17-23 February 2017 #846

Fire in the afternoon

Once upon a time, Lady Elephant helped put out the flames at Tiger Tops
Lisa Choegyal
TREE TOP: Tiger Tops in the 1970s. Its unique design and location in the inner Tarai with Himalchuli visible to the north helped introduce Nepal to the world.

Afternoons in the Tarai jungle in May are endless, oppressive, soporific with the heavy smell of dense grass awaiting revival by the monsoon. The thick sweltering heat shimmies as the afternoon haze dances on the horizon. Chitwan’s tangled grasslands are dry and dying, matted into heaps of crackling gold and brown.

I was a newcomer to the Tiger Tops world and keen to be part of the team. Not just with the boss Jim Edwards, his brother John and Chuck McDougal, but particularly with the Nepali staff, many of whom had been there since the Lodge first opened in 1964. My special favourites were the Subedar headman, whose flat teak-coloured features and cropped hair belied an air of unassailable authority, and master tiger tracker Krishna Gurung, who had a shy smile that lit up his face and a fluid gait hard to keep up with on jungle trails. I already had earned a nickname, I learned later – Hattini, which means Lady Elephant. I like to think this was due to my nearly six-foot height.

The Tiger Tops lodge community numbered about 200 people if you included the elephant camp and the chaps who laboured to pump the water and tend the roads. Dressed in shades of buff and khaki, we were a self-contained group with lives defined by our jobs, a hierarchy of interlocked relationships. Like living on a ship, I used to think, sailing in a sea of trees.

Room boys doubled as waiters, shikaris guided walks and safaris, and drivers were also skilled mechanics, which was just as well given the ageing Land Rover fleet. Some of the open green jeeps were peppered with bullet holes, allegedly acquired in some non-specific regional warzone before being divested by the British Army, and one had a tin-opener gash in the door made by a charging rhino.

Mornings were busy with organising logistics – elephant safaris, wildlife walks, jeep drives, elephant camp visits, room lists, menus, supplies, flight and road arrivals and departures. The black board in the cramped wood office with screened windows behind the kitchen was our blueprint for the day.

One hot afternoon soon after I arrived, I was battling the humidity pouring with sweat even while I rested motionless on the bed. It was that quiet time of respite when guests had been despatched on their safaris and we had a rare hour to ourselves.

Someone hammering on the door jolted me out of my reverie. “Come quickly, memsahib, the kitchen is on fire!” As I raced down the packed mud path, the crackling in the air reached me at the same time as the shouts of the boys. The smell of burning was unmistakable and as I crossed the rickety wooden footbridge I could see flames rising from the kitchen roof. A stone building with wooden beams and glassless windows, only sheets of corrugated iron separated the sparks of the open cooking fires from the grass of the thatched roof.

It was a chaotic scene. Water was being carried from the pumps and river in buckets, and a few brave souls were on the kitchen roof, trying to separate the grass from the flames so it did not ignite further. The air was filled with flying black cinders and everyone was shouting advice as I took my place, using my height to lift the pails up to the men on the roof. Soon a more orderly relay line was formed as the buckets were passed from person to person, then to me to hoist up to eager hands. It was not long before the embers were drenched, the danger subsided and fear of the fire spreading was quashed. The main lodge rooms, central gol ghar, office and store were all safe.

Smeared with ash and soaked with spilled water, we hugged each other with relief. I can still smell the burning grass stench that filled our throats and nostrils. “That was close,” observed Chuck, ever sparing with words. “Your height came in handy.” Krishna smiled at me kindly, and the Subedar unexpectedly shook my hand. On that hot afternoon, Hattini earned her stripes and now belonged to the Tiger Tops team.

Lisa Choegyal is a Brit who has made Nepal her home since the mid 1970s.

Read Also:

The unsuccessful hippie, Lisa Choegyal

Chuck McDougal, Lisa Choegyal

Born to be free, Lucia De Vries

comments powered by Disqus