Rhinos and tigers and crocs, oh my

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Wild animals are attractions the world over. People specifically visit countries just to catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat. With long lens cameras, they dream of that special close up they can stick in a frame and hang on the wall, happy in the knowledge they were there to witness nature in all its glory. Whether that is a pride of lions killing a gazelle or a warthog mating with a zebra; we lap it up.

However, humans have a knack of encroaching on the homes of animals all in the name of tourism and adventure. It only seems logical that, every now and then, animals like to remind us that they are still as temperamental and territorial as a Mexican drug lord.

A couple of years ago I was on holiday in Nepal with my partner. We were part of a small tour group and had made our way down to the Chitwan National Park. This World Heritage Site is home to a large number of wild animals, including tigers, elephants, crocodiles and rhinoceros.

Part of this tour involved a slow paddle down a river. The boats were long, flat and shallow, a lot like the river itself. Our chairs were so low that we were basically sitting on the floor, lower than the water level, five of us to a boat. We had a ‘driver’, otherwise known as a guy with a large pole, more like a gondolier than anything else. We were on the lookout for crocodiles. This seemed a bit haphazard considering the size of the boat. A croc would only have to fart and it could have jumped in. It was the kind of trip where you wanted to see something but at the same time, would feel comfortable if you didn’t. We were constantly scanning the banks, our guide straining to find any sign of animal life.

He was a strange, excitable little man, as camp as a row of tents. And he knew his stuff. Earlier that morning he was spotting deer left, right and centre when all I could see was overgrown shrubbery.

“Look, deer.”

“Where?”

“There. Oh, another one.”

“Where? What?”

“Look, a different deer.”

“Oh for f**ks sake, you’re just making this up.”

“Deer.”

“AARGH…”

Nothing much had happened, other than me trying to take a nice selfie, until we stopped suddenly. Our pole drivers put the brakes on (stuck the pole in the mud) and we waited. The guide was so excited that he was drifting between English and Nepalese which made him sound intoxicated. What I did learn was that there was a rhinoceros up ahead, on the bank and that we had to wait until it was safe before we could continue.

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I peered ahead, straining to see anything at all. The wet season had only just finished so the plant life was thick and lush, making spotting things next to impossible. Slowly, a large grey head poked out from behind the reeds and wandered into the middle of the river. I know it was a male because unless it was female with a giant leech attached to her stomach, this fella’s shlong was scraping the ground. It was almost like an elephant’s trunk was protruding from his nether regions.

“Look. Now it will, ah, urrinagante? Piss. It will piss,” said our guide, finally realising his limitations.

Sure enough, as if on cue, away he went. If he was marking his territory, he was doing it properly. The term ‘flash flooding’ springs to mind.

As we watched him and he glared at us, our guide became unexpectedly anxious. We were now resting at the river bank and only a couple of hundred metres away.

“Ok, we have to go now. He is angry.”

Excuse me? Angry? He hadn’t moved. It looked the same as it was before.

“Everybody out on the bank, please.”

“Is that so they can turn the boats around and we go back ?” someone asked hopefully.

“No. We walk.”

“With a pissed off Rhino just over there?”

“Yes. We be quiet.”

“Don’t they run fast?”

“Yes. Don’t worry.”

What the f**k was happening?

I have found that in stressful situations, especially those that contain a massive lack of understanding involving dangerous animals, cursing happens freely and naturally. Even the petite, well-spoken in our group doctor was swearing like a trooper.

“Now errybody, follow me. There two tigers in this area. We should not see them though; they have just had cubs.”

It was an interesting revelation. One which we felt probably deserved slightly more attention. Some kind of big cat warning on the brochure- “Jungle cat with sharp claws and bad temper lives here”- that would have done it.

Our fearless leader would protect us though, wouldn’t he? Of course he will. All four foot of him. In terms of protection, he was sorted in the form of a bamboo stick. Perhaps I had missed the David Attenborough documentaries that out lined the fear tigers, and rhinoceros for that matter, had for bamboo. What the hell was a bamboo stick going to do? Besides, he was the one leading this expedition.

An old saying goes that the one in front is safe, it’s the rest in line that will fall victim. Admittedly, that theory was related more to snakes than anything else. It’s also fairly unreliable. But what about all those movies where they flee from animals who mercilessly hunt them down? It’s always the ones at the back who die first. Again, I was basing all my wildlife survival skills on Jurassic Park– good movie but not a certified survival guide.

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So, there we were. Three ton rhino riverside. Unknown force of a tiger army on the other. And we were standing in no man’s land because our guide had spotted a herd of deer. Again.

“Mmm. Food.”

“I don’t give a stuff about the f**king deer,” muttered the cursing doctor.

We began a slow walk through the jungle.

Following a rough track, we were aiming for our starting point. No one said a word as we trudged along, eerily silent, as if too much noise would awaken a tiger tsunami. What I did notice was how lush and tall all the plant life was. It was impossible to see any further that a few metres in front of you as bushes completely enveloped the surroundings. Funnily, the sooner we realised that a tiger could be anywhere and we wouldn’t know, the easier and more enjoyable the walk was.

We only relaxed when we stumbled on a clearing where some locals were engaged in a jungle soccer match. Either they knew it was safe from all things that could kill you or football was worth the risk of death. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to gain their kind of perspective.

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Wild animals and adventure go hand in hand. Being able to see these creatures in their natural habitat, soccer pitches excluded, has the ability to make a zoo seem like a hobby farm. That added element of exhilaration of being out there with them, without a barrier or fence, is something worth experiencing.

Wayward Tip: animals are best seen wild. If they are tied up or in a cage, it defeats the purpose. If you can avoid this, you’ll have done yourself a favour.

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