Searching for the snow leopard

We arrived in Leh in Ladakh, Northern India, in early February. I had persuaded friends Nye, Rob and Maureen to come with me. We were accompanied from Delhi by an old Indian friend of mine, David. He and I had talked for years about searching for the most elusive of big cats, the snow leopard.

Reports I had read and TV documentaries suggested our chances of seeing one were slim. But on one of my previous trips to India, looking for tigers, David seemed to be able to find big cats and other wildlife almost at will, so our expectations were high.

The change in altitude and temperature between Delhi and Leh were immediately apparent. Leh is at 3500m and in February it is very cold. We were to have a few days to acclimatise in Leh before heading higher. Our hotel, the Omasila, was one of the few that wasn't closed for the winter. Rooms were basic and, since the pipes were frozen, hot water was delivered in buckets. We didn't realise this was like a five-star hotel compared to what awaited. During our few days in Leh we explored the Indus Valley, several of the imposing Buddhist monasteries and enjoyed an outdoor ice-hockey game attended by thousands of locals.

We drove north-west to the village of Uley, which has just seven houses, two catering for visitors - although normally in the warmer months.

The rooms had mattresses on the floor, with a tiny wood-burning stove which gave out heat for a few minutes before the temperature dropped below zero again, freezing our water bottles at night. Our sleeping bags were rated tog -20 and kept us warm.

It is vital to drink a lot of water to combat altitude sickness and one of my most vivid memories of this trip is getting up frequently during the night and making the trek across the open roof top, down the steps and across the yard, disturbing sleeping yaks and cows as I made my way to the toilet pit.

We ate in the kitchen of Norboo's house, with his wife and sons preparing the food. We had brought most of it with us from Delhi and they kept us well fed, although we did find that tinned peaches are not quite the same when they've been frozen solid.

We spent the next 10 days in Uley. Our host Norboo knew of six different snow leopards that visited the valley we were in, so our hopes were high, but he was concerned for some of his yaks that roamed freely in the valley.

Ibex and urial (wild sheep) also come down from the peaks and we hoped that spotting them would lead us to seeing a snow leopard. We got close to some ibex and had some distant sightings of urial and a wolf but although we saw some recent tracks, we did not see a snow leopard. With the weather making it impossible to do much farm work, some of the villagers would help us, getting up before daybreak and scouring the slopes for tell-tale signs in the fresh snow.

Tracks were spotted on a couple of occasions but they were leading out of our valley. David's reputation as a wildlife "magnet" was in tatters. On the eighth day at about 6pm a snow leopard was spotted on a ridge about a kilometre away. Attempts to photograph it were fruitless but at least we had seen one and knew they existed.

The next day our spotters were out in force but fresh snow had covered the leopard's tracks. That afternoon we received a message that a large male had been seen near the road further down the valley. We drove carefully looking for tracks but the elusive cat actually crossed behind our vehicles and was next spotted at the bottom of a tributary valley. Out came the long lenses again, but our quarry moved amazingly quickly through the rugged terrain and only distant shots were recorded. But, we had got a reasonable view and those freezing days and nights were almost forgotten.

The following day we said our goodbyes to Norboo and his family, who had looked after us so well and tried so hard to get us close to a snow leopard. We drove back to Leh and the Omasila Hotel. Never has a bucket wash and shower seemed so good.

The West Australian

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