Hitherto we have failed in our relatively short quest to spot wild Bengali Tigers on safari. But as one swallow doesn’t make a Summer, an hour and a half spent seated in the back of a travelling jeep in Ranthambhore hardly means we have put our backs into the pursuit either. To remedy this, we decided to try again. This time we headed to Bardia National Park, which the Lonely Planet informed us ‘has excellent wildlife-watching opportunities’. We were sure to have more success than in India.
But before I disclose that we still haven’t seen a tiger, I’d like to share the more unforeseen, yet unforgettable, experiences we had during the circa 28 hours spent on the bus rides bookending our trip to and from Bardia. I should point out that we were advised by guide books and local press not to take the public buses overnight, we nonetheless decided to take the public buses, which, by happy coincidence, travelled overnight. What could possibly go wrong, we thought.
Below is a snapshot of just some of highlights (or lowlights, depending on how you look at these things!) of our two journeys:
1. The drivers’ delighting us with their playlists. Comprising chiefly of Indian dance music, which to the more unaccustomed ear sounded like the same female vocalist on every track; the drivers played their banging tunes at full blast and throughout the night. Not terribly conducive to sleeping or, for the children, listening to audiobooks! I had hoped that our Roy Oberson look-a-like driver would have had a more varied taste in music. Alas, I was wrong. The odd moments of respite from the noise came with the hourly stops, in the milddle of nowhere and for no apparent or obvious reason.
2. The unique air-conditioning / climate control system. Whilst we had to a certain extent prepared for the cold temperatures, with hats, fleeces and the like. We had not foreseen missing windows, fellow passengers smoking or vomiting out of windows and, on the outbound trip to Bardia, a minor incident involving our bus which resulted in the windscreen being completely disintegrated. The near zero degree temperature quickly dropped to sub-zero and the driver – full credit to him – drove on, albeit with a duvet wrapped round him for warmth.
3. My emergency comfort break at 3am and the bus driving away before I’d completed business. Enough said and all better now, thanks!
4. Our fellow passengers. From the squawking hen who at some ungodly hour sought (but failed) to make a run for it from her overhead compartment seat; to the inebriated party of gentlemen who’d plainly enjoyed a long and liquid lunch before embarking. For some of them, the booze helped them slunk into their seats and into a deep sleep for most of the way back to pokhara. For others, however, they continued to party; singing and dancing along to the Bhangra beats. Also their chosen digestive comprised of chewing tobacco – a usually discrete, if not cancerous, pastime. But, and you can take it from me personally, being showered by half masticated tobacco as they sought (and failed) to spit the toxic substance out of a moving bus, is far from discrete. Despite of my lack of Nepali, I am confident I conveyed my disgust to the particular gentleman concerned.
5. Musical chairs of a different nature. With all good public transport routes anywhere in the World, the Brighton to London commute included, there is little, if any, correlation between the number of tickets sold to the space actually available on the carriage. The bus route to and from Bardia was, happily, no exception; our buses at times were heaving with passengers (and poultry) and their many possessions. What was more ingenious was, despite the crammed conditions, the contortionists among them still managed to rest themselves in the tightest of spaces. One enterprising individual lay down with a blanket in the aisle and slept the whole journey. I just had George to contend with, which was ample for me.
In summary, the guide books and local press, in my humble opinion, have it wrong; a trip on a public night bus is an experience not to be missed. I won’t go so far as to say it was enjoyable, but that’s not the point. By boarding them, you’re afforded a genuine glimpse at real life, which at times can be as entertaining and funny as it can be horrifying. To some extent, my experience was no different to a night bus journeys I’ve had in London – the aroma of vomit, and pissed passengers enjoying a kebab, or a cuddle or a even sleep, but, for the vast majority of the time, all just wanted to get home.
Ps. As I eluded to above, we alas didn’t see any Tigers, but I’ll leave my wife to fill you in about our time searching for them at Bardia.