A scholar and a gentleman

Veteran Indian naturalist Hashim Tyabji reveals a side of India that not many have experienced…

As the old adage goes, people come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime.

Deciding which one — well, that’s up to us. But whether a person makes a fleeting cameo in our lives to teach us a lesson or they assume permanent ‘connected souls’ status, people continually shape our haphazard journey in this thing called life.

Enter Hashim Tyabji. I met Hashim on my second day as a first-time traveller to India. It was somewhat of a chance encounter. Hashim is the co-founder of Kaafila Luxury Camps, the luxury mobile camping experts that were about to reveal a truly magical and totally unexpected side of India to our small group of five intrepid travellers. With four decades of expert guiding under his belt, Hashim tends to be a lot more behind-the-scenes these days, so what a genuine honour it was to be in his care for my first taste of incredible India.

A fellow guest on our adventure described Hashim best:

“Hashim Tyabji, one could say without hyperbole, wrote the book on tigers — literally, a tome with Tigers emblazoned across its cover. In the kind of sonorous baritone you rarely encounter outside movie trailers, he recounts brushes with tigers, snow leopards, David Rockefeller, and Goldie Hawn, and chats with the casual command of a professor about everything from sculpture to American politics to Mughal poetry. Tyabji is part Indiana Jones, part David Attenborough….”

~ Sarah Khan, Luxury Magazine

… in fact, Sarah (a fellow Hyderabadi herself) affectionately referred to Hashim as ‘Hyderabadi Jones’ and, well, the name stuck.

Returning to the opening adage about people coming into our lives — Hashim, I have decided, is one of those ‘lifetime’ people. Without a doubt.

Hyderabadi Jones

Veteran (and widely respected) Indian naturalist, experienced lodge and mobile camp operator, published author and well-read historian, Hashim truly is a walking encyclopaedia. Suitably dressed in khaki and forest green, binoculars always at the ready, he is a wildlife expert, tiger aficionado and birding enthusiast (in fact, he’s the grandnephew of the late Sálim Ali, renowned ornithologist and naturalist, who earned himself the moniker “Birdman of India”).

We soon learned that Hashim has many friends of similar ilk. One evening we bumped into his good friend Vikram (Vikram Seth to be exact — celebrated Indian novelist and poet) and had the most hilariously unforgettable fireside debates about life, love and (don’t ask) alliteration.

One of India’s most experienced private guides, Hashim knows the subcontinent, as well as Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, like the back of his hand. He effortlessly quips fun facts and fascinating historical anecdotes in that aforementioned baritone ‘movie trailer’ voice, combined with a contagious laugh, sharp wit and wicked sense of humour.

Our evenings were spent gathered round the campfire in beautiful hand-woven Indian robes (‘jamas’) that Hashim had generously gifted us. With seemingly bottomless gin and tonics in hand and a constant, moreish procession of Indian pre-dinner snacks, we sat captivated, and highly entertained, by Hashim’s gift for storytelling.

Donning that Indiana Jones-like fedora and a cheeky Cheshire grin, Hashim recounted priceless ‘what happens on the road, stays on the road’ stories about his days guiding the likes of Robert Redford, Goldie Hawn and Princess Anne. I won’t break roadtrip rules, but if you ever have the pleasure of meeting Hashim, do yourself a favour and ask him about Redford’s luggage.

A life in the wild

Hashim’s illustrious life in the wild started in the late 70s when he was offered a position as a trainee naturalist guide at the world-famous Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park. At the time, Hashim was enrolled in a journalism course in Hyderabad. As he bid farewell to the course and his homeland, he had two significant adventures in store before laying roots in Nepal.

First, Hashim was sent off by the Indian subsidiary of Tiger Tops on one of the earliest commercial trans-Himalaya treks from Kashmir to Ladakh with 22 international guests. Returning from Ladakh, he was assigned to Dudhwa Tiger Reserve for a training and familiarisation trip under the invaluable mentorship of the legendary Billy Arjan Singh, world-famous Indian conservationist and author. Despite being “roundly abused by the famously irascible Billy”, Hashim laughs, this marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

When Hashim reached his final destination, Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Nepal, ready to assume his new role, he arrived (not surprisingly) in good company, alongside mountaineer (and the man who initially interviewed him for this new position as trainee naturalist) Lute Jerstad. Lute was among the first group of American climbers to summit Mount Everest.

For the next few years, Hashim worked under the valued leadership of Dr Charles “Chuck” McDougal, also known as “The Tiger Man”, one of the world’s leading tiger experts, conservationists, wildlife researchers and authors. Three years later, Hashim climbed the ranks to chief naturalist of Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge and during Nepal’s off-season, he spent his days leading treks in the Western Himalayas and helping set up and run remote trout fishing camps in magical, mountainous Kashmir.

Hashim was later promoted to Director of Operations for Tiger Tops in India and his enviable days spent in the wilderness were now split between the tiger-dense Bandhavgarh National Park and the remote, rugged peaks of Kashmir and Ladakh.

Meaningful contributions

After a life changing decade with Tiger Tops, Hashim embarked on a private guiding career, leading wildlife and history tours in India and Nepal. He also built a house bordering the Panpatha Sanctuary on a picturesque plot frequented by wolf, sloth bear, leopard and the odd tiger.

A few years later, he became even more passionately involved in conservation and worked closely with government to improve and implement much-needed forest protection guidelines. This work not only contributed to Hashim being named Honorary Wildlife Warden for Bandhavgarh National Park, but it also earned him a prestigious seat on the Indian Board of Wildlife.

Ever passionate about India’s famed and regal striped cats, Hashim was instrumental in pioneering the subcontinent’s first walking safaris in Satpura National Park. His aim was to give guests the unique opportunity to experience the thrill (and beauty) of tiger territory, safely on foot, in a lesser-known, and therefore significantly lesser-crowded, reserve.

He worked closely with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department to explore every inch of the reserve, map out the best trails and create an authentic and exhilarating experience on foot. Satpura remains the only park in India that offers these peaceful and sought-after guided walks that whisk guests away from the constant buzz of India’s “jeep jockeys” and into the peaceful, soul-satisfying solitude of the Indian jungle.

Although, as a young boy, he had been averse to following in his granduncle’s “big shoes to fill” footsteps, Hashim went on to conduct an in-depth, five-year survey on the birdlife of Bandhavgarh National Park — the first for this part of central India. His work was later published in the acclaimed Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society.

Hashim also penned what is still-to-this-day the most widely-read (and only!) guide to Bandhavgarh National Park and the book he co-authored, simply titled Tigers, is an eloquent and educational tribute to India’s national animal.

Hashim remains, to this day, one of India’s most highly respected naturalists and tiger experts and he is often called on by esteemed filmmakers to act as scientific advisor, most notably for the BBC’s Land of the Tiger series.

Beyond the last hotel

With four decades worth of contributions to conservation, wildlife research and private guiding expertise, combined with a history degree and a genuine, lifelong love of India, it seems only fitting that Hashim would go on to co-found Kaafila Camps in 2015.

‘Kaafila’, which is the Hindustani word for ‘caravan train’, is a luxury mobile tented camp that whisks travellers right off the grid and far from the well-trodden tourist paths of central India and into magnificently picturesque and surprisingly remote, lesser-known destinations.

Every few days, and as if by magic (though the seamless coordination and sheer physical labour required for each move is evident), this low-impact, light-footprint camp is completely packed up so that it can leapfrog to the next far-flung location before the guests arrive.

Living up to its aptly crafted tagline, ‘beyond the last hotel’, this fully mobile camp ventures far beyond the crowded hotels, endless queues and congested roads, transporting guests into what can only be described as a parallel universe. Each carefully-selected, exclusive-access campsite boasts a vast, untouched landscape that is blessed with tranquillity and blissfully devoid of people, noise, litter and — quite refreshingly — cell phone signal, too.

“A lot of consideration goes into the selection of each and every campsite,” Hashim explains. “Local knowledge, past experiences and a wide network of friends ensure that each site is not only off-the-beaten-track, but also rich in natural beauty, local heritage and remoteness. Every site boasts a special experience that is focused on either wildlife, culture or history.”

“In 2014/15, we rebadged and repurposed Norbu Farma’s Ulley Homestay as the Snow Leopard Lodge, which basically provides a much more comfortable base from which to search for snow leopards,” he continues. “In addition to the increased comfort and warm local hospitality, the lodge also looks after logistics, by directly employing trackers, guides and a driver for each guest. All guests need to do is book a room at the lodge and the entire wildlife experience is included and seamlessly orchestrated.”

Arrive as friends, leave as family

In just a matter of days, not only did we gain a profound new appreciation for the colours, cultures and unexpected calm (!) of India, but we also forged new and lasting friendships. At &Beyond, we like to say that our guests arrive as friends, and leave as family. That certainly sums up our adventure with Hashim. Ever the sensitive one, I teared up when we hugged Hashim goodbye on the bustling streets of Khajuraho, ready for our long trek home.

This was my first (and certainly not last) trip to India, but it wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, typical, first-time adventure. It was so much more. There’s no denying the captivating charm of India’s beautiful chaos, but to find peace, solitude and clean air in a country marred by pollution and teeming with 1.3 billion people was, to me, completely unheard of. Until I met Hashim.

A scholar and a gentleman, Hashim is humble, delightfully sarcastic and extraordinarily knowledgeable, without a single air of arrogance. I had always been told that travellers have either a love or hate relationship with the subcontinent, so I truly didn’t know what to expect. This journey, with Hyderabadi Jones at the helm, ended up being so much more soulful and serene than I would have ever expected from India. I shall indeed return.

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