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.
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.
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.