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.