The Tribune - Spectrum

, May 26, 2002

Tales from the top of a tree
G.K. Sharma

"FOR the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen ó God bless her."

The day was February 6, 1952 when the lady was pronounced the British Queen. The account of that memorable event has been recorded in Visitorsí Book kept at Tree Tops Hotel, by Col Jim Corbett of Man Eaters of Kumaon fame.

Tree tops was based on a childís dream of a tree-home reached by a ladder. The idea was given concrete shape in the 30ís by Eric Sherbrooke Walker, after his retirement from the British army. The Royal Visit and a book by Walker with an identical title brought international fame and stream of clients to the hotel.

The original hotel was an ingenious little two-room house (later enlarged) which was built on a giant mugumu (or wild fig) tree with its spreading branches and dark green foliage. The floor was some 35 feet above the ground, higher than the surrounding trees, so that the wind blew the human scent away above the forest. An escape ladder on the way to Tree Tops told the visitors: "Ten feet up is enough for a rhino, eighteen feet better for an elephant".


Tree Tops even has an artificial moon, a thousand-watt light to illuminate the scene. The light does not disturb the animals, accustomed as they are to both sun and moon. Nor do they catch the scent of humans, for the wind carrying the scent passes 40 feet above their heads. They are, however, extremely sensitive to strange sounds.

It is a house of whispers. Signs warn that any noise will disturb the game. The hunter whispers, the guests whisper, the servants whisper, while the frogs and the tree-toads manage to make a considerable din. All wear rubber-soled shoes. Itís the rule. Tackies (tennis shoes) are sold to those not equipped.

Facing the glistening snows of Mount Kenya, about 100 miles away from Nairobi, it transported you to celestial experience, sipping sundowners meditatively on the veranda, watching the dim shapes of rhino-scrapping together in the moonlight below. And many a times your fearlessness and boldness is tested, when you are started awake by a terrific noise, beds literally vibrating as if a train was thundering past. There was no mistaking it; it was the mighty roar of a fully-grown lion or the earth-shattering shake and grunt of a herd of elephants.

The Chinese pay their doctors when they are well, but stop paying when they are ill. This was the core idea which was adopted at Tree Tops. "No see, no pay," was one of the conditions of going there. The idea worked wonders people who failed to see rhinos, elephants or wild species had the consolation of having had tea, dinner, a nightís lodging and breakfast for a nothing, in an unusual place, generally in amusing company. This had a domino effect. And visitors poured in. Not counting the dignitaries like Charlie Chaplin, Baden-Powel, Mountbatten etc. Even when Mau Mau activists burnt down the hotel, another one with better basic facilities but retaining the original character, came up nearby. The Queen Mother placed the plaque affixed to the tree trunk where Princess Elizabeth became Monarch. The city-bred were obliged to book in advance due to a rising demand after savouring jokes and anecdotes tellingly narrated in regaling humour by the owner of the hotel ó Walker ó in his book Treetops Hotel. Let me share some with you. "In the hotel is an all-electric kitchen, waterborne sanitation and washbasins with running water. The power comes from a small generating plant situated half a mile away in the forest. My wife reported that there were no curtains on the windows of the ladiesí room, but a notice said. "Donít worry, only the monkeys can see you."

Just how dearly Africans cherish their stock is shown by a photograph hanging in the veranda of the hotel, showing a Turkana woman with her child on one breast and a motherless little goat on the other.

A visitor not getting accommodation in the Tree tops Hotel went to a nearby hotel run by eccentric British, H.H. Aitkin. He signed the visitorsí book, alongside which were two notices:

Children charged according to the amount of nuisance they cause to the proprietor and/or other guests.

Dinner, bed and breakfast, including bath ó $ 120 Dinner, bed and breakfast, without bath ó $ 150. (The latter was somewhat dictatorial, but had good sense behind it. Travellers usually arrived caked with mud or gritty with red dust, and a bath was necessary to prevent spoiling the bedding.)

But this one takes the cake: Walker narrates the insistent itch of a young bride: "I want to write my name on an elephantís back."

She was told: "It canít be done"

"Let me down on a rope"

"A billiardís cue, plus her arm, with a chalk in her hand, would probably do the trick. And the rest as told by Walker in his own words: "Alas, I am rather an amateur at guessing what and where is a womanís center of gravity. The girlís head went down, her feet shot up and her skirt flopped over her neck, revealing all her pretty honeymoon frillies. She gave an agonised shriek, the elephant bolted and we hauled her back again. Said her husband rather severely as we helped her to untie the rope: "Next time you do that you must wear trousers."