January 2015
January 2015
9 min

Friday 6th November 2015

9 min

Tripwire for a Fox Following our Great Indian Adventure in 2014, the now 85-year-old Rosemary Fox and I are again in India. The main purpose as far as I am concerned is to scout certain areas that I have not yet visited, with a view to running wildlife tours here in the future. As neither Rosemary nor I have ever visited the western state of Gujarat, we decided to concentrate on familiarising ourselves with its apparently conspicuous wildlife, and in my case, to get to know the parks and protected areas of that state from a tourism perspective. Shortly after having bought our flight tickets to India, we received an unexpected invitation to attend the first ever Kumaon Literary Festival (KLF), which I jumped at as it would provide me with an ideal location and an excellent forum for a formal Indian launch of my 2013 volume, "Tripwire for a Tiger". Our adventures began at Manchester airport, where we met up, Rosemary having already flown over from western Canada to celebrate her sister Sheila's 90th birthday in Shropshire. All went well on the first leg of our Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi, but here we found to our surprise that we were booked onto different onward flights to Delhi. Our troubles were not over then either, as once we had relocated each other at Delhi airport, the car that was supposed to meet us was not there, and once we had managed to reach our hotel under our own steam, there was no booking either! However, these obstacles did not prove unsolvable, and we were soon checked in, and in my case it was not long before I was immersing myself into Indian birding again in the delightful Lodi Gardens, originally set up by Lady Willingdon, wife of the then Viceroy, in 1936.

A Ground Squirrel in the Lodi Gardens, Delhi

Rosemary trying on a new set of clothes in Delhi

Two days later, at 05.00 AM, we found ourselves heading to the station to catch the Shatabdi express to Kathgodam, following the very same route that my grandparents and my father used to take back in the 1920s and 30s. Several other participants of the festival were also on board, and we spent a pleasant five hours or so trundling across the flat Indian plains, spotting the Himalayan foothills through the haze only just before we reached the railhead at Kathgodam. Here there was some panic, as a consignment of sixty copies of "Tripwire" had been sent there by taxi, and I was supposed to meet the driver, transfer the books to another vehicle in which I would be travelling, and then head up to the venue of the KLF at Dhanachuli. However, there was no sign of that vehicle, and it was only after a lot of telephoning and detective work that it became clear that the driver who was supposed to pick Rosemary and me up did indeed have the books, but he had gone off with other passengers to another hotel. A book launch with no books was not a prospect I relished, but eventually I connected with them two days later. The festival was a wonderful opportunity to meet and network with like-minded people, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The first three days were held high in the Himalayan foothills, at Dhanachuli, and a more precipitous location could hardly have been chosen, with more steps than years Rosemary has lived!

A distant view of the high Himalayas from our accommodation

On the third morning, we transferred to the hill station of Nainital, which has long and evocative links with my family, so it felt somewhat like a home-coming. The venue here was the delightful Abbotsford, an old colonial property set among towering trees above the bustling town and lake.

The old colonial property Abbotsford, where the festival took place

Whereas at Dhanachuli, Rosemary and I had been merely observers, here in Nainital we came into our own, and in the afternoon of the 26th October, I was honoured to share the stage for the formal Indian launch of "Tripwire for a Tiger" and a discussion on contemporary conservation issues with the Director of the Corbett National Park with Mr Sameer Sinha IFS, as well as with Rosemary. As it was a late show, and the venue was outdoors, the chill air of this Himalayan hill-station and the darkness, plus the fact that I was immediately followed by another event, meant that I was not able to sell any books or do a signing, but the following morning, the rush began, and I found myself in the enviable position of signing copy after copy, and the books sold, as one observer jokingly put it to me, like hot curries!

Signing yet another copy of Tripwire at Abbotsford

The afternoon saw Rosemary again on stage, as part of a panel discussion on preserving wildlife, culture and heritage through literature. Interesting though this was, I had to leave shortly after it had started, as I was scheduled to perform a reading in Gurney House, former home of legendary hunter Jim Corbett. This proved to be a highlight of the festival as far as I was concerned, and the opportunity to read two of my grandfather's evocative articles to a highly appreciative audience was a pleasure indeed....and more books were sold! After a final ceremonial close on the lawn of Abbotsford, the festival closed that evening, after a highly enjoyable and stimulating few days. Congratulations to Sumant Batra for having the initiative to stage such an ambitious programme in such a picturesque but logistically challenging area. The following morning saw Rosemary and myself being picked up from our hotel for a breakfast at the home of the eminent Dr Ranjit Bhargava, former Director of WWF Uttarakhand, and one of the last few Indians who are able to recount personal memories of having met either my grandfather, or in this case my great uncle Prof. H G Champion CIE IFS. We were also honoured by the presence of Anup Sah, one of India's top wildlife and landscape photographers and an accomplished mountaineer. Sharing the morning with these two gentlemen and their wives was a fitting end to our all-too-brief stay in Nainital, but we were due to be picked up at 12.00 noon, and I needed to squeeze in a visit to the Consul Book Depot in the Bara Market part of town, where I sold the last remaining copies of "Tripwire" before we headed off on the next stage of our Great Indian Adventure, descending the switchback road to our old haunt of Corbett Tiger Camp, near Ramnagar, where in the evening we were reunited with our great friend and "fixer", Mr Sumantha Ghosh, with whom I hope to be running tours in the coming years. It was a pleasure to see him again, and to share some "garam pani" (literally hot water, but in our case, vodka!) around the campfire together.

Our wonderful breakfast group in Nainital

The following morning Rosemary was not feeling at her best, but I was off before dawn on a safari into the Corbett National Park, which somehow always feels like a sort of home-coming to me as my grandfather was at least partially responsible for the protection of this wonderful area, serving as he did with Jim Corbett and others on the Steering Committee for its founding in 1936. Great Hornbills were particularly conspicuous that morning, affording close views as they fed on ripe figs and occasionally flapped majestically from tree to tree, their enormous wings making a rasping, swishing sound as the wind passed through their feathers. Tigers were not on show, but there was plenty of evidence of their presence in the form of pugmarks, fresh scat and scratch marks on trees.

A Great Hornbill in Corbett National Park

The following day was, according to our itinerary, supposed to be a "rest day" - well, it certainly proved to be far from that! Our first destination was the Janet Sheed Roberts School, where we were moved by our meetings with many of the disabled pupils in this inspirational institution.

The Janet Sheed Roberts School is an inspirational place

I was asked to do a short slideshow to the children, which I turned into an educational activity using my grandfather's iconic animal photographs from the 1920s and 30s as a means of testing the students' identification skills and adding to their knowledge of wildlife. It went down extremely well, and many of the pupils were positively desperate to identify the animals, waving their hands in the air and squirming with enthusiasm! The child who was able to answer the most questions was a girl who had lost both of her hands while working with her family in the fields nearby. Apparently improvised explosive devices are frequently placed among the crops to blow off the jaws of wild boar; this girl had taken the full blast, and to see her raising her stump in place of her hand was a poignant sight indeed. Our congratulations go to the teachers and sponsors of this extraordinary place.

Just before the presentation in a remarkable school

Running late, we rushing into Ramnagar, where we were granted an audience by the lady Divisional Forest Officer in her brand new, self-designed and constructed, office, which she has built in the old British style, with wooden ceiling and stone back wall. She is, among many other worthwhile projects, running a survey of the butterflies of the Ramnagar Forest Division, so we were able to share observations on that. I wish her all success in what is very much still a man's world. That afternoon, despite my rather shaky stomach condition, I gave a presentation on my grandfather's life and work to the Ramnagar Hotels Association. Unfortunately the laptop gave up the ghost halfway through, but I was able to finish by reading out my grandfather's article from 1941 on the founding of the Hailey (later Corbett) National Park in 1936. This the participants clearly found most interesting, and it was fascinating to hear the recommendations my grandfather made on how to handle the potentially large numbers of tourists back in the 1940s, in the company of some of those who accommodate those tourists today. I was asked to become a sort of titular ambassador of the Association, but I do not see myself in this role, as my real loyalty is to those who strive to protect the animals and their habitats, and I could find myself with a conflict of interest by siding too actively with the Hotels Association.

Receiving a gift of a beautiful photo of an Ibisbill after the Hotel Association do

And so ended a highly successful couple of weeks in Kumaon. From here, we endured a marathon drive to Delhi, followed by an overnight train journey to Katni, and then a drive to Bandhavgarh National Park, in central India, where we now are.

Will Champion and Fox try the red hot chilli peppers?