The “far west” of Nepal, west of the Karnali River, is a foreign land for most Nepalis – a remote, underdeveloped region long neglected by the Kathmandu government. In fact, Delhi is closer than the Nepali capital by bus and, until the completion of the Karnali bridge in the mid-1990s, the region was literally cut off altogether in the monsoon, the Karnali effectively forming Nepal’s western border. The region makes for some great off-the-beaten track travelling, though there’s a distinct lack of facilities and communicating with local people can be difficult.
The westernmost section of the Mahendra Highway was finally completed in 2000, after a twitchy Indian government insisted on replacing the Chinese who were originally contracted to do the job. Twenty-two major bridges (many of which were subjected to Maoist attacks during the civil war) carry just 215km of asphalt, but the road now at least lives up to its alternative name of the East–West Highway, bringing new trade and industry to the region. The little-visited Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve, which lies just outside the relatively laidback border town of Mahendra Nagar, is an excellent place to visit for the adventurous (and resourceful) traveller.
The Mahendra Highway ends at MAHENDRA NAGAR, a border town with a good deal of spark thanks to day-tripping shoppers from India. Its bustle is only a border aberration, however, for the outlying region is one of the more traditional parts of the Terai. Rana Tharu (see p.240) sharecroppers work the fields, maintaining an apparently happy symbiosis with their old-money landlords, and their villages, scattered along dirt tracks north of the Mahendra Highway, still consist of traditional communal longhouses.
The border begins 6km west of Mahendra Nagar, and is reached by shared tempo, rikshaw, or bus. A rough road traverses the 1km no-man’s-land between the Nepali and Indian immigration posts. From Indian immigration you can catch a rikshaw across the wide Mahakali River along the top of a huge flood-control/irrigation barrage and then a further 4km to Banbaasa, the first Indian town. The border is officially open 24 hours, but you may have trouble finding the immigration officials at night or early in the morning.
Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve
Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve
The great tracts of natural grassland (phanta) in Nepal’s extreme southwest could almost be mistaken – albeit on a smaller scale – for the savannas of East Africa. SUKLA PHANTA WILDLIFE RESERVE, south of Mahendra Nagar, is dotted with them, and touring the reserve is, for once, really like being on safari. Always hard to reach, Sukla Phanta was even more cut off during the civil war, and as a result attracts barely a trickle of visitors. The park is home to one of the world’s largest populations of swamp deer – sightings of a thousand at a time are common – as well as a number of wild elephants and several rhinos. The tiger population has declined dramatically from 20–50 in 2005 to an estimated 6–14 in 2008 as a result of poaching; a sad turn of events for a park that once boasted one of the highest densities of the species in Asia. Sukla Phanta remains astonishingly rich in birds, with 470 species having been counted. Rare species include the Bengal florican and the giant hornbill.