Planes, elephant judo and shooting stars

The flight from Jomsom on Shangrila Air is due to leave at 10 am. But as I sit in the airport, I am willing it to be delayed.

I don’t feel ready to leave this wondrous place. All I can do is close my eyes and think back to the previous evening. Back to the vision of the moon I still have in my head .

We were sitting in the guesthouse sipping rum and letting the evening slowly fold in upon us when we instinctively felt that the light wasn’t quite right somehow. There was a brightness around us that seemed supernatural.

The moon.

It hung, swollen and bright, above the Nilgiri range, bathing the town and the mountains in an eerie blue, neon glow, that silenced even the dogs.

Blue, blue moon. I hold the thought in my head now as I try to filter out the noise of the airport around me.

When I say airport, what I really mean is a small landing field really, that buzzes intermittently with the sound of little propeller aircraft.

Around thirty people seem to be busying themselves about the arrival/departure hall, having their luggage weighed, subjecting themselves to the full body search.

There’s a nervousness in the air that you don’t get in large western airports.

A nervousness that stems no doubt from the fact that we are all about to embark on a flight over one of the highest, windiest spots on earth, in a tin machine that resembles some childish, cartoon rendition of an airplane.

The visible security presence is not helping matters either.

Guards with machine guns saunter around the hall, and although they move with a languid nonchalance, their presence nevertheless serves as a reminder that places such as this, airports and tourist destinations, are still vulnerable rebel targets. Such is the world we live in.

The very world I am now trying to hold back from for just a few minutes longer.

As we ready to board the plane, my desire to stay means I lose my coveted place at the front of the queue to two eager elderly Japanese women.

They have scuttled, giggling across the airfield before me, having heard that a seat on the left side of the aircraft is the best side for views over the mountain ranges.

I decide to let them go because I have already resolved to come back here. I’m not letting go of this piece of the planet quite yet …

So it is that I find myself peering over Dave’s shoulder as we swoop and wind our way through the mountain range and fly high over the very trail we have just walked, heading back to Pokhara.

Ten slow days of walking and here we are, up in the skies and covering that distance in less than thirty minutes.

It’s a strange thing about small aircraft, but I always have an urge to stick my head out of the window, as if I am in a car.

Perhaps it is the lower altitude. At this height it is possible to look UP at the mountains and feel that you are driving by them, rather than hovering beside them.

It’s nice really. It makes the mountains seem a lot closer, more real somehow.

A closeness and reality that seems to be filling some of my fellow passengers with trepidation. If I want to stick my head out the window and try to skim snow off the top of the peaks, then they seem to prefer to cling to their armrests and grin desperately, while wishing it was over.

I wonder why it is that I don’t feel the same nervousness myself. The precariousness of what we are doing seems lost on me for some reason.

I trust our little aircraft to get us there safely. I trust the mountains to leave us in peace.

Perhaps it’s still the effects of the full moon, pulling my thoughts away from reality? …. could be.

The arrival in Pokhara is something of a jolt. Not from a bumpy landing but from the wall of sticky, humid heat that hits us when the aircraft doors open.

Compared to the fresh mountain air of Jomsom, this place feels like a jungle sauna.

It feels as if we have been transported thousands of miles, to some other tropical land, the temperature difference is that great.

I ponder this.

In a couple of hours we’ll he heading off again to drive to Chitwan national park – a place filled with crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceros and mosquitoes.

My brain seems incapable of registering this fact and I need to look up at the Nilgiri once again to remind myself that I am indeed still in Nepal, because the word crocodile is enough to send thoughts of Africa whizzing through my mind.

Can it really be true, I wonder….

… a bus ride and a nights sleep later, my question is answered.

We’d arrived last night at a lovely little place that Jeanna knows well , a little hotel complex in Sauhara.

Waking up in our little stone chalet, the chirp of exotic birds and insects fills the air and I lie there a while listening to it all, simply enjoying the strange tranquility of all that noise.

The hotel is beside the river, where the elephants come to bathe each morning at eleven. For a few dollars (a voluntary contribution) the mahoots allow you to swim with their elephants and ride on their backs if you so wish.

So come eleven, we are all down by the waterside breakfasting at one of the little cafes and waiting eagerly for the elephants to arrive.

I wonder out loud at the fact that there are crocodiles in the murky water but am assured that the crocs stay well away when they hear that the elephants are around. Riiiight….

I am also informed that the water here is too cold for our reptilian friends and am mulling over whether this is a good or a bad thing (given my aversion to cold water) when the sound of the elephants arriving interrupts my idle musings.

Now, I’m not sure what I was thinking, but for some reason it had never dawned on me before that elephants are actually huge beasts. Superbly massive in fact.

I’ve been close to them before but seem to have forgotten this, so I simply stand, dumbstruck and overawed as the rest of the gang splash into the water and ride around with these incredibly patient and gentle animals.

Meanwhile, I stay rooted to my spot on the river bank, taking photos and simply marvelling at the sheer happiness that seems to have descended upon us all.

The elephants just seem so pleased to wallow around in the water and get a good scrub, and seem so accommodating of the people around them that it is impossible not to feel a simple, childlike happiness at the whole thing.

I am the first to admit that when it comes to animals I am incredibly sentimental and succumb, quite often, to a tendency to humanise all creatures, but I can honestly say that those elephants were laughing, I swear it.

It was wonderful!

In the exuberance of it all however, I lose my chance to wade in and cavort with everyone, so must wait until tomorrow when they will come again for their ritual morning ablutions.

Still, Chitwan is elephant paradise and just down the road is the elephant orphanage, a mere twenty minute bike ride through the fields and villages.

So we set out. Word is that a baby was born just a week ago and that it is possible to visit the little newcomer.

Small of course is a relative sort of term. Especially if you are an elephant, as I was about to discover …

… the little menace I encountered was not the new born, but another, slightly older little chap with a tuft of bristly hair crowning his cheeky head.

When we approached he was sheltering shyly between his mothers legs and seemed reluctant to come out and play with the intrusive tourists.

Slowly though he made his way tentatively forward, checking us out and sniffing the air.

We had remembered to buy bananas along the way, to ensure we smelled tempting.

I was wandering around feeding him and stroking his bristly head when he turned, ever so slowly and started to manoeuvre around until he was behind me.

And that was when I felt the full weight of a baby elephant head pushing against me.

He was trying to topple me and he almost made it. I stumbled and fumbled and tried to keep an eye on him as he moved deftly about pushing me. When this seemed to be failing he resorted to another tactic, swiftly flicking a little back kick of his heel.

Still standing (though barely) he realised I wasn’t about to topple me any time soon, so hurried back under his mother and hid there coyly, his head tucked behind her leg, his trunk innocently playing around his head, looking for all the world like an sweet and innocent babe.

Then when I wasn’t looking he charged again, determined this time to get me.

We found out later that deck the tourist is apparently his favourite game and that this little elephant has quite a reputation at the orphanage for being a bit of a handful.

Still, I must admit he was a damn fine exponent of the art of elephant judo, for such a wee fella.

After such a delightful day, it was hard to imagine that things could get any better, but that evening as we sat by the river having dinner, gin fizzes in hand, the sun slowly set and turned the whole river bank a sumptuous red.

As we sat there in the darkness a shooting star flashed across the river accompanied by a gasp of disbelief from the crowd that had gathered

What is it with this country, I wondered, sipping my gin fizz. Everything is so staggeringly beautiful it’s like a dream.

I expected to wake up at any second. But the sun continued to set, the gin continued to glow within me, the insects still buzzed and somewhere, in a straw bed, a little elephant dreamed dreams of butting hoards of tourists …..and okay so I was a little bit gin woozy, but I swear to God, it was that amazing…

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