Gap yah gals in the jungleSuch was the allure of adventure in Chitwan, parents actually paid for their offspring to work at Tiger Tops
Somewhere along the way at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, it was decided that we needed a gentle female hand to look after guests, to reassure them in the remote jungle setting, and to balance the macho effect of the wildlife naturalists who swaggered through tiger and rhino country.
The result was a succession of guest relations girls (gals), most of whom did not last more than a couple of seasons -- such was the intensity of the task and isolation of life within Nepal’s Tarai national parks.
When I first worked in Chitwan in 1974, we all did everything. I could be found in my khaki shirt not only on airport duty and briefing the guests on arrival, but also escorting barefoot visits to the tiger blinds, explaining the careful husbandry of the elephant camp, or pointing out crocodiles and birds whilst floating down the Narayani river in local wood boats with only the dip of a paddle or the call of an osprey to spoil the silence.
Most thrilling was driving guests in the battered green Land Rovers on afternoon excursions across the rickety bridges, through shallow streams and along the rough tracks carved each year out of the encroaching jungle. I could change one of the heavy tread tyres in less than eight minutes, and had to do so on more than one occasion -- usually on some distant stretch of rutted road, never quite sure what creature might emerge out of the forest and grassland.
Early evening tigers would use the same roads to patrol their territory and spray-mark trees, leaving pungent cat-scent hanging in the air, and impossibly large pug marks imprinted in the dust.
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After I moved to the Kathmandu office, the boundaries became less blurred and the guest relations job description tightened to exclude driving – prompted by one enthusiastic dark-haired American gal colliding head on around a jungle corner with the only other vehicle for miles.
Safaris, drives, boat trips and walks were deemed the masculine domain of operations staff, naturalists and nature guides. Guest relations’ focus was entirely on the feminine duties of housekeeping and the kitchen, planning menus, assigning tree-top rooms, arranging tents, and ensuring guests felt at home – more systematic perhaps, but not nearly so much fun.
I suffered the ultimate feminist indignity when, during a glossy London magazine fashion shoot that I had arranged in 1977 with top models and a celebrity photographer, and me posing at the wheel of an open safari jeep, a moustache was later photo-shopped onto my upper lip. If not women’s liberation, we did achieve 10 valuable pages of publicity for Chitwan’s wildlife tourism.
Our guest relations girls were mainly recruited from friends of friends, meaning we had a bias of Western gals (and the occasional guy) from the wide-open spaces of North America, and the more specialised British habitat of Sloane Square, the Pony Club and titled country house parties. Double-barrelled surnames proliferated, and at one point we had a Lavinia, a Philippa, a Venetia and a Samantha in close succession.
In those conservative times, few Nepali or Indian girls were permitted by their families to work in the mostly male atmosphere of the lodges and camps, although we did find a few individuals who gained traction as attitudes relaxed. By definition, they were mavericks, pushing the boundaries; Asha moved on to Disney in the US, Pramoda still campaigns for animal rights, Christabel from Darjeeling now lives in Melbourne, and Gauree has risen to international lodge manager status in her own right.
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Over the decades, Tiger Tops gals came and went, and many are still in touch. Those that did not succumb to suburbia discovered their destiny – many still work in hospitality and conservation. Some fell foul of the system (or the boss’ kids) and had to leave in a hurry. A few left their heart in the jungle and there were several Tiger Tops marriages.
One English blond had to be rescued from an enamoured royal prince who was found installed in a Soaltee suite – that was tricky to explain to her mother in Surrey. Many took an interest in the food. A lovely lady from Tasmania would greet guests with “Have a nice cup of tea!” and an older lady returned regularly to teach new European recipes. Nodding patiently, the eyes of the Nepali cooks would glaze over with years of conflicting instructions.
Such was the allure of adventure in the jungle that Tiger Tops developed a clever category of young kids whose parents actually paid for them to work with us. Un-catchily named the Youth Trainee Programme, YTPs would spend a month or two traipsing around, shadowing guides, and ostensibly helping out in Chitwan and Bardia, often in their gap year between school and university (yes, gap yah!).
Other than a few casualties -- usually related to love, drink or homesickness -- an ‘amazing’ time was had by all. One chap overdid the elephant camp ganja, one misjudged the Khukri rum, and another got no further than the Thamel throngs before being nursed back to Oxfordshire, but they were the exception.
Most of our guest relations’ gals and the transitory gap yah kids claim that the experience in Nepal changed their lives, and I have no doubt that it did.