After a massively hectic six weeks of preparing for this epic wildlife adventure, and hosting a fantastic Sharks of Southern Africa 2011 Expedition, Chris and I were finally on the plane headed for the crazy and notoriously chaotic India. This was to be our fourth visit, and even though on my first visit (it was not a nature trip) I vowed never to return, the lure of the very special and spectacular wildlife of India has made me completely fall in love with this crazy place.
This time our mission was to hopefully glimpse the elusive Gray Ghost, the magnificent Snow leopard. This is the holy grail of wildlife and we were well aware that chances were slim, but if we were privileged to see it, it would be one of our greatest moments of our time spent with wildlife. We had been invited by our very good friend Jonathan Rossouw and his partner Giovanna (G) Fasanelli. Jonathan and G guide specialised wildlife trips around the world, but the Snow leopard had up to this point eluded them. This motivated Jonathan to find the best team, the best place and to book the best time period to give us a snow balls chance of finding it.
Amit Sankhala, who owns a wildlife eco tourism company in India and whose family has a long history with tiger conservation, handled all the logistics. He was able to hire the team that spent four months with BBC filming for Planet Earth, as well as the controversial Steve Winter camera trap Snow leopard images. Chita was our head guide and was assisted by Morup. Both went to huge lengths on our quest and would spend the entire day moving from valley to valley, and at times climbing ridging of great heights as they searched for Snow leopard tracks and scats. They were also looking for a Snow leopard kill. This is the ultimate prize as it means that the leopard can spend ¾ days feeding in one place. It was not to be on our trip but some groups have got lucky.
The time period of our expedition was chosen as just after the height of the winter. During the cold winter the Snow leopards follow their prey as they move lower down the mountain. Even though the peaks here are still at a height of 4000 meters they are more reachable for people compared to where they spend their summers, at 6000 meters and higher. This lower altitude would hopefully make finding the Snow leopard a reality.
The great thing about our chosen camp crew was that even the cook and kitchen hands were involved in spotting and scoping for the leopard. More eyes meant a greater chance of a sighting. Of course, it also helped that they were amazing in terms of the kind of meals that were produced from the cooking tent. I still can’t work out how well they managed to look after us from very limited means!
The last two members of our team were John and Pam King from the USA. Like us they are wildlife fanatics and were up to putting in the time searching and scanning the mountain ridges and of course coping with the rough conditions.
Our camp site was in the Husing Valley in The Himalayan Mountain Range. This was an ideal spot as it was located in an area where three valleys come down together, meaning three large areas that we could scan and spot within easy reach.
We were told to expect temperatures of up to – 20 degrees Celsius, and very rough camping as there are just no facilities in this area. As such I really mentally prepared myself for a tough time. Coming from Africa Chris and I had never experienced extreme conditions such as these and did not know how we would fair. With regards to the camping rough part, we had done many rough camping trips in Africa so I knew I could handle that part.
First Ascent, a South African outdoor gear manufacturer, were fantastic in guiding us with gear that was needed. As such we kitted ourselves out with the most extreme of their gear which turned out to be a very valuable investment. In those extreme temperatures we were totally comfortable and proud to be wearing such a great South African brand deep in the Himalayas!
Using camera equipment in these temperatures brought its own set of challenges. With no power we could not charge any camera batteries and in the freezing conditions the battery life was very limited. Canon South Africa very kindly made available to us a large back up of batteries which were a tremendous help. Chris brought with him his Canon 600mm 4.0 lens. As the wildlife is normally seen at a great distance this was vital. It was also very heavy, weighing 8.5kg’s with the camera body. In fact his camera bag that climbed with him everywhere weighed 16kgs. This added weight on his back really put him off balance which made the climbing pretty challenging.
Acclimatising in Leh, Ladakh Province
We would be camping at 3,800 meters so it was important to us to spend time acclimatising to these high altitudes, especially since we live at sea level. We had to fly from Delhi into the city of Leh which is located in the Ladakh province of India. Geographically Ladakh is part of Tibet (being located on the Tibetan Plateau), but politically it is part of India.
The people here are very different. They certainly do not look Indian, but Tibetan, and typical high altitude living people. We would later get to spend time with the local people in their homes. It was a big highlight getting to know them and gaining a small understanding of their home life and culture.
Leh has a very strong military presence being located on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even in the airport we were not allowed to take photos. The plane flight from Delhi into Leh was our first real introduction into the spectacularly dramatic area of the mighty Himalayan Mountains. 30% of all flights into Leh are cancelled due to restricted visibility. Being a slightly nervous flier I was very relieved we had a clear day! As we descended through the snow filled mountain range I have to say that I was daunted by the sheer immense amount of habitat that we would be exploring. Looking at this, I started to comprehend how lucky we would need to be to find the Snow leopard, and how much hard work we would need to get into this.
Leh is a very popular destination for trekkers in the summer months. In winter it is virtually shut down. Due to the freezing temperatures the water pipes freeze and living conditions are tough. As such most hotels and restaurants shut down. Amit found us a fantastic little hotel, Omasila. This was a family run establishment and very friendly. The warm rooms and good food were very welcome as we spent two nights acclimatising.
Most of the group were fine but Chris started out with a bad headache on the first day, and being Chris he did not really draw my attention to it. After dinner he finally said that he really was not feeling very good, and promptly started vomiting.
Jonathan is a doctor so I immediately called him to our room and as the hotel had an oxygen machine Jonathan got him hooked up to that. However, we don’t think it was working as about twenty minutes later Chris starting vomiting again. A bad headache and the vomiting are serious signs of altitude sickness. So, not wanting to take any chances Jonathan suggested we take Chris to the local hospital.
In Leh they deal with tourists with altitude sickness all the time and the doctor was great. Just a couple of injections and then an hour on a working oxygen machine really helped Chris. Although Chris did struggle with a headache for most of the trip he was comfortable enough to keep going.
Into the Mountains
As Chris had made big improvements we decided to head into the mountains a day early. This turned out to be a very lucky decision. We needed to take a two hour car journey up through a winding mountain pass. This was our introduction to the true Himalayas and we also had spectacular views of the Indus River which was frozen in some places.
On arrival at the Hemis National Park gate we had to gather our things for the two hour hike into the Husing Valley and the location of our camp. A couple hours earlier the camp staff had headed up with sixteen ponies that would carry the camping gear and food.
The walk up was very slow as we wound our way up the mountain we could really feel the breathless affect of the altitude. Added to this the air was as dry as I have ever felt and it was painful and difficult to breathe through ones nose. Walking up also gave us the first taste of the terrain. Shale and ice needed to be negotiated and we got our first glimpses of the kind of slopes and ridges we needed to climb up… Yikes!
We had bought new Montrail hiking boots for this trip. They were outstanding and I can liken them to wearing 4x4 wheels! They just gripped into everything and most of the time I felt very sure footed. We were not to know it at the time, but we had a great encounter with a large herd of Blue sheep, just before we reached our camp. For the rest of the trip the Blue sheep were sighted fairly far off on the high slopes and ridges. We were able to watch them majestically and effortlessly navigate the terrain as well as a couple of comical moments when they slipped and skated over the ice.
The Blue sheep are what the Snow leopards are here for and just like at Seal Island, I immediately had great respect for both predator and prey in this harshest of harsh environments. There are said to be about two hundred Snow leopards in Hemis National Park and most likely seven Snow leopards in the area we would be covering. However, these predators have huge home ranges, minimising the chances even more. One thing in our favour was that it was mating season. This meant that the males would be on the move as they patrolled for receptive females. This was another aspect we hoped would increase our chances.
But, the disturbing news was that a group that had left two days earlier had been camped out here for seventeen days and did not see The Grey Ghost…
We had a very warm welcome from our camp crew on arrival. There was a large dining tent which to my great surprise had not one but two gas heaters! These two heaters were an absolute life saver and many cold night time hours were spent huddled gratefully around them as we played endless games of Uno (yes, uno) and drank copious amounts of hot tea.
Our sleeping quarters were small two-man dome tents. All they really did was serve to cover us and were not much protection against the cold. We also could not stand up in them so getting bags organised was not so easy.
I do not like long-drop toilets at the best of times but we found ourselves dealing with a very temporary “short drop” facility. This is became known as “the place that shall not be named” and “the little house of horrors”! As bad as it was it really bonded our team and provided many humorous moments.
Each morning the donkeys would come down from the small village of Rhumbak and pass our campsite. One morning, whilst Chris was visiting “the place that shall not be named” the donkeys passed by and one of them got caught up in the guide ropes that held the toilet tent in place. A hilarious moment followed as the donkey torn down the tent leaving Chris completely exposed!
I had brought baby wipes and dry shampoo with very good intentions of trying to stay as clean as possible. I am never like this at all but on the first day I decided that I was adopting the “I don’t care” plan of attack. The only article of clothing I removed in ten days was my First Ascent down jacket. Everything else stayed on, even when I slept. I could not face the cold of removing any clothing and in any case my baby wipes had frozen after the first night! We did have a very good First Ascent sleeping bag, built for temperatures of –10 degrees Celsius which after the first night of shock to the system actually kept us very warm and comfortable. As I mentioned, the first night was tough but we did learn a few tricks after that. Such as sleeping with the down jacket over the sleeping bag and then draping a blanket over this. The hot water bottles we were given each night were also very welcome indeed. My sleeping bag had a hood and I would pull this over my head, only leaving a tiny crack to breathe through. It was funny waking up in the morning and finding a thin layer of ice on the part of the sleeping bag that was exposed to my breathing. Each night our water bottles froze, and this was after filling them with boiling water just before going to bed.
Despite the tough conditions I absolutely loved the challenge of it and I think it will make the cold winter mornings at Seal Island a lot easier to handle now.
The Grey Ghost
The Snow leopard is sometimes called The Grey Ghost, and for very good reason. It is a rare animal found in extreme places and is as allusive as they come. Its colouring means it is completely camouflaged in its environment and can easily be missed.
Jonathan came equipped with two top of the range Swarovski scopes and we all had the best of binoculars. Our MO was to climb the high slopes and then spend the hours waiting and watching the adjacent slopes and ridges with the scopes and binoculars. The Snow leopard was going to be tough to see and our best chance was to sight it when it was on the move or to watch for signs from the Blue sheep.
We did not have a great idea of what we were doing on the first morning (or at least I did not) and we were still acclimatising to the altitude and dry air. At about 1.30pm we made our way back to camp, about 800m away after spending the morning in the Tarbung Valley. Chita and Sonam (our cook) stayed at Tarbung for one more sortie. There are no cell phones here or even radios so the plan was to shout down the valley if anything was found.
We had been back in camp for ten minutes when faint shouting could be heard. Giovanna was the first person to hear the shouts and on confirmation the two of us looked at each other and then just starting running down the valley. Our whole team started operating on pure adrenalin as we ran and stumbled down the valley to the source of the shouting. I knew that this could simply be our only chance and no matter how much my chest and legs were burning I had to keep moving, and move as hard and fast as possible. Jonathan reached the foot of the Tarbung Valley first and located Sonam who was frantically waving at him to get up the scree slope. There was some confusion as to where we had to get to. Chita had stopped shouting as he was afraid he would scare the already nervous cat over the ridge and out of sight. Chris and I finally realised where we had to get to, straight up a thirty degree scree slope of very loose shale. A tough ask for the inexperienced and Chris was carrying very heavy camera gear.
In the confusion and excitement our team all went different routes. Jonathan got to the spot first. He had put so much effort into finding this animal that we are so thrilled that he got the first sighting. After a very quick look he started very urgently shouting at John to move it. I could tell from the urgency in his voice that the cat was close to moving out of sight and I felt my level of desperation increase dramatically. Then, the shouting stopped and urgent hand waving started and I really thought it was over. Jonathan could see through the scope that the Snow leopard could hear him and was not happy. It looked directly at him and was on the point of just nipping over the ridge and out of sight. At this point I thought it was over, but as John got there he got a great view and then both he and Jonathan were urging us up. We got to a scope lower down the scree slope, but as it was not of a very high quality we could not see a damn thing through it. We looked up and had another 50m to climb up the slope to Jonathan and John. Chris got there first and got his look. I felt so desperate as I pushed myself to climb higher.
Eventually I got there and my first moments of the sight of this most amazing of all cats so overwhelming. It think that coupled with the relief that I had actually made it and then the privilege of seeing such a special animal that is so rarely seen was just too much for me. I am not ashamed to admit that a couple of heavy sobs came out of me as the emotion just welled up inside. The Snow leopard was on the ridge about 800m away from us. The sun was behind him so there was a magnificent back light and at times we could clearly see his hot breathe as it vaporized in the freezing air. The famously unique long tail curled behind him as he reached his spraying rock and then continued along the ridge. This was a large male and we got a fantastic look at how heavy bodied and thick coated they are. At one point we could clearly see him almost chest deep in the snow as he navigated to the very top of the ridge. This is a powerful and yet agile animal that makes his home here in the Himalayas.
As he continued along the ridge he sighted some Blue sheep that were a little higher up than him. Immediately he adopted the typical cat crouch that we have often seen his African cousins do. This was short-lived as the Blue sheep were on to him right away. As the cat relaxed he continued on his slow path and for an hour and fifteen minutes we were able to view him from afar, before he finally dipped over the ridge into the valley on the other side and out of our view. His departure left us wondering if what we had just seen was really real...
Absolutely everything went right for this moment. Firstly, we were not even supposed to be here as we had planned to spend this day acclimatising in Leh. Most sightings of Snow leopard are very brief, but this one was long enough for everyone in our team, and the camp staff, to get a great view of him. When Chita had initially found him he was a mere 100m away and the cat almost spooked without anyone getting a view. So, we are so very lucky to have had this experience.
This is one of my most emotional moments in all my wildlife encounters. I realise how privileged we were to see this animal. There are perhaps no more than 500 Westerns that have ever seen a Snow leopard alive and we were able to share the sighting with people who likewise love nature and could grasp how amazing this was!
The Days Following the Sighting
Camp morale was massive after the sighting and we were all super confidant that we would have another sighting. The signs were all there. Most mornings we would find fresh, fresh tracks and scats. The tracks were often of two leopards travelling together. It was fascinating to see that the long heavy tail also left very clear marks in the fresh snow as it trailed behind.
A very close second to the actually sightings of the Snow leopard was an experience we had at twilight one evening. I did mention earlier that it was mating season and a male on the look out for a female could be heard making contact calls. The sound that echoed through the valley is very difficult to describe. The howling sound is a mixture between a cat and a wolf. I have never heard anything like this, and it was a rather eerie experience. Darkness falls very quickly here and unfortunately we were not able to see the animal.
During the night some members of our team were woken by the same noise as well as the typical leopard cough. He must have passed no less than 100m from our camp. Although we did not get another sighting it was enough to know that he was so close and to hear that strange sound was something special.
Although the focus of our expedition was to find a Snow leopard there were some surprising highlights for me. We got to see a lot of other amazing wildlife including Blue sheep, urial, ibex, Red foxes, a Woolly hare and even a pika. These are all difficult animals to see and I loved the new experiences. Even though this is not the best time for birding we had some impressive sightings of Chukka partridge, Himalayan snow cocks, Lammergeyer vultures and Golden eagle to name a few. But, what completely blew me away was the mountain itself. Just being there I could literally feel the power and raw energy that is present in the Himalayas. It was so invigorating and although this sounds strange I really feel new energy just from spending time there.
A highlight of each day was to wake early and spend time scanning before breakfast. This was often the coldest part of the day and our lowest temperature was –32 degrees Celsius. When one sits in the mountain there is complete and absolute silence, something one can rarely experience now days. We would sit bundled up in layers of clothing and watch the first rays of sun to catch the top of the mountain peaks. I could literally feel the Himalayas awake from her frozen slumber and as we would start to warm from those all important rays of sun we would scan the slopes and ridges for just one more glimpse, and even just imagine The Grey Ghost as he goes about his mysterious existence.
This whole expedition was a once in a life time experience and I am so grateful for having this opportunity.
Homestay Experience and the Snow Leopard Conservancy
Often after wildlife experiences the plight of certain animals and their conservation status is highlighted, and it is not normally good news. Chris and I both feel the same way after this trip, and I am thrilled to say, we are really positive about the future for Snow leopards and other wildlife in Hemis National Park. There are said to be 3500 to 7000 Snow leopards in the wild, with 200 in India. There is a huge discrepancy in those numbers as a proper count has not been done, but with the aid of camera traps researches are hoping to gather better info.
Up to now the biggest threat to the Snow leopards were retaliation killings by local people, and a depleting prey base. Livestock are an easy meal for the Snow leopards and the villages sharing the environment with Snow leopards suffer large fanatical losses when this happens. Their way of dealing with this is to bait and kill them.
The Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) was formed in 2000 and their ways of dealing with this problem was three fold. Through technical and financial support they work with villagers to make predator friendly night time corrals. When villagers receive this aid it is with the precondition that no Snow leopards or wolves are killed. They have also created a community based eco tourism program. Villagers have opened their homes to trekking tourists for an ethnic homestay experience. Funds generated from this help to off set costs from livestock loss and to reduce the dependency on livestock husbandry.
A community based insurance program has also been created. Livestock are insured through co-funding and compensation is given when livestock are killed by predators. The interesting thing about this scheme is that it works on a sliding scale. So, the more livestock are killed, the less compensation. This was implemented to ensure that the villagers put more effort into keeping the corrals predator proof. So, when it is working, everyone wins.
There are some villages that are not accessible to tourists and these communities make woollen handicraft which are sold as “Shan Predator Friendly Wool” (Shan means Snow Leopard in Ladakhi). They are a great memento to take home and we currently have our “Shan Predator Friendly Woollen Snow Leopard” on our bed.
The SLC have managed to eliminate competition at this point. In each village the homestay hosts work on a rotational basis and all craft are sold at the exact same price. From the outside the project seems to be working extremely well and most of the villagers are embracing the initiative. For those that are not involved, much hard work is being done to get them on board.
There are roughly 1600 people living in Hemis National Park and most are benefiting, including other villages outside the park. Having a vested interest in the animals is the best way forward for the conservation of these animals.
If you would like more info you can check out www.snowleopardhimalayas.org .
Our Honestay Experience
We had two really interesting, and fun, homestay experiences. While we were still in Hemis National Park we spent a day hiking up the Rumbak Valley to the very small village of Rumbak, home to just eight families. We had a beautiful three hour hike that took us past a frozen waterfall and even a large nest that has been used by Golden eagles for over one hundred years! Rumbak is located on the Tibetan Plateau so it was great to see some different terrain. We also really enjoyed seeing all the prayer flags flying in the wind leading up to the village.
We were very warmly greeted and invited in for tea at our first stop. The houses are very simple but inside a fantastic wood fire oven is kept on the go. Tea was “chai” which is a very sweet tea made with spices and condensed milk. We were also offered what became infamous amongst our group, “butter tea”. This was definitely an acquired taste! Although no one could speak English, everyone was very friendly and we could see they were all very excited to have us in their home, a feeling that carried through whoever we visited.
We then moved onto the home where we would be having lunch. We were greeted with the same warmth and watched while a traditional meal was cooked. I think it was a vegetable stew with dumplings, but I am not quite sure. We had previously in camp been eating “mutton” which I wrongly assumed was sheep. It was actually goat. After a delicious lunch and once we had finally warmed up, it was time to get back to reality of our cold little tents for the night.
Once we left Hemis National Park we were invited by our cook Sonam, to have an over night home stay experience in the tiny village of Ulley with his sister’s family. There are just three families living here at 4,100 meters. It was a three hour drive from Leh on the most dramatic mountain pass I have ever driven. Around each narrow bend was another unbelievable view. It was obviously a very dangerous road as around almost every corner was a road safety sign. My favourite being “After Whiskey, Driving Risky”.
Noorop, the head of the family, helped guide us to see a magnificent herd of ibex that are close to the village. It was a 2.5 hour hike in deep snow but well worth the effort. Later in the afternoon fifteen of us crowded into the tiny kitchen. We were joined by our guides Chita and Murop and of course Sonam. Shortly before we had a special prayer flag ceremony for our Snow Leopard Expedition, which was very different. While all crowed in the tiny kitchen it was amazing to watch the goings on of this simple family. The best part about both homestay experiences was that we got to experience exactly how these families live. They had not done anything different because we were there so we had an amazing unique and authentic experience. Coming from a world of Blackberry’s and Iphones and all the conveniences we can think of, it struck me how little time we all spend on the really important things in life. There are definitely some good lessons to be learnt just taking a step backward for a few days. Sadly after a three hour ride back to Leh on the winding mountain pass our expedition into the Himalayas and the land of the Snow leopard was over.
The last ten days had been a once in a life time experience and not only did we come away with an awesome sighting of a Snow leopard, but we had also experienced the magic of the mighty Himalayas and its people! Thank you, thank you…