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Nepal

Perhaps it's Horton. Or Dumbo. Or all those trips to the zoo when you were a kid. Or the nature programs you watch on TV. Or the circus.

There's just something about an elephant. . . .

Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal is one of the few places around the world where you can live out your fantasy of riding an elephant through a jungle wilderness.

Not only does the animal give you a high vantage point. It forges through mud holes that would dismember a four-wheel drive, and it clears a path through elephant grass that's taller than the pachyderm itself.

Elephants are part of the resident wildlife population, soyou'll get closer you'll get closer to rhinos and other animals riding an elephant than you would in an off-road vehicle.

Tiger Tops, where this reporter stayed at a tented camp in the heart of the Nepalese jungle, is one of five wilderness lodges inside the park that offer elephant safaris. Established in 1965, it is the oldest and it has a reputation for fine service and good food.

A visit to the park will become one of your all-time favorite travel memories.

Here are the details.

Getting there

The flight from Kathmandu to Tiger Tops' private airstrip on the outskirts of the park takes less than half-an-hour. The facility is minimalist - a wind sock and a grass field with boundaries marked by rows of rocks that have been painted white.

The alternative is to drive for the better part of a day. The route takes you through hilly terrain and mountain villages and alongside rivers that eventually flow into the Ganges.

Your van shares the two-lane road with children on the way to school, women herding goats, men accompanying water buffalo from point A to point B, people carrying wheat in baskets on their backs.

You pass many buses and freight trucks but few private cars.

The country's highways don't have a long history. The first road into Kathmandu Valley was built in the 1960s. Before that, automobiles were brought into the city as parts and then assembled.

The highway is paved but at times bumpy. The going is slow. It might take three hours to cover 90 kilometers.

People whose one-room houses line the road are doing their daily chores: filling plastic containers; doing the dishes or washing their hair at the community water faucet; weaving straw mats; examining each other for lice. Some people nap on the ground, soaking up some warm winter rays.

Nepal is an agricultural wonderland. Terraces, where farmers grow wheat, rice and maize, cover the hills.

At the Tiger Tops airstrip, children from the nearby village gather around you. They scream with delight when you give them candy. One little girl, who doesn't

look more than 6 years old, carries an infant on her back, and a toddler sits by her feet.

The airstrip is where the adventure begins in earnest.

You settle into an aging Land Rover, which bounces along a dirt road through grassland and jungle. You pass Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, where guests stay in bamboo bungalows or treehouse rooms, and cross a river twice, once in the Land Rover and once in a canoe. You do the last stretch on foot. Porters follow behind, carrying a pole between them on their shoulders from which the luggage is suspended in a net.

The journey takes about 45 minutes. By the time you reach camp, you have already laid eyes on rhinos and monkeys.

The camp

Tiger Tops' Tented Camp is in the heart of the national park. Shaded by a dense jungle canopy, it overlooks a meadow where one-horned rhinos forage for food. Beyond the meadow is a river, home to crocodiles. Beyond that is more forest, the habitat of wild boars, royal Bengal tigers, monkeys and several varieties of deer. The common langer, with a tail that's more than twice as long as the monkey itself, is the most frequently seen monkey.

Above the tree-tops, in the far, far distance, are the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas. They hover above the landscape like amirage.

The camp's modern conveniences have a primitive twist. Each guest tent has two comfy cots and a dressing room. A covered corridor connects the tent to a roomy bamboo bathroom. It has a flush toilet, a shower, a wash basin and hot and cold running water. The veranda in front of the tent overlooks the meadow.

One modern convenience is missing: electricity. A flashlight is on your bedside table and every evening a camp attendant leaves a kerosene lantern glowing in your bathroom and on your veranda.

Tents don't have heaters, but you'll find a hot water bottle under the covers when you crawl into bed.

The dining room, in the center of the camp, is a round bamboo building with a thatch roof. The central fire pit provides both light and heat. You dine by candlelight, which softens the appearance of even the most weather-worn face.

The grub, cooked on an outdoor grill, is good.

Breakfast is oatmeal and omelettes.

Lunch is typical Nepal food: rice and lentils, curried vegetables and curried chicken.

The pre-dinner snack is popcorn or roasted cashews.

Dinner features continental fare. One night it might be soup, pork goulash, mashed potatoes and lemon meringue pie. On another night, spaghetti and meatballs might be the main course.

Waiters with white gloves add a touch of elegance to this wilderness outpost.

Modern amenities in an isolated area of a third-world country aren't easy to engineer.

The hot water is heated by fire. Water pressure, such as it is, is courtesy of a small metal tank on top of a small wooden platform that is on the top of a small tree-covered hill.

Bed linens and towels are washed by hand and hung out to dry on clothes lines near the edge of the meadow. The setup takes advantage of relentless solar power.

The fire protection system consists of buckets of water and sand placed in strategic places throughout the camp.

The most reliable means of communication between the camp and the lodge is to send a message with one of the camp's attendants. The phone works, but the sound is unintelligible.

With the exception of snoring from inside some of the tents, the night passes soundlessly. Even the jungle goes to bed by midnight.

Before dawn, a camp attendant walks quietly from tent to tent to wake up guests in time for the 7 a.m. elephant ride. His whispering voice is more soothing than an alarm clock.

The elephant ride

Three domesticated elephants are based at the camp. The biggest is a bull named Samser Gaj. Born at Tiger Tops 18 years ago, he stands about nine feet tall. He will work until he's 55 or 60 years old.

The elephants have a camp of their own. Along with accommodations for the handlers, it has a house for each elephant - four wood posts holding up a thatch roof under which is a still-standing tree trunk that the animal has rubbed shiny smooth. A chain wrapped around an ankle tethers the elephant to the dead tree.

At night the elephants lean against the tree trunks to sleep. They lie down for only a few minutes. Otherwise they would crush their vital organs, says camp naturalist Jitendra Chaudhary. Like humans, they snore, he says.

Part of the roof on each house is missing.

"We thought it would be nice for each elephant to have a roof, but they ate them," he says.

The animals help their handlers prepare for a safari. They get down on all fours so the handlers can brush off their backs and saddle them. The animals breathe in on command, allowing the handlers to tighten the cinch.

They devour a couple of elephant sandwiches - unhusked rice, salt and molasses wrapped in grass - before each expedition.

The saddle is a wooden platform with a pad and a railing. The pad cushions you against the bumpy ride, and the railing makes it impossible for you to fall off and gives you something to hold on to. A wooden platform for your feet hangs from the sides of the saddle.

The two-hour safaris are the highlight of a stay at the tented camp.

You'll see great hornbills, white-breasted kingfishers, boar, spotted deer, barking deer, common langer monkeys, white egrets, wild cattle and rhinos.

You might see a crocodile hanging around the river.

The park's population of Indian rhinos is estimated at 500. You may get within 20 feet of one. You'll also see mothers with their babies.

The park estimates its population of royal Bengal tigers at a little more than 100. Your chance of seeing one is slim, but you'll probably come across footprints.

The camp is in the territory of a tigress named Lucky. Her recently made footprints are visible in a mud hole near the river.

The weather, even in the peak of winter, is mild. A sweater might overheat you during the day, but you'll need something warm to wear in the mornings and evenings.

Elephants do everything a four-wheel drive vehicle does, only better.

The ones at Tiger Tops have three speeds: slow, slower and slower yet.

They back up, stop and make left or right turns.

When they come face-to-face with a rhino, they emit a cry that carries farther than any automobile horn you've ever heard.

Even though the average American mutters things while he's driving down the highway, the automobile doesn't respond to voice commands.

An elephant does.

Krishna, a 38-year-old father of five, is Samser Gaj's mahout, or handler.

He stops next to a tree. Krishna says something to the elephant and points to a dead limb. The animal tears off the limb with his trunk and carries it crosswise in his mouth, clearing a wide path as he walks through jungle grass that's higher than he is.

He wades through a river that would bring a four-wheel drive to its knees.

The steering mechanism is awkward. Krishna, who sits behind the animal's head, signals which direction to go by pressing his bare feet against the base of the beast's floppy ears.

And the brakes are cumbersome. Krishna signals the animal to stop by pulling up on a chain attached to his ankles that hangs around the elephant's neck.

Elephants are self-fueling, taking drinks during river crossings and munching on mouthfuls of grass they snatch along the way. And they are non-polluting except for piles of solid waste they leave behind.

Samser Gaj heads toward camp, backing up to a wooden platform that's about 10 feet above the ground where guests disembark. Revving up to high gear (slow as opposed to slower or slower yet), the elephant saunters off toward his camp. His day's work is finished.

The ultimate off-road vehicle is not the Land Rover or the Humvee. It's the elephant.

*****

Additional Information

If you go

A two-night stay at Tiger Tops, which includes meals, accommodations, elephant safaris, nature walks and canoe rides, runs about $500.

For information, contact your travel agent.

Nepal is halfway around the world from Utah. The trip will be grueling whether you cross the Atlantic or the Pacific. Air fare will probably vary, depending on your dates of travel. This reporter's roundtrip coach-class ticket on Northwest Airlines and Thai Air cost nearly $1,900.

Nightly room rates range from $70 at a comfortable but spartan three-star hotel to $160 for a five-star deluxe. Meals will be surprisingly inexpensive. A light supper will set you back only a few dollars.

A word to the wise about the food and the water: You'll save yourself inconvenience and discomfort if you avoid eating uncooked vegetables and fruit, unless, of course, you peel it first. Don't drink water unless it's bottled (a U.S. physician working in Kathmandu said that bottled water isn't always 100 percent safe), or you've purified it yourself. (Iodine tablets now come with a tablet that absorbs the taste and the color. A drop of liquid bleach is also a purifier.) Don't drink something to which you think unpurified water might have been added. Fruit juice is an example.

People who travel there frequently say you shouldn't drink the water even if a waiter tells you it's been boiled and filtered and is safe. "You don't know how long the water was boiled or when they last changed the filter," said Rain Gray, a Los Angeles art dealer who lived in Kathmandu for 10 years. He spoke to this reporter on a flight from Bangkok to the Nepalese capital.

"Don't brush your teeth with unpurified water or let water get into your mouth when you shower," he added.

As an added precaution, this reporter didn't eat dairy products.