Wed 31st Dec 2003

The Walk of Death

In Nepal everything is dangerous. I didn't notice it so much at first, but after three months I'm noticing it more. And I'm realising that when you're surrounded by danger, you can start to practice discernment - you can choose exactly what you're going to risk and how much you're going to risk it. Some of Nepal's risk is exciting - there's a very remote danger of being caught in crossfire between Maoists and the Royal Nepalese Army for example, although it's gradually becoming less remote as the US, the UK and Belgium thoughtfully upgrade the Nepalese Army's medieval weaponry. Most of it however is depressingly mundane. Every glass of water, every plate of fried rice, is a potential hospital visit. Every bus journey is a pant-wetting game of chicken with other slow but suicidal Nepali drivers on roads that, after continual landslides, look like rubble strewn goat tracks overhanging 300-foot drops. Every road crossing is a battle of wills with motorists who believe that brakes are for women (except the women, who believe that brakes are for old men).

It's not enough for tourists though. Tourists in Nepal actively go out of their way to court danger. Nonchalantly strolling around the Himalayas, whistling in avalanche season; ignoring the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (a condition that can become fatal alarmingly quickly over 4500m); rafting on rivers that look like they're being fired out of gigantic crowd control hoses in a leaky piece of Chinese rubber with your safety placed in the hands of stoned Israeli Army rejects - there are lots ways a visitor can meet his or her end in Nepal. But surely one of the most exotic, one of the most unusual, one of the greatest ways to go has got to be being eaten alive by a wild tiger?

Royal Bardia National Park sits in the middle of Nepal's largest area of lowland jungle - nearly 1000 square kilometres of dense sal forest, grasslands and low hills. Many of the big names in wildlife live here: including around thirty elephants, fifty one-horned rhinos and as many as seventy tigers (around the limit that the protected territory can support). And for sixteen kilometres, between Ambaasa and Chisapani, the Mahendra Highway - the main east-west road through Nepal - cuts right through it. For sixteen kilometres this road is a thin strip of bitumen straight through tiger town. On this stretch alone between three and six people (numbers varied depending on who I talked to) have been killed by tigers in the last two years, including one man who was famously dragged from a moving motorbike and into the jungle. This is the Walk of Death.

Actually, statistically there's probably more chance of dying on this stretch of highway if you take the bus, but danger is about quality, not quantity. And tiger danger is high quality danger. With this in mind, three of us set off for Ambaasa one morning to face it, with just our trusty rubber-soled flipflops and a packet of biscuits for protection.

The bus ride to our starting point gives you an idea of the kind of everyday danger that the safetybelt-wearing UK public has turned its back on. The bus is crowded, so we're riding on the roof, something you just can't do in England (and I can't see the conductor on the number 73 climbing out of the window and clambering onto the roof as we hurtle down Pentonville Road just to take my 70p either). About a kilometre short of Ambaasa the bus stops before a particularly unsafe looking bridge. "If you love your life you will get off the bus now!" one of the other people on the roof tells us cheerfully. And indeed, about half the passengers decide not to take the chance and walk across the bridge, getting back on the bus on the other side. But we're here for danger. We close our eyes and creak our way across.

By 10.30 am we're staring at the receding length of the Highway of Horror. It's hot. There's no shade, and after five minutes' walk we're the only pedestrians on the road. To either side of the road is around ten feet of cleared ground, which is now thick with tall elephant grass. It's impossible to see more than twenty feet into the forest. After about an hour we come to a dry riverbed, and we decide to take an illicit walk into the Park.

By walking along the road we are avoiding paying the daily entry fee for the Park - all visitors must pay 500 Nepali rupees per day to enter, and just as important, sign the register, so that the Army knows just who's missing if you fail to come out. Leaving the road has now exposed us to the added danger of being shot as poachers by overzealous wardens, although as we only venture around a hundred yards from the road we're probably fairly safe. We don't feel too safe however. We stand looking at tiger tracks in the dried silt of the riverbed and listen to the oppressive silence, jumping at the rustle every large falling sal leaf makes in the canopy. Then we get back onto the road.

Going into the Park without a guide is strongly discouraged, and the local guides have just told us about a couple of recent visitors - European doctors - who spurned both a guide and the entry fee and ran into a rhino. They spent the next 13 hours up a tree, the woman with a broken leg and the man with a broken wrist, until a local man gathering roots illegally by night heard their cries.

What we see the most of however is the ever-popular deer/monkey combo. Spotted deer and langurs often operate a kind of jungle neighbourhood watch scheme - the black-faced monkeys watching from high in the tree, whilst large groups of deer use their acute hearing on the ground. They aren't really interested in people, but several times we're scared witless by herds of previously invisible deer bounding away from us, startled, barely seven feet away.

The walk is beautiful. Like scraps of coloured paper blowing in the breeze, the road is littered with butterflies - dozens of different types. The bodies of those that have been sucked into a lorry's vortex flap weakly on the tarmac. By 1 o'clock we've reached the dry ford at which the infamous dragging-from-the-motorcycle event occurred. We stop for half an hour, soaking up the atmosphere, and eat some of the most dangerous biscuits we're ever likely to try. There are tiger tracks here too - but they're old and the man-eater that used to terrorise this area was killed in 2001. A passing bus driver takes his hands off the wheel to make claws and gives us a comedy snarl as he drives past. We wonder if he's joking, or actually warning us about a tiger further along.

For people who live around the Park boundary the danger is continual. Around twelve people are killed in and around the Park each year by wild animals - a figure that would hardly be tolerated in the Peak District or the Norfolk Broads. When the Park was first established in the 1980s thousands of people were moved out of the protected area and resettled in villages around the Park boundary. And as the protected wildlife inside the Park has begun to thrive, the battle along the boundaries has intensified. Although tigers are feared, it's rhinos and particularly wild elephants that are regarded as most dangerous. They're more likely to attack without reason, and much more likely to come into contact with local villagers due to their habit of coming over the Park boundary at night to eat crops.

Approximately every 500 metres large watchtowers or machans have been built, and at harvest times these towers are occupied nightly by villagers whose howls and crashings reverberate eerily throughout the night. While the rest of Nepal is getting used to the idea of curfews, in Bardia it's nothing new - being at ground level after dark has always been dangerous, especially at this time of year.

For us however, the rest of the walk passes pretty much without incident, although we are a little excited by hearing what we think could be a Barking Deer, much rarer than the spotted ones, just fifteen metres from the road. There's a small finale of danger as we avoid getting shot by the bored soldiers at the security checkpoint, and then we walk victorious across the huge suspension bridge that crosses the Karnali, still alive, and vaguely disappointed.

Seeing a tiger (I managed to get roared at by one a couple of weeks later) is something special. Granted, it's not quite as special as being eaten by one, but I think most people would be satisfied with just a sighting. I know I am. In fact, the chances of us not having been watched by at least one tiger as we flipflopped our way down the Trail of Terror are remote. My guidebook informs me cheerfully that you are a hundred times more likely to be seen by a tiger than to see one yourself. And now that my knowledge of Jungle Lore has increased from the infinitesimal to the minute I can't help thinking that the sound we originally thought was a Barking Deer was uncannily similar to the warning noise a langur makes when it's spotted a tiger. We could have been in even more danger than we thought.