(Author's Note: I'm writing this stuff on the run. Please excuse all screws ups of a grammatical nature)
If you find yourself in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, please be warned that where you decide to sit just might be dangerous to your health. I’m not much of a sitter, so I prefer to stand, which is exactly what I was doing in the back bed of our green 4X4 pickup as we were cruising a bumpy two-track through a section of tall elephant grass when my guide, Pardeep, an Indian of about 40, sternly spoke these words: “Vin, don’t move!”
I turned to stone, both my hands gripping the iron bar that runs horizontally across the length of the metal cab roof. A second later I felt the push of two fingers against the center of my spine and something being pulls away from it. The sensation was the same as if he’d pulled a briar off my gray T-shirt.
“Spider,” he said. “Big one too.” As if I needed to hear that.
I turned as the eco-conscious Pardeep, didn’t drop the spider and crush it with his rubber sandaled sole, but instead, tossed it over the truck’s side, so that it might scare the living crap out of the next safari customer it decides to latch onto. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but anyone who knows me well, also knows I don’t like spiders. So then, why come to Chitwan, the 900+ square kilometer game park located at the base of the Himalayas if I don’t like spiders? That’s like someone who pays for a fishing charter when fish scare him to death.
I’m here because of the big game that is still plentiful in these rugged and spectacularly green and lush surroundings. It’s June. Monsoon season. So it’s both hot and damp, with daytime giving way to plus 100-degree temps and the night sky opening up with storms so violent, even the wild elephants can be heard crying from miles away.
We made our way into the game park from our base lodge via canoe on the Rapidi river. The somewhat narrow and winding waterway, which eventually connects with the Ganges across the border in India, is teaming with bird life. Pardeep in particular is extremely knowledgeable about the birds (he’s also a world class wrestler), and his eyesight is so perfect, he can spot a rare bird from a couple hundred yards away, even when its concealed by the thick bush. The tall, thin, balding guide knows everything there is to know about every species of bird in the forest. That is, wing span, place of origin (many species originate in China across the mountain range), mating rituals, and of course, their calls. He raises up his arms, forms a horn with his two hands, and calls out to a Macaw. “Caw, caw, caw…” He then waits in silence until, sure enough, the macaw answers him. The smile on Pardeep’s face screams of success, satisfaction, and a true blood level love of the job.
But it isn’t until we come upon a family of Rhino’s bathing themselves in the river, that my heart begins to tremble. These dinosaur-like creatures weigh five ton a piece, and the spiked horn they don on their long, gray, bone-plated heads, is one of nature’s most perfect defense mechanisms. I’m told that just a couple of years ago a guide was run down by an angry rhino and paid the ultimate price when the beast crushed him to death. Which is precisely the reason we don’t come too close to the family of rhinos bathing themselves in the river.
Rhinos protect their young at all costs. If we come too close in our flimsy wood canoe, the adult male will likely come after us, flip us, and do his best to kill us. And who can blame him? Nepal’s rhino population, like Africa’s, is under serious attack from poachers looking to kill the animals for their sharp tip, which they then smuggle to the Chinese who grind the bone down into a fine powder that sells for big bucks to middle age ChiCom businessmen who have trouble getting it up.
Fast forward four hours and we’ve left the river and are now motoring inside the game park in the back of the 4X4. We’re still moving through the tall grass and my entire body is still itching just thinking about the spider nearly dug its fangs into my spine. But all is forgotten when we spot a team of elephants that are driven by two young men. Boys really. Both elephants are large, one with both her ivory tusks intact, and the other with only one while its mate has somehow been broken off as evidence by the jagged root that barely sticks out of the jaw.
The driver stops the truck. I climb out of the back and immediately begin snapping pictures of the lead, double-tusked elephant as it makes its way towards us on the road. I realize I’m taking a chance here because I’m using a flash and elephants don’t like a camera flash exploding in their face any more than your average human being does. But the huge animal takes it all in stride as his driver brings him to a lumbering stop only a few feet away. So close to me, in fact, I can reach out and touch him.
The boy driver is impossibly thin, barefooted, his feet positioned behind the elephant’s ears. He wears filthy jeans and an even dirtier button down shirt which he prefers to wear unbuttoned. His hair is thick and dark, as are his eyes. There’s an umbrella stuffed into the elephant’s neck bridle, which is made up of both thick rope and heavy chain. Gripped in the boy’s left hand is a tomahawk constructed of a metal axe head and a wooden handle. It looks identical to the kind of weapon a Native American would use for protection in America’s Badlands prior to the twentieth century.
I look up at the boy.
“Can I touch the elephant?” I say.
He stares not at me, but into me.
“Give me some water,” he says.
I unlatch my water bottle from my belt, toss it up to him. He snatches the bottle out of the air in a swift one-handed grab, unscrews the top, pours a generous drink into his mouth. Screwing the top back on, he tosses the bottle back to me.
“You may pet the ear,” he says.
With a somewhat trembling hand, I reach out and touch the ear of the elephant. Its skin is incredibly smooth. Like snake skin almost. It’s warm and alive. I can see why the boy likes to stuff his bare feet behind the ears. Not only is he able to steer the creature, but the skin feels extraordinarily pleasant against human skin.
I remove my hand and I thank the boy.
“Bye bye,” he says, giving the elephant a couple of well-placed heel kicks while making a clicking sound by manipulating his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Pulling out his umbrella, the boy opens it wide and holds it above his head to shield himself from the relentless sun. The elephant raises up its trunk, blows a combination mud and snot through it, and then heaves itself forward, like an old fashioned locomotive trying to pull away from a station with dozens of overloaded cars attached to its backside.
Moments later, I meet up with Pardeep back at the truck.
“You must be careful when touching the elephants in the wild,” he smiles. “They are easily frightened. They could hurt you very badly.”
I still feel the majestic animal’s smooth skin. I still see the gentleness in is deep black eyes. I could never imagine the creature hurting anything. It’s a mammoth wild animal that bears long sharp tusks. That’s not the elephant’s fault. But scaring it would be mine.
I climb back up into the back of the 4X4 pickup and we continue on further into the wild. From now on, I’m going to make sure I keep my distance from the spiders.