Nepal: Chukka-full of charm

Every year, Tiger Tops lodge in Nepal is the setting for a polo tournament with a twist. Rory Ross hails a quirky jungle outpost – and dodges an amorous bull elephant

There's no finer way of seeing the jungle than from 12 feet up, on top of an elephant. Whether bulldozing through the undergrowth, climbing hills or fording rivers, elephants walk at exactly the right speed: any faster and you'd miss something; any slower and time would hang heavily. So there I was, riding through the jungle of south-east Nepal on a four-ton female elephant named Ram Kali. With me sat a look-out boy, while the mahout, or driver, straddled Ram Kali's neck, and steered by tickling her ears with his toes. Ahead of us was Chan Chan Kali, a colleague of Ram Kali's.

We were on safari in the Royal National Chitwan Park, an ark of rare and exotic fauna. As the sun set, colourful animals emerged to have a stretch and a quick drink from the river Rapti, which snakes through the park. Thanks to the soundlessness of an elephant's gait, we startled kingfishers, lapwings, deer, eagles, golden oriole, and a rhinoceros with her two-month-old baby.

The scenery, suffused with soft, pink evening light, was such that you wonder why you tolerate 21st-century Britain. Chitwan is a vast stretch of pristine jungle, forest and flood plain, just north of the Indian border. As I looked ahead at Chan Chan Kali – the picture of pachyderm contentedness, trampling a passage through the 25-foot-high elephant grass, tail swishing, ears flapping and trunk darting out to grab clumps of vegetation – I felt blissfully secure, and could easily contemplate going feral here for a few months.

"Hut-hut-hut!" The look-out boy on Ram Kali suddenly became agitated. "Hut-hut-hut!" The mahout responded by whacking Ram Kali on the head with a stick, making a sickeningly resonant thud. As Ram Kali and Chan Chan Kali lumbered ahead at full speed, the shouting look-out boy and the mahout began to jump up and down. I expected to see tiger ready to pounce, but everything around us seemed absolutely tranquil, except for the ground shaking as Ram Kali and Chan Chan Kali put on an impressive turn of speed.

A quarter-mile behind us, I saw the cause of the panic. We were being stalked, not by a tiger, but by another elephant, a wild bull elephant built like a tank, with fork-lift tusks. It was doing a feeble impersonation of a pachyderm pretending not to be following us. "The bull might charge us, tear us off the back of Ram Kali, gore us with tusks, remove our heads as if they were grapes, trample us and throw us in the river," said the look-out.

We forded the Rapti River and double-backed along the opposing bank. The bull looked increasingly disgruntled, but for appearance's sake continued along his path, while we went in the opposite direction. We truncated the afternoon's safari, and headed home.

This episode, I later learnt, rates as a normal evening's entertainment at Chitwan. Chitwan is the former hunting ground of the Rana rulers, a dynasty that controlled Nepal from the mid-19th century until 1953. Among its legendary expeditions was one in 1911, in which King George V and his party despatched 39 tigers and 11 rhinos. The last big hunt, in 1939, was Judgment Day for 120 tigers, 38 rhinos, 27 leopards and 15 sloth bears. It is believed that more adult tigers perished on that particular hunt than exist in Chitwan today. In the Seventies, Chitwan came to its senses, acquired a conscience and went eco-friendly. The late King Mahendra approved the creation of the Royal Chitwan National Park, which was inaugurated in 1973. In 1984, Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site. Today, many endangered animals flourish here, including the one-horned rhinoceros, the Bengal tiger, the gharial crocodile, and a curious gentleman by the name of Jim Edwards.

Edwards, now in his seventies, is a sportsman-cum-eco-warrior upon whom the sun of the British Empire has not yet fully set. In 1973, he founded a lodge in Chitwan called Tiger Tops, a jet-set destination that was at the cutting edge for its time. Now, the resort seems charmingly dated: no spa, no pool, no gym. You sleep in glorified Portakabins, and eat in a thatched African-style golghar (roundhouse) shaded by an arboretum of hard wood trees overlooking the river Rapti. Tiger Tops is essentially glorified camping, but it has the satisfying, well-oiled hum of a resort in cruise mode. The lack of facilities is more than compensated for by the friendliness of its army of staff, whose longevity – some of them have worked here since the beginning – make it feel like the home of an extended family.

Edwards appeared, dapper in fawn cords, Panama hat, cravat and suede shoes, sporting a limp from a recent stroke. A better-looking version of Ian Fleming, he is a charismatic, louche, much-married Third World entrepreneur-adventurer in whom raffish charm meets patrician elegance. He arrived in Nepal in 1962 and immediately fell in love with the place.

"I hunted, shot, climbed mountains and learnt everything about Nepal," he said. "My first tiger hunt was arranged by Prince Basundhara, the then king's brother. We became friends and he encouraged me to stay." At first, Edwards set up a hunting company at Tiger Tops, but soon realised the tiger must be protected. "So Tiger Tops became the front-runner of eco-tourism," he says. Although day-to-day management has devolved to Edwards' son Kristjan and his Danish wife Stina, there is no doubt as to who is in command. Clearly, Edwards is brilliant at what he does, whatever that is.

My visit to Tiger Tops coincided with the 2006 World Elephant Polo Championships, a fixture that Edwards concocted with James Manclark in 1972 in the bar at the Cresta Run in St Moritz. Presumably, they alighted on the idea of elephant polo because they felt that hurtling down a mountainside on a tray wasn't daft enough. Tiger Tops was formally inaugurated as the spiritual home of elephant polo worldwide.

"At the first two world championships," he says, "a lot of champagne was drunk while people wondered how to play. The sticks were too short, and the elephants kept stamping on the footballs. Then we got special sticks made professionally and switched to conventional polo balls. We changed the rules depending on, er, my mood. The point is to have fun." Asked if there is a world governing authority of elephant polo, Edwards eyed me imperiously, and said, "I am the world governing authority."

Incredibly, elephant polo is in danger of becoming a serious sport, with rules drawn up by a committee, and big-name sponsors, chiefly Chivas whisky, who field their own team.

This year's championships (due to be held from 18-24 November) have attracted a record 12 entries. Thailand and Sri Lanka have recently adopted the sport. Other countries with idle domesticated elephants – Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bhutan, Nepal, India – may join in. There is even talk of elephant polo at the Asian Games.

Last November, however, the World Championships held at Tiger Tops were marked by a gathering of polo players, fans, sponsors, several thousand enthusiastic Nepalese supporters, the odd minor celebrity, and every domesticated female elephant in Chitwan. Because elephants live to about 70, some of these beasts took part in the first world championships in 1972 and are still going strong.

It was this pageant of pachyderm pulchritude that had attracted the male bull whom I'd encountered on my safari.

"That'll be Romeo," said Dr Celia Temple, a GP from Edinburgh, and medical adviser to the World Elephant Polo Association. "He's about 35 and notoriously aggressive. He has killed three people from the nearby village. He is 'in musk', which means female elephants have to look out." She continued: "Romeo has booked his holidays here for the last five years. Normally, during polo week, the elephants live in a temporary camp 7km away. Two years ago, however, Romeo broke in and ran off with two females. This is the result of that elopement." She pointed at a cute u o armadillo-sized baby elephant in front of us. "Sandra Kali Santi, born on 12 September 2006, exactly 12 months later. She is Romeo's love-child."

The following morning, before dawn, I ambled over to the elephant camp, where feeding, watering, grooming and saddling were in full swing in preparation for the day's polo. A sudden ripple of anxiety washed over the camp. I heard screams, looked up and saw a scene of bedlam rapidly unfolding in the twilight. Mahouts were shouting, "Hut-hut-hut! Hut-hut-hut!" and sprinting in my direction, leaping over watering cans, wheelbarrows, chairs and any obstacle in their path. In Chitwan, beastly doom is never far away, but here I was, ironically, about to be crushed by a stampede of mahouts.

Then I saw the problem: Romeo was still auditioning for his Juliet and was inspecting the camp as if he owned it. Far from going on the rampage, as I'd hoped, he calmly wheeled left and rolled out into the bush, looking as if he owned that, too.

I asked Danny, the chief naturalist at Tiger Tops who has lived in Chitwan for 37 years, what was happening. During the night, he explained, Chan Chan Kali had broken her chain and eloped with Romeo. "He had copulated with her," he said, adding helpfully that "elephant copulation takes about one hour". Now, Romeo was back for more. "Last year, he went off with one of the females for a whole week," grinned Danny. " When they eventually returned, Romeo began flirting with a second female. The first female went mad with jealousy and knocked down two trees."

An hour later, at 7.30am, the elephant party – minus Chan Chan Kali, who was by now probably engaged in post-coital pachyderm pillow talk with Romeo – was ready to advance to the polo ground for the final of the World Polo Championships. Like a circus act, the elephants processed in lock-step down to the River Rapti, and calmly forded the torrent that swirled waist-high.

The human party of polo players and supporters crossed the Rapti by ferry, boarded Jeeps and drove ahead of the elephants. Soon, the convoy came to a halt in mid-jungle. Two-way radios were consulted. Nepalese chatter filled the air. I looked behind me. The elephants patiently shuffled from foot to foot.

It emerged that Romeo, having somehow managed to overtake the convoy, had turned around and tried to charge the leading vehicle. I was hoping he'd flatten a couple of Jeeps and bring me home a story about the world's first carbon-neutral elephant. The threat soon receded, however, and we were on our way again.

Overexcited bulls are not the only hazard in Chitwan. Danny, the naturalist, regularly spots tigers. The last tiger census here produced some 40 adults and 60 cubs. Tiger movements are recorded by camera traps dotted about the park. In 10 years, these feline Gatso cameras have shot 1,200 pictures of more than 100 tigers. The photographs are studied for face markings and stripes. Paw prints are another means of identification.

"Tigers are solitary," Danny explains. "The territory of one male – 50 to 60 square kilometres – normally overlaps with three females' territories. One particular male, Island Bhale, stands four feet tall, 10-and-a-half feet long and weighs 750lb. He rules 100 square kilometres, covering the territory of eight non-dominant males. They fight all the time."

Asked for the correct drill in the event of an unscheduled tiger encounter, Danny said, "Stand still, fix him in the eye, and walk backwards and to one side. He should move on."

We arrived at the football-pitch-size polo ground at Chitwan with the look of survivors from some terrible ordeal. The Championship is a week-long tournament contested by eight teams, mostly from Nepal. Two Scottish teams, one of which was defending its title, had also entered. (Elephant polo is a sport, alongside curling, at which the Scots excel.) Any team can enter, provided Mr Edwards likes the cut of your jib.

Before the grand final, the minor placings were to be thrashed out. One player, Major Jon Titley, late of the 6th Ghurkha Rifles, and a large chap with blood-shot eyes, shared with me his pre-match anxiety. "The adrenalin actually pumps, which is stupid," he said, a fortifying beer to hand. "It's only elephant polo for Christ's sake. Right, team!" he drained his beer. "Let's get serious. There is one guy in the other team, Rinchen Cheogyal. We will stick to him like shit to a blanket, and if the ball pops out, I sledge him. Ooh," he grinned mischievously, " if only you had a mike out there... I give them absolute hell."

Pachyderm polo is slower, easier to follow and more amusing to watch than pony polo. There's something about the gait of elephants: Groucho Marx in baggy clothes. The mahout drives the elephant to the ball, and the player swings at the ball with a mallet. I had a go myself. I imagine it is a bit like playing golf from a helicopter. The hardest bit is keeping a straight face.

It's pacier than it looks. The elephants are graded by speed, and divided into equal teams of four elephants. Baby elephants can dart about like ponies; adults play a more defensive role, and barge juniors out of the way. Tactically far richer than horse polo, elephant polo falls somewhere between chess, and a vigorous game of croquet.

"To train an elephant to play elephant polo takes two days," says James Manclark, the floppy-haired co-founder of elephant polo, who has the air of a minor royal. "Whereas to train a pony to play polo takes about two years. Elephants are far more intelligent than horses. They aren't frightened of flying balls and swinging sticks. There is no bit in the mouth and no spurs. So the mahout controls this four-ton animal with relatively tiny movements of his toes behind the elephant's ears. The swinging tail means the elephant is happy. You very soon know if an elephant is unhappy; they start to swerve from side to side on their feet."

For the record, in the 2006 grand final, Angus Estates team from Scotland beat the Nepal National Parks team by 8-6. Not that winning matters much. The tournament is primarily a chance for old friends to relax and meet in an atmosphere of boozy bonhomie.

But elephant polo has a serious side, too. In Thailand, where it has given a new life and employment to hundreds of elephants made redundant when logging was banned more than 16 years ago, the Thai chapter of the World Elephant Polo Association has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the National Elephant Institute, and donated a £20,000 elephant ambulance. "Elephant polo is creating a new form of human-elephant bond," says Chris Stafford, who runs the Thai chapter and plays for the Chivas Regal Scotland team.

By the end, everyone was cheering, laughing and having a drink, which is probably what Edwards and Manclark envisaged when they conceived the sport. Everyone boarded elephants, and plodded home to a soundtrack of Colonel Harty's march from Walt Disney's The Jungle Book. At least the noise kept Romeo at bay.

For my part, I carried home with me many charming insights into the multi-faceted elephantine character, including the trekkable, peaceable domestic pet, the competitive sporting team-player at polo, and, of course, Romeo, the incurable romantic, who had finally found his Juliet.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the United Kingdom and Nepal. However, connecting flights to Kathmandu are available with Qatar Airways (0870 770 4215; www.qatarairways.com) from Gatwick and Manchester via Doha. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) both fly to Delhi, with onward connections on Indian Airlines, while Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) flies from a range of British airports to Dubai, with onward connections on Royal Nepal Airlines.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, Chitwan National Park, Nepal, Kathmandu, Nepal (00 977 436 1500; www.tigermountain.com).

VISITING THERE

The World Elephant Polo Championships take place from 18-24 November (World Elephant Polo Association: 00 977 1 436 1500; www.elephantpolo.com). Organised trips: Adventure operators offering trips that visit Chitwan National Park include Explore (0844 499 0901; www.explore.co.uk) and Dragoman (01728 861133; www.dragoman.com).

RED TAPE & MORE INFORMATION

British passport-holders require a visa to enter Nepal. These can be obtained from the Royal Nepalese Embassy, 12a Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QU (020-7229 1594; www.nepembassy.org.uk) and cost £20 for a 60-day stay. Note that if you are planning to include India in the same trip, a visa is required.

Nepal Tourism Board: 00 977 1 425 6909; www.welcomenepal.com

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