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OUR next stop will be Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, in the eastern Terai, for three days. We board the minibus at 7:00 A.M. for the eight-hour trip along the east-west highway. The road is flat, straight, and in remarkably good repair. The countryside is spacious -- fields and forest interspersed with Tharu villages, Tharu being the umbrella name for tribes from northern India who settled in the Terai because of their resistance to malaria. (Since a rigorous malaria-eradication program in the 1960s farmers from the populous mid-mountain region have also migrated to the Terai, making it the fastest-growing area of the country. Despite the success of the program, visitors to areas at altitudes lower than 3,900 feet are advised to take precautions against the disease.) As we approach the barrage at Bharda, which provides flood control for India and irrigation for Nepal, the minibus hits a pothole. Clunk! The jolt effectively wipes out the transmission, and we come to a noisy halt. The driver is mortified, but Tika takes control. He flags down a van and rides off to the nearest village, returning twenty minutes later with the news that he has located two Land Rovers. We will have a two-hour wait, and he encourages us to walk, promising plenty of birds.
It is a beautiful afternoon, serene and soft. Women in ruby-red and turquoise saris work in fields on either side of the road. A flight of twenty-seven Asian openbill storks rises up from a pond; a lesser adjutant stork (immense at five feet tall) wanders through the marsh, scavenging for refuse, fish, frogs, and snakes; a hunched beige paddybird is transformed as it takes flight, revealing pure-white wings and body; a trilling ashy-crowned finch lark rises and then falls in steep dives. The birders open up to a little conversation, their plumage seeming less drab as they take on individual colors.
The sun begins to set, and the air fills with mosquitoes. Turning back, we are overtaken by the arriving Land Rovers. We embark and cross the barrage, shortly thereafter turning onto a dirt track, where we pass mysterious, dimly lit villages until we reach Kosi Tappu, the birders' mecca.
THE designers of Kosi Tappu Wildlife Camp got it right. Tented cabins with twin beds are set among mango and sweet-scented citrus trees; more-than-adequate showers and toilets are to be found behind the cabins; the thatched hexagonal dining room is spacious; the tablecloths, napkins, and bedspreads are of heavy cotton, printed with traditional wood-block designs; a circle of rattan chairs sits on the lawn, overlooking the marsh. If the camp were deserted, the landscape would soon revert to its natural state.
We convene at the rattan circle after every outing, and the staff welcomes us, asking, "Teacoffee?" We sit back, and without moving from the chairs sight many species of birds. "Asiatic flycatcher two o'clock small grapefruit tree right side of washroom behind tent number seven," announces Simon, arguably the best birder of the bunch apart from Tika, whom he regularly challenges.
A bamboo catwalk, resembling nothing so much as the world's largest xylophone, leads across the marsh. In the mud below are jungle-cat pugmarks. The walkway makes a T with a pond-scattered band of grass, miles long and bisected by a disused narrow-gauge railway track. Beyond the grass rises the river embankment, planted with fast-growing rosewood, lantana, and fragrant clerodendron; beyond the embankment lies an expanse of white sand (submerged during the monsoon season) and then the Sapt Kosi, one of Nepal's three main tributaries of the Ganges. Toward the north lie plains, mountains, and in the deep distance the glint of the Himalayas, with Makalu -- the earth's fifth highest mountain -- prominent from this vantage point.
EVERY day at Kosi Tappu we bird-watch from dawn to dusk. On a day of intermittent wind, sun, and rain we follow the embankment, ducking under trees during squalls, popping out again to admire black-necked and lesser adjutant storks. We picnic at a pink tower near the Bharda barrage. Suddenly Tika calls, "Quick! Telescope! Globally endangered species!"
He focuses on a shape three fields away and invites us to admire Falco chiquera, the red-necked falcon, on the ground ripping its prey. Tika is ecstatic, and determined that no one miss this talented and fierce predator.
After dinner on day five (today my bird list tops 200) the birders suddenly relax, drink a few beers (locally brewed San Miguel and Tuborg), and begin to chirp. We have in our midst a teacher, a lawyer, a computer wizard (Simon), an aromatherapist, a veterinarian, a nuclear physicist, an architect, and a town planner. Their calls: some sharp tweets, whits, and tizips, a sighing phew or two, some beeebzzzs, a nasal wurk, and the occasional owl-like hoohooaw.
ON our last morning at Kosi Tappu we set off on foot to visit two villages, the first inhabited by people who migrated from the mid-mountain region after the eradication of malaria. Their houses are sturdy, two-storied, wood-framed. Next we pass through fields to a Tharu village, a natural wonder, where villagers are engaged in an age-old existence, ploughing with oxen, grinding wheat by hand, drying rice and turmeric in the sun, hanging a rainbow of saris on their mud walls, collecting cow dung for building material and fuel. They construct their thatched houses of bamboo, straw, and dung-strengthened mud, which they sculpt and paint. No TV antennas, no blaring radios, no combustion engines. The only concession to the twentieth century is the village water pump, provided by UNICEF.
Children and animals roam free; the children run after hoops, play a wooden board game, and jump on hopscotch grids. One little girl lies on the back of an ox, head resting on his rump, toes flicking his horns. Tika tells us that the average family in the Terai has six children; this has not escaped our attention. Everywhere we gather curious admirers -- beautiful, dirty, snotty, smiling children. We see few old people, and absolutely no one is overweight. Leaving the village, we pass a field where men and oxen plough while children skip along behind, scattering seed.
At midday we drive to the airport at Biratnagar, Nepal's second largest city. With a population of more than 100,000, this industrial center (jute, sugar, textiles, and stainless steel) teems with traders and traffic. We detour to view flying foxes roosting in a private garden. Although these huge bats are nocturnal, certain individuals are restless, swooping from tree to tree. They land right side up, immediately drop upside down, and swing, like trapeze artists, into their resting position.
The hour's flight to Katmandu parallels the Himalayas. The weather is perfect, and we have a magnificent view of Everest. I do not regret that I resisted the lure of mountains in favor of lesser-known plains, but feel a sudden pang at the thought of leaving my new friends, human and avian, who have turned me into a fledgling birder. I am twitching with enthusiasm, and vow to buy my own binoculars at the duty-free store in Dubai.
We leave for London the following morning, and as the aircraft rises from the Katmandu Valley, we are treated to a bird's-eye view of Nepal: mountains, terraces, plains, rivers. We never spotted a lammergeyer, but we did not really expect to see that huge, bone-eating raptor of the high mountains. All the same, the experienced birders have checked off more than 300 species of lowland birds. Even I, guided by Tika, Simon, and all the rest, have managed 277.
Now, long after my return home, I still count birds if I have trouble sleeping -- birds of rainbow plumage and curious habits. Purple gallinule, little green bee-eater, scarlet minivet (that "cracking little bird"), stork-billed kingfisher, racket-tailed drongo, golden-fronted leafbird ... In a sudden burst of memory I spy a blue-throated barbet: gleaming green body, bright-red crown, and pale, shimmering blue face and throat. Ah, what a vision! I fall asleep with my dream binoculars at the ready.
The tour I took was organized by Naturetrek. It began and ended at Gatwick Airport, in London, and two of its ten days consisted of flying to and from Nepal. The cost was £990 (about $1,600) double occupancy. For more information call 011-44-1-962-733051.
This trip is not for the fainthearted. It is designed for birders rather than tourists, and the pace is rigorous. In addition to malaria prophylaxis, the U.S. State Department advises travelers in the Terai to have inoculations against hepatitis A, Japanese encephalitis, and typhoid, and to make sure their tetanus and polio immunizations are up-to-date.
Valerie Lester is the author of Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin (1995).
Illustrations by Meilo So
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; A Bird's-eye View of Nepal; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 40 - 47.