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“Ghost of the Mountains” Snow Leopard Expedition with Daniel Bailey

The ORYX India – Snow Leopard Expedition was finally underway as we touched down in Leh, a charming town situated in the heart of the awe-inspiring Trans-Himalayas. With its unique location nestled between the majestic Himalayan mountain ranges, the flight to Leh Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport is undeniably one of the most picturesque in the world, providing us with a breath-taking introduction to the adventure that lay ahead.

The excitement was palpable as we disembarked the plane and stepped into a winter wonderland and a brisk -11°C. After clearing customs, our transfer vehicle whisked us away to the luxurious Grand Dragon Hotel where our group settled into our exquisite accommodation. In order to acclimatize to the high altitude of 3,400 meters, it was important to take it easy for the first day or two. Our group got acquainted over lunch and we took in the stunning surroundings and soaked up the atmosphere. It was vital to relax, sleep, and adjust to the altitude, so we could fully immerse ourselves in the incredible experiences that awaited us on this unforgettable journey.

The old silk route town of Leh exudes a certain charm and mystique that set the perfect tone for our expedition. The anticipation of encountering the elusive snow leopard was mounting, and we couldn’t wait to immerse ourselves in the rugged beauty of this unique and remote corner of the world.

In the evening our group meet with Behzad Larry, and we shared a delightful dinner together. Little did we know that this would be the start of an unforgettable adventure. At dinner we were informed of a Snow Leopard sighting with an Ibex kill. The leopard had been seen throughout the day, and the presumption was that he would still be feeding on his carcass. The scheduled itinerary was quickly put on hold for the next day, as we all agreed that this was an opportunity not to be missed. The planned sightseeing and exploration of the monasteries, culture, and historical wonders of Leh was postponed for now. Our focus was firmly fixed on trying our luck to get a sighting of our first Snow leopard.

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At dawn we met for coffee and after a short drive our group was lucky enough to find the snow leopard at the same location. He was an older male snow leopard and he was still feeding on his female Ibex kill. What an incredible experience! I’ll never forget looking through the Swarovski Spotting scope and fixing eyes with this specific snow Leopard. He was a grizzly, old male with heavy scaring down the length of the right side of his face, and a torn up nose and ghostly blue eyes. Locking eyes and having him stare straight at my direction. Our group’s first sighting was truly unforgettable. We were absolutely thrilled to watch him for eight whole hours, as he rested, fed, guarded and chased magpies away from his kill.

Despite the long hours of waiting, it was well worth it. We were able to observe the snow leopard in his natural habitat, at close range (less than 200 meters, a great distance for photography) getting a glimpse into his daily life and habits. The beauty and power of this magnificent animal was truly awe-inspiring. As we watched, we sipped on hot beverages, continuously offered a delicious selection of coffee and teas. Masala Chai, Green, lemon ginger honey, tea! You name it to keep us hydrated and warm. Our group even enjoyed a hot breakfast and some of us even enjoyed lunch at the sighting, maximizing our time with this incredible creature.

After such an exhilarating first encounter with the grizzly old, male snow leopard, we couldn’t wait to see what the next day had in store for us. In the evening, we gathered for dinner and celebrated our brilliant first encounter, reminiscing about the sights and sounds of the day. During dinner, we were briefed on the plan for the next day – we would be transferring to the LungMār Remote Snow Leopard Camp. After an early breakfast, we would depart Leh via a road transfer to the camp, which was approximately an hour’s drive away. On route we would do our sightseeing with a visit to the Thiksey Monastery.

We were all eager to continue our journey and see more of this beautiful region. The excitement and anticipation was palpable. The next morning we departed the Grand Dragon Hotel and after a short drive arrived at the Thiksey Monastery.

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The Thiksey Monastery is a prominent Buddhist monastery located in Ladakh, India. It is situated on top of a hill at an altitude of 3,600 meters above sea level, with incredible views of the surrounding Himalayas and the Indus River below. The monastery was founded in the 15th century by Palden Lhamo, the nephew of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa sect, also known as the Yellow Hat sec of Tibetan Buddhism. Thiksey Monastery is famous for its stunning architecture. The twelve-story monastery complex is made up of several temples, stupas, prayer halls, and residential quarters for 80 monks.

The main temple of Thiksey Monastery is home to a 15-meter-high statue of Maitreya Buddha. The statue, which stands at 15-meters (49 feet) tall, is one of the largest representations of Maitreya in the world. It was consecrated in 2010 and took four years to build. The statue is made of clay and covered in gold paint. It is located in the monastery’s prayer hall, which is decorated with colourful murals and contains other important Buddhist artifacts. Maitreya Buddha, also known as the Future Buddha, is a figure in Buddhist tradition who is believed to be the next Buddha to appear in the world. According to Buddhist scripture, Maitreya Buddha will come to Earth when the teachings of the current Buddha, Gautama Buddha, have been forgotten and lost. Maitreya is often depicted as a smiling, seated Buddha with a rounded belly, symbolizing abundance and contentment. In some traditions, Maitreya is seen as a bodhisattva, or enlightened being, who postpones his own enlightenment to help others achieve it. The statue serves as a symbol of hope and compassion, and represents the Buddhist ideal of achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

Thiksey Monastery is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists and attracts many tourists every year. The monastery is also famous for its annual festival, the Gustor Festival, which is held in the ninth month of the Tibetan calendar. The prayer wheels at Thiksey Monastery are cylindrical drums that are filled with thousands of mantras or prayers written on pieces of paper. To use a prayer wheel, one spins the drum clockwise while reciting the mantra or prayer. This action is believed to bring merit and blessings to the person spinning the wheel, as well as to all sentient beings. Thiksey Monastery also has a large drum that is used during religious ceremonies and festivals. This drum is made of copper and is decorated with images of deities and Buddhist symbols. When played, the drum produces a deep, resonant sound that is said to symbolize the beating of the Buddha’s heart. Our group explored the monastery, watched the monks perform their daily rituals, and enjoyed the stunning views of the surrounding Himalayan mountains and Indus River.

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As we continued on our journey, to Langmār Remote Snow Leopard Camp we couldn’t help but feel grateful for the opportunity to have already witnessed our first snow leopard, and to be surrounded by such unparalleled natural beauty. It was truly a once in a decade sighting, to see him on a kill within the range of 150 meters, it was the perfect photographic opportunity.  We were ready to embrace the challenges that lay ahead and to fully embrace this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We crossed the Indus River and weaved our way through the mountain passes and steep, rocky valleys. We had arrived at camp and after short briefing checked into our accommodation. The Snow Leopard camp is nestled deep in the Ladakh Mountain range of India, beyond medieval Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries and past ancient shepherding hamlets. It is a spectacular location and coupled with a timeless Silk Road feel, it strikes the perfect balance between remote luxury and rugged adventure. The camp blends the stunning art and architecture of the ancient caravansaries of this region with a thoughtfully designed, high-tech camp. Staffed with a renowned expedition crew, the employee-owned property is purpose-built for the cold winters that accompany peak Snow Leopard season (January-March).

There are eight Kurkhang Tents which comprise of hand-stitched canvas, custom insulation, central heat, and are furnished with one king sized or two twin beds. They are designed for warmth and comfort and provide a classic “bush glamping” experience. There are four heated, environmentally friendly, composting toilets within a short walking distance from the cluster of Kurkhang Tents. For those looking for more luxury there are four Shanku Suites, located at the main building – all with en-suite bathrooms and central heating. All guests also have access to the Hammām, which is a modern interpretation of a Turkish Bath combined with a banya, a traditional Russian sauna. The Hammām is a heated stone building, with private shower and dressing rooms and a small wood-lined sauna.

A central dining and lounge space inspired by Silk Road aesthetics, is at the heart of camp, where classic cuisine meals will be prepared by professional chefs, hot drinks will be served, and one can enjoy the south facing views of the majestic mountains. After settling in and unpacking we met for a late lunch. The excitement and anticipation was palpable, as we talked about what we hoped to see and experience during our time at the camp. In the afternoon the group had the opportunity to relax, rest and settle in.  Some of the guests opted to go for a short walk to a local village and see the shepherding hamlets and the beauty of the valley surrounded by the mountain slopes.

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The schedule for the next six days of tracking snow leopards was relatively relaxed, with everyone having the option to join the trackers and spotters at 7 am or to rest, have breakfast, and join later in the morning. If there was a sighting of a snow leopard, guests will be notified and brought out from camp to see the magnificent animal. In addition to the morning spotting session, there was also a midday and/or longer afternoon spotting session before returning to camp for a delicious dinner and drinks in the evening. This relaxed schedule allowed all the guests, at their own pace, to fully immerse themselves in the beautiful mountain environment, and experience the thrill of tracking and potentially seeing the world’s most elusive big cats, the “Ghosts of the Mountain”.

Snow Leopards are known for being some of the most elusive animals on the planet, but during the winter months, they move to lower altitudes in search of their prey, which includes mountain sheep and antelope. February and March are prime mating months for Snow Leopards, which can increase the chances of witnessing interactions between these solitary big cats. We would head out by vehicle, and then short daily treks with the expert spotters to track and locate snow leopards in the wild. The team, consists of highly-awarded conservationists, trackers, and guides, with over two decades of experience in Snow Leopard habitats both locally and internationally. Their expertise ensured that we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

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The spotters, and willing guests would set out at dawn to search for snow leopards. , These elusive big cats are most active during dawn and dusk. Throughout the day, trackers scan the ridges and slopes for any signs of wildlife, reporting back to camp if they spot anything of interest. If a snow leopard is seen, we would head to the best vantage point, by car and then walk, to where the spotter is located. Meals, snacks, coffee, and tea were always on offer as we spent a few hours searching or observing a sighting.

During our outings, we had the pleasure of spending time with the trackers and enjoyed each other’s company while scanning the ridge lines in search of Snow Leopards. The group had access to six, eye-piece Swarovski scopes, in order have a better look at the wildlife on offer. We were delighted to have the local shepherd’s dogs join us, adding to our tracking team. Together, we navigated the rugged terrain and kept a watchful eye out for any signs of wildlife. It was a truly memorable experience to witness the harmony between humans and animals, all working together towards a common goal.

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We encountered our first blue sheep. Blue sheep, also known as bharal, are a wild sheep species that are well adapted to living in steep, rocky terrain. They have a bluish-grey coat that helps them blend in with their surroundings and avoid predators. Snow leopards are known to prey on blue sheep, which are one of their primary food sources. We also had sightings of our first birds of prey including the Golden eagle, Himalayan Griffin Vulture and the Lammergeier (or Bearded vulture).

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During the one afternoon of our expedition, we were fortunate enough to spot a female Snow Leopard, along with her two cubs known locally as the Abi Langpa family. We first noticed them as their silhouettes broke the mountain ridge line. The mother quickly moved to collect her cubs, and we watched as she potentially noticed a group of blue sheep and attempted to hunt on the other side. The cubs, who were around nine months old, played on the roof of the world, at an altitude of 5500 meters (18,000 feet), making for a truly special sighting. Although photographically challenging at a great distance, we were able to capture the moment on video using a 400mm lens with a 2x converter and in 4k video, utilizing the internal 1.6x crop to get a longer reach – an equivalent of 1280mm. Some of our group managed to get photographs of the two cubs playing in the snow and lovely silhouette images of them chasing each other on top of the mountain.

All that aside, it was an simply, an incredible experience to witness these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. Never in my wildest dreams did it think we would see a mother and her cubs. Let alone a mother and her two snow leopard cubs playing, literally on the roof of the world!

These majestic creatures were expertly spotted by are tracking team at an altitude of 5500 meters. It goes to show their incredible ability to survive in these extreme Himalayan environments. These beautiful and elusive creatures are well adapted to living in high-altitude environments, such as the rocky and rugged terrain of the Himalayan mountains, where they can be found at such high elevations. Despite the challenging conditions and extreme temperatures, these majestic creatures have adapted to life in this harsh, high-altitude environment, with thick fur to keep them warm, large nasal cavities to help them breathe in thin air, a long thick tail and powerful legs and large paws to help them navigate the rocky, unforgiving terrain. It was a privilege to witness them thriving in their natural habitat.

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We followed the same schedule as previous days, with one exciting change – we moved our morning spotting location to a local farmer’s house known as the Tea House. This cosy spot offered a warm tea room and a fireplace for guests to enjoy while taking a break from the chilly outdoors. The farmer and his family were incredibly friendly and hospitable, always greeting us with warm smiles and refreshing drinks. You must try the Butter Tea! Yum! During our visit, we had the pleasure of meeting Biscuit, the Shepard dog who loved to accompany us on our quest for snow leopards. He was fond of snacks, especially biscuits, and enjoyed basking in the warm sun while receiving love and head scratches from our group. We were also delighted to be accompanied by a little ginger kitten. This tiny feline not only kept our camera bags warm but also entertained us with its playful antics. It pounced and played with everyone in the group, proving that even in the midst of an ‘intense wildlife expedition”, there’s always room for a bit of light-hearted fun.

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After a delicious breakfast brought to us in the field, we embarked on a hike down one of the valleys, following the river and admiring the stunning landscapes. We walked to a scared place with three juniper trees, where we paused to take in the beauty of our surroundings. Our tracking team scanned and searched for any sign of snow leopards in the valley. Along the way, we also learned about the various conservation initiatives in the area, including camera trap setups for the monitoring of snow leopards and Tibetan wolves. It was a fantastic opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of these incredible animals and the efforts being made to protect them in their natural habitat.

After our morning hike, which covered a distance of 3.5 kilometres, we enjoyed lunch and then in the afternoon, we visited the Shang Monastery. It was a special occasion as we had the opportunity to meet and be blessed by His Eminence Kyabje Urgyen Rinpoche. The village had just begun their ceremony of 10 days of prayer, and it was a beautiful and spiritually rewarding cultural experience for everyone.

During the afternoon, as we were driving towards a vantage point, we came across a group of blue sheep that were grazing near the road. We had the opportunity to capture some stunning photographs of these animals as they navigated the treacherous cliff faces. We also had a chance encounter with a local Ladakh woman who was dressed in traditional robes and pray beads, and chanting as she made her way back home from the Shang monastery. She graciously allowed us to take a few photographs of her, and it was a beautiful and culturally enriching experience.

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The trackers spotted a snow leopard on the other side of the mountain, but it was at a great distance, making it difficult to capture great photographs. However, it was an incredible experience to observe the big cat as it scent marked its territory and moved through the rocky terrain. We had breakfast and hot drinks on the mountain while watching the leopard through the scopes. This encounter allowed us to gain a better understanding of the elusive Snow Leopard, also known as the Ghost of the Mountains.

The Himalayas are known for their stunning and otherworldly geology, shaped by millions of years of tectonic activity and erosion. These majestic mountains are home to some of the world’s highest peaks, including Mount Everest, and are a crucial source of freshwater for much of Asia.

The Himalayas were formed through the collision of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, which began around 50 million years ago. This collision caused the Earth’s crust to buckle and fold, forming the towering mountain range we see today. One of the most striking features of the Himalayas is their jagged peaks, which have been sculpted by millions of years of erosion from wind, water, and ice. The region is also home to numerous glaciers, which have helped to carve out the deep valleys and steep-sided gorges.

The region’s unique geography and climate have created a rich diversity of plant and animal life, including iconic species such as the Snow Leopard, Tibetan Wolf, Himalayan fox, herds of  Blue sheep and Asiatic Ibex. Himalayan region, is known for its rich biodiversity, including a variety of bird species. The golden eagle, lammergeier vulture, and Himalayan griffon vulture were seen on most outings. Other birds that were seen included the following; Red-billed chough: a black bird with a red bill and legs that is found in the alpine regions of the Himalayas. Chukar: a game bird with a brown and white barred plumage that is found in the rocky areas of the Himalayas. Tibetan snow finch: a small bird with a greyish-brown plumage that is found in the rocky areas and high altitude regions of the Himalayas. Streaked rose finch: a medium-sized bird with a streaked brown and white plumage that is found in the alpine regions of the Himalayas. These are just a few that come to mind, but showing that it is a great place for those interested in birdwatching.

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On our last full day, we woke up to a magical winter wonderland. It had snowed heavily during the night, and now the peaks were all covered in a blanket of snow. Even the south-facing slopes were coated in a layer of glistening white. It was a breath-taking sight that made our final day in the mountains all the more memorable.

Thus far we had witnessed three sightings, with a total of five individual snow leopards. It was an amazing accomplishment, considering that they are one of the rarest big cats on the planet. All credit goes to our incredible tracking and spotting team. On our last full day, we enjoyed breakfast in camp and waited for the snow, and the cloud cover to clear. AS the spotting team couldn’t scan the mountain ridges and valleys. Some of the group went for a walk and enjoyed the beautiful snow-capped mountains and scenery. It was like another fairy-tale world, completely changed overnight. I guess it is even more special, coming from a South African, ex-safari guide that hadn’t seen snow in over twelve years! While others enjoyed the snow covered mountains from the comfort of camp. After breakfast we headed out back to the Tea House to scan the mountain and enjoy the snowy scenery, and lunch.

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In the afternoon, as we were about to set out, we received the call that a snow leopard had been spotted in a valley close to camp. When we arrived, we were informed that it had been seen crossing the mountain. Our trackers did their best to keep track of it. We moved to a different vantage point, set up our tripods and cameras, hoping it would reveal itself. Suddenly, there was a shout of excitement, “Snow leopard!” One of the Spotters saw it with his naked eye on top of the mountain, sunning itself. We were all overjoyed to see another leopard on our last evening.

The moment we had been waiting for finally arrived. Our group stood in awe as we watched the snow leopard yawn, wake up, and stretch, showing off her stunning long, thick tail. The coats and tails of these magnificent creatures are truly incredible. She walked to the edge of a ridge and gazed out over the Himalayas. As she stood on the ridge, we heard her contact calling. Suddenly, one of our guests excitedly yelled out, “There’s another leopard! 1, 2, 3 – it’s the cubs! They’re running to reunite with their mother!” It was the same female Snow Leopard, along with her two cubs from the Abi Langpa family. It was late in the evening, and it was the perfect way to end our time in the Langmar valley of the Himalayas. As quickly as they appeared, the leopards disappeared once again into their rocky realm.

As the sun set, we packed up our camera gear and returned to camp. Everyone had a chance to freshen up, and get warm and comfortable before our last dinner in camp. As a group, we celebrated over dinner and drinks, revelling in the phenomenal experience we had just had. Everyone was delighted, and it was a moment, and indeed an adventure that we would all remember forever.

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