This is the Terai, land of the endangered one-horned Indian rhinoceros. It’s a subtropical lowland region in the Himalayan foothills teeming with life. Sitting near the plunge pool on the porch of my villa at the Meghauli Serai safari lodge, I watch a variety of insects hop and thrum around the dry elephant grass. A kingfisher flies past, I hear a call and wonder if it is a barking deer. My luxurious accommodation is at Taj Safaris’ newest jungle property in Meghauli at Chitwan National Park in Nepal.
When it’s time for my jeep safari I walk some 50 feet from my room down to the edge of the resort, which faces a bend in the Rapti River. A canoe and our guides are waiting for us at the bottom of a short flight of stairs. We must cross the river in the canoe to get to the opposite bank where the core area of the UNESCO World Heritage inscribed Chitwan National Park lies. The canoe ride starts in a calm section before the boatman manoeuvres the wooden craft into the fast-flowing Rapti. Before I’ve even registered how lovely the setting is, our keen-eyed wildlife “spotter” Buddhi points out a gharial on a sand bank. It’s only after we travel another 20 feet closer that I spot the fish-eating reptile. So still, it could easily be mistaken for a heap of rocks. But I know we are being watched because as we draw closer, the shy gharial slides gently to the river’s edge and disappears under the grey waters. “Was it a male or female?” I ask. “You’ll have to come back in a dozen years,” naturalist Pradeep Mahato answers light-heartedly. It’s only after the gharial reaches maturity that the male develops a gada or hump on its snout, making it the only crocodile with a visible feature identifying its sex.
A wooden canoe takes visitors on a cruise down the River Rapti. Photo: Niloufer Venkatraman
On the safari drive we traverse two of Chitwan’s three habitats. We start in the grasslands along the riverbank where we spot a few of the 600 one-horned rhinos that inhabit this park, slowly foraging on the grass. Chitwan is Nepal’s first national park and now a shining example of a conservation success story.
Next, our jeep moves into the riverine forest and within seconds I can feel the temperature drop by at least five degrees. Pradeep points out the smooth trunked rhino apple tree named after the animal’s love for its fruit. We see red silk-cotton or kapok trees with their prickly bark alongside the hardwood sals. The third area of the forest is a Ramsar wetland though we don’t visit it. On our two-hour safari drive we spot at least a dozen one-horned rhinos of different sizes including a little calf. The forest is throbbing with birdlife, insects, a variety of deer, and even the Bengal tiger though it remains one of the park’s most elusive beasts. Instead, we see a barasingha deer with very large antlers, a quickly disappearing barking deer, and a variety of birds though I miss seeing the hornbill.
Arriving back hot and dusty from the safari, I’m pleased to see the lodge’s staff waiting on the bank with cold towels and a thirst-quenching lime-and-mint drink. Meals at the restaurant-bar are a pleasure. I try a few dishes of the Newari community, served on a banana leaf placed on a slab of grey slate: chatamari, a flattened momo, gundruk ko jhol, fermented spinach soup, and chicken or oyster-mushroom choyla (cooked with masalas), served with thekri, a lightly sweetened puri with a hint of coconut. Meals at Meghauli Serai can range from a simple porridge before a quick dash for an early morning safari, to an elaborate Tharu thali created from the cuisine of the local Tharu community. This can be accompanied by a dance performance at the faux Tharu village and restaurant created on the property. There’s also Rapti Kinara, a wooden deck overlooking the river where the resort’s chefs whip up a candle-lit barbecue.
One-horned rhinos are the stars of Chitwan National Park, where 600 of them now live, in an area that has commendably remained free of poachers for two years now. Photo: Michele Falzone/ Awl Images/Getty Images
To enjoy the forest in a variety of ways the lodge offers safari walks with a naturalist, and an elephant safari on animals that they ensure are well looked after. Guests can also enjoy the company of Anjali Kali, a resident elephant who absolutely loves the water; we feed her and join her when she takes a dip. Besides this, an experience I relish is the chance to have high tea and a quiet evening on a floodplain at the confluence of the Narayani and Rapti rivers.
Despite the lure of the forest, I do manage to get back to my spacious bedroom for a little downtime. Lying on the large distressed-wood four-poster bed, I admire the hand painted mural on the wall. It’s a scene from the jungles around, the work of Durga, a talented local artist.
Unravelling myself from the exquisitely soft pashmina blanket I step into the massive bathroom. A family of three could all be bathing at the same time without bumping into each other in this huge space: One in the clawfoot bathtub, another in the glass-enclosed shower area and the third at the outdoor rain shower. My favourite part of the bathroom is a stool, a section of a tree trunk painted with the stick figures of Tharu art.
The use of local materials like thatched grass roofs, reed or patua mats, and elephant grass carpets gives the resort a warm and inviting feel, while maintaining the stylishness expected at an upmarket property. When you enter the hotel, you walk into a sunken living room that looks out onto a plane of water (the infinity pool), and then to the river and jungle beyond. When I leave, however, I have thoughts only of the bustling grassland, the snort of a rhino, the rumble of an elephant, and the soothing dense green of a flourishing wilderness.
Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “Rhinoland Highs”.
All Meghauli Serai rooms have a hand-painted Tharu art mural on a wall. Photo: Niloufer Venkatraman
Meghauli Serai has 16 Rapti Villas (doubles low season from ₹12,000, high season from ₹25,000), each with a plunge pool. There are 13 rooms (doubles low season from ₹9,000, high season from ₹18,000) overlooking the Terai grassland (www.tajsafaris.com).
The resort organises half-day jeep safaris (from ₹2,700 per person) and elephant safaris, canoe rides, and walking safaris (each from ₹800 per person) into Chitwan.
The closest airport to the property is Bharatpur (28 km/1 hr on barely-there roads) connected to Kathmandu via Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines (fares from ₹1,950). The resort arranges pick-up and drop services from both airports. The airstrip at Meghauli is likely to reopen soon, making travel to the resort more convenient.
Indians do not need a visa to travel to Nepal. But they must carry a valid government issued photo ID such as a passport or driver’s licence.
’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through wilderness or the bylanes of a city, and to instill in her daughter a love for the outdoors. As Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India her gig involves more of pummelling stories into shape than actually travelling.
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