At Jim Edwards surprise 50th birthday celebration at the British Ambassador’s Kakani bungalow are Col Jimmy Roberts, Elizabeth Hawley, Uttara Crees and Lute Jerstad. Photo: Lisa Choegyal
As an egotistic control freak, Jim Edwards did not like surprises. It was with a bad grace that he grudgingly permitted me to arrange his 50th birthday celebration, but it drove him mad that he was not in charge of the details and kept in the dark about the lunch party location: the British Ambassador’s bungalow at Kakani. An added problem was that Jim went to great lengths to avoid any birthday, like most people who consider themselves immortal. Late one evening, warming his hands around the Bardia campfire, I overheard him declare: “I’m never going to die! I simply can’t imagine a world without me.” In his element, Jim was hosting friends at Karnali, the steep riverbank carved by the last monsoon was marked by a rough fence of fallen branches.
He was deadly serious. Jim’s entire focus and massive talent were for life and living, and he had no pretension or spiritual aptitude to ponder the next world. Insisting on always being the centre of attention, life was never dull in his orbit. Jim created an infectious vortex of energy and manipulated a whirl of complex relationships.
That morning, 24 November 1985, the advance guard had been sent ahead to prepare lunch in the needle-carpeted grounds of the ambassador’s historic home, nestled amidst the pines high on a ridge north of Kathmandu with an expansive view across waves of hills to the white peaks. Jim had insisted on overseeing the guest list, and the rented bus was loaded up with family, friends, and my Tiger Tops and Mountain Travel colleagues.
It was my task to bring Jim in his red range rover, an early extravagance and one of the first models off the Solihull assembly line, muttering and grumbling all the way up the tortuous switchbacks. By Balaju, past the reclining Vishnu in his water garden, and traversing beneath the trees of Nagarjun’s royal forest, Jim had already guessed our destination. The narrow road climbed past heaps of huge radish (mula) for which the land was renowned, today superseded by strawberries and trout. Turning right before the main road drops away to the Trisuli, we reached the Tamang village of Kakani at a refreshing altitude of 6,660 feet (2,030m), and entered the hallowed ground and clipped lawn of the British bungalow. With cheering guests waiting to surprise him, it took all Jim’s self-control to revert to his normal affability.
The lunch conspiracy could not have been concocted without the collusion of the ambassador, Anthony Hurrell. Kakani was gifted to the British envoy in the nineteenth century as a country retreat by the reclusive and xenophobic ruling Ranas. In the exclusive purview of successive ambassadors, its use and worth over the years has waxed and waned at their personal whim.
John Denson, British Ambassador 1977 to 1983, was an enthusiastic user and published much of what we know of its history. He wrote in 1984: “The sense of isolation and claustrophobia, since the Resident was confined within the Kathmandu Valley, was great and led to a request for somewhere in Nepal where he could breathe. The Maharajah (Prime Minister) agreed that a tract of land could be granted near Kakani, where our present bungalow still stands. … At one time there was a miniature golf course, and the Resident moved there for a part of the year.” As Desmond Doig noted, the fairways straddled the ridge and “must have been hell on caddies.”
During their tenure 2006 to 2010, Dr Andrew Hall and his wife Kathy cherished the old bungalow, despite its discomforts, and used it regularly to impress visiting ministers and fellow diplomats. The grounds and woodland were alive with birds and butterflies, marigolds and scarlet poinsettias against a piercing blue sky. “I loved that place – Dudley Spain first took me there for a picnic in 1969, and later we spent as much time up there as we could manage: wreathed in clouds with only leeches for company in summer, stunning views but terribly cold – even with a huge log fire – in winter.”
The second British Resident, Brian Houghton Hodgson, living in Kathmandu from 1820 to 1843 in various roles, was first provided with a cottage at Koulia, a spot about five kilometres along the ridge north west of Kakani. There are also sketchy references in 1863 to a country house in Bhaktapur “for the use of the Residency”, but no details. When the Koulia “log cabin” was razed by lightning, it was replaced by the Kakani bungalow sometime in the mid to late 1800s – the date unknown.
Lost films and forgotten diaries show the cumbersome process of reaching the Kakani outpost in those days, by horse, sedan chair and porter support. In the words of the East India Company Resident Henry Lawrence in 1845, “A lovelier spot on earth the heart of man could scarce desire,” although his wife Honoria Lawrence also complained about the leeches. In corsets and stays, yesterday’s memsahibs must have been an intrepid lot.
Runners were the only means of communication, later supplemented by a heliograph. This WWI device was used for signalling morse code by means of a movable mirror reflecting beams of sunlight, with direct line of sight to the residence in Lainchaur, now occupied by the Indian embassy. “I suspect that its main purpose in those heroic days was to demand extra supplies of gin!” wrote John Denson.
Other than Jim’s birthday, I have been invited over the decades for various ambassadorial “picnics”, more often elaborate sit-downs served by teams of Embassy staff, but I only once spent a night, echoing with vanished footsteps. We photographed the bungalow for Kathmandu Valley Style and Desmond Doig painted it in My Kind of Kathmandu. The Gurkhas have built a modern cottage next door, a park commemorates mountaineers killed in Nepal, and along the ridge, Thai’s memorial garden overlooks the 1992 crash site, a sombre reminder of past disasters.
In 2015 the earthquakes destroyed the old bungalow at Kakani, and British safety regulations forced its dismemberment. The next chapter of its long history awaits to be written.