Friday 19 July 2013

Travels in Nepal 2013 Part 4 - The trek to Gandruk!

Chitwan was technically the end of the basic tour. Before we leave Chitwan, here is a hornets nest or two under the bridge:

All of us except Will had signed up for the trekking extension to Gandruk. Half way to Pokhara, Nepal's second city, we said goodbye to Will. A car was waiting at a bridge to take him back to Kathmandu for his flight home. We were sorry to see him go.

The three of us carried on to Pokhara, where the festival of Holi was now in full swing. We could hardly get through.

Holi in Pokhara
On arrival at the hotel we, too, were painted modestly by local children before enjoying a drink and then dinner. We had a gorgeous room but so little time to enjoy it properly before the drive to the start of the trek next morning.

The drive took us over quite a high pass and down to about the same level on the other side, to Naya Pool where the trek began. We had two porters who carried our reduced luggage ahead to the first stop while we walked slowly up the first part of the route. This really wasn't very steep. We strolled and birdwatched at a leisurely pace. We got anointed further by children for Holi. Here's Lynne with three local kids on the way:
Lynne with three local children

Now, you may know that there are only 5 types of dipper in the whole world. With the brown dipper we saw in Nepal I have now seen 4 of the 5 species. The only one left is the Rufous-throated Dipper which is found in some areas of Bolivia and Argentina. Here is a very poor photo of the brown dipper and some of the birds we saw. First is a group of mainly water birds. Well, we were walking along the river!

Brown dipper. Record shot. Only one species of dipper to go now!

Slaty-backed forktail

Spotted forktail

White-crested laughingthrush

Plumbeous redstart - male

Plumbeous redstart - female

White-capped water redstart

Grey wagtail. Now - I wonder where I've seen that one before??

Black-lored tit

Grey-hooded warbler

Blue whistling-thrush

A couple of raptors:

Black eagle. Note the really 'pinched' wings near the body.

Bonelli's Eagle

After some hours, we arrived at the B&B in Syauli Bazar.

Now, the standard of all accommodation is relative and one has to make allowances for the country. Our room was basic but OK. The bathroom, however, was rather dire. The solar heated water had all been used as we were last to arrive. The gas heater didn't work and was very dangerous. There was no clip on the gas hose on the cylinder and at one point the hose blew off because of the gas pressure and gas hissed out fiercely. Fortunately, someone was nearby to put it back on. I don't want to think what might have happened if the gas heater had been alight at that moment!

Anyway, aside from the heater, our evening meal was lovely. At this point I must say that our early decision to eat only Nepalese food was a stroke of genius. The food was really lovely and throughout the whole holiday none of us had an upset stomach.

The next morning we were up before dawn. Breakfast was outside by the river so we could watch birds as we ate.

Himalayan Bulbul

Black bulbul

Then the real trek began! The second leg was much steeper than the first and I later worked out that we climbed about 700 metres vertically that day. Well, I know that's not a lot to a seasoned trekker, but Lynne is not used to it and Barbara has one replacement knee and one artificial hip!! Barbara, you were a marvel that day.

Much of the way was steps. At about half-way we saw this sign:

8,846 steps done. 4252 steps to go.
Certainly beats the Eiffel Tower with a mere 1,665!

It took about five hours to reach Gandruk. It was walking mixed with birdwatching and resting, not constant walking. I carried my tripod and camera and the others a small rucksack. It seemed hard at times but, five minutes after arriving, all the fatigue was forgotten. We had lunch in the lower part of the town before going higher up to our hotel, the Annapurna.

Hotel Annapurna. The view was better than it looks here.
It was aptly named, with a 'to-die-for' view of Anna Purna South as well as other peaks in that part of the Himalayas.

Trekking is obviously very big in Nepal. We were constantly passed by wiry porters carrying two large rucksacks tied together or a similarly large load. Suchit told us that porters are expected to carry about 40-45Kg each! That's quite a lot.

As there are no roads in these parts, everything is transported by mule or porter. Mule convoys are common. These hardy animals follow the lead mule up the steepest tracks and when the line of a dozen or so passes you, you jolly well get out of the way! The leader does have a loud bell so at least you know when they're coming.

The next day we witnessed a spectacular dawn when the sun hit the distant Anna Purna range.

Dawn on Annapurna from our hotel balcony. Spectacular!

We spent the early part of the day birdwatching - what else? The highlight was seeing a tiny Pygmy cupwing (formerly Pygmy wren-babbler) a small bird with a loud song.

This was followed by a breakfast at a high cafe with wonderful views over the valley. After breakfast we continued up the valley. Here are some of the birds we saw, including the pygmy cupwing:

Little pied-flycatcher - similar to our own.
Grey bushchat. This one is brown cos' it's the female

Spangled drongo. A bird with a very unusual tail.

Verditer flycatcher. Common in this area.

Blyth's leaf warbler

Asian barred owlet

Small niltava

Rosy pipit

White-tailed rubythroat.

Russett sparrow. Not that common here.

Greater yellownape - a woodpecker.

Whiskered Yuhina

We had all been intrigued at one particular bird in the book called 'Mrs Gould's sunbird'. It was a small, highly coloured bird with a long curved bill. We wondered where we could see it? Well, that very morning, Lady Luck was to smile on us as one suddenly appeared and Suchit hissed: 'Mrs Gould's sunbird! Mrs Gould's sunbird!' We got amazing views of it before it flew off into the bushes.

Mrs Gould's sunbird. A riot of all the colours of the rainbow!

A little further on we witnessed a giant flying squirrel. It sailed down the path in front of our eyes but we never saw it again.

Chestnut-crowned laughingthrush

Striated laughingthrush
White-rumped munia
There were several monkey species in Nepal. Two of them are here:

Rhesus Monkey

Langur monkey
All too soon we were having dinner and preparing for the descent. We had to cover the same distance back to Naya Pool that we had taken two days to do on the ascent. This time, however, it was all downhill. It went well and before we knew it we were back in Naya Pool having tea while waiting for our taxi.

Grey bushchat - male

Spot-winged grosbeak. Female on left.
On the way down, we met a local man who was collecting the edible fern which we had enjoyed a few times in salads. It was delicious.

Man with edible fern.

Back to the hotel in Pokhara we enjoyed a luxurious shower, the last supper and bird report and a good night's sleep in the massive bed. The following day we did a couple of hours early morning birdwatching around the lake, picking up grey treepie and crimson sunbird.

Grey treepie

Pond heron

Cattle egret in breeding plumage
Pokhara has a wonderful mountain panorama which is impossible to see in one view. Here is part of it from the lake in the city park:

Mountains from Pokhara

After lunch we flew back to Kathmandu and stayed in the same hotel overnight before taking the plane back to London. When we got to Delhi, I realised I had about £40 worth of Nepalese rupees. I was gutted to discover that they weren't usable even to buy coffee in Delhi airport! I strolled around the airport looking for someone who looked like they were going to Nepal and I soon found one. Fortunately, he had been to Nepal before and knew the exchange rate. He took all my Nepalese rupees in exchange for sterling. Well done that man!

Then the long flight home and back to cold and rain! Roll on our next excursion!


Thursday 4 July 2013

Travels in Nepal 2013 Part 3 - Chitwan Nature Reserve.

Next day it was time to take a sad leave of Koshi. A long drive to Chitwan nature reserve far to the West awaited us. The journey was uneventful except for the sight of some Himalayan griffon vultures eating a dead cow not far from the edge of the road. You can get some idea of the size of the vulture compared to the large-billed crow beside it. The crow is quite a large bird.

Himalayan griffon (vulture) with a large-billed crow.
We arrived at Machan Paradise View Lodge in the evening for a 3-night stay.

Machan Paradise View Lodge, looking towards the bar!
Machan Paradise View Lodge, our room is bottom left.
Before dinner we learned from a talk that the reserve was very extensive. There were about 140 wild tigers, over 400 wild rhinoceros and many other smaller mammals. Large areas of the park were covered with tall grasses but 90% of it is forest, made up largely of 'sal' trees. We were dismayed to hear that our chances of seeing a tiger were slim!

The Hindu festival of Holi was just starting as we arrived at Chitwan. Here are a couple of revellers.

Two Holi revellers who really took the festival to heart.
We were also treated to local dancers. Lynne joined in the entertainment!

Local 'dancers'.

Lynne getting into the swing of things!

After a good night's sleep we were up before dawn for breakfast. As someone who doesn't like bananas I have breathtaking news!! I ate a banana pretty well every day in Nepal. After eating 2 bananas in Gambia 2 years ago, I started eating bananas for breakfast sliced on my porridge (yes, porridge is big in Nepal). To prove it, here is me eating, and obviously enjoying, a banana!

Unbelievable but true!
I had bananas every day on my porridge.
After breakfast we were straight inside the park acting as bait for tigers! Well, that's what it felt like at times, but we lived to tell the tale. Only once or twice did the spotter ask us to move rapidly away from some movement he wasn't happy with! He had a stout stick with him which I thought might not be much good against a tiger. On talking to him, however, I learned that the stick was not to beat the tiger but to beat the ground in order to make a noise that frightens tigers. I hoped he was right!

Oriental magpie-starling

There are quite a number of 'babblers' in Nepal. Here are some of the ones we saw:

Chestnut-capped babbler
Striated babbler ('streaky' in other words).
Yellow-eyed babbler
Everyone likes a bee-eater. Here are two that we saw at Chitwan:

Chestnut-headed bee-eater
Green bee-eater
 Most of the grassland birds were small and distant I'm afraid:

Ashy prinia
Grey shrike

Rufous-rumped grassbird.
This one was great. Sorry you can't see the red rump in this picture.
Although not a grass bird, this Chestnut-bellied nuthatch was the one that looked most like our nuthatch.

Chestnut-bellied nuthatch
Sikeer Kalkoha
Mid-day was generally hot and the others slept while yours truly wandered around in search of other avian rarities. One of the ground staff pointed out this bat roost in one of the bushes just a few metres from our room.

Short-nosed bats roosting just behind our room

The camp and Chitwan were home to several species of parakeet. I know they look like ours, but they are much more colourful.

Plum-headed parakeet - male
Plum-headed parakeet - female

Rose-breasted parakeet
In addition, there were 3 types of myna bird. Here are 2 of them:

Hill myna
Jungle mina
While at Chitwan we enjoyed an elephant ride one afternoon. The elephants generally work with one keeper/driver. In India they are called 'mahouts' but in Nepal the drivers are called 'phanits'. A phanit would be very offended if you called him a 'mahout' who, in Nepal, is really just one who cleans out the elephants' stables.

Ram, our 'phanit' (the name for one who drives the elephant)
Most (perhaps all) safari elephants are female. Females are calmer. Ours was 45 years old.

We were impressed at the strength of the elephants. They could carry four people plus the phanit with ease and trundled through the marshes and up steep banks at a slow steady pace. Getting the beast to move required a lot of effort by the phanit, who was called Ram in our case. Ram was constantly moving his whole body back and forth on the elephant's neck to urge it on. This caused Ram to sweat profusely in the late afternoon heat. Ram carried a fearsome hammer cum hook cum blade which was really quite heavy. As we strode along, the elephant constantly grabbed bunches of grass with her trunk and ate it. She had to be encouraged to move on. Ram only used the hook twice but it was a heavy blow with the flat part which made the elephant roar. I hope it was not that painful bearing in mind the elephant's enormous bulk.

To get on and off the elephant we climbed up a specially constructed wooden tower. The elephant backed into it. We them scrambled onto it's back one by one.

When we tipped Ram at the end, he had taught his elephant to take the notes with her trunk and deliver them to her master. You can just see them in this picture.

Ram's elephant with our tip in its trunk

We saw several rhinoceroses and crocodiles in the park. Here's a rhino:

Greater one-horn rhino
The crocodiles are called 'marsh muggers' and grow to several metres long. I wouldn't like to meet one if I wasn't on top of an elephant!

A marsh mugger
Although not a problem for us, insects abound in this part of the world. The hotel had a huge hornets' nest on the side of the main building and the bridge over the river sported four of them:

Hornets' nests on the local bridge

We took a jeep safari for a whole day, mainly in search of birds, but it was on this trip that Will suddenly shouted 'tiger' as he saw one cross the track a couple of hundred metres ahead. By the time we had reached the point where it had crossed, we were just able to see it disappear into the forest. No photo but it's true, honest!

We saw many skulking forest birds as well, including a bird which you may recognise! It's the original ancestor of our own domestic chicken, the red jungle fowl. It's completely wild in Chitwan.

Recognise it??
The Red jungle fowl is completely wild and hard to see in the forest.
We also saw the charismatic and beautiful Indian roller.

Indian roller. A wonderful, iconic bird.

Indian rollers have lovely wing patterns in flight:

Indian roller

On the way back from our day trip to the forest we witnessed another eerie event. From the forest track we saw a large sambar deer. It wasn't far from us and was looking intently away from us, staring at something, completely motionless. Normally a deer would look at you and flee, but not this one. We scanned the area beyond the deer and I thought I saw the black tips of the ears of a tiger amongst the grasses! So did Suchit! The deer stood motionless and it's only acknowledgement of our presence was the turn of a single ear in our direction. After what seemed like an age the deer suddenly flew like the wind away to one side while letting out a deafening bellow. It had escaped and the tiger melted away.

We took several walks in the forest at Chitwan. On one walk we met this cheery group of women on their way to work. Women don't like having their picture taken but they agreed to be photographed with Barbara.

Barbara (2nd from left) and Nepalese women

Woodpeckers abounded in this forest. There were three similar species of flameback woodpecker. In order they are: black rumped flameback (more common), Himalyan flameback (rarer) and greater flameback (rarest). Eventually we saw all three (we saw the first one at Koshi). The difference lies in how thick and dark the eye-stripe is. The rarest has the thickest, darkest eye-stripe. I'll let you work out which is which. (but I've made it easy for you). The second picture shows particularly well why they're called 'flameback'!

Doesn't he look like a pirate with mask and red cap?
By the way, many animals or things are 'Himalayan' in Nepal. e.g. 'Himalayan bulbul' or 'Himalayan flameback'. Suchit, our guide, was very insistent that it should be pronounced Hi-mah-lee-an, with the stress on the 'mah' rather than Hi-mah-lay-an, as most Europeans say, with the stress on the 'lay'.

Another river trip rounded off our stay in Chitwan. Near the river, this woolly-necked stork waded in the shallows.

Woolly-necked stork
This river trip made me realise how many races (or variations) of pied wagtail there are.

Pied wagtail


Citrine wagtail
All good stopovers come to an end, and soon it was time to drive to Nepal's second city, Pokhara.

PHOTO SIZES - What do you prefer?

In this blog post I'm experimenting with larger photos. I've put in several sizes of this shikra (like our sparrowhawk) giving a lizard a lift!  The normal default size is this:

Normal size photo
This photo is 'large'

This is 'extra large'
This photo is 'Original size'

To be continued . . . .