Our next stop is lunch and bird viewing in the dappled sunlight of a forest of sal (Shorea robusta,) where termite mounds as tall as men stand guard. Sal is valued for its hardwood timber, and local women use its glossy leaves as disposable plates. I observe my fellow travelers picnicking in ones and twos on the forest floor. (Wouldn't Americans gather in a group?) Fledged in drab winter plumage, pale from lack of sunshine, they speak in a range of accents that provide a challenge for Tika. Five hail from Yorkshire, one from Scotland, three from the Midlands, and four from the West Country. Tika presents his own challenge. In Nepali the letter s is pronounced "sh," and the letter h is dropped after certain consonants -- as in "The shun is sining," and making for such birds as "shtork," "gooshe," and "sherpent eagle."
On arrival at the park boundary we exchange our minibus for jeeps, and drive through the river onto a dirt road, headed for Gaida ("Rhinoceros") Wildlife Camp, an attractive compound in the alluvial floodplain of the Rapti River.
Before we head for our comfortable twin-bedded cabins, Tika announces, "Elephant ride three-thirty to five-thirty. Tea at five-thirty. Sunset at six. Cultural program at six-thirty. Dinner at seven-thirty."
WE climb a ladder to the elephant embarking station, built around a large tree at the height of an elephant's back. Each elephant can carry four passengers, on a webbed canvas platform, while the driver sits astride its neck, steering with a bare foot behind each ear. We embark, set off, and immediately spy rhinos sporting in the river. Accustomed to elephants, they pay no attention as we stride majestically across.
The elephant's gait is undulant, but I soon appreciate the stately way she walks through the riverine forest. (Elephants ridden by tourists are usually female.) Her wiry, alert driver points with his stick -- also used for thwacking her on the forehead -- at monkeys, peacocks, and three kinds of deer: spotted, barking, and sambar. Suddenly he points overhead at an enormous brown fish owl: silent, staring from the heights of a sal tree.
We break out of the jungle and enter tawny grasslands. The sun is dropping in the west, the light golden. We catch sight of several more rhinos, more deer, and two skittish wild-boar piglets. And, of course, more birds.
Stick dancers, all men, perform the cultural program. Accompanied by drums, they dance in circles, striking each other's sticks in complex patterns. They invite us to join the final, celebratory, stickless dance, whose movements are oddly reminiscent of my jazz dance classes back home.
After a buffet of curries, rice, and dal (lentils), we check our bird lists by candlelight -- a nightly routine. For someone accustomed to sparrow, robin, blue jay, and starling, tonight's bird names alone fire the imagination: red-thighed falconet, changeable hawk-eagle, shikra, blossom-headed parakeet, green-billed malkoha, stork-billed kingfisher, Himalayan golden-backed woodpecker, white-cheeked bulbul, yellow-bellied prinia. Of the promised 300 birds I have by now checked off ninety-four, while the experienced birders have topped 100.