One of our most challenging, but ultimately most rewarding adventures was in November 2011 – a journey into the foothills of the Indian Himalayas to find the mythical Snow Leopard. From the outset, this tour sounded like a challenge! Snow capped mountains; high altitudes; and the challenge of finding one of the most elusive and secretive cats in the world. But that’s surely what adventure travel is all about? Travel in the raw; the thrill of the chase; and the chance to see one of the most beautiful animals in the world! Our decision was finally made after a repeat watch of the BBC’s footage of a Snow Leopard hunting a Blue Sheep – it had to be worth the effort! The BBC have a lot to answer for!
The journey north to Ladakh and Hemis National Park took us from the sweltering heat of New Delhi to freezing mountain air of the Himalayas – one of those problematic plane journeys where you start in shorts and sandals and then find yourself confronted by biting winds on arrival. A few days to acclimatise in Ladakh is the perfect preparation for the days head and allowed us some time to enjoy the cultural sites of the town, including its remarkable Buddhist temples.
Our trek to camp took us high into the mountains, firstly along winding roads and then riverbeds and trails that reach deep into the Snow Leopard territory. Walking poles and good boots are a must as your gaze continually switches between the rocky path beneath your feet and the mountain ridges where Leopards are spotted.
Our camp was simple, but it had all the conveniences we needed. A regular supply of excellent hot food; tea served in the HEATED communal tent; and high quality clothing and equipment kept us safe, comfortable, and secure. To live and trek in the land of the Snow Leopard is no easy feat, but we really were looked after by our local guides.
But would we see a Leopard? The call came VERY early in the morning on Day 2. Waking up, entombed in my sleeping bag, I heard a commotion outside. Unfamiliar language; people running through the camp; and cries from our local guides. That moment when you wake up in an unfamiliar place is always unsettling, but trying to mobilise and coordinate clothing and cameras in a few seconds is not easy! I couldn’t even find my socks! However, stumbling from my tent, a jumble of thermal underwear; down jackets; and binoculars, I raced with my fellow travellers in the direction of the guides. Scrambling up the hillside above our camp, I found 3 guides with spotting scopes and one of the other guests (David – he’d obviously been mid-shave when the call came!). Not wasting a second more, I leapt towards a scope! Adjusting my eyes, I saw something move across my vision. A curved back; a raised paw; the body perfectly camouflaged against the grey of the mountains. Breathtaking, but gone in a moment as it passed between a ravine and over the mountain ridge.
This wasn’t a BBC moment, but it will stay with me forever. Rare animals in inhospitable environments rarely stay for the photo opportunity, but this was certainly a moment to cherish. A ghostly apparition, deep in the Himalayas, offering only a moment to me before disappearing into the unknown. An incredible wildlife encounter and well worth my journey north!
We plan to offer an exclusive SNOW LEOPARD TOUR from 2014 that concentrates on both the Pakistan and Indian side of the territory. Watch this space for photos of our 2011 tour and for future tour dates.