Travel: Chitwan National Park, Nepal

DINERS at the Jatayu Restaurant near Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park have an enviable view. Dense green jungle rises up on one side while the distant hazy peaks of the mighty Himalayas dominate the other.

There are no tables or chairs, however, and the menu is not exactly extensive. Only one dish is ever on offer, and when I visit that isn't available either. Then again, even if I wasn't vegetarian, the chance to gnaw my way through a fresh cow carcass laid out on the grass isn't that appealing.

Happily this 'restaurant' is popular with the endangered vultures for whom it was established to provide a food source free from diclofenac, a commonly used drug for treating cattle which proved fatal to these scavenging birds.

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While most tourists visit Chitwan in search of the elusive royal Bengal tiger, others also come to watch the less loved but vitally important raptors from a purpose-built hide.

Jatayu is one of the more unusual experiences created by Tiger Mountain, which has pioneered adventure tourism, community and conservation work in Nepal since the 1960s. The firm's Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge at Chitwan is older than the national park it is now at the heart of.

Early each morning guests awake to what sounds like rain but is just heavy dew dripping from the trees. Tea and cake are served in the dining hall before people head out on dawn safaris.

"You're an elephant," a smiling member of staff tells one woman who can't remember which trip she is on - a common problem given the multiple options with boats, jeeps and guided walks also available throughout the day.

Riding through the jungle on the back of an elephant is, however, I think, the most enchanting way to see wildlife here.

Looking down at a one-horned Indian rhinoceros and her baby, I appreciate just how close elephants can get you to the wildlife.

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The constant chatter of insects, monkeys and birds continues undisturbed as the jungle giants swish through high grasses.

There are wild elephants here too, but those used for safaris are domesticated. They are pretty sporty, apparently, competing at the annual charity World Elephant Polo Championships, and teams from Scotland feature among the past winners.

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Elephant football is another strange sport. It's hard to tell whether these highly intelligent, powerful animals enjoy it, but they are well able to express their dismay, as veteran Tiger Tops naturalist Gun Bahadur Kumal explains: "Elephants know who their person is (the man assigned to work with them), and they don't like other people. Sometimes they attack their own people too, they can kill."

Fellow naturalist Ram Din Mahatu has 30 years of guiding experience. Like many staff here, he is a member of the local Tharu community. His knowledge of their traditional medicinal uses of plants is vast, with treatments for everything from athlete's foot to broken bones.

He is also an expert in footprint identification. On a jeep safari, as we ford a river, he points to two large muddy footprints and whispers: "Tiger." I instantly renew my efforts to spot something large, black and orange through the trees, until he adds that the marks are a few days old.

Sadly, although this is one of the best areas for seeing them, the tigers stay out of sight.

But there are numerous rhinos, monkeys and deer and an array of exotic birds including the giant hornbill - the twitcher's tiger.

Poaching remains a problem, but the daily safaris effectively act as patrols deterring criminals. An intelligence network paying people to inform on poachers, run by Tiger Mountain's charity the International Trust for Nature Conservation, helps put dozens of culprits in jail.

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However, Nepal's government - which wants to double visitor numbers to a million with its Nepal Tourism Year 2011 drive - is currently considering closing all lodges in the park amid concerns about their negative impact. Meanwhile, visits to local communities are also possible.

At Tiger Mountain's Tharu Lodge, oxcarts are more common than cars. Guests can ride through villages where traditional homes feature rows of fistprints on their outer walls to protect those living inside. Life is changing though. Electricity has brought television and most people now have mobile phones.

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No visit to Nepal would be complete without a Himalayan hike. One of most popular is the Annapurna basecamp trek featuring spectacular mountain close-ups.

Snow starts falling an hour before reaching the camp, at 4,130m, and the altitude and sub-zero temperatures prevent sleep. Sunrise the next morning is stunningly beautiful, and you can almost feel the silence as we head off towards warming hot springs.

Guesthouse menus offer an array of western and Nepali dishes along with hot showers and fires to huddle around at night.

It is possible to buy just about anything along the trail, as my guide proves by appearing after one longer-than-usual teabreak carrying a cute black puppy "because my boss wants one".

At the end of the trek, the lakeside city of Pokhara is a great spot for relaxing, or paragliding. Alternatively, request pre-dawn bed tea in your room and you can watch a Himalayan sunrise without walking more than a few metres from your door.

Return flights to Kathmandu from Scottish airports (via London and Abu Dhabi) start from 500 (

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Double rooms at Tiger Mountain, Gongabu, Nepal GPO Box 242 (tel +977 1 4361500, cost from $200 (128) per person plus taxes, including all meals and lodge activities.

Double rooms at the Yak and Yeti Hotel, PO Box 1016, Kathmandu, Nepal (tel +977 1 4248999, cost from $205 (131) plus taxes.

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A ten-day Annapurna basecamp trek with Sisne Rover Trekking, Lakeside, Pokhara (tel +977 61 461 893, ) costs from around R19,000 (168), plus transport and permits.

A half-hour tandem flight with Frontiers Paragliding, Lakeside, Pokhara (tel +977 98041 25096, costs E80 (67).

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 23 January, 2011

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