Latest news from the Himalaya and Karakoram

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Inspection visit to Bardia National Park in Nepal

Photo: Royal Bengal tiger in Bardia National Park in Nepal
Last week I spent three days in Bardia National Park in Nepal, as usual on an inspection tour one of my aims was to inspect the lodges in order to be in a position to recommend the best ones to our clients. However I also was interested to find out more about Bardia National Park in particular to discover how Bardia compares to Chitwan National Park and whether it was worth travelling further in order to increase ones chances of seeing tiger...

Photo: entrance gates to Bardia National Park
Chitwan National Park is a popular place to visit on a tour of Nepal and also as an extension after a trek in the Himalaya. There is certainly tiger in Chitwan National Park with recent surveys indicating a population of 125 however in practice it seems the chances of seeing a tiger are relatively low. One of the main advantages of Chitwan National Park is its proximity to the main places of Kathmandu, Pokhara and Lumbini whereas Bardia National Park is located in far west of Nepal so it is much further distance to travel. There is a daily flight from Kathmandu to Nepalganj with Yeti Airlines or Buddha Air taking about an hour and then it is a further two hour drive to Bardia National Park.

The current cost of a return flight to and from Kathmandu and Nepalganj is US$330 plus a car for the transfer both ways from airport to Bardia and back to airport is US$130. Therefore the cost to travel to Bardia could be up to US$460 although would be less expensive if there was more than one person to share the cost of the airport transfer. Or the other option is to take a bus from Kathmandu and this journey takes 14 hours however costs only about US$20. The question several of our clients have been asking us recently is whether it is worth the expense (or discomfort of a long bus journey) to travel to Bardia National Park?

Bardia National Park was first set up as Royal Karnali Reserve in 1976 and then upgraded to National Park status in 1988. Bardia is the largest National Park in the Terai with a size of 968 km2 and when including neighbouring Banke National Park (established in 2010) together they form Tiger Conservation Unit (TCU) Bardia-Banke covering a total area of 1,518 km2. In comparison the size of Chitwan National Park is 932 km2.

Of course one of the main reasons people like to visit Bardia and Chitwan National Park is to have an opportunity to see the Royal Bengal tiger. According to the World Wildlife Fund in 2011 there were 37 tigers identified in Bardia which showed a significant increase from two years earlier when only 18 were recorded in this National Park. Whereas in Chitwan National Park recent surveys indicate there are in fact more tiger with a population of 125 however due to more riverine forest it is less likely for tourists to view tiger. Personally I have visited Chitwan National Park on three separate occasions and have never seen a tiger, also over the years many of our guests have visited Chitwan and very few of them saw a tiger during their visits.

During the afternoon on my day of arrival we drove through Bardia National Park in a jeep where we saw several animals such as rhesus macaque monkey, swamp deer, spotted deer and single-horned Asiatic rhinoceros. At 5pm we parked up at a place called Tinkune and walked for 5 minute or so to the viewing spot overlooking the river. First we saw two swamp deer cross the river followed by a rhinoceros and her calf then one of the safari guides spotted a tiger in the grass…a little later this majestic cat walked down to the river. The tiger was about 400m away although looked clear through binoculars, after about 10 minutes the tiger slinked off into the grass and disappeared into the forest.

Photo: rhesus macaque monkey
Photo: single horned Asiatic rhinoceros

Photo: swamp deer
From speaking to other guests at the lodge where I was staying everyone had seen a tiger and some were very lucky seeing two or more on each day of their visit to Bardia. I also visited several other lodges and gather most of their guests had also seen tiger most days so it seems this year there is a very high chance of spotting the King of the Jungle in Bardia. From discussing this further with the naturalist guides it seems that the number of tigers seen by their guests varies year to year however for last two years Tinkune has been a reliable place as the tigers like to cool down here in the evenings especially when the temperatures warm up in the month of April. It also seems with the recent closure of a tented camp inside the National Park this has minimised the disturbance experienced by the wild animals so overall improved the chance of viewings.

Photo: Tinkune in Bardia National Park
Overall I gather the best months for seeing tiger are March and April as the grass is short after cutting and burning in January. In fact grass management in the Park is important for the ecosystem and these days the Park rangers organise controlled burns in January and also local villagers are allowed into the Park for three days in January to cut the grass for use in constructing and repairing the walls of their houses. As a result the grass regrows with juicy green shoots so there is more food for the deer therefore in turn encouraging healthy growth in the tiger population.

About 70% of Bardia National Park is covered in sal forest and the rest made up of grassland and riverine forest. As mentioned above one of the reasons why it is generally easier to see tiger in Bardia is due to the more open areas of sal forest and grassland and less coverage of riverine forest. It is far more difficult to see tiger in the densely vegetated riverine forest more prevalent in Chiwan National Park.

During my visit to Bardia I saw several gharial and marsh mugger crocodiles during an enjoyable day spent rafting down Karnali river from Chisapani. There are also Gangetic dolphin on this stretch of river however unfortunately we did not see any of these from the raft. In the Park there are also wild elephants and from recent surveys their population is healthy at around 65. Bardia also has the world's only surviving wild population of a type of deer known as the blackbuck.

Photo: wild elephant
Photo: gharial crocodile
Photo: marsh mugger crocodile
The other advantage of Bardia over Chitwan is visitor numbers are still relatively low so it feels less crowded however of course as it is now well known that Tinkune is a reliable place to see tiger so there will certainly be several others waiting patiently in the mornings and evenings for the tiger to make an appearance. The environment around Bardia is less developed with almost all the buildings constructed using local techniques with clay and grass and luckily at present very few concrete hotels and guesthouses.

Overall I had a thoroughly enjoyable time in Bardia National Park and of course it was a special experience to finally see a tiger in the wild. If you have the budget and the time I would certainly recommend you make the effort to visit Bardia National Park however there is no doubt Chitwan National Park is also a good place too so it really depends on what type of experience you are looking for. 

Please get in touch with us at The Mountain Company if you would like any further information about Bardia and Chitwan National Parks in Nepal, we can then help you organise a trip and choose the lodges that have all been reviewed by us.

Roland Hunter

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Scenic mountain flight to Mount Everest on 80th anniversary of first flight over the highest mountain in the world

This morning I took the mountain flight from Kathmandu airport in Nepal over Mount Everest the highest mountain of the world. In fact by pure chance today is the 80th anniversary of the first flight over Everest. On April 3rd 1933, two Westland PV-3 biplanes one of them piloted by Douglas Douglas-Hamilton 14th Duke of Hamilton took off from Purnea in Bihar and flew to the Himalaya mountains and managed to get 50 metres above the 8,848m mountain.

Photo: first flight over Mount Everest on April 3rd 1933
The scenic mountain flight to Mount Everest is organised for tourists coming to Nepal and currently two airlines Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines operate this route. The Everest mountain flight always takes off early in the morning to maximise your chances of getting clear views of the mountains before cloud build up later in the day. This normally means a pick up from your hotel around 5.30am and once through the busy domestic terminal you should be airborne by 6.30am.

Photo: boarding Buddha Air's ATR42
I flew with Buddha Air on one of their ATR 42 planes and for their Everest mountain flight everyone has a window seat so aisle seat is left empty. The air hostesses will hand out a leaflet with a sketch map of the mountain ranges with their names so it should be possible on a clear day to identify the peaks you see out of the window.

Photo: inside ATR42 for Everest mountain flight
Photo: map of the peaks
Shortly after taking off Langtang Lirung comes into view and just to the right in the distance is Shishapangma which at 8,013m the fourteenth highest mountain in the world. The next easily distinguishable peak is Gauri-Shankar followed by the flat topped mountain called Melungtse. The huge pyramid of Cho Oyu comes soon after at 8,201m is the sixth highest mountain. Of course the peak everyone is looking for is Mount Everest and this appears flanked by Lhotse and Nuptse, the highest peak in the world is often seen with the characteristic white plume of cloud streaming from the summit.

Photo: mountain view from the window
At this point in the flight everyone is invited up to the cockpit to view Everest and surrounding mountains from the pilot’s view point. The plane flies close by Everest and then turns for the return flight back to Kathmandu. If you sit on the left side of the plane you will see the mountain view on approach to Everest and if on right you will see the view on the return back to Kathmandu airport however you can also sit on aisle seats so in practice one gets a pretty good view for both directions.

Photo: in cockpit of Buddha Air's ATR42
In total from take-off to landing the mountain flight takes about 45 minutes and Mount Everest appears after about 20 minutes. On getting back to the airport after the flight you will be picked up for the drive back to your hotel where you can have your breakfast and view your photos of this spectacular flight high into the Himalayas.

Photo: Mountain Everest in centre with summit plume
Photo: view from the window
This scenic mountain flight is popular with people who may not get the opportunity to see Mount Everest while on trek, I suggest it would be worth considering taking this flight if you are on a tour of Nepal. The Mountain Company includes Everest flight in our Luxury Tour of Nepal itinerary although we can also organise for you as an extra if you join our Highlights Tour of Nepal. Classic Tour of Nepal or for any of our trekking holidays in Nepal.

Roland Hunter

The Mountain Company