You no longer need to hike to discover Nepal

The curtain goes up at dawn. I had risen in darkness to find the long range of the Himalayas above Pokhara dimly present, a soft sheen of pewter bulked against dove-coloured sky.

The curtain goes up at dawn. I had risen in darkness to find the long range of the Himalayas above Pokhara dimly present, a soft sheen of pewter bulked against dove-coloured sky.

"You feel like applauding," said a fellow watcher on the terrace, as the clouds that streamed off the Annapurna and Manaslu peaks became rosy. All at once, the spire of Machhupuchhare sent out a beacon flash, the signal for a flood of coppery light to pour down the snow. Whole ranges of foothills emerged from the middle distance, while from the contoured fields below came cockcrow, woodsmoke and the distant voices of goats, dogs and children. Another Himalayan day had begun.

It would be hard to find a better ringside seat for this natural Nepalese drama - sunrise on the roof of the world - than the terrace of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge. Stone bungalows sit on a hilltop far removed from the increasingly tacky trek resort of Pokhara. Guests can feel warmed by the knowledge that much of the water is solar-heated and the open fire fuelled by rice-husks and building scrap.

Nepal's current trend towards upmarket eco-tourism in the countryside has done much to smooth the path for first-time visitors, with itineraries that include a taste of almost everything. Such is the popularity of the destination that even a Blind Date winner has been to Kathmandu. Among the forest of signboards and faded prayer flags fluttering from the Bodenath Stupa are Chorten Snooker!, Mandala Cybercafé and Salsa Night at the Yak & Yeti. And yet there is still a threatened strike of hotel workers and incoming planes avoid vultures circling the municipal rubbish dump. The prayers from the Buddhist devotees at the temple come muffled through smog masks.

But, under the diesel fumes, Kathmandu still smelled of charcoal braziers, of burning incense, of mutton fat and butter lamps: as mesmeric as when I first came here. The images of Shiva and Parvati still leaned companionably from their blackened temple balcony to survey the mêlée in Durbar Square. It had taken all of five minutes for the old seduction to kick back in, a process considerably helped along by the drop-dead luxury of Dwarika's, a hotel largely composed of antique fragments of vanishing Kathmandu.

Sterner stuff lay ahead. Two inflatable rafts waited on the shingle at Damauli, some 30 miles from Pokhara, ready to be loaded with the waterproof bags that contained our kit for two days' rafting on the Seti River. "You get wet in the front and bumped at the back," said our raft captain, Dhankaji Gurung, eyeing with disfavour the fleeces and general air of incompetence that enveloped most of our group.

Not for nothing was Dhan also captain of Nepal's national triathlon team. Unimpressed by our shrieks about chipped nail varnish and lapfuls of glacial river water, he soon had us sweating like galley slaves, and we did eventually achieve a kind of eight-legged progress that had a wavering rhythm. As the sun topped the gorge and the mist rose gently from the river, I felt like a fly at the bottom of a bowl of soup. Silvery trails of water tumbled through underbrush topped by silk cotton trees, reaching the river through ornate natural grottoes, green with moss and ferns. Occasionally a suspension bridge threw a spidery filament across the chasm while children crossing with schoolbooks called greetings from far above our heads.

Captain Dhan proved an authority on birdlife too, although his cries of: "Right! Pied kingfisher", "Forward! Black-backed forktail" had erratic results. Dusk found us ensconced in thatched tents at the Seti River Camp where the prospect of hot showers and dry clothes had been beckoning like a mirage.

Tharu Safari Lodge, another eco-haven, sits on the rim of Royal Chitwan National Park. Close on a million people live in the Chitwan Valley, more than double the figure for 50 years ago. Most are migrants from the hills: Gurung people who left the barren slog of upland life to pour into this fertile region after the eradication of malaria in the late 1960s. The houses of their Tharu neighbours, ochre-banded and decorated with the prints of small female fists, hark back to origins in Rajasthan.

Here there are rhino lookout platforms in every paddy field: a comment on the balance of life beside a game park. On one hand, a densely packed population sees 200 square miles of good land reserved for the benefit of beast-spotting tourists. On the other, 50 per cent of the park's annual £450,000 revenue goes back into the community for schooling, medical provision and fencing. The pay-back - reinforced by large, tourism-financed rewards and an 800-strong army presence in the park - is an expectation that locals will turn in poachers and illegal loggers.

This policy, said Marcus Cotton, general manager of the park's swanky Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, has helped to make Nepal a byword for success in the worldwide battle against poaching. As if to emphasise his point, four greater one-horned rhinos obligingly lined up to graze in full view of my lodge at Tiger Tops.

Next morning, elephants were waiting for us in the half-darkness: Rupkali, Durga Kali, Shamsur Bahadur and Shamsur Gaj, shifting under their rosewood howdahs. We crossed the river towards a stand of kapok trees, their branches webbed with fog. A trio of peacocks fluttered up out of our path while several tons of rhino vanished silently into the long grass.

I wouldn't have swapped Durga Kali's gently rolling gait for all the open-topped Jeeps in Africa. At this height you attune to a jungle inaccessible to eye-level gaze: huge spiders' webs, shrubs with leaves turned upwards to the sun; owls peering from hollow trees.

Our elephant "driver", the phanit, digging stubby toes into the soft spaces behind his mount's ears, achieved miracles with brief commands. Behaviourists frown on the propensity to endow animals with human sentiments, but it was hard not to be touched by Durga Kali's slow rumbles whenever her son, Shamsur Gaj, loomed into view. Mother and son touched trunks briefly as they passed. Local people recall the night 20 years ago when Durga Kali gave birth and her second-in-command, Rupkali, broke her chain to be with her friend during labour.

After Tiger Tops, I turned for a last look at the jungle. The Annapurna range had reappeared; so had the peacocks, the male unfurling his tail to offer the sun a million-volt colour salute.

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