Snow Leopard Trip Report

Fred and Lynette Dubendorf

09 Apr 2014

In search of snow leopards in India

We love to travel just in hopes of seeing wildlife in its' own environment. Of course, tigers were high on our priority list and, therefore, a trip to India was necessary. Upon checking out what was available, we discovered Natural World Safaris offered amazing trips that included tigers, temples and the Taj. Surprisingly, they also had the camping in the Himalayas to try to spot the elusive snow leopard!

Now that we are home and recalling our completed trip, the snow leopard portion was by far our favourite. We flew from Delhi to Leh. We spent a couple of nights in Leh, visiting a few of the monasteries and getting used to the altitude. Our hotel (the Grand Dragon) was warm and friendly with a beautiful view from our room of the Himalayas. All meals at the restaurant were a la carte and made to order. If you decide to go, order the momos at lunchtime so they can make them especially for you to have at dinnertime. They are a regional specialty and worth the trouble!

We were lucky when visiting the monasteries because the Hemis Monastery was having a special event where all of the locals come throughout the week to gather in lessons and prayer. While at Hemis Monastery we had a room-by-room tour and got to look in tiny rooms and hidden corners. Our guide took us to the kitchen where several local couples were preparing food and gave us a nice sampling of their butter tea and another local tea - both were very unusual and warming. We were the only tourists and everyone would nod and smile as we watched everything going on. 

Everyone waited in anticipation for the services to start by laying out thick carpets onto the rough stone courtyard and kneeling or sitting down to relax while they talked amongst themselves and spun their hand-held prayer wheels. It was a calming and beautiful sight standing within the monastery walls while the sun reflected off the snow-capped mountains. Each grouping included small babies all the way to family elders. There is something touching to see such young faces full of wonder and hope and such aged faces full of so much wisdom and experience. 

After that visit, we continued the rest of the day by visiting several other monasteries that were like ghosts towns because everyone was at Hemis. We were able to poke around and take our time with not a single other person in sight. We ended the day by taking a quiet stroll through Leh.

We had a beautiful drive to Hemis National Park where we would stay for 4 nights in search of a snow leopard.

On our way, we had to stop at a designated spot to light some incense and leave a prayer flag in hopes of a safe trip and a little extra luck in our quest. When we arrived at the end of the driving portion, we were told we had about a 1-1/2 hour hike to our campsite. But, as luck would have it, when we got out of the car, one of our camp staff was waiting to tell us that we should hurry since a snow leopard was spotted from camp. Even with the altitude, we were able to get to the campsite in about 40 minutes. We raced through trying to catch our breath because of the altitude, we ignored blue sheep, assorted birds and beautiful scenery in hopes of catching even the slightest glimpse of a snow leopard.

There they were - Yes, two snow leopards! The sky was an intense blue against the white snow of the mountains. And there, up on the top ridge, were two beautiful snow leopards. We couldn't get a good look with our naked eye and, even through our camera they were difficult to see. But, with our guides' scope, they were clear as day. We watched them for about 3 hours. They would walk along the ridge, sit, and sometimes lay in the sun. One got up and then just plopped back down, rolled onto its back, stretched out its neck and paws and just laid there while it slept. Amazing . . . we watched and watched. Eventually one came down the mountain and little way but then they both slowly moved back up to the ridge and then over to the other side and out of sight. It was a great way to start the true beginning of the trip.

At night we slept in a little tent just barely big enough for two. We had sleeping bags that we were told the military use up in the glaciers. We were given a liner and hot water bottle for extra heat. We were warm and snug all night, one of us even found it a little two warm and had to discard the liner and only use the hot water bottle during the coldest hours of the early morning. 

We spent each day in search of snow leopards. We hiked, watched the beautiful blue sheep, many beautiful birds and one day tracked a little orange weasel to get photos as it bounced through the snow. We hiked to Rumbak for a night’s sleep at a homestay. The older couple made us their regional specialty of momos - the best dumplings we've ever had.

The Ladakh Region of India where we visited Leh, Hemis National Park, Rumbak and the Himalayas was definitely our favourite portion of the three-week trip to India. Everyone was so generous and genuine. It was awe inspiring to see the beautiful snow leopards in their natural surroundings and in an environment that is so inhospitable that you know they will be safe in their natural surroundings without human interference for a long time to come. That is something that you rarely experience when trying to view wildlife anymore.

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