Photos by John Jackett
BFPO 4 – Dharan, Nepal
By John Jackett
Around Christmas time of 1975, John HARWOOD was serving a 2 year accompanied tour in Nepal, Major Graham HILLIER – OC of 40 PCCU RE in Hong Kong was asked to supply immediate cover on compassionate grounds.
Graham STEWART went firstly, followed by myself in February and March of 1976, then Jim BROKENBROW and the final cover from Hong Kong was John JACKSON. The RAF VC 10 from Kai Tak refuelled at Calcutta in India, where all of us military passengers had to remain seated onboard. We later touched down in the capital city of Kathmandu, this was the same routing on a bi-weekly basis for the LRC bringing the diplomatic mails for the Embassy and Military in Nepal. I was pointed in the direction of a helicopter which was required that evening at the Gurkha Headquarters at Dharan in the South-East of Nepal and had a spare seat for me – what a first-ever flight this was.
Centrally situated, Kathmandu with its twin river valley sits saucer-like amongst the southern foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, after take-off we flew towards its eastern rim, after skimming over I was amazed to look down into very deep valleys, any initial fears over this my first flight, were drowned by the noise and vibration, my eyes tried to be everywhere, to take in the vastness, after the panorama of these magnificent mountains, of humanity – there was “ nothing “. My lasting impression of this country, as far as civilization was concerned, was that financial input ended at Kathmandu. We landed on the depot golf course and I was met by Graham who showed me the ropes and my accommodation within the British Sergeants Mess.
Depot Headquarters at Dharan for the Gurkha soldiers and particularly pensioners as well as their families, was akin to a mini Aldershot – NAAFI shop, full Military Hospital, Pay Office, SKC cinema with about 3 / 4 films per week – heavily censored as to content, Mess facilities as well as Married Quarters for those serving accompanied tours and our Forces Post Office of course. Queues formed daily by the hospital entrance as pensioners came in for treatment, the pay office had a different technique, 2 bearers carried a pole shoulder to shoulder and the safe was hung beneath between them, the Pay Officer and his clerk and the bearer party went off on foot for a couple of weeks to pay out those pensioners along that route, the following 2 weeks and a different route was served by a second party, all distances was based on “ so many days walk “.
Pensioners arriving “ home “ flew into Kathmandu, usually from Hong Kong, then down to Biratnagar, finally arriving at Dharan via the 11 miles long army maintained, tarmac road running north from the Indian border, through Biratnagar up to Dharan. Meanwhile their baggage began the 18 hour road journey, to follow them from Kathmandu. Onward movement by foot of these possessions was something to behold. With just the aid of a forked stick and a web strap, bearers carried complete MFO boxes, borne by strapping across the forehead and down across the back to surround the item, daily breaks were taken with the aid of that precious forked stick bearing the pivotal weight of the box, only put down on the ground for the day when absolutely necessary.
I was told on one of my journeys into camp from the airfield, that we would come to and pass across the “ East – West Highway “, presently we rounded a 50 gallon oil-drum and I was told that was it !! Various countries had combined to produce this major “Highway”, my 1976 map shows it as then running from Pokhara – a little to the West of Kathmandu, to the capital and then skirting the southern border and on into India almost at the South-East corner about 55 miles from Dharan.
Air Mails from UK and Hong Kong and outgoing were exchanged at the Guardroom with the Nepalese Post authorities. Surface mails were subject to Customs clearance and I had to go to the local Post office at Biratnagar to be present at these token examinations, no glass in the windows by the way, if it rains they close the shutters. A specimen parcel-bag was opened ( sometimes more than one ), each parcel in that bag was then examined by opening one end and tipping out the contents, then resealed with the biggest sticks of sealing wax I had ever seen, much damage was caused to soft contents by this molten mess, particularly plastic toys and such like and I raised several damage reports. Many letters came with local postage stamps via the Nepalese Postal system.
Fortnightly I went to Kathmandu to meet the LRC from Hong Kong and exchanged diplomatic mails via the Embassy, our flight path of about 150 miles from Biratnagar came within about 80 miles of Mount Everest, clearly visible from the air, I was fortunate to have my cine camera and made a film of my time in Nepal. The DC 3 was scheduled as a daily round trip but my next morning departures were delayed by the “ Tourist influence “ if there were enough people to see Mount Everest that day, the scheduled flight was put on stand-by until the tourists had their fill, then we could go off to Biratnagar !! Strict advice was given for new-comers at Dharan : “ Once you leave here, do not consume any food or drink “ Parked outside of the local bank one day, I took some cine film of the washing-up operation behind the local tea stall – I am glad to say that I had no problems whilst there on that front !!
On one of my earliest trips to Kathmandu, I was in a “travel agents“ looking for a street map, when I was approached by a European couple. “Are you John Harwood ? I regret not but I am a Postie” The husband worked for Taylor-Woodrow in Salalah Oman, they had been told to look out for John in Nepal. As I had served in Salalah in 1971 / 1972 they were amazed at this coincidence and we went for a meal together and chatted all evening.
I was also able to take advantage of a week-end trip to Darjeeling in India. Joining the east-west highway we saw the expected bullock carts in deep ruts, making their way alongside the road, many people walked on the road, some on bicycles, occasional elephants but the sight of the local buses – more room on top was never better explained with many crouched on the roof or simply hanging out of the side windows. Crossing the River Mechi, we were in India. We passed through the first of two cloud levels at Kurseong at 4,864 feet, manicured tea plantations now replaced earlier banana crops as we gained height, at 7,150 feet Darjeeling is thought to be very Victorian with lots of red roofs and red painted doors and windows, particularly The Central Hotel where we stayed, our host having previously played golf at Dharan. Next morning at 05.30 we were woken with a hot cup of tea and we dressed in warm clothing for our walk to the edge of town to watch the sunrise, across the formerly Tibetan valley to Mount Kanchenjunga, back in Nepal and only 900 feet shorter than Everest. Returning to our view-point after breakfast and now besieged by early morning beggars, our early vigil had proved very worthwhile, as cloud now obscured that wonderful view.
These thoughts of nearly 30 years ago are triggered by the BBC TV series Himalaya with Michael Palin screened on Sunday evenings during October and November of 2004, particularly his visit to the cremation pyres in Kathmandu, I saw one floating along in the middle of a river. The population in 1976 is recorded as being 11 million with 350,000 in the capital. The exchange rate was 24.50 Rupees = £ 1.00 ($US 1.00 = 10.50 R.)
History of who opened the first BFPO in Nepal
By Eddie Lyons
Briefly in 1974 as a WO2 I was sent to Nepal by Brig Seaton to join the RAF Det on Operation Khana Cascade and to open the first BFPO in Nepal (Kathmandu) to provide BFPO Facilities for the massive airlift of grain by the RAF to provide relief to the Nepalese Population who were close to starvation. Without checking my archives I believe that I was out there for around 2-3 months and was asked to remain by the British Embassy for a few more months while the Embassy staffed a case for a Permanent BFPO.
After Op Khana Cascade finished I was told to close BFPO Nepal and understand that it eventually reopened as a Permanent BFPO but I am not sure of the dates. As luck would have it Sir Edmund Hillary was also in Nepal around the same time and visited both the RAF HQ and the BFPO! Great Man. Around 6.5 Tall with Enormous Hands!! Accomp tour. 1974/75 – John Harwood (short toured for family reasons)
1977 memories as R&R relief – “ the new post office in Biratnagar and was proudly shown all the sorting fixtures around the wall whilst the sorters sat on the floor sorting into piles. Outside I was also proudly shown brand new three wheel scooters donated for them to use when delivering. All had 1 mile on the clock and were rotting away unused “.
Staffing: Mid 70s: Mick Pickard. 1979/81: Bob Short. 1984/86 Alan Butler 1986: Phil Norsden. Late 1990s: Stu Probert, `Windy` Miller, then Steve Wills.