To say heading to Ladakh is an adventure would be a considerable understatement. This northern-most state of India is nothing like anywhere else in the country, drawing heavily on its Himalayan/Tibetan influence, it provides a window to the roof of the world like not other. Steeped in centuries of history and front-of-the-queue scenery, this is one of the most stunning landscapes on the continent.
It’s also high. You leave behind the smog and chaos of Delhi, and fly to the beautiful city of Leh….landing at over 10,000 feet. To say the that the mountains take your breath away would be somewhat ironic. For sure they contribute, but it’s the lack of oxygen (although, to be fair, Delhi hardly tops up your O2 levels…but that’s for another reason!) that intoxicates, tires and puts your life in perspective. Yep, the first couple of days here are slow with a capital “Whoa!”. But after 48 hours, you’re on your way to camp, in my case ‘Lungmar’, a couple of hours away, nestled in a remote valley. And ever so slightly higher…at around 13,000 feet. From here, your explorations will take you even further into these glacial valleys (and up another 1,000 feet or so in altitude…but don’t worry, it’s all done very slowly and vehicles will get you part of the way), in pursuit of the almost mythical “Shan”, or, “snow leopard” to most. Blue sheep abound, and the fortunate will have a reasonable chance of bumping into Tibetan wolves too. But, it’s the leopards you will come for sure, and with a near 100% success rate on sighting these cats during a stay of a week or more, then you can be confident you’re in the best place possible.
But let’s put a bit of perspective on things. Most of your sightings will be at range and to get useable imagery, you will want at least a 500mm plus extender, or greater. It is possible that sometimes the cats will be nearer, but they are usually wary and watchful from distance. If you’ve got an 800mm, then you will certainly get more. But, all these pics you see of close-ups are either camera trap footage (see later), or captive animals, or heavily cropped. Don’t let them fool you. It’s not impossible, but in reality your sightings are going to be at least 500 metres away, and possibly more.
But…to merely sight one of these beautiful cats is a privilege. Never forget that. Know this before you go, and be pleasantly surprised….
It’s a lifetime ambition…
So, if you’re convinced that this ghost of the mountains is an ambition you simply cannot cope without achieving…let me give you some advice
Guides: Choose VERY wisely about who you travel with. The team I base with are simply the world’s best snow leopard spotters and trackers. They are out in all weathers, 24/7 whether I, or you, are there, and as such the information and network they have is second to none. There is a reason that all of us professionals choose this team – and by that I include the likes of Nat Geo and the BBC – and I can help you access their unique way of working too. What is more, there’s a whole team of them…not just one guy with a monocular scope and jittery tripod. Some tour companies I have seen come through simply have one local guide and someone from outside the country. This is formula that is not going to deliver the best of sightings. Indeed, they are usually the type of group that turns up at someone else’s viewing and cashes in that way 😉
Accommodation: it’s high, it’s cold and it can be tougher conditions for some. Even if you’re an Olympian, the altitude can cause you to lose your breath and the odds are that you won’t be staying long enough to fully acclimatise. As such, having the right base to sleep, eat and relax between outings in is critical. If you’re uncomfortable, then the conditions will simply compound that feeling. This team has a purpose-built lodge with excellent, simple, local food, very comfortable beds, and hot showers. Some places will not even have running water. The latter might be an “experience” for a while….but that novelty soon wears off! After a long day in the field, coming back to a hot shower is one of life’s great pleasures for sure! The lodge not only has super comfortable rooms (well, suites), it does also provide permanent, heated, extremely well-appointed rigid tents too for those that prefer a more rustic sleeping point! However, this is not the “fly sheet, cold ground” type of accommodation…think “glamping” instead.
Optics: most guides in the region will have limited access to scopes. All are great at using them, and will do their utmost to show you a leopard. However, there’s no substitute for quality and the team we work with are equipped with multiple, binocular scopes that could pick Shan out at three kilometres away! This investment in technology is substantial and makes all the difference I can assure you.
Location: snow leopards range across the Himalayas, and there are several “prime” spotting areas where at certain times of year, these beautiful cats reveal themselves at lower altitudes. The team we work with are out in all weathers scouting, so that you can afford to be looking somewhere else (perhaps just getting some other pictures!) and then get radio-ed in to the key point when a cat is spotted. This maximises your chances of encounters, and saves you a lot of time in needless traversing of the landscape. You can be focused on what you’re doing at all times, safe in the knowledge that a cat sighting will be passed on immediately, and you delivered to the location. The valleys we work in have far less tourist-traffic than those ploughed by others, and a high cat density. The network with goat herders and the general local population is also the best in the region – ensuring a flow of information and most importantly, a true beneficial impact from your visit. A financial contribution is made from EVERY person that stays there, improving the lives of locals and reducing wild animal/domestic livestock conflict.
Pedigree: if you’re out camera-trapping and tracking for some of the world’s leading documentary-makers, as well as steering a small phalanx of professional photographers to optimum locations, then, the chances are, you know what you’re doing. This is absolutely the case here. There will be plenty of photographic advice on site, as well as a full itinerary of searching the area. If you want to get involved in some camera-trapping too, then you can bring your kit, help set it up, and for an additional fee have it checked, downloaded, re-charged and, if need be, moved during the course of a further 12 months to increase your chances of that once-in-a-lifetime close-up.
Dealing direct: so passionate am I about making sure – across the board – that people get the right experience, then I will be able to hook you in directly to this team who will take care of everything from the moment you land in Delhi to the time you leave again. The advantage? A clearly published price on their website with no extraneous/mysterious “charges” that get added and no “middle man” making money out of you for supplying no extra service.
Photo guiding: At present, I’m working on a “spotted cat” project, so although I’ll be passing thru from time to time, I won’t be formally leading a trip. That said, if you want to be there at the same time as me, that’s perfectly ok of course and I’ll do my best on the ground to give you advice/suggestions and bore you with stories! However, normally, I would be leaving the photo suggestions to the team at camp. As such, these are completely bespoke, non-group trips (although, if we have enough people wanting to go, ill try and co-ordinate it so you can all travel together with a single mission!).
For now then, the trips are fully customisable in terms of how long you want to spend on the ground
(I would always suggest a minimum of 6-7 nights in the camp itself, and preferably a couple more).
I feel the need…
So there you go….interested? Departure dates should be from November to February each year, as these are the prime weather conditions that will force the leopards to lower altitudes in their pursuit of blue sheep. If you’re going to go, then this is when the time is right. I have access to dates and availability so DO drop me a line first so that I can get the ball rolling and also give you some advice and feedback as you build towards the trip.
If you want to see snow leopards, then, yes, there are many options out there. But if you REALLY want to see them, and have a range of experiences, then this is the ONLY way to go.