A Western sportswoman is invited on a royal shoot in the kingdom of Nepal. There, amid the high Himalayas, the Valley of Kathmandu and a forbidding jungle, she finds a wonderland whose enchantment all but transcends the thrill of the hunt itself. She arrives as balloons fly and guards stand in formal dress for a state holiday (right), has an unnerving audience with the king and then joins him for a confrontation (next page) in a circle ruled by a tiger.
The peaks of the Himalayas were silver in the morning sun. In the bright blue sky helicopters hovered like elusive humming birds, scattering thousands of rose petals upon the earth below. Great garlanded balloons rose noiselessly on puffs of smoke, trailing colored streamers through the thin, crisp air. In the distance I heard the sudden sound of trumpets. Through the gilded gates of the Tundikhel and down a pathway strewn with flowers the royal mounted guard came into sight. They rode eight abreast, a seemingly endless spectacle of scarlet tunics, sparkling scimitars and plumed helmets.
Behind them, moving slowly between twin rows of waving flags, a long black Lincoln flying the royal standard drew up to the reviewing stand. To the roll of drums and the salutes of generals, His Majesty Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva, the King of Nepal, absolute monarch of the largest and only independent Himalayan kingdom, supreme ruler of one of the world's most ancient thrones, ninth sovereign of the Shah dynasty, sacred defender of the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, Man-God of the Hindus, earthly incarnation of the Supreme Being and God of Preservation, Vishnu, stepped from the car. Serious and straight-backed, he climbed red-carpeted stairs to a golden couch set high on a dais. The celebration could now begin.
It was National Day, the joyous festival of Rastriya Prajatantra Diwas, in this roof-of-the-world country. Throughout the 54,000-square-mile kingdom, from snow-swept Sherpa villages to mountain meadowlands to steaming jungles, it was a day of rejoicing and gaiety. Nowhere was the celebration more spectacular than in the city of Kathmandu. It was here, only 14 years before, that the late King Tribhuvana, supported by his 30-year-old son, Crown Prince Mahendra, triumphantly restored the Shah kings to the throne of Nepal, ending 104 years of imprisonment in their own palaces by a despotic hereditary regime of prime ministers.
December 20, 1965
So complete was Nepal's isolation from the outside world prior to 1951 that it was known for centuries as the forbidden country, a mysterious mountain kingdom sealed to all but the occasional visiting diplomat and rare mountain-climbing team. A British historian, writing before the overthrow of the Rana prime ministers, noted that in all Nepal's long history only 120 Englishmen and TO other Westerners had ever been permitted into the Valley of Kathmandu.
Now I found myself standing in the center of this valley watching a fantastic panorama. There were bearded Sikhs, Newars and Tharus, grotesquely masked monkey gods and prancing, paint-smeared animals, bespangled warriors girdled with the manes of lions and the skins of leopards, gaudy, beaded chariots and armored tanks, stiff Gurkha soldiers and gilded goddesses resplendent upon the naked shoulders of their tribesmen. The revelers came from all parts of the country and from all periods of time, passing before me in whirling confusion, a human kaleidoscope.
Yet over the din of ancient, improbable instruments and the exotic sights my attention kept returning to the unsmiling man who, in little more than a decade, had brought this secret land from the medieval past into the complex present. I knew that since assuming the throne in 1955 he had ordered major economic and agricultural reforms, built roads where there had been none, linked East with West and the Valley of Kathmandu with the world outside, constructed bridges, dams, rudimentary communications systems, hospitals, factories and power plants. I knew that he was determined to raise Nepal's pitiful 7% literacy level so that his people might better utilize the technology and equipment of the 20th century, that he had increased the number of schools from 430 to 5,000, including 28 colleges, and that his was an unceasing struggle against poverty, disease, ignorance and superstition.
And I knew, too, that of all the many problems created by Nepal's emergence from seclusion, none was so overwhelming as the politico-geographic challenge created by Communist China on one border and India on the other. In this precarious situation Nepal has chosen that difficult and delicate course, neutrality. Thus I had become fascinated with the King of Nepal and fascinated, too, to learn that he was a sportsman, and a hunter of considerable skill. Now I was standing and watching him, this remarkable ruler of a tiny mountain kingdom. I had entered his wonderland.
It had not been easy. There were many carefully worded letters before one came last winter bearing the raised, crimson royal seal. "By Command of His Majesty the King," it began, and that was the start of a considerable amount of royal instruction, including:
"His Majesty's programme for Big Game Hunting is scheduled sometime in the 3rd week of February. We have pleasure in inviting you to be here on the 17th February for about a fortnight so that you may also participate in our National Day celebration on the 18th before going to the big-game hunting camps."
If I doubted the fringe benefits of an invitation "By Command of His Majesty the King," I knew better even before reaching Nepal. I was due into New Delhi on a Pan American flight from Hong Kong at 4 a.m. on the 17th, to connect at 7:30 a.m. the same morning with the twice-weekly Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu. Three and a half hours should have been ample time to make the connection, but I had been warned that the ways of Indian customs were such that it was barely time at all. Furthermore, I was carrying a rifle, which was certain to cause all kinds of delay. To further complicate things, the RNAC flight left from a different airport, necessitating not only a drive to the opposite end of the city but transfer of my rifle under bond.
"You'll be in Delhi at least a week," one optimistic friend had advised.
To make certain that I was not, I inundated the New York, Hong Kong and New Delhi offices of Pan American with cables requesting assistance. The messages got there in time, but my plane did not. We were delayed two and a half hours in Hong Kong and another hour detouring around Vietnam. It was exactly 7:35 a.m. when we landed. The next flight to Kathmandu was three days later. I was off the plane almost before the stairs were in place, and halfway across the runway before Indian customs caught up with me.
"Halt, madam!" a small dark man puffed. "You must go with the line!"
"I must find Pan American," I puffed back. "I have to make the 7:30 flight to Kathmandu."
"Impossible, madam. It is too late. Besides, you must go with the line."
"It is never too late," I shouted, outdistancing him. Men in uniforms ran toward me. They were very excited. One of them blew on a whistle. I shouted, "Pan American! Kathmandu! Pan American!" Finally I reached what looked like a cargo shed and bolted through the door. I crashed head-on into a great, fat man in a caracul cap, an Indian Sydney Greenstreet.
"Permit me, madam," he said, helping me to my feet and extending his card. "I am Nathan of Pan American. You are the guest of His Majesty?" Frantically I explained that I would not be for long if I did not get to Kathmandu that day. "Follow me," he said, brushing aside my pursuers. We raced down one corridor and along another, Nathan shouting orders. Suddenly, customs men were slapping at my bags with their chalk. "Hurry!" Nathan shouted. "Run!"
"I'm missing a big green package," I called, "my gift for His Majesty."
"Big green package," Nathan screamed into the air, snapping his fingers. A grimy young porter emerged from the crowd with the package.
"Hurry!" Nathan said again, pushing me toward an ancient station wagon parked in the street outside. We pulled away just as three men in uniforms burst from the building, yelling unintelligibly.
"Your passport! Quick!" Nathan said, slamming on the brakes. My rifle case lurched forward, hitting me in the head.
"Immigration," he explained, as the officers scribbled in my passport.
"Extraordinary," I said.
Nathan drove with a foot on the gas and a hand on the horn, recklessly weaving in and out of bicycles, trucks, people, cows and cars. At one point an overturned Mercedes bus loomed directly in our path, surrounded by a crowd of curious spectators. Without slowing, Nathan swung the car off the road, over a ditch, through a field and back on the road.
Incredibly, we made the airport by 8:15. The plane to Nepal was still there. A contingent of Nepalese officials snapped to attention as we arrived. They greeted me effusively, escorting me aboard with much bowing. His Majesty had bid me come, and Nathan had delivered.
The flight to Kathmandu took three and a half hours, the first half of it over the monotonous gray-brown plains of northern India. Finally the ancient DC-3 began to climb, creaking and shuddering as a wall of mountains rose forbiddingly. Their barren slopes were as dull and colorless in the morning light as the plains we had just passed. Then the plane crested the topmost ridge. There, spread spectacularly before us between towering walls of snow, lay the glorious, green Valley of Kathmandu. It is an outrageous cliché to describe it as Shangri-La, but that is the first impression, and I defy you to have a different one. You are caught in the grip of unreality, and you do not escape until once again you fly over these mountains, this time bound for home.
When I stepped from the plane I entered into a world pervaded by an atmosphere of enchantment. There were the meticulously terraced fields and frothy gardens, the hundreds of temples with ornate, erotic carvings, the emaciated cows that roam the streets, doomed to a natural, lingering death because, like the monkeys, they are sacred, and the gilded statues and gold-roofed pagodas.
The diminutiveness of the Nepalese people enhanced the chimerical quality of the atmosphere. At 5 feet 4 inches I felt like a giant. Nor could I accurately judge age. Invariably a little girl who looked 5 was 15, and the one who looked 15 turned out to be her grandmother.
I was driven from the airport to Sital Niwas, the royal guesthouse where I would stay while in the city of Kathmandu. Sital Niwas was enormous. Three stories high, it was built of pink stone and had marble columns, balconies, terraces and turrets. Inside there must have been 200 rooms. I was led up a great, curving staircase to a landing decorated with elegant Persian carpeting and crystal chandeliers, then past dozens of closed, carved doors. We continued down a long hall hung with portraits of princes, prime ministers and matriarchs, and at last came to a huge doorway, across which hung a tapestry. Alongside it a small white card set in a gold frame bore my name.
Outside the door a collection of tiny men in identical Nepalese dress stood by expectantly as Mr. Rimal, His Majesty's Director of Hospitality, showed me my room. It was about 40 by 20 feet with a bath at least half that size. The ceilings were high and ornately carved. French windows opened onto a balcony above a courtyard brilliant with pink and orange blossoms. In one corner of the room there was a canopied bed; in another, a brocaded couch, armchairs and several small tables set with fresh flowers. The building was not heated, but a portable electric unit was already attacking the chill. The equerries bustled about patting pillows, distributing seven pieces of luggage, opening and closing shutters and generally getting in each other's way.
"They are at your command, madam," Mr. Rimal said, and indeed they were. Whenever I stirred, no matter the time of day or night, one or another of the faithful was there.
"Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England and the Duke of Edinburgh stayed there," said Mr. Rimal, pointing to a row of windows directly opposite mine across the courtyard. "But now you must have lunch."
We traveled down the hall for another block or two, then turned into what I assumed was the dining room for the entire guesthouse. It proved to be merely the dining room for my suite. It was about twice the length of my bedroom. Down the center was a table that could scat 100. There was a single place set at one end. I was evidently eating alone. A column of little men appeared from behind a tapestry screen. They marched in step down the length of the table, each holding a covered china tureen at shoulder height. I expected four-and-twenty blackbirds to fly into the air. Instead there were several meats, four vegetable dishes, a variety of raw greens, two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of rice. I accepted a little of each to offend no one. Calories were obviously not going to count. The troops were expressionless as they served the dishes. I waited until the last disappeared behind the tapestry, then contemplated the forks. I shut my eyes and chose one, clumsily knocking another to the floor. The sound reverberated. One of the waiters popped from behind the tapestry and vanished again, doubtless to report my disgrace. Systematically, I worked through forks and feed. Every bite echoed. The instant I finished, my army returned. It brought fresh china and cutlery, and the second course. I was learning about Nepal hospitality.
Beginning with the National Day parade on the afternoon following my arrival, the next few days were filled with receptions, cultural shows, banquets, official presentations and formal and informal festivities. Each necessitated a different outfit and a scramble back to Sital Niwas to effect the change. Rarely did the day's "programme" allow time for such intermissions. Things were further complicated by the heavy-traffic through my room. The custom at the guesthouse when anyone wanted to deliver a message, pay a visit or make a bed was simply to rap once and walk right in. Since I was unable to lock the door on the inside—although one of my men loyally sealed it on the outside with a giant padlock whenever I went out—I found myself diving for cover fairly regularly.
A member of His Majesty's Foreign Service was assigned as my official escort in Kathmandu. His name was Mr. Gaywaly, and he insisted on calling me "madam, my most precious charge," which suggests that he had chosen the right profession. Besides being good for my ego, Mr. Gaywaly proved invaluable at unraveling the names, titles and relationships of the countless ministers and dignitaries I met.
His Majesty the King was present at many of the week's festivities, but he remained the one man I did not meet, since this was to be accomplished at a formal presentation. My audience with the King was the subject of considerable advance concern. Half a dozen palace officials stopped by to confirm the time, the date, the place—and then reconfirm everything at least twice more. On the appointed day I succeeded in dressing only by barricading myself in the bathroom. I emerged to find Mr. Gaywaly, three palace directors, my driver, a standby driver in case something happened to the first driver, two soldiers and most of the servants pacing around my room. They made no effort to mask their inspection of what I was wearing. Evidently the black Italian-silk suit with pearls, mink stole and tiny veil were suitable. We left, in force, for the palace. I was Dorothy about to meet the Wizard.
The royal family lives, not in the 1,500-room Singha Durbar, once the palace of the Rana prime ministers and at that time the largest private dwelling in the world, but in a smaller palace located midway between Sital Niwas and Durbar Square in the center of Kathmandu. It is small only in relation to Singha Durbar. Imposing stone walls surround the palace and its various substructures. Semitropical gardens line either side of a long, curving drive to the main residence. I was shown into a royal waiting room where several more palace directors checked their watches. They, like Mr. Gaywaly, were in formal dress. This differs from regular Nepalese attire only in that the usual jodhpurs and tunic are white and the jacket and topi are black.
The audience was scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. and last for half an hour. We had at least 15 minutes still to wait. His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary, Mr. Bhandary, directed me to a chair. The others sat down stiffly, staring straight ahead. Nobody spoke.
"The audience is at 7:30?" I ventured.
"At 7:30," the secretary said. Everybody again checked watches.
"I have a gift for His Majesty," I said.
The secretary looked suspiciously at the large mahogany box I held on my lap. Silence.
"It is a shell box," I said, rather frantically.
"A shell box," the secretary said. Everybody nodded.
"For ammunition," I added, weakly.
It was my turn to look at my watch. Everybody looked at watches. Ten minutes to go. It had started to rain, and I counted the drops splashing on the marble walk outside. Mr. Gaywaly did not seem well. He appeared to have gotten smaller, and he was very pale. I tried to remember if I had brought along a handkerchief. I found that I had. Without warning, the Principal Private Secretary stood up. I shifted the box and stood up too. My white kid gloves, which I had put on and taken off a dozen times, fell to the floor. The men looked at them with strange, blank expressions, as if they were alive. Nobody moved. I reached down to retrieve them myself just as four men did the same. Our heads came together at knee level. Everybody apologized at once. Mr. Bhandary watched, saying nothing. Finally he nodded.
"Now?" I said. He nodded again.
Clutching the big box, I walked ahead of him down a marble hall to a pair of large double doors. He nodded toward the doors. I was on my own. It was exactly 7:30.
I stepped inside and stood uncertainly in a long. rectangular room. In the dim light, the deep carpeting and heavy furniture had a wine-red glow. Lion and tiger heads glared from darkened corners. The antlers of spotted and sambar deer cast intricate shadows on the carved ceiling. Partway up a tapestried wall, a leopard crouched on a projecting rock, its body tensed as if to spring. In the middle of the room, seated alone on a crimson couch, was His Majesty the King of Nepal.
He rose and stepped toward me, his hand outstretched. Awkwardly I shifted the big box and fumbled to remove the accursed gloves. His Majesty waited. There was a hint of humor in his usually serious, dark eyes. Finally we shook hands and he directed me to an armchair. He smiled warmly. The tension of the preceding minutes vanished. From that moment on I was thoroughly at case with the King of Nepal.
The conversation skipped swiftly about, ranging across politics, art, music and medicine, the challenges of today and the hopes for tomorrow. But it always returned to hunting, the sport that is surely His Majesty's favorite. He was delighted with the shell box, fingering its mahogany grain with appreciation and meticulously inspecting it inside and out. Eventually we were joined by Her Majesty the Queen, who arrived so silently I did not hear her enter the room. She looked fragile and lovely in a filmy beige sari accented by an elegantly brocaded stole. Her shining black hair was drawn into a chignon. On her forehead she wore the small vermilion symbol of Hindu devotion. The Queen was accompanied by His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Birendra, a handsome 20-year-old just returned from Eton. In contrast to the King's tan jodhpurs and tunic, the Prince wore continental flannels and a sports jacket.
We talked at length of Africa and of Alaska, where His Majesty wants very much to hunt brown bear, of other hunting and other game, of children, of Siamese cats, of the relative merits of stallions and geldings and even of smoking and cancer. The Crown Prince, who does not smoke, said that the royal physician considered smoking of no danger to the Nepalese because there had been only two cases of any type of cancer in the entire country. The King interrupted to say that the doctor smoked at least 100 cigarettes a day, which might warp his professional judgment.
Finally, we talked of the upcoming shikar, the hunt.
"You will see much game," the King said.
"Leopards, Your Majesty?" I asked.
"Some, perhaps, but they are rare. That one," the King said, looking at the handsome spotted cat above us, "was shot by Her Majesty, here in the Valley of Kathmandu. The leopard would come out of the forest to cat the small deer. Her Majesty waited many evenings for it near the place where it fed. She was very patient. When finally it came again to that place, she took it with a single shot." He smiled fondly at the Queen.
"We shall travel far from the Valley of Kathmandu," the King added. "We go to the home of the tiger, to the Terai, where the big cats live. There you will see many tigers. They grow large and strong, and they are seldom hunted."
With that His Majesty leaned forward and touched a button on the coffee table before him. His Principal Private Secretary leaped through the door, bowed to the floor and presented the King with two parchment envelopes. Then, still bowing low, he backed from the room.
The King handed the envelopes to me. My name was written in script beneath the royal seal. "The program for the shikar," His Majesty said. "You will leave for the big-game camps on the day following tomorrow." The royal astrologers had finally set the date for the shoot to begin.
It was 9 p.m. when we shook hands all around and, in the manner of Mr. Bhandary, I backed from the room, praying that I would not trip en route. I stumbled through the door into the arms of my troops. They had undergone a drastic change of mood. No longer somber, they completely surrounded me, grinning, nodding and pumping my hand. Mr. Gaywaly looked happiest of all.
"Madam, I am so proud," he said. "Your audience was scheduled for one-half hour, a gracious period. But you were with His Majesty the King for one hour and a half. It is a triumph for your country and for mine."
Mr. Gaywaly's enthusiasm extended all the way to Sital Niwas, where the staff turned out in force to welcome me. I had asked for a light supper in my room and found chicken, pork, venison, a curry, several vegetables, two cheeses and a variety of fresh fruit awaiting me. The director of protocol insisted I celebrate with a small drink, and I agreed to a brandy. Instantly, a little man appeared with an unopened bottle of Hennessy on a silver tray.
When my fans finally left and the feast had been sampled, I sat back on the brocaded couch to sip the brandy and think over the remarkable meeting with the royal family. I wondered again if this were all really happening. Surely it must be a dream. It turned out to be only a prelude to the fantasia ahead.
There were great crowds of soldiers, dignitaries, ministers, spectators and musicians at the airport two days later when I boarded the King's private plane for the flight to the big-game camp. Their Majesties had left Kathmandu the previous day to attend a state function, but His Royal Highness the Crown Prince was to be on the flight, along with one of His Majesty's two younger brothers, Prince Himalaya, the Prince's wife, Princess Princep, and Ambassador and Mrs. Wilhelm L√∂er of West Germany.
RF1 (for Royal Flight 1) was a twin-engined Ilyushin, a gift of the Russian government to His Majesty. Inside, it was divided into a forward and after cabin, each lavishly carpeted in Persian rugs and furnished with couches and armchairs decorated in blue and gold. I was shown to a couch in the front cabin where, the Crown Prince said, I would have the best view of the mountains. A steward passed candy, gum, cloves and pieces of dried ginger. Another served cold beer.
It was a perfect morning. The sky was clear and blue. On our right the spectacular Annapurnas stretched to the Tibetan border in a burst of sparkling spires. Beneath us the valley lay lush with foliage. Presently we climbed above the rim of snowcapped mountains and began a long, slow descent into the area called the Terai. This is the lowland of Nepal, a fertile, tropical plain barely 500 feet above sea level that begins in the foothills of the Siwalik and Churia ranges of the Himalayas and runs to the border of India, thus extending along the southern portion of Nepal for almost its entire 500-mile length. Here, within sight of the snow, are steaming jungles, dense forests and endless stands of tall grass.
In July and August, when the monsoon turns the Terai into a gigantic breeding ground for the anopheles mosquito, malaria stalks the region like a man-eater. But in the spring, before the rivers overflow their banks and the wild game is scattered by the floods, the Terai is one of the richest hunting grounds left in the world.
Great herds of handsome spotted chitals graze in its fields. Barking deer and hog deer tiptoe through scrub jungle. Heavy-antlered barasingha stags feed in the swamps and wild buffalo snort in the marsh. The great Indian one-horned rhinoceros survives here, protected now after centuries of slaughter for the mysterious medicinal properties attributed to its horn of agglutinated hair. The sound of wild elephants trumpeting is still heard in the forests. Along the edges of small villages, leopards prowl the shadows, and when darkness comes the tiger hunts the Terai.
We landed on a dirt strip at Dhangarhi in the southwest of this country and transferred to a helicopter for the final 20-minute flight to camp. Our baggage, which had followed us from Kathmandu on RF2, a DC-3, was transferred to a second helicopter waiting nearby. Like RF1, the helicopters were gifts of the Russian government. For the latter the U.S.S.R. had provided Russian crews as well.
We flew low over the treetops, spooking an occasional cow as our rotors stirred the long grass. Suddenly a clearing appeared on the horizon. In it were dozens of white squares that looked like sugar cubes scattered on a picnic mat. As we drew closer I could see that they were tents—easily more than 100—spread over several acres of manicured land. The helicopter set down inside a square marked off by ropes. Hundreds of dark-skinned Tharu natives, their ears, noses, necks and costumes adangle with silver coins, pushed against the ropes. They offered what looked like tiny orange orchids to the Crown Prince as he passed. A double column of soldiers presented arms as we walked along a pathway lined with painted bricks, bright flowers and hundreds of red, yellow and blue flags. At the high canvas walls of the largest of several compounds, twin sentries snapped to attention, stamping their feet in intricate steps as we entered. Inside, in an airy summerhouse of rattan and bamboo set at one end of a spacious green lawn, the King and Queen rose to welcome us. The King, no longer in Nepalese dress, was wearing flannel slacks and a sport shirt open at the throat. His head was bare. In this setting he looked more relaxed and much younger than I had remembered him in Kathmandu. His greeting was warm as he shook my hand. "I have a tiger waiting for you," he said. "But first we shall have lunch. It would be better if you changed for the hunt now so that we may leave immediately after we dine. The tiger grows impatient if it is made to wait too long."
A chubby young officer, who turned out to be Colonel Rana, the Queen's brother, escorted me to a neighboring walled compound. It, too, was guarded by sentries. We entered and crossed a broad lawn to a large square tent. Fresh clusters of spring flowers were planted at each tent stake. A carpeted, canopied porch at the front of the tent held a table and two chairs. Two Nepalese boys in white uniforms and scarlet sashes lifted the mosquito netting at the door. The inside was very untentlike. It was about 20 feet square. The floors were spread wall to wall with several thicknesses of Persian rugs. There were fresh flowers, cigarettes, another unopened bottle of Hennessy, a silver thermos of ice water and a large bowl of fruit on a coffee table between lounge chairs. A full-size bed was buried in blankets, and at its head there was a second table equipped with an adjustable reading light. The hum of a generator indicated that candles were strictly for atmosphere. Connected to this sleeping tent by a rear door was an adjoining one about halt the size. This too was deeply carpeted. On one side were racks for my clothing and suitcases, on the other a vanity table complete with large mirror and makeup lights. Behind the dressing tent, across a grassy backyard, there were two more tents. The first contained a large galvanized tub, a washstand, canvas flooring, a filtered water tank, racks and racks of towels, soaps, more mirrors and buckets of hot water, which seemed always full and steaming. The other tent was definitely in the royal tradition. It contained a silver bucket discreetly concealed in a massive mahogany throne.
Lunch was served in Their Majesties' private dining tent by a dozen men in black jackets and white gloves. There were many courses, beginning with a chilled chicken madril√®ne and a delicate native fish. Except for the occasional clink of silver against china, nobody made a sound. "Why is everyone so quiet?" His Majesty asked, looking at the ambassador and me. "This is not a diplomatic function, and we are not now in Kathmandu. This is a hunting party. Let us relax and enjoy the sport." The remainder of the lunch passed swiftly as we speculated on the afternoon's shoot. There had been three baits set out the night before, and all had been taken. There was certain to be a tiger resting nearby after his free meal, His Majesty said. The elephants we would ride during the hunt were already in the vicinity. It would take two hours to reach them by jeep, but we could be there in 10 minutes by helicopter.
It was 3 in the afternoon when we boarded the helicopter. The entire hunting party was wearing African bush outfits and broad-brimmed felt hats, including the Queen, whose hair hung loose on her shoulders. She looked very young and pretty. They all wore large, dark sunglasses and rarely took them off. I put on my own.
The helicopter set us down in a clearing where a column of Land Rovers and closed trucks waited. What seemed like a battalion of soldiers stood at attention. Small clusters of natives, many holding babies, waited for a glimpse of the King and Queen, undaunted by sheets of dust blown at them by the rotors.
For most, it was their first sight of Nepal's rulers or of anyone from the world outside. Prior to the shikar, this part of the Terai, like main other areas in Nepal, had been accessible from Kathmandu only by foot over treacherous terrain. To open it for our arrival, more than 1,100 natives had spent two months clearing jungle and forest, burning brush and hacking out trails and landing strips. The natives watched, fascinated, as His Majesty got into the front seat of the lead jeep, followed by his constant attendant, General Molla. Prince Himalaya and Ambassador L√∂er sat in back. Her Majesty climbed into the second jeep and motioned me to sit beside her. Mrs. L√∂er and the wife of the commander in chief of the Nepalese army, an attractive Kashmiri named Rani who wore a diamond in her left nostril, sat in back. Princess Princep, who looked about the size of my tent in her bush suit, hoisted her girth with remarkable grace into the seat I shared with the Queen.
The princess, doing credit to the old wives' tale, was as jolly as she was fat. When I expressed some concern about riding the elephants, she urged me not to worry. "When you see me on top of an elephant," she said, "you will know that anyone can ride such an animal." The princess was probably in her early 30s, a few years younger than the Queen. They were closer friends than just sisters-in-law, forever exchanging both confidences and candies. Unlike the princess, the Queen seemed impervious to the calories. On the long drives back to camp after a day's shoot, the two would giggle, joke and gossip, and sometimes sing in sweet, soft voices.
There were at least two dozen jeeps in our caravan. We bounced along a rough trail in single file, slowed first by children, cattle and assorted livestock that ran alongside and in front of us, then by an apparent breakdown in strategic shikari liaison. We could not locate the elephants. Half the Nepalese army scanned the horizon futilely for some sign of the beasts that were to transport us to the tiger. There was considerable discussion among the ranking officers. Generals blamed colonels. Colonels blamed lieutenants. Lieutenants blamed privates. Everybody seemed embarrassed. The Queen and the princess produced sweets and nuts to help us through the delay. A steward appeared with a thermos of coffee. His Majesty got out and stood on the running board of his jeep, searching the distant fields. The Crown Prince, who was riding with us, studied a rough map he had of the area, checked the sun against his watch and decided the elephants must be directly to our right. Everybody looked in that direction until finally we made out a faint cloud of dust. With much backing up and turning around, the caravan cut across the fields, through the woods and out into another clearing. There, in a confusion of great gray legs and trunks that crowded the clearing like trees in a forest, were six dozen milling, shuffling, swaying elephants.
The Indian elephant may be smaller than the African, but when viewed from the ground the difference is negligible. They all look gigantic to me. I backed away from one and bumped into another. There were elephants everywhere. It was all very disconcerting. Some were getting down on their knees. Others were in the process of standing up again. Trunks waved in every direction, and the noise they made was hardly reassuring. Drivers in gold turbans rappelled up and down tails and balanced dizzily on rumps. Others perched behind the elephants' ears, brandishing what appeared to be grappling hooks attached to broomsticks.
To my astonishment, most of the elephants were wearing saddles, a fact as unsettling as the animals' size. I had expected to ride in one of those secure-looking little boxes and crossed my fingers that the elephant I saw with a howdah strapped to its back was for me. Taking no chances, I sidled among the legs over to where a mahout was holding a stepladder against the elephant's side. Rani and Mrs. L√∂er got there first. They were already halfway up to the howdah when I heard His Majesty call.
"Miss Virginia," he said. "Your elephant is over here."
I had been afraid of that.
The beast that was to be mine dropped ponderously to its side and shoved a rear leg at me. The gesture looked decidedly unfriendly. I tested the wrinkled shin with one foot. The elephant did not seem to mind. With definite misgivings, I scaled the huge, flabby hip and climbed gingerly into the saddle. There were no stirrups. The scat resembled a broad leather cushion, very smooth and slippery. The instant I touched it, the elephant got up. It was a two-part operation. First it straightened its front legs so that it was more or less sitting upright on its haunches. I immediately slid backwards and almost off the saddle. As I struggled to regain my balance and still hang on to my gear, the creature straightened its hind legs and brought its rump up with a bump. I was thrust abruptly forward, this time almost taking the mahout with me. He cracked the elephant on the head with his grappling hook and the beast lurched to one side. I slid halfway off the other, grabbing desperately for the saddle. I decided to let one of the multitudes carry my rifle until we reached our destination.
By this time everybody was astride. The King had bounded onto the back of his elephant like a sprinter and was sitting cross-legged on a blue cushion, his rifle across his knees. The Queen looked regal on her mount and even Princess Princep, munching a piece of peanut brittle, appeared perfectly at ease. Only Ambassador L√∂er, who was also green in the saddle, seemed as unnerved as I. We exchanged uneasy grins. When the elephants started to move, all four legs seemed to operate independently, so that the several parts between swayed sideways and forward and up and down all at the same time. My legs stuck out in the air as if I were doing a split, and the saddle was much too wide to provide any kind of purchase. When the elephant picked up speed it was like trying to keep balanced on a slick deck while running an inlet in a storm.
Prince Himalaya rumbled up alongside to tell me that my elephant's name was Narancolia. "She is one of our best elephants," he said. "Very steady. You will never have to worry when the tiger is near that she will run away with you or go wild like some of the others."
My immediate worries had not gotten that far, but it was nice to know that I was riding a gentle beast. "One caution, though," the prince added. "Do not fall off. Even the steadiest elephant reacts instinctively when something drops from its back to the ground. It thinks it has been attacked and will instantly lash back with its trunk to crush the attacker." How nice.
We were now in open country. Two shikaris rode ahead of the procession to guide us to the tiger. My elephant was third. Directly behind me was the King. The elephants moved single file through the tall yellow grass, strung out in an enormous chain like a giant circus parade. They were decorated with red and blue and yellow paint, and each carried, in addition to its passenger, two mahouts in brilliant turbans. One rode at the elephant's head, his toes behind its ears to direct it. The other stood on the elephant's back, controlling its speed by digging his toes into the animal's flank. In my efforts to get a leg-hold on the slippery saddle, I apparently uncovered some additional sensitive spots. Periodically the elephant lurched ahead without warning.
We crossed a narrow river, the water up to the elephant's knees, and lumbered up onto the opposite bank. I turned to watch the others, spellbound by the spectacle. Elephants were strung along the horizon. The afternoon sun had turned the grass to gold, and in the distance the snow-covered peaks stood against the sky. "It is not a sight that will be seen often again," His Majesty said, stopping beside me. "Everything changes. The princes of India once had such herds, but now the princes are no more and their herds have long been scattered. This is the last great elephant herd, and it, too, grows smaller each year. At the end of the century, when the princes and kings of England came on shikar here, the royal elephants numbered several hundred. There are less than 80 today. "We do not find replacements in the forests now as we did long ago. Even the forests are less."
"And the tigers?" I asked.
"They are still plentiful," the King said. "Especially in the west of Nepal. Here food for them is so abundant that there is rarely a man-eater. Even an old, weak tiger can find something to cat besides people in this part of the Terai. Only man is their enemy and he seldom hunts them, so the tigers here grow old and fat. You will see."
We came at last to the place where the tiger was believed to be resting. It had eaten well and doubtless slept somewhere nearby. The shikaris had strung a long white sheet about four feet high around the entire area in which the tiger might be, forming a circle almost a mile across. A few elephants already stood just outside the circle. The elephants in our caravan joined them, fanning out so that they completely ringed the cloth circle. The tall grass at one end of the circle had been trampled down in patches. Outside it, three very large elephants stood together. Each had a high wicker howdah on its back.
"They are the shooting elephants," His Majesty said. "They are much taller than the others, to permit a better view into the high grass. They provide good shooting platforms, but they are not good to ride. They do not move quickly and smoothly like the smaller animals."
The King's transportation elephant stopped alongside the largest of the three shooting elephants. He deftly transferred from one to the other, swinging nimbly over the side of the much higher howdah. He moved with the graceful coordination of an athlete. His Majesty then turned and nodded at me. I looked at him blankly. "It is all right," General Molla said. "His Majesty wishes you to shoot with him. Just stand up on your saddle and step over."
His Majesty reached down and helped me into the forward part of the howdah. General Molla climbed into the back. It was a three-seater. The front was about rib height, dropping away at the sides and back to just below the waist. It was partitioned to form a small single bench in back and a wider, double bench in front. There was just enough room for two not very large people to stand or sit shoulder to shoulder. The interior was leather-padded and fitted with holders for shells, glasses, rifles and other hunting equipment. His Majesty's mahouts, both on this and on the smaller elephant, were the only ones who wore special turbans and sashes. The Queen and the three other women transferred to the second howdah. The two princes and the ambassador climbed into the third. We all faced the cleared end of the circle, about a dozen feet apart.
There were five medium size elephants inside the circle. They were the attack, or ring, elephants, the bravest bulls of the herd. Their job was to quarter the grass like a team of spaniels, flushing the tiger toward us. They began at the far side of the circle, working systematically forward, trunks swinging from side to side as they moved.
"Your rifle is loaded?" His Majesty asked.
"The magazine, not the chamber," I replied.
"The chamber is better," the King said. "The tiger will come very fast."
"Do they know there is a tiger in the circle?"
"They know it is very likely. The tiger does not usually travel far after a big meal. They could see the direction of its tracks, and they made the circle wide enough to include all the places where it might have stopped to sleep."
"Wouldn't the shikaris scare off the tiger when they put up the ring?"
"They were on elephants," His Majesty explained. "The tiger is accustomed to elephants. When it is full and drowsy and lazy it pays no attention to other creatures that live in the jungle."
Just then one of the attack elephants thrust its trunk forward. The ends of it quivered like fingers moving inside a mitten. The others stopped to test the air. The riders urged them forward. There was a roar. The elephants trumpeted and scurried back, colliding with each other.
"The tiger is there," His Majesty said.
The elephants moved forward again, more cautiously now. Again they trumpeted and jumped back, scattering. Two galloped off to the right, another to the left. The drivers hit them on the head with sticks and what appeared to be metal axes. They shouted encouragement and epithets. It was impossible to see the tiger in the tall grass, but every few minutes an elephant would bellow and charge off, indicating that it had come close to the tiger or vice versa.
Finally I got a glimpse of it. It stopped for a moment at the edge of the clearing, not more than 50 yards away. It was barely visible in the high grass. I could just see its faint outline, turned broadside as if it were looking in our direction. The King did not move, so I did not. Then the tiger was gone.
"Did you see it?" His Majesty asked.
I nodded and asked why he had not fired He said he wanted to see if it were male or female, large or small.
"It is a very large male," he added. "Please shoot when you see it again."
At that instant the tiger burst into the clearing to our right, did a somersault at the ring and vanished back into the high grass. Men up and down the line shouted and banged on pieces of metal and wood. It happened so fast that all I saw was a streak of orange moving at such speed that it was gone before the impression fully registered.
"You see, the tiger is very fist." His Majesty seemed amused by my amazement. "Sometimes it jumps the ring and is gone. The cloth cannot hold the tiger if it wishes to escape. It can only surprise it into turning, as this fellow did. But even with the cloth there is seldom time for more than a snap shot. It is not so simple as one might think to shoot a tiger."
The ring elephants continued to quarter the circle, growing more disorganized each time they encountered the tiger. They were totally scattered now, bellowing and trumpeting first from one side of the ring and then the other. The riders matched the animals' noise, their shouts answered by the men on the outer circle of elephants. Natives were arriving from all over to watch. They filled the nearby branches like ornaments on a Christmas tree. An attendant on a half-grown elephant moved among the howdahs passing candy and soft drinks.
More than an hour passed before we again saw the tiger. Then as before, an orange streak flashed briefly through the grass. His Majesty leaned forward, as if not certain of what he had seen.
"Tigress," he said.
This explained the confusion of the elephants in the ring. They had put up not one, but two tigers. They were chasing first one, then the other, and sometimes both at once.
Suddenly the King pointed ahead and to his right. "It is there," he whispered. "Do you see it?"
I could see nothing but grass.
"There," he said again. The sun was on the horizon, and the light was failing fast. If there was a tiger, it was invisible to me.
"Please do not wait, Your Majesty," I said. "I cannot see the tiger."
His Majesty raised his rifle and fired. There was a snarl, then an angry hiss. A channel of grass quivered and was still.
The ring elephants moved in toward the spot, flattening the grass before them with their trunks. Something orange hurtled through the air at the lead bull. The elephant screamed and spun on its hind legs, remarkably agile for its size. The other elephants backed off, then began moving in again. They stopped abruptly, trunks extended. One of the men pointed into the grass. The commander in chief borrowed the King's rifle and moved in slowly ahead of the other elephants. Then, leaning out to one side, he fired. We heard the dull thwack as the coup de gr√¢ce struck home.
I congratulated the King on his shot. Even in good light it would have been a difficult one. He was disappointed that I had not seen the tiger, because he had wanted me to shoot the first one. "I myself could see only a tiny white patch of its face," he explained. "It was not a good target. Tomorrow we shall find you a better one."
It was almost dark when we reached the jeeps. Stewards had set up a table of sandwiches, cold meats, fruits, sweets and a variety of drinks. We stood in a circle around the food, talking of the afternoon's adventure. The trappings were new, but the mood was familiar. It might have been the end of a hunt in Montana or Georgia or Michigan, except for the distant shapes of elephants silhouetted against the evening sky and the sound of native drums from a far hill.
We returned to camp by jeep. The night was filled with stars and jungle noises. It was surprisingly cool after the 85° heat at midday. Temperatures in the Terai drop as much as 40° when the sun goes down. In spite of having the army with us, we got lost twice on the way back. The Crown Prince seemed to be the only one who knew the way, although he was less familiar with the area than many of the soldiers. He was also the best mechanic in the crowd. When a jeep refused to start, it was His Royal Highness Prince Birendra who rolled up his sleeves, stuck his head under the hood and got the engine going again.
The air was festive when we arrived at camp. Hundreds o¬£ natives waited outside the compound to see the tiger and congratulate His Majesty. Although man-eaters are rare here, the natives fear and hate the big cat for the damage it does to their livestock. Long into the night we could hear the sound of their drums celebrating the tiger's demise.
A large bonfire burned inside the compound, and near it the King's tiger lay propped on golden paws. In the fire's glow the big cat looked twice the size it had in the jungle. It weighed over 600 pounds and measured 10 feet 4 inches from nose to tail. "There are still larger ones in the Terai," His Majesty said. "Perhaps tonight an even bigger tiger will come to the bait. That one will be yours." I could not imagine a bigger tiger than His Majesty's and hoped I would not meet one, not caring to top the King. Fortunately, this first tiger of the shikar remained the largest one taken on the shoot.
A tiger did come to the bait that night, as the King predicted. In the morning the natives brought us word of where it slept. Again the shikaris made the long journey to the place where they hoped the tiger rested. Again they strung the ring of white cloth into a mile-wide circle. Again I climbed into His Majesty's howdah and loaded my rifle. I had the feeling that this had all happened before. I wondered if the tigers, too, were following a "programme." I did not wonder long.
This tiger did not wait for us to get ready or for the attack elephants to flush it. Infuriated by the interruption of its nap, the cat recklessly charged first one, then another bull, raking at their flanks with great, sharp claws. Rivulets of blood ran down the thick gray hides.
The elephants whirled in circles, screaming and trumpeting their anger and confusion. Like punch-drunk prizefighters, they lurched uncertainly from side to side. They did not seem to know whether to charge or flee.
The tiger was in one place and then another, moving with unbelievable speed. A tuft of grass swayed on the left. A bush quivered on the right. A roar rolled from the far side of the circle, then from the brush in front of us. The tiger seemed to be everywhere. It exploded from the grass, sinking its teeth into the tender trunk of an elephant. The animal bellowed in pain, swinging its head frantically to shake the tiger loose. A big bull rushed in to help. The tiger leaped at the trunk of this one, unmindful of its size. The bull caught the tiger on its tusks and flipped it high in the air. The men outside the ring cheered.
My arms ached from holding the rifle ready. My eyes burned from staring into the high grass. I dared not take them from the ring for an instant. At any moment the tiger might cross into the low grass it had scrupulously avoided. In the frenzied two-hour contest, there had been no chance at a shot. The only glimpses I had of the tiger were in the brief seconds when it threw itself at an elephant. The risk of shooting then was too great.
The elephants stopped finally at the far side of the ring. They were visibly weary. Somewhere in the yellow grass the tiger watched, waiting. The action had come to a standstill. His Majesty signaled for his riding elephant. "I shall ride around the circle," he said. "Perhaps the tiger can be driven to this side. Shoot if you see it."
He moved off, trailed by several soldiers on elephants. The grass was as high as their heads. There was no sign of the tiger. Presently His Majesty came back. He conferred in Nepalese with General Molla, who had remained in the howdah. Then His Majesty turned to me. "The tiger is there, but the elephants have not the heart to drive it further," he said. "If you wish, you may ride on your shooting elephant into the ring after it. General Molla will go with you. It will be difficult, but the tiger is a good one." I said I wished to try it.
The big elephant flattened the cloth barrier with its trunk and stepped into the circle. Behind us, other elephants deftly put the cloth into place again. We crossed toward the ring elephants. They watched our approach curiously.
The top-heavy howdah swayed from side to side. With each erratic step it bucked and rolled ominously. I braced my feet against the bench and hung onto the sides. The commander in chief motioned us past the ring elephants. Suddenly my elephant stopped short and threw up its trunk. It took a step backward.
"The tiger is right there," the commander whispered. I could not see it. I stared into the grass, conscious of an intense silence. Then the tableau erupted. "Down!" the general shouted as our elephant spun around. My hip struck the side of the howdah and I was thrown to my knees. All the elephants screamed. The noise was deafening, then there was quiet, and again the elephants moved in toward the tiger. Reluctantly mine followed. It seemed wary and nervous, halting, then going forward in jerky steps. I tried to hold the rifle and keep my balance at the same time. The tension was tremendous, and the elephants seemed to sense it as they advanced in a narrowing circle. The tiger might jump from the grass at any moment.
"There," the general whispered. I saw it at the same instant. It was a patch of ochre no larger than a grapefruit. At first I thought it was my imagination, it blended so perfectly into the yellow grass.
"Shoot," the general hissed. "It is ready to spring."
I had no idea what target the tiger offered. I raised my rifle and sighted. The elephant shifted uneasily beneath my feet. The rifle swayed, and I wondered if the recoil would knock me out of the howdah. I steadied the rifle.
If there was recoil, I never felt it. The tiger shot straight into the air. There was a tremendous roar. The elephant on my left dropped to its knees. It struggled to get back up, blood streaming from its trunk. The mahout beat on our elephant's skull, trying desperately to bring the panicked creature under control. It swung its head from side to side making terrifying sounds.
"Over there," the general said. "Quick!"
There was a blurred motion in the grass. Another elephant screamed as the tiger's teeth and claws sunk into flesh. The mahout fought to turn the elephant around. Everybody was shouting.
"The tiger has much courage," the general said. I saw a patch of white low in the grass. The tiger was facing us, ready to spring. I aimed just beneath the white ruff and fired.
Nothing moved. Tentatively one of the elephants extended its trunk and sniffed the air. Slowly they started forward side by side, flattening the grass with their trunks. Carefully, almost gently, the elephants cleared away the grass from the place where the big cat lay. The tiger was a large male, just six inches short of the King's. "The skin is very good," His Majesty said, congratulating me. "The tiger is 3 or 4 years old, the best age for a trophy. The fur is prime then, and the color very bright."
But the day's action was not over quite yet. Suddenly, on the horizon, wisps of smoke rose above the grass. A spear of flame shot into the sky, then another, until in seconds the field we were in was ablaze. A brush fire rushed toward us, gathering momentum. The natives who had come on foot to watch the contest from the trees scuttled away through the long grass. Mahouts shouted at the elephants and at each other. I leaped out of the howdah and onto my transportation elephant with almost as much agility as the King. Another elephant got to its knees in the clearing. Four natives pulled the tiger onto its back. Most of the elephants were moving toward safety now, strung out in half a dozen disordered lines. Fire shot into the sky, and deer and smaller animals scurried before the advancing blaze, bolting blindly among the elephants. As we raced away, I looked back and saw my tiger, framed by a pyre of flame, on its fleeing mount.
Five more tigers were taken in the week that followed. Each shoot, remarkably, was different from any of the others, although each began in generally the same way. On one there were three tigers—a male and two females—in the ring together. On another, there was no tiger at all. Twice tigers jumped the ring, passing within feet of my elephant. Several times they attacked the elephants, but we did not encounter another one as pugnacious as mine had been. The shooting was difficult. Visibility was always poor, and snap shooting was the rule. The Crown Prince made the most spectacular shot of the shikar, bringing down his tiger with a single bullet from 200 yards away as the cat arched through the air.
Beside tigers, we encountered a variety of other game. His Majesty was especially fond of chital and almost always ended a tiger shoot with his own private foray after the spotted deer. Wild boar were plentiful—and delicious—as were hog and barking deer. We spent one day on the transportation elephants walking up a mixed bag. After eight hours in the saddle, I was beginning to feel so at home on Narancolia that the Crown Prince and I staged an impromptu elephant race. Another day we hunted barasingha, jumping a herd of more than 500.
With so many tigers about, I was especially intrigued by the idea of calling one in. Along with my .458 and a surfeit of cocktail dresses, I had with me a well-traveled collection of Burnham Brothers' wildlife calls. Over the years I have used them, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, on six continents and six times that many species of game. But I had never called in an animal as large as a tiger. I was eager to try.
Unfortunately, nobody took me very seriously on the subject. The shikar was almost over before I managed to persuade Colonel Rana, my official escort in camp, to take me into the jungle to try the calls. I knew the project was doomed when the colonel showed up at midnight with not one but three "drivers," an open jeep and an unopened bottle of Scotch. We stopped about an hour's drive from camp in a spot where, the boys assured me, tigers were thick. I explained that we had to be absolutely motionless and soundless. I would blow on the "long" call, a reed affair, for 10 minutes, then wait five minutes. I would then blow on the "close" call, a rubber band and plastic-stick device. If a tiger was about, I told them, it might not appear for another 10 minutes. This was the most critical time of all. Silence was essential. The tiger might lie just out of sight, looking us over. Only when I gave the signal was the colonel to switch on the spotlight. Hopefully, we would capture a tiger in its beam. The boys took forever to shift positions, open the Scotch, clear throats and settle down. Finally I began to call. Somebody lit a cigarette, setting off a coughing spell. A buddy hit him on the back. I finished the long call and waited, not very expectantly. Somebody slapped at a mosquito. Then they all had a slug of Scotch. Just as I started the "near" call, a driver said: "What's that?"
"Where?" the others chorused.
Colonel Rana switched on the light. There was, of course, nothing. Considering the open jeep, this was probably just as well. "That's that," the colonel said. It certainly was. He flashed the light down the trail. To my surprise, another light winked back. We had not been alone. Two trucks and a dozen soldiers had followed us.
It seemed hopeless, but I tried again to explain that the call would only work, if it worked at all, when there was no noise, no army and no disturbance in the area. Naturally there also had to be an animal within hearing distance. The colonel rather sadly agreed to give it another try the next night. He even arranged for a blind to be built early that morning. It was about 15 feet up in a tree, above a clearing surrounded on three sides by a stream and beyond that by thick jungle. The area was perfect. We reached the blind at dusk, then sent the elephants and the mahouts back to camp. I had invited the ambassador and his wife to join the colonel and me. There were just the four of us. I explained the rules again. We waited a full half hour for the area to settle down. Then I began the long call. High, rending screams filled the air, conjuring eerie images. The call ended with a piercing wail. Nobody moved.
Then, unmistakable in the jungle still, a tiger answered. Its roar rolled out of the night, frightening, formidable. I put the close call between my teeth and began the pitiful, mournful moans of a dying animal. The tiger roared again. The sound echoed through the darkness, closer now. The tiger was moving toward us. I continued to call. The tiger growled, I could not tell if in anger or interest. Still it came, moving faster. I raised my rifle and realized with surprise that my hands were shaking. I seemed to be trembling all over. My heart was pounding harder and harder. I thought it might explode. I could hardly continue to blow the call. The chattering of my teeth produced only weak, erratic whimpers. Still, the tiger came.
We heard the faint movement of bush—very close now—then a splash. The tiger was crossing the stream. I stood transfixed. The tiger climbed from the stream up onto the bank. In the moon-glow its great feline shape was clearly visible. It stopped in the clearing beneath us and stood looking up, not 25 feet away. It was the biggest tiger I had ever seen. The ambassador nudged me with his elbow. The colonel tapped my shoulder inquiringly, waiting for the signal to turn on the light. Mrs. L√∂er was apoplectic.
"There, there!" she whispered. "Can't you see the tiger! It is a tiger! The tiger is there!"
Seeing the tiger was not my problem. I was quivering from head to toe. If I had raised the rifle an inch farther I would have dropped it over the side. We stood, the tiger and I, facing each other as if hypnotized. Then, leisurely, gracefully, with what for it was doubtless a shrug of its great shoulders, it turned and padded softly into the night. Long after it was gone from sight, I could hear its puzzled, curious growl.
The clang of a bullock's bell broke the spell. I snapped back to reality. My companions were beside themselves. Why hadn't I fired? Why had I waited? What had happened?
It would be a long time before I could explain, even to myself, what had happened. For the first time in my life I had been utterly overwhelmed by the game. There was no question of fear or danger. This was a case of enthralling, overpowering excitement. I had been totally unprepared for the instant, awesome answer to my call. The speed and determination with which the tiger had come to it were beyond belief. The thrill of luring in such a spectacular wild creature had frozen me. I had suffered a classic case of buck fever. The talk that evening was of nothing else. Around Their Majesties' campfire the story was told and retold. My reputation as a hunter may have suffered somewhat, but my reputation as an animal caller was definitely made. His Majesty could not wait to hear the calls himself. Only one evening remained of the shikar. We would spend it calling tigers. "Do not forget to bring the calls tomorrow," His Majesty reminded me for the dozenth time as we said goodnight.
Of the various formalities of the royal shikar, goodnights were trickiest. A definite etiquette was involved. At the end of the evening's festivities, the King would rise. This was the signal for Ambassador and Mrs. L√∂er, and for me, to take leave of the royal party. The order of leave-taking was strictly defined. First we shook hands with the King, then with the Queen, then with the Crown Prince, then with Prince Himalaya, then with Princess Princep, then with the commander in chief of the army, and finally with the commander's wife, Rani. Protocol further dictated that our backs should not be turned at any time to the King, the Queen or the Crown Prince. This in itself would not have been a problem except for the fact that the men always stood on one side of the fire and the women on the other. I can only assume that I had not recovered from my encounter with the tiger, but that night the complexities of leave-taking got the better of me.
In backing from the King, my high heel sank into a hole in the soft earth. Off balance, I lurched against the Queen. Mumbling mortified apologies, I then backed squarely into a table. It tipped in a crash of coffee cups. Completely flustered now, I stammered through the final farewells and stumbled, blind with embarrassment, toward the exit to my tent. At first I did not even hear the startled gasps that followed. Then in horror I realized that I was heading not for my tent but for Their Majesties'. Above the laughter, the King reminded me again to bring the calls.
All the next morning, generals, colonels and ministers stopped by my tent to repeat the reminder. I did not let the calls out of my sight. After the previous night's performance, I had shattering visions of misplacing them or, worse still, being unable to blow them at all.
For the first time on shikar, the King seemed unusually preoccupied, as if he could not wait for the day to end. He checked his watch with the impatience of a schoolboy waiting for the bell to ring. Since the King went nowhere without at least two platoons of men, I had little faith in repeating my calling of the previous evening. I hoped the King did not expect me to produce a tiger on command. To my amazement, at the end of the day's regular shoot the King sent everyone but the Queen, the Crown Prince, General Molla and me back to camp. The five of us were alone. We had a single jeep.
The plan was to drive to a new blind that was to have been built earlier that day in an area about an hour away. We bounced along a rough forest trail in the gathering evening, exchanging hunting tales like old and comfortable friends. My hope of again calling a tiger grew brighter. Then, in the darkness ahead, we spotted the first hint of trouble. One by one lights came on everywhere. A sentry jumped into our path, poked his head into our jeep, saluted briskly and motioned us on. The sound of hammering floated above the voices of the men. Here and there I caught a glimpse of parked jeeps and trucks. This was no platoon. It was the entire army.
Soldiers escorted us from the jeep down a narrow trail to a clearing. In its center a bullock was tethered to a stake. There were men everywhere. Bright beacons probed the sky like the lights of a Hollywood premi√®re.
The Queen began to giggle. We followed her glance to the top of a tall tree. A large, prefabricated metal blind projected from its trunk like an oversized fire escape. It was at least 100 feet above the ground. Workmen were hammering in place numerous sections of the longest ladder I had ever seen. Only a flying tiger could have survived the altitude. The outlook was hopeless. Their Majesties understood this. They were genuinely disappointed, but they wanted to hear the call anyway. The Queen led the way up the swaying ladder.
Eventually the troops left and the jungle grew quiet again. I realized how rarely royalty ever escapes its retinue, and how precious such freedom must be. I have seldom called with so quiet, so patient or so fascinated an audience as Their Majesties and the Crown Prince. Nor have I ever hoped so much for a miracle. It was not to be. We stayed in the blind for two hours, but nothing in the jungle stirred.
It was after 11 when we finally reached camp. A hot tea—which differed from cold tea in that the sandwiches, meats and p√¢tés were all hot instead of cold—had been laid in my tent, apparently to hold me over while dressing for dinner. Because this was the last night of the shikar, all the minor and major dignitaries of the enormous camp and palace staff had been invited to the final banquet.
Native children in red and black and silver costumes were dancing at one end of the fire when I returned to Their Majesties' compound. Off to the side, a group of musicians filled the night with music. Stewards passed silver trays of sherry and Scotch and marvelous assortments of Nepalese appetizers. Her Majesty was the last to arrive. She looked fragile and beautiful in yards and yards of filmy blue chiffon. It seemed hard to believe that only hours before she had stood in boots and bush clothes, waiting intently in a jungle blind.
We sat together at the fire and drank sherry while the ministers recited poetry they had written for the occasion. Princess Princep joined us with two marvelous hors d'oeuvres she had made from her own recipes for barasingha and chital. We all laughed again over a less palatable hors d'oeuvre she and the Queen had created earlier in the shikar. As a joke, they had salted some small white pebbles and served them on a tray of nuts to the commander in chief.
The dinner itself was the most elaborate and elegant of the shikar. A block-long buffet table was set along one wall of the compound. Crested silver, china and crystal sparkled in the light from a dozen silver candelabra. The scent of flowers mingled with the aromas of Nepalese and Himalayan dishes. Fancy frosted replicas of helicopters, planes and jeeps sat among them, brightly decorated with candy flags and sugared streamers.
"All things must end," His Majesty said. He stood beside me at the fire. "So, too, the shikar must end. It is our hope that you have enjoyed your stay in our country and that your memories of Nepal will be kind. So that you will sometimes think of the times we have passed here together, Her Majesty and I wish you to have these small remembrances."
General Molla appeared carrying a package in his arms. It contained a collection of the King's poetry, a pair of handsome silver candlesticks set with the slender feet of a barasingha stag and a magnificent rug made of the perfectly matched skins of six leopards. I was spellbound.
I stood and watched the woodsmoke rise into the night. Columns of sparks chased after it like fireflies. The sky seemed filled with a billion stars, and the air was cool and fragrant. In the distance the muffled beat of drums mingled with the discordant notes of native song. The dream, like all enchanted things, was ending. I wanted to capture each magic moment. I wanted never to let go.