I came to Bardia National Park, in the south-west of Nepal, to look for tigers. Apparently, I am more likely to see them here than anywhere else in the country. So it has to be worth the hazards of the journey to get here.
My guide, Gautan, in his khaki trousers and shirt, loves the forest with a passion. He leads me through a river, and into the jungle. I know, I said I wouldn’t go looking for tigers on foot, but there is something about this man, with his eyes that giggle and long wooden pole, that makes following him compulsory.
It is steamily hot. But still the birds keep up their chorus, and we spot drongos and eagles and kingfishers and a magnificent owl asleep in a treetop. He leads me to a hide – a tower by the riverbank, where, apparently, it is common for tigers to drink, or play, or generally mess about in the water. Gautan scours the scene before us with his binoculars. Finds a rhino with her baby, about half a mile away. But no tigers.
Then he stiffens; tiger is there – he points up stream. You hear the deer, they are calling, tiger, tiger. We climb down from the hide (which seems like a bad idea to me) and head off in the tiger direction. We lurk on soft sand by the river – sit, says Gautan, relax! Again he peers through his binoculars. Tiger is here, he says; there are no monkey and no deer – tiger is here. He motions me to stand up.
And suddenly there is a crashing in the jungle. A large animal has clearly taken flight.
Tiger, says Gautan. About ten metres away. But it is the male. The female has four babies, she would not run away. He brandishes his wooden pole, standing like a warrior with an absurd smirk on his face which is meant to convince me he could frighten away a dinosaur. So – that’s all right then.
Off he walks – following the direction the tiger has taken. I have no choice but to follow. For about an hour we skirt the area, Gautan listening with every bit of himself. But the tiger remains firmly hidden.
So no, I actually haven’t seen a tiger. But I promise – never again will I walk in the jungle.