Each day, at around 11am, a strange combination of sounds – excited laughter, lots of splashing and the occasional burst of trumpeting – can be heard drifting through the village of Sauraha in southern Nepal. Elephant bath time has begun.
This ritual takes place in the Rapti River, which separates Sauraha from Chitwan National Park, home to the endangered one-horned rhino. After a busy morning carrying tourists around the park and the nearby Community Forest reserves, a procession of dusty pachyderms are led by their mahouts to the river for a good scrub down – and, for a small fee, travellers are welcome to join in the fun.
After they have waded in, the elephants shoot jets of water into the air from their trunks, wallow on their sides while layers of mud are scraped off and, from time to time, dump unsuspecting riders into the river. In theory it is only the elephants that are there to be washed, but in practice anyone in the vicinity is given a good soaking too. This magical experience produces a childlike glee in even the most sober and straitlaced adult – and the elephants appear to enjoy it almost as much.
Before taking part in bath time, it’s worth visiting the Elephant Breeding Project, 4km west of Sauraha, where elephants are trained to work in the park. It is home to several adult male elephants, a harem of females for them to breed with and usually a number of impossibly cute babies. While it can be difficult to tear yourself away from the calves, the small information room contains a list of verbal commands that should prove useful during bath time – if you manage to master the pronunciation. Mail means “stand up”, baith means “sit down” and, perhaps most appropriately, chhop means “spray water”.
Regular buses travel to Sauraha from Kathmandu, Pokhara and Sonauli, on the Indian border. For more on the park, see chitwannationalpark.net.