John R Edwards, 72

Eclipsed by his dominant elder brother, JRE was the unsung hero of the early Tiger Tops

Lisa Choegyal with John Edwards at Tiger Tops Tented Camp in Chitwan 1974

The skinny brown-haired Englishman with tattooed arms, soft eyes and an engaging smile strode towards me down the Chitwan forest trail, a small white dog trotting at his heels. Sweat and dust matted the hairs on a pair of chopstick-thin legs, topped by baggy green shorts.

John Edwards always seemed to be in a hurry, unless he was propping up the stone bar at the end of the day with a Khukri rum and coke in hand. There was little choice of brand in 1970s Nepal.

“We are deep in the national park and one day a leopard will get Toyo,” he used to say, and sure enough it did. His strutting pet peacock, Henrietta, went the same way.

The unsung hero of the early years of Tiger Tops, John R Edwards (JRE as we called him in inter-office memos, although Raymond was a well kept secret) was a master at selecting camp sites deep within the jungle or on the Park perimeter.

His building background enabled him to construct golghar, decks, blinds, shelters, bridges, landings and tent platforms from wood, bamboo, grass and river stone blending seamlessly into the landscape. He taught by example, developing teams of talented locals and establishing what became widely celebrated as the Tiger Tops style. Rather than expand the main treetop Jungle Lodge in Chitwan, the eco-philosophy was to restrict impact with small satellite camps around the Park. It was JRE who made it happen.

Rescued from a self-confessed drifting life as an occasional builder and seaman, John was summoned from the UK to Nepal by his big brother AV Jim Edwards soon after he and Chuck McDougal had acquired the management of Tiger Tops in 1972.

John’s practical hands-on construction talents were deployed at the grass roots level, his love of adventure blossoming in the wild places of the Nepal Tarai throughout Jim’s conservation tourism ventures. John became an invaluable operations manager, Jim’s trusted lieutenant and right hand man. He recced river trips, jungle treks and fishing opportunities, quietly working his magic, stamping his gentle humour on Tiger Tops lodges, camps and wildlife activities.

Fresh from UK and sensitive to his humble background, it took John time to assimilate into jungle life. When I first arrived in Chitwan, he could be found leading a group of tourists armed like a sahib on shikhar with a shotgun that only we knew was for show. After a late night session at the Lodge bar, he survived a close encounter with George the resident rhino, who was not as tame as he looked.

Our amusement was not appreciated when John led a group of guests, creeping silently through the night to the hide where tigers were viewed on their kill. Only tonight it was a false alarm, no tiger in sight and the buffalo bait very much alive and mooing.

One evening he left a little old American lady behind in the grass blind – we were only alerted by her plaintive “coo-ees” which were in danger of attracting a curious tigress. Escorting the Nepal royal family on one of their many visits, he broke all taboos by grabbing the untouchable Queen to lift her over a flooded ditch.

John savoured the vicarious glamour of riding elephants and hanging out in the haitisar but needing four elephants at six o’clock for a morning guest safari he never lived it down when six elephants appeared at four o’clock. However when the kitchen caught fire, John was on the thatched roof attempting to douse the engulfing flames while I, tallest of all, thrust up the buckets of water passed down the line from the Reu River throughout that dramatic night.

John developed a rare empathy with the Tarai locals, spoke their language and passed on his building craft. He honoured their woodland spirits, appreciated their local wisdom, sympathised with their traditions, and was respected in return. One night he bravely attempted to sleep in an alleged dakini-haunted room at the Lodge, only to be violently disturbed by its female spectre. Often his forehead would be smeared with rice and colour, relics of a shikari puja, blood sacrifices deep in the forest. And he never lost his passion for a good fish curry.

John’s British humour and could always be relied on for an irreverent story, dreadful joke or witty one-liner – my favourite was the Rolls Can'ardly, a car that “rolls down the hills but can hardly get up them.” At his 1980 wedding to Oreno, a spear wielding Naga lady swathed in red, white and black hand weave in a dusty bungalow garden now long built over, my inadequate Nepali vocabulary resulted in the bemused houseboys bringing cooked rice with which to shower the happy couple. Their first child was named Justin, “born just in time” John would grin, soon followed by a mellow cherished daughter, Ann.

Eclipsed by his dominant elder brother, it was inevitable that the acolyte role would eventually pall. “John needs a bigger vision - I’ve given him India,” Jim told us with typical bravura, although it seemed more like banishment from his beloved Nepal jungles.

Whatever the irony, John was despatched to run Mountain Travel India, and left Nepal in 1990. The complexities of Jim’s Indian operations with their uneasy partnerships and labyrinthine bureaucracy would have presented a difficult task for anyone. John’s strengths were hands-on and in the field, not a basement office in New Delhi, but he stuck it out for a decade before settling back in London with his long-term partner Deborah.

During his time in India, John not only managed camps in Ladakh, Kashmir, Himachal, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, but found fulfilment in pioneering trips into remote parts of India’s undiscovered North East. In Oreno’s family territory of Nagaland his local knowledge came in handy -- the tribes were reputed to be headhunters.

Travelling with rhino specialist, Andrew Laurie, to check out Kaziranga in Assam, he managed to get them both thrown into Dhubri jail. Hitchhiking on the back of a lorry, John had insisted on snapping a ‘No Photography’ sign outside a military installation on the West Bengal border. That evening they persuaded their jailers to escort them to a restaurant, two rickshaws, them in one and two armed guards in another.  Released the next day by the District Magistrate, they were entertained to tea on his lawn and regaled with stories about his father’s time at Cambridge.

The poor truck driver was not so lucky, stuck in Dhubri without a permit to carry his grain, having been diverted to take them to prison. Leaving town next morning by taxi on the orders of the District Magistrate, they saw their stranded driver. “We gave him some rupees, can’t remember how much, but we kept adding notes until he started smiling.”

John R Edwards: born 22 September 1946 died 18 January 2019

Lisa Choegyal


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