Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Jungli billi

My driver's name is Gajanan. This alone is enough to know that he is Marathi, from Maharashtra where the elephant god's many names - Vighneshwar, Ganpati, Ganesh - are sacred. As we drive from Nagpur he tells me of his village, his cattle and his buffaloes. Soon though our conversation, in my stumbling Hindi and his, in his stumbling English, and sometimes rapidly in his mother Marathi, must die and we are happy to smile silently in one another's company.

I am waking as we drive, not just from my five o'clock start and my two hours' fog delay on the airstrip in Delhi, but waking to central India, remembering as we go: the fresh glossy leaves of neem, washed by a great rain two days ago; the purplish terracotta breast of a laughing dove puffed in song; the silk cottons heavy with today's fresh scarlet flower.

In a ripe field of cotton a cotton-clad woman stoops ghostly in white; by her are the ghost nests of last year's baya weavers. Beanpole boys pass with bundled burdens on their heads, as strong and slender as the tall teaks in whose little shade they tread. The scytheblade horns of sagging buffaloes sway past fields of fat, whiskered wheat and happy golden sunflowers.

For twenty minutes we pass a great train of Rajasthani gypsies. (I try to discern a more appropriate name for their culture but all Gajanan can muster is 'gypsy'.) The women blaze in red, magenta and gold; their hundreds of lop-eared cattle, all are dark tan and handsome.

By the road I hear and see the buoyant, dreaming flight of black-winged kites, the hunched shoulders of long-tailed shrikes, the chipper trill of purple sunbird males.

Gajanan stops the car. 'Wild cat,' he says, 'Rat is coming.' In the shade of an acacia on the bank of a rice-paddy ditch crouches a jungle cat, relaxed but purposeful. 'Very difficult to see,' he tells me in our stammering Hindi. 'Tiger you see, but not jungli billi.'

I beam. I am nervous, yes. The excitement of seeking tigers always makes me nervous. But I beam at the sight of my first jungle cat of the year, my second Indian cat in 2015. I beam to be here, happy to be embraced again by central India, her birds, her mammals, her flowers and her people.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   3
jungle cat Felis chaus                                1

I took my soul to the sky

I took my soul to the sky. In Ladakh, where I went, bold eagles hold the snow-clenched mountaintops and lammergeiers' daggered wings slice the day. In winter here the rivers freeze but, underneath, their waters drum a cold tattoo, flowing deep as they do to the Indus in its milder valley. Motion and motionlessness: this is winter in Ladakh.

Motion is in a flurry of horned larks over dusty fields and fields of snow. Motion is in the falling flakes and in the clouds which bring them. Motionlessness is in the mountains. Or almost, for as the triangle of India pushes north, orphaned these many million years from her mother Gondwana, these mountains inch their way to the sky. To which I take my soul.

I inch to the sky too, in the helter skelter of choughs on the morning wind. I inch to the sky in the scree-shifting feet of the blue sheep up the heady slopes above my tent. I inch to the sky in the trunks and twigs of winter naked poplars. They take my soul to the sky,

Here in the sky lives a cat. A nothing nowhere night-borne cat whose name is shan. It is here and I am here and the cold same air sears our lungs both. I met this sky cat two years ago here, since when it has gnawed at me with the same ferocious hunger with which it gnaws at sheep it kills.

It comes. It fills the valleys with its sky-big eyes. Slips, silent on the scree, through the dusk and the day's birth, above our temporary canvas world. It sits on a mountain crest, a thousand metres from us, yet in us. Its great tail strokes the sky as it bounds down the mountainside away.

All things else are nothing in the presence of this cat. The eagles its messengers, the ibex and the sheep its quaking people. We are its witness, blessed few who know this mountain winter cold, the stark wonder of these valleys.

While still it roams these mountains, silent over scree, the sky cat roams my soul and I must come to see. The cold and the hard ground, the bare air and my dry, nose-burning breath are nothing. For the sky cat calls. And I, its soul prey, answer.

I took my soul to the sky.

Monday, 2 March 2015

An iPhone in Hemis

Hemis National Park in winter is a place of rare beauty. During our stay there I took these photos of its landscapes, its harsh grandeur, its friendly people and their livestock.

Denzel the yak

On our first night a client heard a landslide.
It turned out to be the latrine collapsing.

Crossing a frozen river in the Rumbak gorge

Scanning for snow leopards

My tent in the snow

Denzel selfie

Sonam's snow leopard print

The younger Sonam



Angchok and Norboo

Konchok searching Rumbak Sumdo

Angchok and a marsh tit

Petroglyphs in the Husing Valley

Latrine repairs in progress

Temporary tent latrine

Iced water. The coldest night this year reached
eleven degrees below zero. 

A camp dismantled

The older Sonam, an expert snow leopard spotter

How Naturetrekkers celebrate their return to Leh
after successful snow leopard watching

A video diary from Hemis National Park

Yesterday we reached Leh after six demanding, remarkable days and nights in Hemis National Park, camping in the snow and watching snow leopards, blue sheep, large-eared pikas and lammergeiers. Today, after a delay of three hours due to bad weather, we reached the warm, thick air of Delhi. Tomorrow I am busy all day here and the following morning I travel to Maharashtra to begin my search for tigers, Indian leopards and jungle cats. In the coming weeks I will share many words here on Hemis and the wonders it offers me each time I visit. For now here are the videos I made in the park in the past few days.

Monday, 23 February 2015


Off to Hemis National Park, to my little tent in the snow. See you in a week.

Sunday, 22 February 2015


Shan is the Ladakhi word for snow leopard. We saw one today.

This is the more remarkable because we have yet to enter Hemis National Park, yet to camp in the snow, yet to try our mountain-tired legs on the dusty slopes of the Husing and Tarbung valleys. Today we went on a day trip to the beautiful village of Ulley, in a secluded valley beyond the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers.

I knew yesterday that there was a chance we might see a snow leopard in Ulley. Three days ago one took a young domestic yak above the village and has been visiting it ever since. It was seen by my colleague Morup there yesterday. With the wholehearted agreement of my new colleague Konchok, who is accompanying us to the park tomorrow, I decided not to tell my group; after the complexity of our arrival in Ladakh, we felt they needed a good night's rest. So I kept quiet and fretted alone through the night.

The journey to Ulley takes more than two hours and, on the gentle slopes leading up from the Indus, we saw Ladakh urial or red sheep but could not find the wolves which Morup had seen here yesterday. As we neared Ulley, the skies brooding and fine snow falling, we needed chains on our wheels to cross yesterday's snow-fall on many tight corners. All the while the news from our friend Nurboo in Ulley was bad: he had not seen the snow leopard today. She had apparently left her kill.

Reaching Ulley we waited for the cold and the snow to pass, sipping fragrant tea in Nurboo's lovely wood-beamed home. At 4,200 metres, Ulley is the highest point on our tour so it was slowly that we made our way up the ridge behind Nurboo's house to scan for Asiatic ibex and, we hardly dared to hope, for the snow leopard.

The ibex were easy; groups of these magnificent animals were on the slopes on either side of the great valley. Then, as we trudged further uphill, there came a shout from above us. Nurboo had found the snow leopard!

Altitude was forgotten, hearts raced, and we scrambled over snow and rocks to reach Nurboo. By the body of the yak she had killed and eaten sat a female snow leopard, content on a full belly, resting in the first rays of the sun to penetrate the day's snow-laden clouds.

We watched her for two hours as she yawned and flicked her tail, ate snow and defecated, and rolled to face one way then the other. Finally she stood and walked a short distance, her exquisitely squiggled flank towards us, and settled almost out of view on a buttress of rock.

This cat, several hundred metres from us, commanded the vastness of a mountain valley and the focus of eleven westerners crowded around telescopes beneath her. Seeing her my clients joined the privileged group of souls who have seen this wildest of animals on its own terms, in its majestic landscape, when it chooses to be seen. She knew we were there and sometimes she glanced towards us with disdain in her ice-pale eyes, but she chose to be seen all the same.

Snow leopards and ibex, hand made in felt by his son,
for sale in Nurboo's home

There's a snow leopard in the centre of this picture.

Naturetrekkers watching said snow leopard

The view up the valley above Ulley

Tomorrow we walk to Rumbak, in Hemis National Park, and, from my little tent in the ice and snow, I shall not be able to write here for six nights.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   1

Saturday, 21 February 2015


I had been lulled into complacency by the flawless logistics and peerless wildlife of Tanzania. Things on my Big Cat Quest couldn't of course continue so well all year.

They didn't.

Our layover in Delhi was always going to be long, between two in the morning and the six-thirty departure of our flight to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. We diligently waited until six to be told that our flight had been delayed for two hours, apparently thanks to a raging storm in the Himalayas. In return, breakfast would be provided. So far, so reasonable.

Post breakfast, we returned to the gate and again waited. The news reached us perfunctorily: 'Flight 9W 2368 to Leh has been cancelled.' Looking calm is generally best in situations like these so I stood up from my group, the picture of control, and listened to the frenetic conversations in Hindi which had begun with the young man at the gate. We would be officially checked off the flight, our boarding passes and security tags marked as void, our bags would be restored to us and - here's the rub - I would have to petition the airline for space on the next flight. The young man would give no indication of when this would be but I could tell from his guilt-ridden manner that it was not likely to be soon.

Once we reached the luggage hall I left my clients, who were taking the situation admirably well, to wait for their bags. I felt it best to maintain the psychological advantage so I sped to the airline desk to find out the score. Here things began to go properly pear-shaped. There would be no flight the next day, the following day's was full, and there would again be none the day after that. What was more, the freak weather had been present for days and was expected to continue for several days to come.

So would we like our money back? I bit my lip and politely explained that my clients' entire trip hinged on getting to Ladakh and Hemis National Park as soon as possible and that having their money back, as bijou a gesture as it was, was unlikely to appease them.

Stalemate. In a hot arrivals lounge with no-one in the group having slept the night before and several not having slept for two nights, there ensued two hours of phone calls to and from our brilliant ground agency in Delhi and Naturetrek in the UK, plus more conversations with the airline. We made plans A, B, C and D and dreamed up every possible scenario. Finally we indeed opted to have our money back and booked a flight with a different airline the following day, spending the night in the last available hotel rooms in the whole of Delhi.

The weather system passed, our flight left and arrived and, though it had seemed impossible just yesterday, today we are in Ladakh. It is good to be here again.

The lofty Stok range looms to the south of the Indus, across the valley from our hotel. Red-billed choughs swirl and tumble over the hills and under a bridge a brown dipper dips. Friendly dogs curl in the winter sun on the tops of mud walls, smiling ladies greet us, julley julley, as say their constant mantras and keep their prayer wheels always spinning. Yes, it is good to be back.

In the afternoon we failed to find ibisbill at Sindhu Ghat, but saw common merganser, teal, greenshank, redshank and plankton-common white-winged redstarts in the sea buckthorn along the river. We then visited the historic gompas of Thiksay and Shey. At the first the serene Maitreya Buddha quietly smiled and flocks of rock doves flew in swift circles round the hilltop monastery.

At Shey, for the second year, we happened to visit on the day of a great puja, a Buddhist ceremony, led by a rinpoche from Hemis Gompa; the smell of butter lamps hanging over the monastery and the sound of drums and pipes greeting us as, step by high-mountain step, we trudged up to it.

Shakyamuni Buddha

It is late and I have been up since three this morning. We have a long day in Ulley tomorrow, so I must sleep. At Thiksay, though. the courtyard is guarded by a pair of mythical snow lions. Here is one, in case I see none of their real cousins.