Travel: Nepal - Homage to the tusker king

Anna Nicholas joins the explorer John Blashford-Snell as he pays court to Raj Gaj, the greatest Asian elephant
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The Independent Travel
By the ghostly light of my head torch, I trod warily through the sharp jungle grass, a pair of black fishnets stuffed with bloodied feathers in one hand and a white sheet in the other. Following thoughtfully behind me with a small ultraviolet light tucked under his arm was Dr Adrian Lister, a zoologist and palaeontologist from University College London. Securing our light and white sheet between two trees, we found some low-hanging branches from which to hang our bloodied fish-nets.

Now, before you rush to conclusions, let me explain that this was no Satanic flight of fancy, but a serious piece of scientific research we were undertaking. The sheet and light? To catch moths. And the fish-nets full of feathers? To attract their larvae, of course. Back in England, our findings were to be monitored by a Dr Robinson, moth-expert extraordinaire at the Natural History Museum who, God willing, might even consider naming a newly discovered moth after me.

Some days earlier, in between my customary whirlwind of meetings, lunches, and receptions in Mayfair, I had glanced at my travel itinerary, blissfully unaware that my imminent expedition to the wilds of western Nepal with the intrepid explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell would involve such bizarre activities as moth-collecting. But this was to be the first of many surprises.

There were 20 of us on this scientific expedition, amateur explorers of all ages, and from different countries and walks of life, linked by a passion for elephants and adventure. This was to be no typical Himalaya trek with token sojourn in a comfortable safari-lodge, but a rare opportunity to experience the wild jungles of the Nepalese lowlands, out of bounds to the average tourist.

During our two-week stay in a makeshift encampment in Royal Bardia Reserve in the far west, we were to assist Adrian Lister, our accompanying elephant and mammoth expert, in forming a proper census of the near-extinct remaining 150 wild elephants of Nepal. Love elephants as you may, we're not talking Babar here. These mammoth-like creatures weigh up to seven tons and with one nudge of the head could probably catapult an unsuspecting explorer from here to Mars. That said, Blashford-Snell warned us that in the 1,000 sq km of dense riverine jungle and dark sal forest of Bardia, the wild cousins of our six domesticated Asian elephants might elude us altogether.

"Mount your elephants! Mount!" The booming voice of the Colonel reverberated around the dark campsite in the cool, aromatic air of a Nepalese dawn. Yawning heavily, for it was five in the morning, safari-suited people hastily emerged from the row of small tents in the jungle clearing and clambered inside the wooden howdahs perched high on the awaiting domesticated elephants.

Like cars with square wheels, our elephants lurched forward jerkily, thrashing through seemingly impenetrable vegetation as we clung to the howdahs. With their huge, sinewy trunks, they felled whole trees and crushed boulders into dust, the Nepalese naturalists and phanits (elephant drivers) spurring them on with insistent yet indecipherable words. But for the far-off garrisons and hushed chanting of the langur monkeys high above us, the silence and air of anticipation were almost palpable. Suddenly, our tracker, Ram Din, jumped down from his howdah and excitedly pointed to a large, fresh elephant footprint. We were hot on the trail of one of the mammoths of Bardia.

Heading south-west, we crossed the wide Karnali river, blazing white sunlight dazzling our eyes as we looked towards the distant peaks of the Himalayas. Submerged, but for their trunks, our elephants rolled drunkenly back and forth through the frothing, fast-flowing water until eventually able to lumber up the steep banks on to dry land. On we went through sinking sand and long grass, the thick thorny bracken whipping our faces until, facing the Chisapani Gorge, we approached the north-east side of an islet where more elephant prints were in evidence.

Crashing through dense undergrowth, we half-expected to stumble on a gang of frenzied lumberjacks as the sound of tumbling, splintering trees rent the air. But there, looming in front of us, 11ft high and with the girth of a sumo wrestler, was Raj Gaj, the world's largest Asian elephant. His huge, prehistoric head jutted forward and his ears flapped like colossal wings, whisking the leaves like a vortex into the air. As cameras whirred, he hollered ominously from the pit of his belly and fixed us with his small glinting eyes. We froze. Pointing his curved magnolia tusks towards us, he shook his head provocatively, roared and stomped off into the trees. So mesmeric was the spectacle that no one seemed able to move. At that moment, I truly believed we'd stumbled on the eighth wonder of the world.

The next day, Blashford-Snell selected a small group of us to carry out research in the remote Babai region of the jungle. Only eight scientific researchers were permitted to enter this wild terrain each year and we were the chosen few. The two-day trip would apparently involve wading through dense jungle and crocodile-infested rivers. Assuming that only the younger strapping males of our party would be chosen, I was somewhat alarmed when Blashford-Snell clapped me on the back and told me to pack. I gave a rigor-mortis smile as my companions raised a toast to "Indi-Anna- Jones". There's no room for wimps on a scientific expedition.

En route to the Babai, we quite unexpectedly came across a herd of wild female elephants with calves. Unobserved in our jeep, we watched as these hefty belles, waggling their hips from side to side, sauntered along the track, their babies wedged protectively between them. Now this was more Dumbo than Die Hard, and as omens go, I thought this boded well for our Babai excursion. How wrong I was.

From our Enid Blyton camping idyll by a flowing river, we set off into the wild on foot like well-equipped Boy Scouts, with compasses, maps and water. In the searing heat our progress was often impaired by the tough, needle-sharp bush grass and burrowing ticks. As we stumbled along the banks of swollen rivers, the mugger crocodiles and their more aquiline cousins, the gharials, observed us with cold, yet smiling, green eyes, willing us to fall in. At one point I lost my balance and my shoes filled with freezing water. I squelched on, regardless, too terrified to drop back from the group.

The following day there wasn't a whiff of an elephant, but to our alarm, as we ploughed clumsily though the jungle, we stumbled upon a one-horned rhino. This encounter, magnificent though it was, had us hurtling back into the bushes. One charge from this lady would make a close encounter with a mugger crocodile seem pleasurable. Later, our hearts missed several beats when a black panther bounded past us and moments after we nearly came face to stripey face with a tiger ahead of us on the track. All that psychobabble about looking an angry tiger in the eye and gaining its respect cut no ice now. We bolted.

Back in the relative safety of our base-camp, we learned that Blashford- Snell had encountered another wild herd, which meant that between us we had discovered a third of the wild elephant population of Nepal.

Some adrenaline highlights were to follow. Riding our elephants in the eerie mists of dawn one day, we suddenly heard a blood-curdling screech and, as if from nowhere, a snarling Bengal tigress came flying through the air and attacked the elephants. Crouching behind Blashford-Snell in the howdah, I heard myself let out a screech before our phanit lashed out with his wooden stick. Like an amber blur and squalling menacingly, it bounded off into the trees. Two days later, just when you thought lightning couldn't strike twice, out leapt another big orange tigress, nose creased in fury as we unintentionally bumbled close to her lair. By way of nerve recovery, several of us spent the next day rafting down the Karnali, observing the gentle and endangered gangetic dolphins.

During our stay, we visited nearby Tharu villagers with the aim of dissuading them from harming the wild elephants which regularly destroyed their crops in search of food. Our visit to the village of Gola was a triumph, with children donning Everton and Liverpool strips for the world's first- ever elephant football match. Meanwhile, Blashford-Snell became the toast of the Tharu tribeswomen when he showered them with face creams, lipstick and perfume, courtesy of Tova Cosmetics, LA. Now the very poorest in the heart of the jungle would be able to compete with their wealthy female counterparts light years away in Tinseltown.

On my recent return to London, a letter arrived from Dr Robinson. It seems, sadly, that the Yponomeuta brunnescens that I discovered on the trip will not be my namesake. Apparently, this small speckled moth was discovered in the 1880s, and more recently in Bardia, by the previous British defence attache in Kathmandu.

He thanked me, however, for adding useful data to that already collated at the Natural History Museum, and suggested that I might like to return for further research. Well, come on now, what further incentive does a girl need to return to the wilds of Royal Bardia?

GETTING THERE

Qatar Airways (tel: 0171-896 3636) often offer the cheapest fares to Nepal. Their current return fare from London to Kathmandu (before 30 August) is pounds 429 plus pounds 20 tax. Local charter companies fly from Kathmandu to Surkhet (the nearest airport to the Royal Bardia National Park).

FURTHER INFORMATION

No experience is necessary to join an expedition by the Scientific Exploration Society. For information about next year's SES expeditions, contact SES Expedition Base, Motcombe, Dorset (tel: 01747 854 898). Expeditions cost from pounds 2,500 per person, inclusive of flights.

Visas are required by all nationalities, except for Indians, for travel to Nepal.

Contact the Nepalese Embassy (tel: 0171-229 1594).

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