Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge at 25A haven of sustainable hospitality in Nepal sets a benchmark for ecotourism
Twenty five years ago Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge was inaugurated by Sir Edmund Hillary, his tall frame stooping to light the traditional votive lamp on the recently-laid slate veranda.
The trees and wild landscaping had yet to mature, bamboos were still in their infancy, but eagles, vultures and kites wheeled overhead on the thermals. Across the valley, the hills were saturated with post-monsoon green and impossibly high white mountains rose through the clouds.
Sir Ed was flanked by the three owners, the ebullient Jim Edwards representing Tiger Tops who had led the development of the cottage clusters sprawling along the ridgetop site. Our Malaysian business partner Rudy Kinajil, with whom I had worked in Borneo, had provided the final financing through his New Zealand entity Lincott International.
And myself, whose ten percent shareholding was recompense for 25 years’ promoting the Tiger Tops Mountain Travel group of pioneer adventure travel companies. At their height these enterprises stretched across South Asia, Tibet, Mongolia, Iceland, and even Russia’s Far East.
As the oil flame flickered in the light breeze, that moment on 2 October 1998 was a culmination of many years of planning and imagining by many people. The hand-cut honey-coloured stone structures were made by local craftsmen and designed by Harvard architect Philip Beck, and the grounds were landscaped by his partner Elizabeth to retain their natural wildness.
Jim’s son Kristjan Edwards had overseen the building, Capt Surendra Vikram Gurung managed procurement, Sophie Camoys designed the interiors, architect Prabal Thapa supervised construction, Dinesh Thapa trained the naturalists, and I was responsible for the concept and marketing.
Our stringent environmental ethos and sustainable tourism practices were ahead of their time. That year, Tiger Mountain was designated the best ecolodge in the world by Conde Nast Traveler, and many accolades and awards have followed.
The celebrations were attended by others who had been involved in the creation of the group’s newest mountain product, including local officials, tourism industry leaders, Boris Lissanevitch’s wife Inger, and friends from Nepal, New Zealand, UK and the US.
All had braved the pock-marked mud road winding up from Bijaypur Khola barracks. Helicopters dropped off guests, landing at the end of the ridge that today is covered in shrubs and foliage.
‘The most beautiful mountain lodge I have ever seen,’ wrote Swiss pioneer Toni Hagan in the guest book.
One key person who was not at the opening event was Lt Col Jimmy Roberts, to whose foresight and vision Pokhara Lodge owed its origins. He never saw the finished result having died the previous year on 1 November 1997. Col Jimmy’s stark black and white photographs still adorn the Lodge walls, recalling the rustic realities and Himalayan hardships of his early British Army pension paying rambles and many expeditions to climb the high peaks. His mountaineering library occupies a cosy corner behind the recently reconstructed bar.
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Lt Col James Owen Merrion Roberts LVO, MBE, MC was a Gurkha officer, early explorer and renowned mountaineer who bagged many Himalayan first ascents including Mera Peak which he dismissed as "rather over 21,000 feet and not difficult”.
Col Jimmy was shortlisted to lead the historic British expedition that successfully climbed Everest in 1953, and his team reached within 150 feet of the sacred summit of Machapuchre. As he put it: “For a mountaineer at least, the lure of Nepal was far more potent than Tibet or Bhutan. And in the mountain book only the chapter titled ‘Nepal’ remained closed, the pages uncut.”
Lauded as the founder of trekking, Col Jimmy established Mountain Travel in 1964, Nepal’s first trekking agency and coined the word ‘trek’ for walking in the Himalaya, derived from a South African Boer dialect meaning 'an arduous journey on foot’.
In 1974, soon after I first arrived in Nepal, Mountain Travel joined forces with Tiger Tops, jungle lodge and wildlife camp operators in the Nepal Tarai, and the Tiger Mountain brand was launched. With his passion and knowledge of the Himalaya, it was Col Jimmy who first recognised the unique qualities of the hilltop site — unimpeded views sweep from the lakes of Pokhara Valley to the soaring white summits that pierce the skyline from Dhaulagiri to Manaslu.
On the face of it, Col Jimmy was an unlikely visionary. A crusty British colonel, unmarried, shy and solitary by nature, the only son of a Welsh headmaster in Gujarat. He returned to South Asia after being sent ‘home’ to school in England (King’s Canterbury, which I never heard him mention) and military training at Sandhurst.
Col Jimmy followed a distinguished army career in India, Malaya and Singapore with a stint as the first Defence and Military attaché at the British Embassy in Kathmandu from 1958 to 1961.
Retiring to Pokhara after failing health and arthritic hips curtailed climbing and made even walking painful, he supervised the trekking teams, bred rare pheasants in his garden, produced quail eggs for Kathmandu restaurants, and was never without a succession of spaniels at his heels.
In December 1980, Mountain Travel was asked by Kathmandu’s royal palace to organise a four-day hike for King Charles III, then the Prince of Wales, escorted by Prince Dhirendra. For the Royal Trek, Col Jimmy selected a pristine circuit passing along the Kandani Danda ridge and returning by boat across Lake Begnas. I recced the route with Pertemba Sherpa, climbing protégé of Sir Chris Bonington and one of Nepal’s leading sirdars.
During the visit, my task was to manage the media. Elaborate planning, a secret codenamed trek route and army helicopters ensured that the press never caught up with Prince Charles, leaving him to his watercolour painting and contemplation of life beneath the Annapurnas.
Col Jimmy noted with satisfaction: “The mountain views were gin clear for all four days”. Pertemba and Robin Marston as general manager of Mountain Travel led the royal party, shadowed by a support group of medics, blood supplies and logistical backup.
The trail was lined with former-Gurkhas, villagers, damai bands and security personnel. Only the murder of John Lennon that week knocked Nepal off the front page of world news.
Many visitors have traced the Royal Trek footsteps. Col Jimmy saw the potential of the first night stop as the perfect spot for guests to enjoy before or after an Annapurna trek, and for non-trekkers to soak in the ambience of a Himalayan hill village.
He and Jim Edwards quietly purchased seven acres of empty terraces on the top of the ridge from the local farmers. For many years the land lay fallow, far above any water supply, occasionally used by us for picnics or camping.
When dirt roads replaced the foot trails, the site eventually became accessible by vehicle. Although purchased in the 1980s and Tiger Mountain Pvt Ltd incorporated as a foreign joint venture in 1989, it was not until 1997 that construction started.
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The original design ensured that local artisans could be employed using adapted vernacular architectural styles, slate and stone from nearby quarries, and locally produced crafts and textiles to decorate the Lodge and rooms.
Decor featured claret cloth of monk’s robes for bedspreads, dhaka cushion covers, hand woven carpets and local marble bathrooms. Rooms were bunched in bungalows resembling a Nepali village, with attached bathrooms, private verandas and Himalayan views. At various stages of work, monks and priests blessed the hilltop site.
Although the idea of hot tubs was abandoned as being too costly to the environment, the iconic salt-cleansed swimming pool has proven a perennial favourite with guests, mirroring the grandeur of the Annapurnas on its shimmering surface, providing drinks for birdlife and as a protection against fire. It has been voted the UK Sunday Times’ top five cool pools.
Magnetised by the Himalaya, Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge has hosted yoga weekends, meditation workshops and tantric retreats. Celebrity guests have included Reinhold Messner, Orlando Bloom and Ralph Fiennes. King Birendra came on a day visit and Princess Anne spent several days on a working visit as president of Save the Children.
Writers and artists find the hilltop conducively creative, and paintings by Luke Piper and Nigel Weymouth hang on our walls. JK Rowling brought her family for breakfast in two helicopters, Isabella Tree stayed for several days and Alexander McCall-Smith came to write.
British Gurkhas bring their more discerning Generals, and during Everest70 New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark came with her ornithologically-inclined husband who spotted numerous species including Nepal’s sole endemic bird, the Spiny Babbler.
Over the years Pokhara Lodge has twice been threatened with alarming forest fires and has survived earthquakes, lightning strikes and dramatic mountain storms. I endured the Millennium eve with no digital crash on the stroke of midnight, and we weathered the tragic decade of insurgency and one of the first Maoist encounters with foreigners.
No one was harmed, or even much alarmed by their presence as resident guests confused the red bandanas, brandished khukris and flags as a cultural show — although the intruders carried off the terrace telescope, staff cameras, and the bulging contents of the end-of-season tip box.
To ensure a high quality guest experience, trained staff were initially shared from Tiger Tops as well as recruited locally, and today over three quarters of the original team are still with us.
Ishwar Basnet, Jhalak Chaudhary, Dol Raj Shrestha and their crew remain the vital key to our reputation and eco-standards. Linked to their land, the original farming family stay connected as keepers of the gardens and grounds.
Chef Lalu and his award-winning kitchen team conjure seasonal daily menus that feature a range of authentic Nepali dishes, garden salads and continental specialities made with fresh local ingredients and home-grown herbs.
You can lunch by the pool, breakfast on the terrace, picnic on day hikes, and savour elaborate sunset drinks at the ancient Thulo Kot fort.
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Guest activities include guided bird and butterfly walks, a range of day hikes through community forests and hill villages, and sustainability tours of the property showing our solar energy, waste recycling and water harvesting.
As the adventure capital of Nepal, Pokhara offers mountain biking, horse rides, paragliding, micro-lighting, zip-lining, and visits to temples, museums and lake attractions. Despite these temptations and lulled by views from the Lodge, many guests prefer to peacefully relax, read, wifi and be massaged beneath the snowy summits.
Wildlife populations have flourished within the extensive grounds. You may wake to the yelp of barking deer, birdsong from 361 species recorded on our bird list, and the silent flutter of 281 different butterflies.
We boast sightings of rhesus and langur monkey, squirrel, mongoose, bats, yellow-throated marten, civets, jungle cat, and even leopards who occasionally visit from the adjacent community forest. Our naturalists support wildlife research with bird counts, monthly butterfly monitoring, and data collection for the Pokhara Valley.
Marcus Cotton, managing director since 2009, passionately upholds and expands on the eco-legacy and cultural integrity that he inherited when he bought out Tiger Tops and Lincott to become the majority shareholder.
Hailing from North Devon and shunning a career in the City of London, Marcus’ long family association with Nepal and Tiger Mountain included volunteering with KMTNC, (now National Trust for Nature Conservation) and hands-on experience running Tiger Tops Chitwan.
Finding fulfilment in directing resort operations from his adopted hilltop home, Marcus’s regime has ensured a policy of uncompromising preservation of wild nature, meticulous mentoring in the kitchen, wellbeing of the lodge team and their families, whilst holding forth to guests on the state of the universe.
His 22 seasons of dogged commitment is evident in the unique brand of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge’s responsible tourism, guiding the company through the dismal pandemic years with no loss of staff or standards.
Pokhara Lodge now heads into a new phase of post-Covid enthusiasm. The recent refurb and repositioning will invigorate the image and attract a broader market base, led by my son Sangjay Choegyal with interiors designed by Stephanie de Braux from Singapore.
They are reinforcing the local styles and traditional materials with a fresh approach to light and colour, and major upgrades to the dining, Lodge and room bungalows without losing the special Himalayan charm and sustainable standards that have characterised the Lodge and appealed to guests for so long.
Col Jimmy Roberts never lived to see his dream realised in Pokhara Lodge, but he was prescient about forthcoming changes in mountain tourism. It might have seemed like a more innocent age but, even in the 1990s when Nepal’s visitors numbered a fraction of today, he lobbied for the advantages of quality high-value tourism.
“Why are we selling our beautiful mountains so cheap?” Trekking first brought me to Nepal and the spirit of the Himalaya is lodged deep in the hearts of my two sons, woven into the fabric of their childhood. Without Col Jimmy, and his stubborn persistence to realise his vision, things would not have been the same.
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