UK diplomat relives breakdown in Indian tiger reserve on COVID-19 rescue mission

Aditi Khanna

London, Jun 8 (PTI) A UK diplomat has relived the “low point” of being stranded with a flat tyre in the midst of a tiger reserve in Bengaluru while on a rescue mission during the coronavirus lockdown to get British nationals to the airport to be repatriated back home to Britain.

Deputy High Commissioner Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford and his team of five were charged with getting a group of 260 elderly and vulnerable passengers to their destination in time when they broke down in the middle of Bandipur Tiger Reserve.

With his team standing lookout, Pilmore-Bedford raced to change the tyre under the blazing sun and rising humidity of the tropical forest, a British High Commission in New Delhi statement said this week.

'The breakdown was definitely a low point in our journey,” recalls the diplomat.

'But we had so many people counting on us, we couldn’t end up as a tiger’s tiffin. Changing tyres isn’t your average diplomatic activity, but there was nothing we weren’t prepared to do to get our people home,” he said.

The tiger reserve is home to the second-biggest tiger population in India, with nearly 400 big cats believed to be roaming in the area. To add to the adventure, the road also runs through the middle of an elephant migration corridor, and the group even encountered a female elephant during the ordeal.

Pilmore-Bedford and his team drove 12 hours from Bengaluru to Cochin, while another team embarked on a 13-hour journey from Chennai to Thiruvananthapuram, to help British nationals board their charter flight home on April 15. These British residents had been stranded across Kerala and Tamil Nadu for four weeks after flight options in southern India ground to a halt as the pandemic escalated and both countries went into lockdown.

After successfully changing the tyre, Pilmore-Bedford's team ploughed on to Cochin, arriving just in time to help the 260 stranded travellers onto an emergency charter flight.

The UK Foreign Office also related the experience of a group of 42 students and teachers from an international school, stranded in the hills of Ooty, negotiated a tough eight-hour journey across state borders to meet an exhausted staff member, who had driven 36 hours and 2,000-km from Chennai to Kerala to meet the group and hand-deliver an emergency travel document to allow them to fly.

Protocol Assistant at the Deputy High Commission in Chennai, Rajesh Bhaskaran, who made that journey said: “Though the journey was arduous and riddled with multiple police checkpoints, at the end it was a hugely satisfying experience to help stranded British nationals from remote parts of southern India fly back home safely.

“But almost zero traffic during the lockdown made me feel like a ‘king of the road’ to deliver emergency travel documents in the nick of time.” The UK Foreign Office lauded the 'extreme efforts' to get British travellers home from Cochin, who went on to support a further three charter flights to get around 400 British travellers home.

Eight-year-old Brit Mayzia Richardson, from Derby, who was among the travellers, summed up the jubilation of travellers on their way home, singing ‘A Million Dreams’ from hit film ‘The Greatest Showman’ at the check-in desk of her special charter flight home, the Foreign Office said. PTI AK ZH