Pilgrimage to Copenhagen

… to track down the Indian-born son of American missionaries who first built Tiger Tops in Chitwan

Tiger Tops during the Coapman era c 1965 showing only four top rooms in the simal bungalow, and staff dressed in military-style uniforms.

Mette Rolff’s Nordic blond hair was pulled back neat against the nape of her neck as she gazed across the Copenhagen skyline from her apartment window. “I loved the Chitwan jungle, but it was a trying time.” She smiled evasively, but the understatement did not hide the pain behind her eyes. “But life has moved on, let’s not dwell on those days.” Turning to me she crossed her delicate ankles and once again blocked the conversation, shying away from sharing any indiscretions with her young visitor.

I was visiting Denmark ostensibly to promote Nepal, but was hoping to glean from Mette more about her time in Chitwan during the early 1960s, married to John Coapman, the Indian-born son of American missionaries who had first built Tiger Tops Hotel, as it was then called. Never having met him, I had a shadowy image of a big blustery man with a rifle slung across his shoulders, a sort of South Asian Hemingway figure without the charm or the writing.

How did this stylish slender old lady, dressed in soft tweed and pastel cashmere against the summer evening chill, come to spend several years in a remote rhinoceros sanctuary and Rana hunting reserve in southern Nepal? I wasn’t getting very far. Graciously hospitable in her modest cosy home, and helpful with travel agents and media contacts, in lilting Danish cadence Mette made it clear that her colourful private life was off limits.

There were many gaps in the story but it seemed pretty glamorous to me, a wide-eyed twenty-something, curious about the eccentric cast of expatriate characters that composed Nepal’s tourism history. Rumour and innuendo featured a dramatic and clandestine escape from an abusive and jealous husband. The narrative went that Mette had to sneak off to Kathmandu airport and freedom carrying only a small handbag so as not to raise the choleric Coapman’s turbulent suspicions – with a casual wave that she was “off shopping”, trembling she walked away from her entire Nepal life.

Inger Lisanevitch, Boris’s Danish wife, provided illicit support and Elizabeth Hawley was a lifelong admirer. She was running Tiger Tops’ Kathmandu office for Coapman. “There were so few people around it was easy for me to help him out-- he was a ‘difficult’ man”. Elizabeth’s fingers made the quotation marks. “Mette was wonderful, the poor thing.” Elizabeth had no time for the CIA conspiracies that clung to Coapman, nor his boast that King Mahendra had died in his arms whilst on shikar in Chitwan.

It is hard to imagine what life must have been like for Mette, alone and allegedly confined to the staff bungalow whilst her bullying husband constructed the Africa-inspired conical roof of the main lodge and the first four treetop bedrooms in a spreading silk cotton tree.Two Dallas oil millionaires with a penchant for big game hunting, Toddy Lee Wynne Jr. and Herbert W. Klein, had found the Chitwan site whilst out shooting tiger with their ‘white hunter’ guide John Coapman, and contracted him to make it happen.

Smooth river stones were collected for the floor, and wood, bamboo and grass were cut from the forest for walls and thatched roofs. Set in a clearing overlooking the Reu River near the Rapti confluence, from her locked room on a fine day the Himalayan peaks shimmered on the horizon but at night the dense jungle din must have been daunting.

How John and Mette came to be married in the first place is a missing chapter of the tale, but by November 1965 they received the first Tiger Tops guests, five Americans, who landed on the grass airstrip of Meghauli in a chartered Royal Nepal Airlines DC-3. Early photos show military-style uniforms, with guns, kukris and lances carried by shikari guides and elephant drivers to ward off the perceived threat from fierce wild creatures.

The story switches to a cold evening in a New York brown stone at the 1971 annual dinner of the Explorers Club in East 70th Street, and a chance meeting between the Texan owners and AV Jim Edwards, a former banker and Pan Am salesman with the gift of the gab and a fledgling hunting company in Nepal. Tired of their errant and unreliable manager Coapman’s colonial fantasies, fuzzy truths and a business reeling with debt, Jim persuaded the two Texans that he and his business partner Chuck McDougal were perfectly placed to take over the ailing management and realise their dream of creating Nepal’s pioneer wildlife tourism venture, in return for part ownership. The deal was done.

Jim’s selective memory and talent for exaggeration has probably embellished accounts of the Tiger Tops Nepal takeover, but after that conversation in New York, John Coapman was fired, leaving death threats and unpaid bills in his wake. Mette had long gone.

Jim liked to say that the new management took off “with a roar”. With no communication system to alert the Chitwan staff, Jim, Chuck and Elizabeth Hawley arrived in February 1972 unannounced and on foot, walking miles along jungle tracks, wading rivers, and carrying a case full of cash to salvage the situation. There is no doubt they found a sorry spectacle of starving elephants, unpaid salaries, broken vehicles and crumbling buildings. Jim claimed that food was so short on that first visit that they had to share a tiger’s kill.

John Coapman never again reappeared in Nepal and so was unable to defend his dubious legacy that faded into uncertain legend, even as Tiger Tops prospered. But we all stayed in touch with the much-loved Mette and her elegant but precarious life in Europe. She did not return either, but there were intriguing whispers about a generous English Duke and other Danish dalliances. But I never dared to ask.

Lisa Choegyal