By Peter Kleinhenz
Where to begin? Perhaps I should start with where I went, and why. Last December, I traveled to northern India and southern Nepal with a girl I knew well enough to go abroad with but, really, not well enough to go abroad with. We went anyway.
The goal was wildlife and experiences. Boy, did we have plenty of both. Our route essentially took us on a circuit through north-central India and through the southwestern corner of Nepal. Though we had a lot of "target species", money was never in abundance. We decided to skip the organized tour route and do our own thing. When I describe what we were able to see with this strategy, you may be tempted to try it. When I describe the hardships, you may call your nearest tour operator.
Driving through India is akin to a real-life Frogger with the decibels of a rock show blaring at you in the form of car horns at all times. The wildlife portion of our trip began when we left smoggy, grimy New Delhi and arrived at Ranthambore National Park. Here, we observed brown fish owls, Indian peafowl, dusky eagle owl, and plum-headed parakeets to name just a few of the many birds spotted while on safari. I was fortunate to get an up-close look at a massive female Bengal tiger that absolutely blew my mind. These sightings, combined with gray langurs, mugger crocodiles, mongoose, wild boar, and two deer species all amidst orange-tan tropical dry forest, made up for all of the hassles that came before it.
I'll spare you details about the next leg of the trip, considering that it involves some highs (Taj Mahal, shooting stars over the mountains of central India) and some lows (trip to the hospital and a police officer beating up our driver while demanding payment, cancelled train). But, stopping to look at a flock of sarus cranes in a field north of Lucknow, India while Indian rollers perched on powerlines overhead made up for any headaches acquired previously.
Then we were in Nepal. I can't stress enough how amazing southwestern Nepal is. We purposefully avoided areas where tourists/organized tour groups generally go, and we were so glad that we did. Sure, it was somewhat expensive to get to the Bardia Homestay in middle-of-nowhere Nepal on our own. And, yeah, we probably could have seen more species. But the species we did see, and encounters we had seeing them were unforgettable, unique, and amazing.
Here are some highlights of wildlife viewing in Nepal:
- Watching a greater racket-tailed drongo as it perched one tree away from two lesser racket-tailed drongos
- Sitting on a tributary of the Karnali River, watching a crested serpent eagle hunt for food
- Standing in awe after a park ranger spotted a jungle owlet off in the distance in a tree
- Seeing my first Indian rhino crossing a river in front of us
- Crouching next to the Karnali River while a critically-endangered Ganges River dolphin surfaced repeatedly in an eddy 25 yards away
Did we climb any Himalayan peaks? No. Did we check off every species of bird known from Bardia or Ranthambore National Parks? Definitely not. What we did do is have the trip of a lifetime that, despite some very real challenges, rewarded us in ways we are still realizing months later. Besides, the privilege of seeing some of that wildlife is something that, at least to me, is worth almost anything. I've never felt more motivated to work in the field of wildlife conservation and to continue traveling, in order to see what other wonders this world has to offer.