20 of the best places to visit in September

September is one of our favourite months to travel. The school holiday rush is over, so sunny destination flight prices start to come down. Temperatures in Europe dip enough to make heat more comfortable and undiscovered Europe is in its element. The ‘stans come to life. Safari season is in full swing, if drawing to a close.

Whether you’re after a getaway with a difference, a life-changing wildlife experience or a long-term adventure to tick off the wish list, September’s an ideal month to get on the road.

Skip ahead to your chosen travel type by clicking on one of the below, or keep scrolling for the full list of recommendations:

Here are the 20 best places to visit in September…

The best September destinations for nature and ideal weather

1. Sicily, Italy

Sicily’s Valle dei Templ (Shutterstock)

Like many popular European hot spots, Sicily is still warm in September, yet less oppressively hot, cooler in the evenings and less busy thanks to the summer holidays drawing to a close. However, you might notice an influx of visitors this year, thanks to the hit series White Lotus introducing the Mediterranean gem to the set-jetting travellers of the world.

In the capital, Palermo, opera season begins again this month. It’s also typically an ideal temperature to take on the hike up Mount Etna, or to explore the volcanic Aoelian Islands.

Ensure time to explore the towns of Taormina and Castelmola. The former is where you can find the must-visit Greek-Roman theatre: the view here is one of the most striking with Mount Etna on the horizon. For more Greek ruins, the Valle dei Templ (Valley of Temples) in Agrigento is one of world’s finest archaeological examples of ancient art and architecture.

It doesn’t matter where you end up on the island: you’ll be able to end each day by parking yourself outside a classic Sicilian eatery to enjoy the hazy late summer evening.

2. Hokkaido, Japan

Jozankei is a picturesque onsen town near Sapporo (Shutterstock)

Just as the pale-pink cherry blossoms of spring draw locals outside to marvel at Japan’s natural beauty, its autumnal colours are just as prized.

But while the rest of the country waits to get its first glimpse of red and golden maple leaves, Hokkaido is ahead of the game. Japan’s chilly northern tip starts to turn towards the middle of September, making for a colourful road trip before the ice and bad weather sets in.

Pay a visit first to the pretty onsen town of Jozankei, just south of Sapporo, which has plenty of walkable forest trails and hot springs to relax in. Then make for the Blue Pond at the centre of the island, where impossibly teal waters reflect the reddening canopies of the surrounding larch and birch trees magnificently, making for a painterly setting.

But you don’t even need to leave the city to spy nature at its autumnal best. Sapporo’s Hiraoka Jugei Center is famous for its ‘red tunnel’, created by the rows of Japanese maples (Nomura momiji) that flank its walkways.

3. Corsica, France

The citadel of Calvi, Corsica (Sylvain Oliveira/Alamy)

Corsica’s Rencontres Polyphoniques de Calvi is one of those tiny cultural pearls that makes a trip to the old citadel of Calvi in mid-September utterly unique, as choristers and soloists from around the world join the A Filetta polyphonic choir in making the most of their cathedral setting.

By day, take the opportunity to explore the rest of the citadel, whose Genoese construction helped Calvi resist French control up until the 18th century. The former governor’s palace is particularly impressive and has a fine museum on the city.

It’s also a great time to visit if you want to take on any part of the GR20 – one of Europe’s toughest but most rewarding trails. The cooler weather of autumn makes this the perfect season to wander Corsica’s glacial lakes and imposing peaks before winter seals off many of the higher passes.

4. Maine, USA

Boats docked in pretty harbour town of Camden in Maine (Shutterstock)

September sees New England’s lobster shacks readying to close up shop for winter, so it’s the perfect time to go on a last-minute coastal food crawl. Hoover up Maine’s famed lobster rolls – overflowing, buttery sandwiches – in villages along the coast, and be sure to stop in Portland, where tours explore both its seafood scene and maritime history.

Further north, Camden takes the plaudits as one of the prettiest harbour towns in Maine, but is known for its fleet of windjammers (merchant-style sail boats). This stretch of Penobscot Bay is particularly sheltered, so it makes a great setting for the annual Labor Day Windjammer Festival, one of the largest meetings of sail ships in north-east USA.

Finish at Acadia National Park’s Mount Desert Island, the highest rocky headlands on this stretch of the Atlantic coast. As well as trails and adventures, it is home to the annual Night Sky Festival in late September, when the Milky Way glimmers bright in the naturally dark skies overhead.

5. Portugal

Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal (Shutterstock)

Portugal lands on our long-term list for the sheer volume of places to visit, because typically, it’s a classic short break destination. We admit: it’s far too easy to fly to Lisbon or Porto for a few days, or enjoy a wine tasting tour of Douro Valley, and then fly back home.

If you’ve weeks maybe even a month or two to spare, it’s well worth slowing down and soaking up Portugal. Spend time seeking out Lisbon and Porto’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods.

Go off-the-beaten-track to the majestic historical city of Coimbra, and explore the underrated Tavira and more of the eastern Algarve‘s quieter coast. Finally, give the fairytale town of Sintra what it deserves: a few days more than a day trip.

You can take your time enjoying the fruits of Portugal’s vineyards, too, and don’t forget the island of Madeira. It has more than just wine to enjoy, but you’ll still soak up Funchal’s world-class wineries at a slower pace.

Portugal may still be a tad too warm in September for travellers better equipped to dealing with cooler temps. However, it’s good to know that things tend to simmer down in the evenings, making strolls to local bars for drinks and petiscos (the snackier version of Spanish tapas) extremely pleasant.

The best longer-term travel experiences for September

6. Georgia

The Old Town of Tbilisi, Georgia (Shutterstock)

The capital, Tbilisi, may make an excellent long weekend destination, but there’s far more of the country to explore.

Batumi and Mtskheta cities are also well worth your time, both offering historical landmarks, monasteries and sensational views. The botanical garden in Batumi is a natural spectacle, too, especially as autumn’s oranges and yellows begin to take over the country.

Head to western Georgia and experience Kutaisi, or delve into Prometheus Cave. Experience local life in the Svaneti region among the Caucasus Mountains, and end your trip with all the Georgian food and drink you can manage, with a relaxing few days by the Black Sea.

7. Argentina

El Caminito neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Shutterstock)

Argentina’s winter draws to a close in August and early September, so mid to late September brings with it spring temperatures. They do vary, but you can hope for easygoing temperatures.

Spring blooms bring lush greenery to Argentina’s national parks, and overall, this vast South American country is certainly less crowded than in summer. Northern Argentina in particular is best visited during this season, where you can discover the little-visited Salinas Grandes salt plains, the multi-hued rock formations of Quebrada de Humahuaca, and swing by the mountain city of Salta.

Alternatively, take your time in the capital, Buenos Aires, enjoy the wineries of Mendoza, or head to youthful Córdoba: the gateway to Jesuit monasteries and mountain ranges.

8. Trekking in Nepal

Nepal (Shutterstock)

We’ve covered Nepal’s life-affirming treks in some detail on Wanderlust, and have to say that there’s few better times than September to take on a challenge.

This is because the weather is prime for easy trekking conditions. Rainy season has petered out, the skies are clear and temperatures are on the cooler side.. Time to get walking…

While most head to Nepal for its mountain trails, its also a brilliant country for culture-seekers. Head to Pokhara, the gateway to the popular Annapurna Circuit, but also somewhere you can learn more about Buddhism. Don’t forget to visit the city’s International Mountain Museum for exhibits on historic climbers and the people of the Himalayas.

Teej Festival also often falls in September. During this three-day Hindu festival and national holiday, women will fast and also dress in their beautiful red saris, creating a crimson spectacle on the streets.

9. China

China (Shutterstock)

Both September and October are popular times to visit China. Not least because the spectacular Mid-Autumn Festival takes place during this period, celebrating the end of the harvest. Dates vary, but the special day usually occurs between mid-September and the beginning of October.

Weather-wise, the northern regions are particularly fine to visit anytime in September, though humidity in the south can remain high until later on in the month.

Use this weather pattern to help guide your trip. Begin in Beijing, the electrifying 3,000-year-old capital. The Great Wall, a travel classic, is about an hour and 30 minutes by car. You’ll want several days to walk and explore this sheer wonder.

Then make your way south, stopping by all the must-sees: Chengdu (for giant pandas), Xi’an (one of China’s eldest cities, home to the Terracotta Army) and the Three Gorges mountain range on the Yangtze River.

10. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan

Monument in Rudaki Park, Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Dreamstime)

Geographically (and sensibly), it would be impossible and near-criminal to see the ‘stans and sack off the blue-tiled marvels of Uzbekistan. But since we’ve featured Uzbekistan as a highlight for several different months, why not use September to dig deeper into neighbouring Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, too?

Tajikistan, a landlocked country surrounded by mountains, is a hiker’s untouched dream. The capital, Dushanbe, is absolutely fascinating. Admire its unique architecture and monuments in Rudaki Park, then spend time acquainting yourself with the nation’s Soviet history in Tajikistan National Museum.

Turkmenistan’s jewel is its marble-dense capital, Ashgabat, reportedly one of the most expensive cities in the world for foreigners to live. Fortunately, you’re just visiting, so spend your time marvelling at its tombs, towers and mosques, or shopping in the city’s unusual bazaars.

It’s easy to go beyond the city, though. The white-sand coast spreads out before the Caspian Sea, and the Gates To Hell (the perpetually-burning Darvaza Gas Crater) lies in wait in the middle of the desert.

11. Malawi

The start of the Ruo Path in the Lujeri Tea Estate leading up to the plateau of Mount Mulanje (Shutterstock)

There are few bigger music festivals in Africa than Lake of Stars, which lights up the pale sands at the southern end of Lake Malawi in September.

It was created in 2003 to promote local Malawian artists, though it has since expanded its repertoire to take in acts across the continent. After the pandemic broke in 2020, the festival went on hiatus for a number of years, but its return in 2024 marks a new chapter in the life of ‘Africa’s Glastonbury’.

Combine a visit with trips to the surrounding wilderness and mountain areas. September marks the start of the hot season in Malawi, but driving up to see and stay in the family-run tea plantations of Mulanje Mountains offers a cool escape and glimpse of another world entirely.

Meanwhile, down in the bush of Liwonde National Park, the hotter weather soon rids the land of its wet-season greenery, making sightings of its Big Five far easier to sniff out as you drift the Shire River in search of large herds of elephant and sun-worshipping crocodiles roasting on the riverbanks.

Where to go in September for arts and cultural experiences

12. Munich, Germany

Traditional costumes at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany (Shutterstock)

Oktoberfest has October right there in the title, but Bavaria’s beer-based merriment actually begins around the third week of September. So, why not get there early, before others may be aware?

Over the two-week festival, you can expect endless opportunities for eating German pretzels, wurstl (sausage) and knodel (potato pancakes), hop from tent to tent tasting the best in German beer, dress up in traditional dirndl dresses or lederhose, enjoy a carnival ride, toast your new-found drunken friends (it’s a friendly festival) and simply dance the night away.

13. Bohinj, Slovenia

The Cow’s Ball in Bohinj, Slovenia (Dreamstime)

A little more niche than Oktoberfest, Slovenia’s Bohinj region offers more than scenic beauty in September. It also offers the chance to witness the long-running, traditional ‘cow festival’, known as the ‘Cow Ball’.

It’s exactly as it sounds. Through a cloud of folk music, locals watch a parade of garland-wearing cows pass the gloriously blue Lake Bohinj. The event signifies the return of the cows from the hills in summer, where they’ve been munching and filling their four stomachs with green, green grass.

14. Villamartin, Andalucía, Spain

The beautifully landscaped plaza of Villamartin (Shutterstock)

There’s always a good reason to visit Andalucía, but the annual return of the region’s oldest agricultural fair in September is as good an excuse as any to head for southern Spain. Trust us – it’s more lively than it sounds.

The Feast of St Matthew (Feria de Ganado y Fiestas de San Mateo) serves up Andalucían culture at its purest: cattle browsing before noon; horse displays, carriage races and folklore performances come nightfall. It’s a heady combination, with plenty of food and goodwill found on the streets.

The town lies on the cusp of Sierra De Grazalema, a lush natural park veined with walking trails, rugged limestone peaks and pretty mountain villages such as Benaocaz and Benamahoma. Be sure to strike out into the countryside before heading to the historic streets of nearby Cadiz and Seville for a culture fix.

15. Diriyah & Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

At-Turaif UNESCO World Heritage site illuminated at night (Shutterstock)

The end of the month (23 Sep) marks the National Day of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Celebrations gather around Riyadh’s huge Masmak Fort, where a 21-year-old Abdulaziz Ibn Saud – exiled at the age of eight – led an against-all-odds attack against Ottoman forces in 1902 to take back the fort and proclaim himself the ruler of Riyadh.

If you want to delve into the origins of the Kingdom, take a trip to the ‘original’ capital in Diriyah, on the western fringes of Riyadh, where the ancestors of today’s Saudi royal family first arrived in the 15th century – although the first inklings of the state didn’t emerge until hundreds of years later.

You can explore this history in the restored 18th-century mud-brick walls of the UNESCO-listed At-Turaif citadel and its elegant Salwa Palace, where evening light shows depict the moment in 1818 when the Ottomans rode in and put a violent end to the First Saudi State.

The best places to visit for wildlife watching in September

16. KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

A giraffe roams Hluhluwe-IMfolozi Game Reserve (Shutterstock)

September is traditionally the end of game viewing season inKwaZulu-Natal, making it the ideal month to visit if you want to avoid the mass safari crowds, but still see the Big Five and more.

Expect the opportunity to see lions, elephants, rhinos and giraffes, as well as rare bird species. Hluhluwe-IMfolozi Game Reserve is a must for any wildlife fan, said to be the oldest reserve in Africa. Elephant lovers must head to the north-east to see the creatures roaming Tembe Elephant Park, which is close by to Ndumo Game Reserve.

Birders rejoice at uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, which is protected for its significant population of endangered or rare species, including the wattled crane, vultures (bearded and cape) and the yellow breasted pipit. Over 164 birds have been spotted in the region. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it’s the home of San Rock Art, a large collection of rock paintings dating back to the 1800s.

17. Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks

Elephants in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania (Shutterstock)

East Africa also offers ample wildlife opportunities in September. Of course, the earlier you visit in September, the better, so you’ve missed the August rush, but you’re also not risking early rains washing the animals out of the park and into the outskirts of the reserves.

Tanzania has two national parks you simply must visit, if you love animals. Tarangire National Park provides wildlife watchers with an excellent chance of enjoying an elephant sighting in the wild, as they group together around the Tarangire River. The Serengeti can still be busy in September and you won’t have much luck with the wildebeest migration (June to July) across the Grumeti River, but you will have better luck with the overall wildlife population. Leopards, lions and more of the Big Five await.

18. Atlantic provinces and British Columbia, Canada

Puffins shotting in Newfoundland, Canada (Shutterstock)

Chances are you’ll want to take a warm jacket with you on a wildlife excursion in the eastern provinces of Canada.

Here, you’ll say goodbye to safari-style wildlife watching and instead admire whales by boat. Take your birding binoculars too as it’s prime time for puffin sightings along the coast.

You can see native black bears in Newfoundland, too. The season lasts until November, so you’ll be there at the right time. There are approximately 6,000 to 10,000 in the region – which is a pretty high concentration.

On the opposite side of the country in British Columbia, it’s prime time to see wild grizzlies in their natural habitat. September and October also offer a great chance to catch the salmon run, where millions of salmon swim and leap upstream to spawn in the places they were born. It’s arguably one of nature’s most fascinating spectacles.

19. Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

A desert warthog in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique (Shutterstock)

For something a bit different, embrace the beautiful spring season in Mozambique’s premier national park, the so-called ‘Serengeti of the south’.

In spring (September and October), the park’s diverse array of flora and fauna blossom into a lovely shade of green. This month is also peak season for seeing the elephants, wildebeest, warthogs, hippos, lions and buffalo that call the park home as they all flock to watering holes to quench their thirst.

Birders won’t be disappointed either, and you may spot a Nile crocodile or two around Lake Urema and its varying lagoons. Fourteen African wild dogs were also re-introduced to Gorongosa in 2018, so keep your eyes peeled. One creature you may not spot? A zebra. They’re rare – apparently, there are just a few roaming the park.

20. Falsterbo, Sweden

500 million migratory birds pass by the Skanor-Falsterbo peninsula (Shutterstock)

Sweden’s south coast isn’t especially known for its wildlife. The exception is the Skanor-Falsterbo peninsula (aka Naset), home to a pair of small towns on the south-western tip of Skåne that are wrapped by pencil-thin shores. In September, it also becomes the perfect viewing spot to see 500 million migratory birds pass by, including a huge number of raptors.

The rooftop of the bird observatory is a great place to bag a spot. And when you’re done, a short walk away lies the Måkläppen reserve, where a year-round colony of harbor and grey seals hang out on a hook-shaped isthmus. SUP and kayak tours can take you near, but these creatures are so curious that they often swim up close to inspect paddlers.

If you have the time, combine the above with a cycling trip along the Sydkustleden (260km), which runs the flat coastal paths of Skåne and takes in standing stones, medieval cobbled villages, pirate castles, the canals of Malmo and plenty of fikas (afternoon tea).

Nepal helicopter rescue scam: travellers urged to be cautious

With adventurers returning to the Nepal post-pandemic, travel insurer True Traveller is warning those heading to the mountains about a lucrative scam which has been running for more than five years.

This caution comes after a series of multimillion-dollar scams involving trekkers being forced to ascent, many from consuming spiked food, and therefore requiring helicopter rescue, which comes at a dear price.

The insurance company states foreign climbers are being targeted, and should be wary of Everest Base Camp treks with ‘too good to be true’ prices.


Trekkers have had their food spiked by the scammers (Shutterstock)

“With people returning to international adventure travel post-pandemic, and with the Nepal trekking season imminently upon us, I am concerned about possible injury or even deaths involving scams with unregulated helicopter rescues in Nepal,” said Tim Riley, Managing Director at True Traveller.

“A Nepalese government investigation a few years ago found that many novice trekkers had been taken to altitude too quickly by guides and suffered from Acute Mountain Sickness, or even poisoned so they became dehydrated due to vomiting and diarrhea.

“As a result, a rescue helicopter is called, and the guides receive a financial reward for calling it out. It ruins the trekkers’ holiday, and in extreme cases, can lead to very serious illness or even death.

He continued: “It’s not about the cost of the rescues, but more so the ruined holiday and consequential issues which may affect the holiday-maker for a long period of time. Good quality international trekking companies hardly have any helicopter rescues, but people can be tempted by very cheap treks to Everest Base Camp selling at half the price.”

In 2019, True Traveller organised only 38 helicopter rescues, with most climbers complaining of altitude sickness.

Wild Nepal: The best of wildlife in Chitwan National Park

At first I thought it was a robot. Standing almost completely still among the green foliage, its grey folds of skin arranged in perfect symmetry as though armoured panels of sheet metal. At either end its short, stubby legs protruded straight and unmoving. The only thing that betrayed it as non-mechanical were its rounded ears, which flicked back and forth randomly in a series of ticks. As I strained to look closer I stood on a branch – its crack loud and jarring amid the gentle hum of a dawn jungle soundtrack. It swung its oblong head over its shoulder to see the source of such a rude interruption, all at once showing off its pyramidal horn on the end of its nose. Unchecked, I felt myself gasp at this, my first rhino sighting in Chitwan National Park.

Think Nepal and most of us think mountains and trekking. So when I heard that not only was the country home to an impressive array of wildlife, but that said wildlife was actually bucking the global trend and increasing in numbers, I had to find out more.

The species doing the best was the greater one-horned rhino. Ask a zoologist about the state of rhino populations worldwide and they paint a bleak picture. With falling numbers and some subspecies near extinct, it can leave even the most optimistic of us in despair. That is until you ask about the kind I was watching now, in Nepal’s protected forest on the India border, 160km south-west of the capital city of Kathmandu. Here, their native species of the Asiatic one-horned variety is not only bucking the trend and rising, but actually thriving.

Chitwan National Park, Nepal (Shutterstock)

Winning the numbers game

As I looked on, safely tucked in between the trunks of two broadleaf trees, watching the rhino as flocks of jungle and common myna birds landed on its back, I was in awe. Even here, now, having seen plenty of photos and TV footage of them before, something about it didn’t seem real – like it belonged in a different time. And in a way it did. Having evolved over the last 50 million years, surviving giant predators and ice ages, prehistoric rhino were once the largest mammals to walk the earth – though the very existence of the modern-day rhino is impressive due to hunting and, in the last 150 years, poaching.

“Since the military re-engaged with anti-poaching patrols the numbers in Nepal have increased – our 2016 count exceeded the total number we had in 2000, before serious poaching commenced,” said Ram Chandra Kandel, chief warden at Chitwan NP, as we sat in his office at the park’s HQ the day before. A little fan whirred in the background, causing the poster above his head that boasted of 1,000 days of no poaching to flap noisily every few seconds.

It’s a stat backed up by Save the Rhino who say that pre-2010 the numbers had shrunk to just 408, but now are a much healthier 752. Sat inside the bug-netted shelter with Ram Chandra, the numbers, though impressive, meant little. It wasn’t until I headed into the forest the following morning and was treated to my first sighting of one of these one-horned beauties – a young male – followed almost immediately by a mother and calf a few steps further on – that I realised what a difference to wildlife sightings these bolstered numbers had made.

A greater one-horned rhino (Phoebe Smith)

Things that go ‘trump’ in the night…

In terms of the odds of seeing rhino, Chitwan has a high success rate, yet few people come here – and even less since the 2015 earthquake decimated traveller numbers, despite the country making a speedy recovery and the area around the park seeing no damage at all.

“We lost one parasol by the pool,” said Dhan Bahadur ‘DB’ Chaudhary when I quizzed him about it on arrival to Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge, my accommodation for the next few days. It’s something of an institution in the Chitwan area, having been established over 50 years ago – ironically for hunting parties at first, before it became the beacon of conservation it is now. One of its founders is even credited for inventing the first ‘camera trap’ used to photograph a Bengal tiger.

We sat on the edge of a pretty pool eating the local dal bhat curry, its blend of rice and spices exploding gloriously on my tongue. The whitewashed walls of the clay, wood and thatch lodge – inspired by the local Tharu-style houses – glowed in the pinkish evening light, but it wasn’t where I would be sleeping. For I had opted to bed down a little closer to the wildlife.

“You’ll hear them as it goes dark, but don’t worry, it’s quite safe,” Marie Jensen explained as she showed me to my tent within their newly established elephant camp. I say tent, but with a fully furnished double bed, own bathroom (with hot water) and carpeted floor, it was more akin to a mosquito-net-walled bedroom. Its introduction proves that, here in Nepal, it’s not only rhinos for whom things are looking up. For decades wildlife-watching in Nepal has been done via elephant-back safaris. But Tiger Tops is the first to do things a new way – ending the practice and offering an immersive experience where travellers get to walk with them instead, prepare their food and – as I was about to experience – camp among them by night.

An elephant soaks in a river (Phoebe Smith)

“For years, we’d been eager to stop people riding the elephants, get rid of chains and ban the use of bull hooks and sticks,” said Marie, who was key to working with the mahouts and Elephant Aid International founder Carol Buckley to make the change. “After the earthquake the thinking was, ‘We’ve lost visitors anyway, now the timing is right’.”

The first step was to remove the chains from the elephants’ ankles and create large paddocks where they could wander free. My tent was alongside two of these. That evening, I fell to sleep listening not only to the jungle sounds of cicadas humming and bushes swaying in the breeze, but also to the glorious occasional soft grunt of an elephant, or the rustling of leaves as they wrestled to grab a branch hanging overhead.

I woke early – for in elephant camp you are on the pachyderm’s schedule – and headed out at dawn to take them into the forest to feed. The national park itself is out of bounds for captive elephants (although Tiger Tops would love to release theirs, after years in captivity it is sadly not a feasible option), but there is an allowed buffer zone where, if accompanied by people, they are allowed to enter and feed. It was good to know that my presence was not only welcome but necessary to their diet.

In Tiger Tops only the mahouts ride elephants for safety (Phoebe Smith)

Walking partners

A thin veil of mist hung in the air as we made our way along the river that led into the jungle. Locals were busy collecting grass for their cattle, while women in brightly coloured saris washed clothes at the water’s edge. The air smelt damp and earthy.

You’re forced to go slow when you walk with an elephant. They set the pace, which is a wonderful cross between a gentle stroll and a forthright swagger. Every now and again one of the two I was walking with would stop to reach up to the trees and pluck a hearty-looking branch then strip it of leaves. To my surprise it was the wood, rather than the vegetation, that they were so keen to taste.

“Look at their droppings,” said the naturalist (in my experience always the first person to get excited about animal poo). “See how dry and fibrous they are? Well, that’s why!” Walking off the main track we cut through the trees. I was surprised how silently such a large creature could manoeuvre through dense clusters of branches. Swaying through the foliage with a graceful elegance, their large padded feet made less noise on the dry leaves than my walking boots.

The shriek of a muntjac deer caused me and my guiding elephant – Gulab Kali – to stop in our tracks. We listened for more, but all was silent. We walked on and entered a clearing. The slender white tails of paradise flycatcher birds flitted into the forest as we emerged. Just then Gulab Kali began to flap her ears. She stamped her foot and raised her trunk to the air, letting out a deafening trumpet that reverberated in my chest.

Chittal deer (Phoebe Smith)

I looked to the naturalist – he gestured to keep quiet. Peering around the side of the elephant’s rump I spotted it: the large male rhino resembling a robotic invention, which I proceeded to rudely interrupt by standing on a twig.

When he turned the myna birds around him flapped their wings revealing flashes of black and white like chorus girls fanning his entrance. My second elephant guide – Sita Kali – moved protectively alongside me and started to flap her ears too.

The rhino began to move quickly towards us, looking at me dead on, the shoots of grass he’d been chewing still protruding from the corner of his lips as he gained speed. A surge of adrenaline shot through my body; I was unsure whether to stand my ground or run into the trees. Then both elephants began slapping their trunks hard on the ground, trumpeting and stamping their feet more persistently. It was enough to put off the rhino. He turned at the last minute and sauntered away, offering us a cursory glance back, to which Gulab Kali trumpeted again in defiance.

It was one of the most thrilling wildlife encounters I’d ever experienced – and one of the closest. And seeing it at ground level, standing with my elephant brethren, I felt protected and part of the environment I was walking in, rather than a mere observer. “It’s why we really think the elephant camp programme works,” explained Marie once we had got back to the paddocks and began making ‘elephant sandwiches’ for the herd. As they can’t walk freely in the forest, the mahouts need to prepare specially-balanced meals for their lunch made from molasses, rice, chickpeas and salt, all wrapped up strategically in straw. My first attempt resulted in an embarrassing pouch that resembled a badly drawn sack. But by the time I made my fifth I was at least getting the contents to stay inside – although glancing over to the mahout, I was mortified to note he was already on sandwich number 40.

A vulture observes its surroundings (Phoebe Smith)

Carnivorous conservation

After feeding ourselves, DB told me about his Vulture Restaurant in the nearby village, another success for Nepalese conservation. About a decade before he’d noticed numbers of the scavenging birds were at an all-time low – just 72 birds at a time feeding on carcasses. Locals didn’t care; vultures are regarded as ‘unclean’ to them, as they feed on the dead. But he did. Researching the problem he found that the painkiller given to cows (which cannot be killed due to Hindu beliefs), which vultures fed on once they died, were lethal to them.

So he took action, tapped into conservation funds and set up a cow hospice where he would pay locals for their ageing herd and look after the cattle giving them a vulture-friendly drug until they died. Then he would offer tourists the chance to sit in purpose-built hides to watch the vultures feed on the body – a mesmerising spectacle, which brought money into the community and boosted vulture numbers.

Eager to see more wildlife, I signed up the following day for a jeep and boat safari. In the morning, I caught a little wooden boat down the river where I spotted a narrow-snouted and endangered gharial crocodile sunning itself on the muddy banks – another conservation success in the face of diminishing habitats and egg poaching. Thanks to a crocodile-breeding centre, their eggs are now collected, incubated and hatched safely, and numbers increased from 124 in 2013 to 198 in 2016’s census.

By the afternoon my jeep bounded through the national park and wildlife sightings came thick and fast – from sambar and muntjac deer, to crab-eating mongoose, wild boar, langur monkeys, a python and even the tell-tale scratching on a tree from an elusive Bengal tiger.

Monkeying around (Phoebe Smith)

But for me the true highlight came on my final night when I walked with the entire herd of elephants down to the river for bathing (them) and sundowners (me). In the past, guests would ride them here and sit on their backs while they washed. But now we kept a respectful distance, watching them roll in the water, squirt spray from their noses and splash each other playfully.

As I gazed at the sunset I saw something stir on the other side of the water. Like a mirage in the distance a single rhino emerged from the jungle and stood looking over at me. He no longer looked robotic, more fantastical. I could only imagine what the first human to encounter an Asiatic one-horned rhino must have thought. Though with the Latin name Rhinoceros unicornis, they too must have believed they’d encountered something from a fairy tale.

Before coming back to Nepal on this visit I wondered if rhinos would indeed be relegated to a myth, driven to extinction by poachers. But having met the countless volunteers, conservationists, naturalists and military that work tirelessly to protect them, I too was filled with hope. Rather than being a creature of the past, rhinos are definitely part of Nepal’s future and – like the sunset glowing behind the one I was staring at now – it was looking brighter with every passing moment.

Reflective sunset (Phoebe Smith)

The Trip

The author travelled with Steppes Travel. It offers a 13-day itinerary to Nepal, which includes two days in Chitwan National Park.

Getting there

The author flew with Turkish Airlines. The airline flies from London Heathrow to Kathmandu via Istanbul in about 14 hours. There are no direct flights from the UK to Nepal.

Getting around

In the centre of Kathmandu the best way to get around is on foot or by taxis, which are affordable. Negotiate the price before you get in. To get to Chitwan National Park, take an internal flight to Bharatpur, from where it’s a 30-45min drive. The author flew with Yeti Airlines, flight times roughly 30 minutes. Flights are notorious for cancellations or delays (due to the changeable weather in the mountains) though lodges know this and monitor arrival and departure times. There are luggage weight limits: 10kg (hold) and 5kg (hand). Another option is by road. Air conditioned tourist buses are much cheaper though they take about 7 hours.

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