After our trek from Langtang to Helambu we returned to Kathmandu to get showered and have a few drinks at Sam’s bar before setting off to Bardia National Park in the South West of Nepal. Neither of us had been to Bardia before as it is comparatively much harder to get to than the Chitwan Park (which I think is distinctly overrated). Getting to Bardia involves a very long bus journey (14 hours minimum) or a comparatively expensive flight to the border town of Nepalgunj. We opted for the latter. John had been to Nepalgunj before and spent 24 hours waiting for a flight to Simikot to begin a trek to Tibet; it has to be said that Nepalgunj has not exactly improved in the intervening years.
Leaving most of our gear behind in Kathmandu we set off to the domestic terminal at Kathmandu for a morning flight. This was unsurprisingly (this is Nepal) delayed by the foggy weather around the country and we were pleased to eventually get away 3 hours late (unlike many flights that were cancelled).
John had previously contacted Mr. B (based on Tripadvisor reviews) who runs a guest house called Mr B’s Place near the Park entrance. As things turned out this was an inspired choice and Mr. B turned out to be a good friend indeed.
Mr. B. had insisted on meeting us at Nepalgunj airport which is around 70 km from Thakurdwara where he lives. He drove all the way, on a foggy cold morning, on his motorbike to meet us at the airport (waiting 3 hours because of the delay) so that he could ensure that we got on the correct bus to Ambassa which is the nearest point on the main highway to the park. He then returned on his motorbike to wait for us to arrive. Eventually, 4 hours later, the bus stopped at Ambassa (fare 250 NR) and Mr B was waiting with his son on another motorbike. Here we transferred onto the back of the bikes together with rucksacks on our backs to make the ride across a river and along a track for 13km to the lodge at Thakurdwara. Liz did look a tad terrified on the back of a motorbike – but we made it without incident.
At Mr. B’s Place we met the ever smiling Kali, his wife, who looked after us and fed us huge meals cooked by herself and her sons. Later, when talking after dinner, we would learn about some of their personal tragedies that occurred during the Maoist conflict. We quickly knew that this family were quite exceptional people; honest, trustworthy folk trying to build themselves a better life in chaos and (sometimes) corruption that is part of everyday life in Nepal. Everyday we suffered long power cuts (load shedding); the longest period being 27 hours without electricity.
On our first day there we explored the local Tharu village and visited the very sad and run down crocodile breeding centre near the Park entrance. At the latter a few crocodiles lurk disconsolately in cages, concrete pools and murky water.
Of course, our prime purpose, was to try and see a tiger in the park. A tall order as the park is nearly 1000 sq km of jungle and forest and the fact that there are only around 22 adults and 5 cubs in the park (dramatically down from the 85 or so pre conflict).
So we spent 2 days walking on foot (and waiting at favourite watering spots) in the park looking for them but despite seeing loads of birds, crocodiles, deer, python tracks and a rhino; we didn’t see any tigers. So on the last day we hired a jeep to go further afield. Once again we weren’t lucky but did find very fresh tiger tracks on a riverbank.
On returning to Mr B’s in the evening we learnt that a nationwide Bandh had been called for the following day (and could last several days). Bandh, is a Nepali word meaning ‘closed’ and is a form of protest. Sometimes, as in this instance, the entire nation comes to a standstill with protests and rioting in the streets. This left us with a problem because if we didn’t make our flight back to Kathmandu the following day, we might not make it back to the U.K. for Christmas. So we decided to try and make a night time dash back to Nepalgunj to avoid the strike. Driving at night in Nepal is best avoided but on this occasion there seemed to be little choice.
So packing us off to bed to get a bit of sleep Mr. B organised for a car to drive the 70km from Nepalgunj to collect us late at night (this cost us around 35 pounds for the round trip). He also booked us a hotel in Nepalgunj telling them that we would be arriving in the early hours. Unbeknown to us at the time the driver was reluctant to come because he was worried about the rioters damaging his car and Mr. B had personally guaranteed that he would take responsibility for any damage. Later that evening the driver arrived, he was keen to get going before the situation (and weather – as it was starting to get very foggy) deteriorated. At this stage Mr B announced that he didn’t feel happy letting us go alone and that he was coming along armed with a knife in case of trouble! We set off into the dark in a somewhat ancient car and after bumping down the track from Thakurdwara joined the highway at Ambassa. The normally busy main road was pretty much deserted and we made good progress until a loud bang announced a puncture in one of the very bald tyres. Mr B obviously had good contacts as our driver had an equally bald spare to replace it and after 10 minutes or so we were on our way again.
We arrived in Nepalgunj sometime after midnight and parked in front of a shuttered hotel that can best be described (after banging the shutters for 5 minutes to wake the night watchman) as ‘a port in a storm’ – normally we’d call it crap. After a cold night with only one blanket we awoke to a very foggy Nepalgunj that was closed down by protesters, who in turn were being watched by the riot police. Things were not looking good as the protesters were even letting down the tyres on the rickshaws (the only transport that was moving). The hotel had no food so Mr B, as resourceful as ever headed off to find some eggs and bread which he then proceeded to cook for us in the hotel kitchen. He then told us that he wasn’t leaving until we were safely on our way and if necessary he would cross the border into India and travel along the Indian side to get home.
However, by early after noon (our flight was at 17.30 p.m.) the fog started to clear a bit and the protesters were seeming to run out of steam a little. Mr B. had also managed to call someone at the airline office who said that the flight should leave as planned. So mid afternoon we found a rickshaw to take us the 6km to the airport. Nepalgunj airport was still the very Spartan, down at heel airport it had always been but it was actually a welcome sight on this occasion! Especially as by this time the runway was clear for us to take off and we had a great view of the Himalayas as we flew towards Kathmandu (and home). The protest had also ameliorated in Kathmandu and we got back to our guest house (and the UK) with no further dramas.
Thanks Mr. B. you were truly a star and we will definitely be back one day.