Life in the jungles

How a young boy of German-Portuguese-Indian descent, spent much of his childhood Mowgli-style in the Western Ghats

The previous story ended with the marriage of a German engineer and a Portuguese-Indian lady, and the birth of their son, Freddy. That was me.

Much of my early childhood was spent in Lonavala, a small town on the slopes of the Western Ghats, India. It was a favourite of the erstwhile British colonialists, and we had a very nice house there. It was called “Rose Cottage” and was quite luxurious. I also spent a lot of time with my Uncle Paul and Aunt Trudy Stein, who had an agricultural research facility, some distance outside Lonavala, in the middle of the jungle.

My father was a snake expert and had set up a lab, full of cages for snakes, on Paul and Trudy’s farm. There we spent all our free time, with me roaming the jungles, Mowgli-style, getting into (and out of) all kinds of trouble. Typically, I would set out at the break of day, usually dressed in shorts and a singlet, with a bag over my shoulders. I was on a mission to catch reptiles and small rodents to feed to the snakes. Occasionally, I caught a snake.

Current-day picture of rainfall in the Western Ghats [Wikimedia]

The best time for this was during the monsoon, when it rained like the devil. Lonavala and the surrounding jungles lie in the hills, around 2000 feet above sea level. This means that when the winds, which have travelled over the Arabian Sea during the hottest season, are forced to rise into cooler regions, the huge amounts of water they carry rain down with an intensity that is scarcely imaginable. The showers in some swimming baths, turned on to full strength, can give you an impression. Visitors would sometimes venture out with umbrellas, which was utterly futile — the streams from the sky simply bounced up from the ground and soaked them in seconds. Me, in shorts and singlet, simply accepted getting drenched to the skin.

The reason for going out in the rain was that all the holes and burrows of the jungle denizens — especially rodents and reptiles — were flooded, forcing them to the surface. I would see them sitting, shivering on rocks, which made them easy picking. I became very adept at catching small animals, a not very useful skill I retain until today.

A few hundred meters from the Stein’s house there was a Katkari settlement, where a few dozen jungle tribals lived. They were basically still in the Stone Age — the only metal items they possessed were a few knives, pots, and some arrowheads, which they had bartered in their rare encounters with village people. The Katkaris lived mainly on things they plucked or dug up — fruits and legumes. They also hunted small animals, with bows and arrows, but were not very adept at this. Thkey eagerly awaited our arrival, knowing that meant plenty of meat!

My father would often ask the train driver to stop in the middle of the jungle so we could reach the settlement more conveniently. But it took some years before the Katkaris would come all the way to the tracks to pick us up — the express train was too scary for them. We had to carry our equipment ourselves, for the first few hundred yards.

Great was the celebration when, at their urging, my father would shoot a wild boar or a deer. The animal would be skinned and gutted, and carried to the settlement. During the cleaning my father would sometimes cut slices of filet and give it to me, raw. It was a treat I vividly remember until today. In the settlement the meat would be cooked — stewed in pots or roasted over an open fire. Then the Katkaris would partake. For three days they would walk around with swollen stomachs, having eaten their fill (and more) from the meat they knew would not last longer, in the hot, humid climate.

On my jaunts in the jungles I would often be accompanied by the head of the community, Raoji, who was commissioned to do this by my father. He was charged with keeping me alive — making sure I did not fall into a ravine or get attacked by some dangerous animal. I became quite an expert at losing Raoji, who complained that the naughty boy would run away to proceed on his own.

I have told about revisiting the Katkari settlement, which looks much the same, over sixty years later. There I met Raoji’s grandson and Dipalee, a truly remarkable young girl of the jungle.

Freddy and brother Alois, with a hare killed with the small Diana airgun

At some stage naughty boy Freddy was given a small Diana airgun. With it I was able to bag jungle pigeons, and on occasion a hare. The family wondered how I managed to do it with my “toy gun”. The trick was to sit absolutely motionless in a bush, especially in the case of jungle pigeons, which are the most cautious and vigilant creatures in the world. I had to do this for as long as it took, and make a direct hit to the head. In the case of a hare, it required me to then run up to the thrashing animal and beat it to death with the butt of the gun. Sorry for this gruesome description, but that’s how it went. And: jungle rabbits are delicious!

There were encounters with more dangerous animals as well. The most spectacular was during one early morning walk, which I undertook with a small dog. We were fairly deep in the jungle when the dog started to move backwards and growl — clearly it could see or smell something it disliked. I saw nothing, until suddenly a full-grown panther charged out of the undergrowth towards us. I froze, and fully expected to die. But the beast was after my companion, who bolted into the bushes, with the panther in hot pursuit. I heard the dog’s heart-rending screams as it was being killed.

Cautiously, I walked home, on a circuitous path, full of fear. When I arrived, I was greeted — by an effusively tail-wagging dog! My little friend had got away. I believe that the panther had watched us, found the gangly monkey-like creature evil-smelling — panthers and tigers, I am told, find humans unnatural and repugnant — and gone after the delicious morsel next to me. But the dog had screamed so loud and hysterically that the panther had abandoned the chase. It decided to forget the whole unsavoury encounter.

There was another episode I need to narrate. I sometimes accompanied my father to the hill-top Lohagad Fort, which in the seventeenth century had been occupied by the great Maratha ruler Shivaji. He is still idolized in a statue on the market-place in Lonavala. My father told me the story of how, in a treaty meeting, the Mughal general he was negotiating with suddenly drew a sword and tried to slay him. But Shivaji was wearing bagh-nakh, metal tiger claws, with which he disembowelled the general.

Revisiting Lohagard Fort in 2015. The stairs are of course new, in the 1950s the fort was surrounded by jungles.

In my childhood we made the assiduous climb through dense jungles, and spent the night at the top, on the Fort grounds, sleeping on blankets in the open. On one occasion I was woken up by my father kicking at a stray dog, saying “shoo, shoo.” Being a young boy I followed suit, kicking out at the animal we could not see in the pitch darkness.

The next morning my father showed me something frightening: the pug marks of a panther around the place we had slept. We had assumed it was a dog sniffing around us, but it wasn’t. As I said before, panthers apparently do not like the smell of humans, and very rarely attack them. So we survived.

That is not always the case. In his biography (Alois: The last tiger hunt) my father narrates how he stopped killing tigers and panthers for sport, as Europeans were wont to do. But on occasion, tribals in the jungle villages would beg him to rid them of a “man-eater”. These are big cats who have been badly injured, often by incompetent hunters, and can no longer catch their natural prey. Then they take to killing the less agile and defenceless farmworkers for food. There are other reasons why they can turn into man-eaters. I only saw one my father had killed. It had quills stuck all into its face, one protruding from an eye. Clearly it had attacked a porcupine and had suffered such devastating injuries that it could no longer hunt other animals. So it had taken to preying on humans.

These were my direct childhood encounters with panthers. There was an indirect contact when our dog Alex got into a fight, just outside our house. I have described the incident in my article Alex and the panther.

My very first connection to a panther can be traced back to before I was born. In order to tell you about it I need to provide some background. It is tradition in the Friedel family to name their first-born Alois (or Aloisia, if it is a girl). That is a very Bavarian name, so much so that you can be mercilessly teased about it. But I am Frederic. How did that happen?

My family had a very close friend named Freddy Holloway. He was from Britain and a very endearing character who often visited the Friedels in Lonavala. He kept begging my father to take him on a “proper hunting trip,” where the prize was a big cat. But my father had restricted such hunts to“man-eaters.” One day, the opportunity arose, after a large panther had attacked and killed a villager. So Freddy accompanied my father on his hunt for the perpetrator.

It took a number of days in the jungle to track down the beast, and then half a day to follow its most recent pug marks. When the two finally reached the panther, in fairly dense jungle, they were suddenly attacked — actually it was Freddy who had the panther on top of him. It bit into his neck and shoulder, and raked open the front of his body with its claws. My father fired a shot to distract it and drive it away, and then attended to his friend.

Freddy was seriously injured, bleeding profusely, unable to stand up and walk. So my father took him, on his shoulder, and carried him, a number of miles, to a clinic in Lonavala. When he arrived Freddy was in very bad shape, and arrangements were made to transfer him to a hospital in Bombay. There he underwent surgery and spent a week in an iron lung — and then passed away. My father and mother never left his side. They were deeply traumatized by this horrific experience.

Shortly thereafter I was born, and the two decided to abandon the family tradition. They named me after their dead dear friend. So I became Frederick Alois Friedel (and two years later my brother was duly named Alois John).

I should mention that the choice of Frederick (I dropped the ‘k’ at the start of my media career) had one big advantage in my childhood. The head and partial owner of the company for which my father worked was Fred Kummer. He did not hear about Freddy Holloway and the panther attack, and assumed that I had been named after him. For all of my childhood, I would get wonderfully generous birthday presents from Mr Kummer, who was very moved by the gesture of my parents. Nobody ever told him the truth.

Alois Friedl biographical stories

  • 1. Alois: the beginning — The adventurous life of a young boy started with his fleeing from his native village in Bavaria, Germany.
  • 2. Alois: Gateway to India — How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago
  • 3. Alois: Death in the jungle — An adventurous young German (my father) described his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
  • 4. Alois: Prisoner of war — What was internship like during the first world war. Not like you might think, in British ruled India, a century ago.
  • 5. Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes
    How a German technician in a British prisoner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India
  • 6. Alois: Purdah — A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a challenge.
  • 7. Alois: The last tiger hunt
    Sitting watch over a dead tiger he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.