It was the night after Christmas 1993 and we all thought the bumps were just someone else going to the bathroom. The next morning downstairs was devastation. Christmas gifts were strewn amongst the chintz-covered sofas, draws emptied onto the carpets, the silver candlesticks gone along with a camera, binoculars, and the children’s new toys.
The night-time robbery with a houseful of sleeping friends and family was all the more daring as this was the home of the head of the special elite Gurkha force hired to protect the royal family, deep within the Sultanate of Brunei.
I was visiting the Colonel during a break from one of my first consulting jobs with New Zealand teammates in neighboring Sabah and Sarawak – marketing specialist for the Malaysian states’ tourism master plans. Lessons learned from the jungle, wildlife, and ecotourism experiences in Nepal were being applied to the bio-rich rainforests of Borneo.
At Tiger Tops we had a long association with the military – British Gurkha as well as the Nepal Army who guarded the wildlife of Chitwan National Park manned the guard posts, and whose major would often drop by the Lodge for a cup of tea.
A retired Nepal general reminded me recently of the occasion in the mid-1970s when as a junior officer he led parachutist’s training at Meghauli. Camping overnight on the grass airstrip, I had accepted their invitation for a दाल भात, Dal Bhat meal around the campfire, complete with customary Nepali dancing featuring squaddies dressed as women. What most impressed him, he told me, was my bare feet in the jungle.
Our boss Jim Edwards favored running jungle tourism operations along military lines, and many of my colleagues had army backgrounds, especially Nepali officers trained in admin, engineers, drivers, and mechanics. As did our ancient green Land Rovers, their legacy of action evidenced by bullet holes that riddled their chassis, along with the occasional dent made by a charging rhino.
One of Jim’s proudest moments in later life was being made an honorary British Gurkha, and he regularly sported the green and red striped regimental tie with the iconic crossed खुकुरी knives.
The Colonel was one of a long line of commanders of the Brigade of Gurkhas Nepal, who now hold the multiple roles of Defence Attaché and director Gurkha Welfare Trust, based in the British Embassy compound in Kathmandu.
These British officers speak fluent Nepali with a clipped Gurkhali accent, and most would find any excuse to leave the diplomatic confines of the office to escape into their beloved hills with the soldiers to whom they are so dedicated.
Not only are Nepalis still being recruited as an integral part of the British Army, but significant funding and energy goes into pension paying and ensuring veterans returning to Nepal are well supported. The British Gurkha connection put over £140 million into Nepal’s economy in 2019, and the Gurkha Welfare Trust works in health and education throughout the length of rural Nepal.
The first British Defence and Military Attaché appointed to Kathmandu in 1958 was mountaineer Lt Col JIM Roberts MVO MBE MC 2GR, distinguished for his war service in India and founder of Nepal’s trekking industry, providing employment for the Sherpas he so admired. Jimmy made Nepal his home and stayed on rearing rare pheasants in Pokhara retirement until his death in 1997. He was followed by some fabled and highly decorated army names in the 1960s, Wylie, Kemmis Betty, and Hickey.
Others are remembered for less illustrious traits. One officer’s Land Rover mowed down the white posts that line the Embassy driveway after an evening of revelry, and another was infuriated when his wife eloped with the tennis coach. One colonel astounded the congregation by bursting into tears during a remembrance service, and another enjoyed slipping into army fatigues with an officious clipboard at the slightest provocation.
My favourite story about Col David Scotson, DA in the late 1980s, was how he got married on crutches, both legs encased in plaster casts, having wandered out of the first-floor window of his future in-law’s Swiss chalet to admire the view only to realize too late that there was no balcony.
The curfew that accompanied the end of the single-party system provided the perfect cover for one officer to pursue an extra-marital affair, whilst others preferred mahseer fishing, rafting, and camping on the remote rivers of western Nepal. During a royal visit, at a pre-trek mess dinner under a military camp shamiana, the colonel’s wife was overhead counseling the Prince of Wales not to listen to ‘his mother’ about marital difficulties with Princess Diana, and to ‘follow his heart.’
The British Gurkha Khukris team were a fixture at Tiger Tops’ annual elephant polo championships, often attracting the top brass from Hong Kong HQ and always handy as reliable timekeepers to monitor the matches. The players were most celebrated as winners of the best-dressed award with their natty uniforms, whilst actual goals scored were usually few and far between.
One Defence Attaché, Col Mike Allen, pursued his passion for moths, and could regularly be found at dusk with bright lights and a white sheet, adding new species to scientific collections for Nepal. Col Mike Kefford led a British joint services expedition to scale Everest before abandoning his military career to sail around the world.
One commander went on to become Prince Philip’s private secretary living in Kensington Palace. And a couple of former incumbents have remained closely connected to Nepal, reinventing themselves in new Pokhara-based jobs supervising privately funded agricultural and livelihood projects throughout the countryside.
Gurkha recruitment dates back over 200 years to 1815, even before the Treaty of Sugauli formalized the Nepal-British relationship and ended the Anglo-Nepal war 1814-1816. Highly impressed by the fighting spirit shown by his opponents, General Sir David Ochterlony had led the East India Company attack, a colourful character alleged to have kept thirteen concubines and gifted each an elephant whilst British resident to the Mughal court in Delhi.
In the early 1960s, the British Gurkhas numbered nearly 18,000 men, recruited from their headquarters near Dharan in southeast Nepal, with brigades stationed in Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong as well as the United Kingdom. Today they total about one-quarter of that and are all assigned in the UK except for a battalion in Brunei. The selection process remains famously hard-won –- in 2019 12,000 young men competed for just 400 places.
I took my mother to the Gurkha bicentenary pageant celebration at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea one chilly June evening in 2015 – lots of smart green uniforms, precision marching, wailing bagpipes, and whirling खुकुरी. The purpling London night sky faded above us, and tall windowpanes glowed gold in the elegant Wren building backdrop to our ringside seats.
Actress Joanna Lumley made a speech, and the VVIP stand contained a full hand of all the immediate British royal family led by Queen Elizabeth II, a tribute to the legendary esteem in which Gurkha servicemen continue to be held in Britain.
In the words of Sir Ralph Turner MC 1888-1983, former Gurkha, linguist, philologist, and Professor of Sanskrit: ‘Once more I see you in your bivouacs or about your fires, on forced march or in the trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun. Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds, and at the last, your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you.’