against Trevor’s bare leg.  🙂

We saw lots of spotted deer, sambhar deer and antelopes, as well as monkeys swinging through the branches of the trees above.  We also saw many different types of birds.  We didn’t see, nor did we expect to see, the famed one-horned rhinoceros or the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger as it was the wrong time of the year, and in any case we didn’t go deep enough into the forest.  Also, the ground was pretty much waterlogged with all the rain we’d had; in some parts the water came half-way up the elephants’ legs, so imagine how deep it would have been on a human!

Our very interesting (and certainly different!) elephant-back safari ended back where we started after an hour and a half, and one by one we extricated ourselves from our high seats and climbed down the ladder to the ground again.

We were amused when Anal, our guide, said “Namaste!” to the elephant accompanied by the familiar “praying hands” pose, and Basanti put her trunk up in a similar pose in response.  Also, when she was given a bank note in her trunk as a tip, she passed it up to the mahout sitting on her back!  They were all very clever, and I only hope that the elephants are well looked-after and well-treated out of sight of the tourists, as I can’t abide any animal exploitation or cruelty.

Back in our rustic vehicle, we returned to the Hotel Parkside for about 5.00pm, which gave us a couple of hours to get a cool, refreshing shower and rest before getting changed for dinner.  By now, the sky had brightened considerably and the sun was out once again, and a lot of the excess water that had been on the paths was fast-drying already in the tropical heat.

Dinner was at 7.00pm again, and we spent the time eating, drinking and talking over the day’s events.  Anal advised us that we would have to be up at 6.00am again in the morning to try to fit in the canoe ride, before our breakfast, that we’d missed this morning; Vee and Charles said they didn’t want to go, so not to give them the early wake-up call.

As usual, after dinner Trevor and I adjourned to our room with a night-cap, and Trevor put the TV on to watch the inevitable football, while I read for a while, then inserted my ear-plugs before settling down for a good night’s sleep, before our early start in the morning.

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