Most Inspirational Moment
Simply being there. Drawing the threads together of previous trips to Ladakh. The very first sightings of the snow leopards. The drama of the landscape that provided the backdrop to these sightings. The opportunity to see the snow leopards in a variety of situations from a mating couple, solitary ones and mothers with cubs. The chance to engage with the local people as they openly shared their festivals with us and the sheer entrancement and enjoyment of villagers at the Stok Festival with masked dancers and the Oracles. All the smaller moments that made this trip - Exhilarating' - feeling the cold that draws the snow leopards down to lower altitudes at this time of year. Camping and the early morning calls from the team to muster behind the scopes which is the quickest I have ever crawled out of warm sleeping bag in such cold temperatures. The optional extras that put a real perspective on the challenges of living in such an environment - felt snow leopards from the local villagers - even each one of these having its own character, the ice stupas made by villagers to create a sustainable water supply for crops, winding up the road from Leh in a taxi as opposed to cycling up. The amazing opportunities we had to see so many snow leopards due to the expertise of the spotters. The trek and camp crew who always approach things with their great sense of humour and a smile. They are constantly in the background, and whilst I congratulated myself that I had survived the night in the cold, it is down to the team who make it all happen. Simply being there. Finishing off with high tea at The Imperial!!! They do a lovely scone and provide surreal setting to end the trip.
Thoughts on Group Leader
I have never had a bedtime story of local tales read to the group by the leader in the warmth of the mess tent after a lovely supper - so soporific that snuffles can occasionally be heard from the darker corners!!!! Valerie makes it happen. She encapsulates everything positive about the moment. Everyone has a their own personal reasons for venturing on this specific trip, purely to see snow leopards, to capture the perfect photograph of this elusive creature, to engage with the opportunity to see a wide variety of animals, to go to a place few go to and especially at a perceived 'difficult time of year', to engage with everything the region has to off - the reasons are personal and with Valerie your own personal needs and wants are engaged. Through travelling, living and working with the locals and the environment over several decades you benefit from all that she has done and the understanding she has of the area. All the hard work has been done by Valerie and you can get the best of the area and still feel like you are taking ownership of your own experience. She is dedicated to the multifacted nature of the area. There is an honest openness to share her many years of experience, knowledge, respect and dedication to the region. Valerie allows people to be who they are and goes with ease between being a leader and a friend to ensure everyone is safe and most importantly has a 'trip of a lifetime'.
Advice for Potential Travellers
Just do it!!! This very trip kept playing in my mind during the coronavirus lockdown of 2020 and I am so glad that I bit the bullet and booked the last place on this trip. Memories of the sightings, the landscape, the local people, the Exodus crew and fellow travelers kept me company during the months of solitude that followed our return. READ the trip notes and make sure you have all of the essential gear - it is a unique environment and there are challenges re the cold and altitude but by following the advice on the trip notes you will be able to enjoy and engage with every aspect of the trip. Go with an open mind - it is a trip of wildlife, trekking, culture, opportunities that arise that can't be planned for. For example one of the days 'scheduled' to see Leh at the start was 'diverted' to spotting the mating snow leopard couple. Don't understimate the cold - take responsibility for your own warmth and comfort. An excellent sleeping bag is essential and down jacket - there are excellent ones to hire through the trip notes if you don't want to spend loads of money. Weight of luggage on the flight to Leh is limited there are various ways to get over this so look at this before travelling. You don't need a change of clothes for every day but lots of layers. Even though it is cold the sun will burn so protection is essential - sunscreen and sunhat. Footwear suited to the environment is necessary - see trip notes. Enjoy the bedtime stories - sets you up for pleasant dreams!!! Book a porter to help carry your extra equipment - running to see the snow leopards early in the morning meant that those that had heavy camera gear were 'good to go' and spot and take photographs as soon as they got to the spotting platform. Totally trust the team with your phone - they were amazing at getting the shots of the snow leopards using your iphones/camera phone - using the scopes - people at home think I am a wizard with an iphone camera!!! Take advantage of some of the things to do in Leh and Delhi. Hiring a local taxi in Leh took us up into the hills and the local ice stupas. Delhi was the opportunity to take part in a tour run by a street children's charity.
This is a region that I have been to a couple of times, but never in winter and again it did not disappoint. The trip is unique in so much as the snow leopards don't appear at this altitude all year round - that is the reason to book it. If you are looking for real sustainable tourism then this is your chance - it is local, determined by the timings of nature and most importantly a chance to experience a Himalayan winter without going to remote extremes. It is a trip of a lifetime but I think I will join the 'cat population' and have nine lives so I can go again and it will still be the trip of a lifetime. Enjoy anticipation of considering going, booking, preparing, participating and most importantly reflecting on your return. It is one trip that will never leave you.