A mission to return hundreds of stranded British travellers from India was almost thwarted when a rescue car broke down in the middle of a tiger reserve.
More than 260 passengers had been stuck in Southern India for four weeks after flight options ceased because of the coronavirus outbreak.
A Foreign Office team of five drove 12 hours from Bangalore to Cochin, while another team embarked on a 13-hour journey from Chennai to Trivandrum, to help them board a charter flight home on April 15.
But on a twisty and notoriously rough Western Ghats mountain road on the way from Bangalore, one of the rescue teams picked up a puncture in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
The reserve, which recently featured in the Sir David Attenborough-narrated documentary Wild Karnataka, is home to the second-biggest tiger population in India, with nearly 400 big cats believed to be roaming in the area.
The road also runs through the middle of an elephant migration corridor, and the group encountered a female elephant during the ordeal.
With the team standing lookout, the deputy high commissioner, Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford, raced to change the tyre in the heat and humidity of the tropical forest.
“The breakdown was definitely a low point in our journey,” said Mr Pilmore-Bedford. “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.”
The team managed to get to Cochin, arriving just in time to help the passengers onto an emergency Foreign Office flight.
Meanwhile, a group of 42 students and teachers from an international school, stranded in the same region, negotiated a tough eight-hour journey across state borders.
An FCO staff member drove 36 hours and 2,000km from Chennai to Kerala to hand-deliver an emergency travel document allowing them to fly.
Protocol assistant at the deputy high commission in Chennai, Rajesh Bhaskaran – who made the 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.”
A further three charter flights managed to get around 400 British travellers home.
Eight-year-old Mayzia Richardson, from Derby, who was among the travellers, sang A Million Dreams from hit film the Greatest Showman at the check-in desk when she arrived back in the UK.