Tigers, Elephants and Tales From the Raj

I’m often asked the best thing I’ve ever experienced on assignment as a travel writer. There have been so many incredible experiences, but visiting Kabini River Lodge in early 2006 is definitely near the top.

On safari in the jungles of southern India! The sun hadn’t risen, but like the monkeys chattering in the cashew trees, I was already awake. Lolling in a teak four-poster bed, I was anticipating the day ahead.

To be honest, anticipating it both with excitement and a little dread. Elephants and goodness knows what other creatures lurked out there.

But I remember thinking how lucky I was. Privileged, even. Back home, people woke to routine days in offices, shops, and factories. The kind of mundane life I once had.

Not any more. When I tell people that travel writing really is the best job in the world, I’m not kidding. For most folks, a safari is a vacation-of-a-lifetime dream. So too is India. Yet here I was, being paid to experience it—and in luxury style, too.

Deep inside what is now Nagarhole National Park, Kabini Lodge has an illustrious history. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, stayed here in 1920. Along with his traveling companion, Britain’s then Prince of Wales, they were guests of the Maharajah of Mysore. Kabini served as the Maharajah’s private hunting lodge.

Back then, this three-day/two-night adventure should have cost around $600. But as a travel writer, I didn’t pay a cent. The people at Kabini Lodge hosted me (and my husband) entirely for free.

While I was musing away, there came a soft knock at the door of our colonial bungalow. Beaming a “Good morning, Missy,” a dapper retainer—it’s impossible to use any other word—delivered a pot of tea and digestive biscuits.

A proper breakfast would come later—it was only 6 a.m.—but I appreciated the civilized start.

Although actress Goldie Hawn spotted four tigers during her two-night visit here, no big cats put in an appearance for us. But we managed to see plenty from our open-top jeep: herds of elephants, gaur (Indian bison), spotted deer, monkeys galore.

Safaris—or game drives as they say here—took place in the (very) early morning and late afternoon. One morning we sailed in a coracle made from buffalo hide along the Kabini River on the lookout for crocodiles and birdlife.

Crocodiles, for sure! I also remember seeing fish eagles, white-breasted kingfishers, and scores of wading birds. Around 350 bird species, wild peacocks included, make their home at Kabini.

Stoked up with delicious south Indian food, the entire experience was magical. But it wasn’t only spying a mongoose right outside the bungalow that made it feel as if I had fallen into one of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Stories.

As the tangerine sun went down on the first night, I got a message. The Lodge’s resident Director, Colonel John Wakefield, had invited us to join him in his private quarters in the Viceroy’s Lodge for drinks.

I’m not used to being addressed as “My dear girl.” But to Colonel Wakefield, I probably did seem fairly girlish…

Ruddy-faced and twinkly-eyed, dressed in a camouflage jacket, the Colonel was born in India in 1916. The days of the Raj (British rule) were still in full swing. This was a time of tea planters, memsahibs, and tiger shoots.

Despite his advanced age, his memory was needle-sharp. An interview? It was more like finding a story gold-mine. Have you ever met anyone who collected village taxes for a Maharajah at the age of 16?

Apart from an English boarding school education and Army service, the Colonel had spent all his life in India. After his military days were over in 1955, he returned to organizing safaris. In particular, tiger shoots. His thinking changed when a survey estimated that India probably only had 1,800 tigers left.

To most people, shooting tigers for fun seems shocking nowadays. But until 1972’s Wildlife Protection Act, India clung onto this legacy of the Raj. Many foreign visitors demanded to view wildlife, especially tigers, down the sights of a gun barrel.

This is how I opened “Drinking gin with the Colonel,” one of my stories for International Living:

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth—I was born with a gun in my hand.

“Now 90 years old and still fond of a whisky, Colonel John Wakefield tells me he bagged his first tiger at the tender age of 9. He also whips out the photo to prove it: a proud little boy—and one very dead tiger.”

Writers often gain special access to people as well as places. The time I spent with Colonel Wakefield ranks as one of the most spellbinding three hours of my travel writing career.

He shared so many memories: his childhood on a royal estate (his father arranged tiger shoots for the Maharajah of Bijar)… what India was like under Partition… his abiding love of elephants… his conversion from hunter to conservationist.

Outside of India, maybe few knew of the Colonel—but I wouldn’t have missed hearing his stories for anything. Sadly he passed away in April at the age of 95. The end of an era, indeed.

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