WILD SIDE: Lisa Choegyal gets bored of trying to be a hippie and begins to explore a career in adventure tourism and conservation. Here she is on elephant-back safari in Chitwan in 1974. This is the first of her fortnightly columns, So Far So Good, in Nepali Times.
It’s not easy being a successful hippie. Even if embracing the flowing clothes, dangling necklaces, open sandals and flowers in the hair is not too hard, there is all that sitting around smoking dope and staring into space. Plagued by a nagging protestant work ethic, excess energy and an irrational fear of boredom, I have never been good at doing nothing.
It is the spring of 1974, and the route from Pokhara to Jomsom
has just reopened for trekkers. I have come to explore the network of trading trails that cobweb the Nepal Himalaya, part of a wider overland wander that began in Bali, through South East Asia and Burma to Kathmandu, then a hippie
haven. I arrive on the short rackety flight from Rangoon, wide-eyed and entranced, eager to embrace the adventures offered by the still-fledgling Nepal tourism industry.
Blissfully unprepared and recklessly casual, I trek alone through the deepest gorge in the world. My feet ache with blisters, formed before a kindly ex-Gurkha teashop owner forced some good woollen socks on me. I have a large bruise on my thigh from a water buffalo at Ghorepani that did not appreciate my friendly pat. But I am enthralled, captivated by the scenery and people of these sacred mountains. I bask in their hospitality and warmth — something about this place makes me feel deeply at home.
After the trek, impatient with hanging out in Kathmandu on a tight budget amidst the joint-rolling table-tops of Freak Street
, I devour the temples, palaces and medieval bazaars, cycling through the emerald terraces to discover the Valley’s outlying corners and remote shrines. It isn’t long before a chance meeting in the Panorama Hotel’s Union Jack bar results in the opportunity to visit Tiger Tops in Royal Chitwan National Park. I leap at it, rescued from my stoned indolence.
And so it is that, although I never meant to stay, I am still here. Over 40 years later, I write sitting in the garden of the yellow Rana and Newar-style house with traditional terracotta roof tiles that Tenzin and I built in Budhanilkantha, overlooking Kathmandu Valley. The afternoon light filters through the trees, insects are busy amidst the flowers, doves call from among the rocks, and the stream that becomes the Vishnumati River gurgles through the adjacent wood. Of course Nepal has changed since 1974, but the strong sense of connection that overcame me then remains.
The excitement of exploring the jungle on elephant back deep in tiger country does not disappoint. I am charged by a rhino and young calf while out on foot, saved only by a tourist-laden elephant named Rup Kali and her heroic driver, Sultana. I become hooked on the wild thrill of jungle life and persuade the owner of Tiger Tops, Jim Edwards, to give me a job.
“If you can talk me into that, you can talk anyone into anything!” Jim leans back with resignation in his blue chair in Tiger Tops’ Durbar Marg office. For the next few years Chitwan becomes my home, before I move to Kathmandu as director of marketing in a career that lasted over 20 years.
During those first weeks of early 1974 I bond with the Lodge staff when the kitchen thatch catches fire and my height helps them hoist up the chain of water buckets from the river to the team working on the roof. I love the complex logistics required to manage a safe, up-market wildlife enterprise in the heart of a national park.
Everything has to run smoothly for the guests, and my colleagues are skilled former Gurkha army engineers, Tharu elephant drivers, Kumal boatmen and Tamang cooks. I learn how to identify every sound in Chitwan, motorised or natural—all so very different from my native north of England countryside—studying the behaviour of the wildlife with Indian and Nepali naturalists.
Working with Jim Edwards is entertaining, innovative his leadership inspiring. I am young, it is a golden time for nature tourism and at last I feel I am doing something useful, released from my life as an unsuccessful hippie
Lisa Choegyal is a Brit who has made Nepal her home since the mid 1970s. This is the first of her bi-monthly column, So Far So Good about her personal stories and encounters with a colourful cast of characters during a lifetime of adventure working in tourism and conservation. © Lisa Choegyal
Not so freaky anymore on Freaky Street, Alok Tumbahangphey
Far and away, Sraddha Basnyat
Feeling groovy, Lucia De Vries
Trip to freedom, A. Angelo D’silva