Just after dawn we saw the fast moving orange blur disappear through the long grass near the lake. We were on our way to the water's edge to look for elusive orioles, as well as ibis and osprey. This sighting was a big bonus, though it was a relief to have witnessed it from high on the elephant's back...If the blur had stopped for long enough, we'd have seen its stripes.
There aren't many tigers left in the wild and we were lucky to have seen one while birdwatching. The tigers that do survive in Nepal live in National Parks, such as the Royal Chitwan in the 'Terai', the lowland strip that runs along the south-western edge of this beautiful country.
We found the Royal Chitwan a fabulous location for birdwatchers. When I say 'we', I don't mean an intrepid crew of hardened adventurers, willing to put up with any hardship in order to spot rare and exotic species. I mean amateur enthusiasts who like to do things in comfort, so have opted for a luxurious, three-location birdwatching holiday in one of the highest and most dramatic countries in the world, Nepal.
That's why more and more people are making the long trek out to this and to many other remote corners of the world. Birdwatching used to be a hobby pursued by people willing to put up with any discomfort in order to catch sight of an elusive species; but birdwatching has changed. It has, quite literally, taken off. Specialist companies now provide luxury tours for enthusiasts who can now see birds that once they'd only dreamed of through rose-tinted binoculars. The Antarctic, the Galapagos, Russia, Siberia, Kenya, Cape Verde, Hispaniola and Nepal; name your remote region and there are tour operators to oblige, enabling you to spot whichever feathered friend it happens to be, from flightless parrots to majestic condors.
What to Expect
Most tours to the region start in Kathmandu set deep in its valley at the foot of Nepal's main mountain range. The city has been the kingdom's cultural centre for centuries and although it has altered over the years, it retains a good deal of its traditional heritage. But we were there for the birdwatching and to this end we travelled to the Royal Chitwan National Park.
This is one of the most spectacular wilderness areas to be found anywhere in Asia. In places it resembles a gigantic walk-in aviary, literally seething with masses of birds and butterflies. The Royal Chitwan boasts more than 440 different bird species including the rare openbill stork and the black-hooded oriole. It is a birdwatcher's paradise where you can see more than 100 species in a single day.
Here are just some of the fabulous birds that you can expect to see: In the many marshes and small lakes there are black-crowned night and purple herons, cinnamon bittern, cotton pygmy geese, darter and painted snipe and stork-billed kingfishers, together with various rare warblers and babblers as well as flocks of common and demoiselle cranes that arrive on passage between March/May and October/November. Forest species include squadrons of different eagles and owls, kalij pheasant, moustached parakeet, green-billed malkoha and crested treeswift.
Where to Stay
Specialist companies, such as Sunbird, Nature Trek and Bird Quest, certainly know how to take the 'dis' out of discomfort for the birdwatching enthusiast.
'Of course we are taking people to sometimes rather extreme places,' says David Fisher, managing director at Sunbird, who was just about to leave his office for a four-and-a-half-week bird tour of Australia, costing clients £6,500 each. 'In fact we operate around 120 tours to some 350 countries. But we always endeavour to provide the very best accommodation possible.
'Sometimes, at some locations, we have to camp so that we can be near the birds that we have travelled to see, but our camps and tented safaris are luxurious.'
That certainly was the case at the Royal Chitwan. We travelled there with another bird-tour specialist and stayed at the five-star rated Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge where guests are treated in a truly regal fashion. The exciting and evocatively romantic tree houses and bungalows are in the heart of the park and surround a Nepalese-style dining hall and lounge area. This is where guests relax around a central open hearth under an enormous domed roof and enjoy the delicious Nepalese and Western cuisine.
The Royal Chitwan was our ultimate destination, but to acclimatise ourselves to Nepal we spent a night at the five-star Shangri La Hotel in Kathmandu before moving on to the outrageously beautiful and luxurious Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge which was where birdwatching began in earnest. Situated on a ridge a thousand feet above Pokhara Valley it has spectacular, panoramic views of Macchapuchare and three awesome 8000-metre peaks: Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna. The Lodge has won several prestigious awards, including the PATA Heritage and Culture 1999 Gold Award and the Condé Nast Traveler Magazine Ecotourism Award 2000.
Its 19 elegant rooms are housed in stone bungalows, similar in outward appearance to the ones found in local villages. They are arranged around the hilltop in beautiful gardens and enjoy breathtaking vistas. Each has a private veranda and all are furnished with twin or super-king sized beds with adjoining bathrooms. Special features include bedspreads made from deep red monks' robes, wood floors covered with Tibetan wool carpets and locally inspired watercolours by British artist Luke Piper.
The main lodge has a Nepalese-style courtyard decorated with local antiques and there is an exquisite dining room with outdoor terraces so that you can dine overlooking stunning views. One of the Lodge's most celebrated features is Colonel Jimmy's Library, containing a comprehensive collection of Himalayan mountaineering literature and photographs which once belonged to the late Col. J.O.M. Roberts, said to be the father of trekking in Nepal.
As we sat at breakfast or at dinner in this fabulous resort we were able to enjoy the stunning views of the mountains, not to mention the warblers, flycatchers and woodpeckers. Whether we were lifting our binoculars as birdwatchers, or simply relaxing as tourists, we thought we'd arrived in heaven.
Birdwatching Tour Companies
P.O. Box 76, Sandy, Bedfordshire UK SG19 1DF
Tel: +44 1767 682969
Fax: +44 1767 692481
Tel: +44 1962 733051
Fax: +44 1962 736426
Two Jays, Kemple End, Birdy Brow, Clitheroe, Lancashire UK BB7 9QY
Tel: +44 1245 826317
A ten-day, three-location birdwatching trip to Nepal, inclusive of flights from London, costs £1695 with Nature Trek.
A four-and-a-half week, all-inclusive birdwatching trip to Australia with Sunbird costs in the region of £6500.
Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge and Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge
PO Box 242, Lazimpat, Kathmandu, Nepal
Tel: +997 1 411225
Fax: +977 1 414075, 419126
Agent - Abercrombie & Kent Travel
Sloane Square House, Holbein Place, London, SW1W 8NS
Tel: +44 20 7559 8777
PO Box 655, Lazimpat, Kathmandu, Nepal
Tel: +977 1 412999
Fax: +977 1 414184
When to go to the Royal Chitwan
The best time to see wildlife is from February until May. Then the monsoons start and the park closes until the end of September. October can be hot, November less so, December and January can be cold.
In the high Himalayan Mountains it is wise to ascend gradually to allow time for your body to adjust to the altitude, which can cause insomnia, headaches, nausea and altitude sickness. Remember to use a powerful sunblock as the risk of sunburn is far greater at high altitudes.
Passport and visa requirements
Tourist visas can be purchased upon arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu and at all other ports of entry.
Web site: http://www.newweb.net/nepal_embassy/
Other birds to be found in Royal Chitwan:
In the marshes and lakes:
Woolly-necked and lesser adjutant storks, lesser whistling duck, purple gallinule, bronze-winged jacana.
In the forests:
Pied and great hornbill, various rare woodpeckers, large woodshrike, black-crested bulbul, golden fronted leafbird, pale-chinned flycatcher, black-napped monarch, various babblers, crimson sunbird, thick-billed flowerpecker, hill mynah, white-rumped shama, various laughing thrushes, Nepal fulvetta, streaked spiderhunter, red-headed trogon, white-browed piculet, long-tailed broadbill, ruby-cheeked sunbird and little spiderhunter.