The Babai River journey starts at Chepang on the road from Nepalgunj to Surket.
Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL
“I just heard the tiger call three times. Let’s stop here to see if they come out onto the river bank.”
All eight of us tense in silent anticipation. From the pug marks in the sand, the trackers have confirmed a male and female were together in the forest borders that stretch of the Babai River. Naturalist D B Chaudhary has heard the throaty cough of the mating signal, although none of the rest of us had noticed anything above the gurgle of the river.
Swathed against the morning glare of the sun in wide brimmed hats, cotton scarves, dark glasses and factor-50 sunscreen, we perch motionless on the hot rubber of the inflatable boats. It is only 9 am, but already the sandy heat is tangible. The boatmen hold the rafts against the shore as our binoculars scan for any sign of the world’s largest cat, stripes that move in the sunlit shadows.
Our four-day river trip through the Babai Valley in the heart of Bardia National Park is taking us through the undisturbed domain of the wealth of wildlife found in the Tarai. Seldom visited, only a handful of companies attempt the complex logistics needed to outfit a multi-day river and camping trip that requires carrying in all equipment, supplies, medical and food, and packing out all rubbish and any sign that anyone has been there.
The cost of operating a Babai River trip is prohibitive, appealing to special interest wildlife tourists and mahseer anglers who are prepared to pay the price for the privilege of having the river to themselves for days on end.
These discerning international travellers contribute the significant national park entry, camping, fishing fees and liaison officer expenses, appreciating the protection given by the Nepal government and the local communities to such pristine habitat.
We see no other person or sign of civilisation on our journey from the Chepang bridge below Surkhet to the irrigation dam on the East-West Highway an hour west of Kohalpur. Only the glint of an occasional guard-post roof and a few silver aircraft droning overhead.
Our self-sufficient crew consists of 14 Nepali guides, naturalists, boatmen, camp, kitchen and park staff looking after our group of eight clients organised by Ussher Tours from the UK, personally escorted by Christopher Ussher, and operated by his former Gurkha colleagues at Insight Himalaya.
Piled high with equipment, our five rafts were paddled skilfully through the gentle meandering rapids or pushed over the smooth stones in the shallows. The two admin boats go ahead to make camp on a scenic beach, ensuring that by the time we arrive the tents are ready, kitchen, shower and toilets erected, and drinking water cleansed through the membrane filters of the innovative system brought from the US. Cheerful army efficiency make it look effortless.
The rest of us dawdle through the day guided by DB and Christopher, stopping to view chital and langur on the river’s edge, walking quietly through grassland and riverine forest in promising spots, teetering painfully across expanses of river stones to catch a mugger or gharial unawares, and examining tiger, elephant, rhino, deer and otter tracks on a sandy stretch.
Stately eagles, kites and falcons wheel overhead, flocks of teal and ruddy shell duck, storks, herons, egrets and lapwings live on the riverbank, and flashy kingfishers skim the surface. We pause to wallow in the cool clear water safely away from the deep turquoise pools favoured by crocodiles, and each day find a patch of delicious shade to eat lunch.
We are in constant state of expectancy – at any moment something might appear. As we munch our sandwiches and savour the view on the first afternoon, DB whistles an alert. His sharp ears have caught the tell-tale crack of a branch.
Sure enough, flapping ears emerge through the high grass and soon the full majesty of a grown tusker is revealed on the opposite bank. The elephant drinks deeply from the river, keeping a watchful eye on us, then sprays his dusty crinkled skin from light to dark grey before lumbering upstream to cross the river.
Fully submerged at one point, he uses his trunk as a snorkel. Whilst he climbs purposefully out of the water just above us, we make a tactical withdrawal back into the boats.
We are braver the next day when a small herd of six elephants, mothers, aunts and a couple of babies, grace us by appearing silently out of the tall grass opposite. With a squeal of alarm the matriarch leads them up the river and back into the trees. There is plenty of water in the jungle at this time of year and we see a proliferation of new tracks daily, but the Babai’s wild animal and bird population are not used to seeing visitors, making them shy and wary.
Layers of Bardia’s sal covered hills, riverine forest and thick grasslands recede in the moonlight as we gather around the driftwood fire, essential for deterring curious wildlife but handy for drying our towels. On previous visits, elephants and rhinos have caused hasty retreats to the boats in the small hours. Christopher regales us with stories from the private wildlife and angling groups he has been bringing to this wilderness over the decades.
Established in 1976 as Royal Bardia Wildlife Reserve, the current 968 sq km dimensions of Bardia National Park were fully gazetted in 1988 to protect 61 species of mammals, 513 species of birds, 42 herpetofauna and 120 fish. The Babai Valley was added in 1984 after 1,500 households were relocated outside the Park.
In 1997, the 327 sq km buffer zone was declared, jointly managed with local communities arranged into user groups. Conservation achievements include the translocation of 91 Greater One-Horned rhinos with the help of WWF Nepal from Chitwan National Park to the Babai, and bringing under control the poaching that proliferated during the years of insurgency.
We woke early on our final morning to a fine mist and soft jackal tracks in the sand, padding in the moonlight around our tents and the kitchen. Those tigers never did appear, much to DB’s disappointment as he longed to show us the world’s most magnificent cat. Nocturnal, solitary and minimising contact with humans, for most of us it is enough to know that they thrive in this undisturbed terrain.
I remember my first descent of the white water rapids of the Bheri River into Bardia with the skilled oarsmen of Himalayan River Exploration who pioneered commercial river trips in Nepal. We passed villagers who clearly had not seen foreigners, hurtled through churning cascades, ending at Tiger Tops Karnali Tented Camp on the Karnali River which in 1987 first opened West Nepal to foreign visitors and introduced tourism to Bardia. The riverside site is still a favourite with campers, though the concession to operate a permanent facility lapsed over ten years ago.
At Nepalganj airport we meet a Canadian group, extreme sport types who look as shell shocked with civilisation as we feel. They have been running the extreme white water of the mighty Karnali river, through the upper gorge, waterfalls and rapids in kayaks and rafts. “Super cool, one of the best trips of my life,” one bearded participant in lycra told me. They took out soon after entering Bardia as the Park’s flat water held no interest for them. But like us, they were super happy with their unique Nepal adventure.
The tranquil green waters of the Babai, a tame float trip at best, too slow and low for most of the year without pushing over river rocks, holds little appeal for white-water adventure addicts. There are over 70 registered rafting agencies in Nepal these days, and a wide variety of rivers to be explored, packaged and matched to the range of high-value post-covid travellers seeking remote nature. Likewise precious few of our thousands of registered trek and travel agents, are offering innovative new ecotrips to tempt untapped new international and domestic markets that could open up new destinations and spread tourism benefits throughout the country.