- Ground Operators
stood back, taking pictures in the pouring rain, watching my friend Andy dig a foot-deep hole in rocky soil at a spot over-looking a sacred Tibetan peak. He was making a small gesture for his neighbor and friend, a well known author who had recently passed away. Into this earthen space he laid a few personal objects: a whistle, an amulet, a few seashells, some of the man’s ashes, and his award winning book The Snow Leopard.
I first heard of this writer in college, as did most of the others in my university’s outdoor club. He had made a mark on a generation of Himalayan explorers and adventurers, including myself. In 1979 this book won the National Book Award for non-fiction. The title is a diversion of sorts. There is an irony in spending years writing a book about an object he failed to find. As a practicing Buddhist, Matthieson certainly understood how poetic and inevitable such searches can be.
Andy placed the final shovelful of dirt into the hole and arranged a few seashells on top. There was a feeling of celebration of life amongst the group, nothing morose or melancholy. Such rituals that men perform for the death of other men offer closure. And yet, for me, the closure was not quite complete. After so many years living and trekking in the Himalayas, I have not yet seen my snow leopard.
My first attempt to view the elusive cat was over twenty years ago when I spent two months in the Himalayan mountains around Manang looking for a snow leopard who had killed a baby yaks in a nearby village. I was staying in town with a doctor and girlfriend, a volunteer for the Himalayan Rescue Association. While she tended to injuries and ailments of trekkers and locals, I spent my time hiking around the high barren mountains with a massive telephoto lens.
While I photographed dozens of bharral sheep—a main prey of the leopard—I only saw a few signs of the predator’s presence. Blending in to the rocky landscape, almost always alone, the snow leopard is mostto impossible to spot from a distance. Even up close, once they stop, they blend into the rocks like a ghost. While I could not see them, they were most likely watching me, scrambling around the hillside like a challenged mountain goat, attempting to hold steady a barrel of metal and glass, scanning the horizon for movement. If big cats have a sense of humor, I was the punch line.
After two months of daily forays, I temporarily abandoned my search and returned to Kathmandu to lead more treks, sure that someday I would see this beautiful spotted creature. Two decades later, I am still looking.
I invite you to come with me on a journey of discovery, into the winter mountains of Ladakh in Hemis National Park for our own search for the snow leopard. After acclimating ourselves in Leh and visiting some spectacular 15th century monasteries, we will be begin our trek up the valley to the immense Hemis National Park where we will camp out for more than a week. Now that the Snow Leopard is an endangered species with world- wide recognition, local guides have become quite familiar with their habits and scent markings. They will help point us in the right direction for a sighting, a level of assistance that Peter Matthieson certainly never had. The likelihood that we will actually see a leopard during our time in the wilderness is now extremely high, especially since we will be there during the winter mating season.
In the vastness of these mountains, which initially seem barren, we may also find bharral sheep, Tibetan wolves, red fox, perhaps an Ladakh Urial, an Asiatic ibex, or brown bear. If we look up, soaring on an updraft we might see golden eagles, lammergeier vultures, and Himalayan griffon.
One way of making this vast land come alive with the camera is through time-lapse photography. Imagine white woolen clouds drifting in the sky as shadows dance across the land, or long exposures of the night sky that absorb light from billions of years in the past. We can point our cameras at the North star, shutter open, and gather evidence that indeed we are all spinning on an axis. Just as visually enticing are panoramic photos that sweep around from sky to earth in a complete circle, allowing a viewer of our photos to experience what it was like to stand were we have been.
I could tell you that the nights will be long and cold and that any snow leopard will be far away, but such details should not matter. Mostly, I want to share with you the excitement of searching for what slips away from our grasp. If you want to join me on this most unusual quest, contact me, tell me a little about yourself. I cannot guarantee a sighting of a snow leopard, but I can promise you an unforgettable journey. What are we looking for? Perhaps, like Peter Matthieson. we simply want to “penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown.”
Easy to Moderate Touring
Easy to Moderate Touring generally indicates walks or time on one’s feet of 3-5 hours each day during sightseeing excursions; possible adverse weather conditions (heat, humidity); and some driving on dirt or poorly maintained roads. Please note that road conditions in Sri Lanka leave a lot to be desired: The traffic can appear to be wild and unregulated, and horns are used more often than brakes. Bathroom facilities during excursions and long drives are frequently nonexistent or limited to the facilities at a local restaurant or shop. Overnights will be in deluxe accommodations/lodges. Elevations throughout the trip remain below 5,000 feet.
This photography tour concentrates first and foremost on helping you see and shoot in new and exciting ways. Michael Yamashita and Jock Montgomery will personally help you define your composition, create compelling content, and help you see the light. As you work toward refining your shooting style, you will learn how to personalize breathtaking moments that range from sweeping natural scenery to colorful human activities.
Every other day, we will gather to review each other’s work. Michael and Jock will personally critique your photos and provide expert advice for improvement and growth. Upon the conclusion of the trip, each participant will receive a certificate of completion signed by Michael and Jock.
Day 1: Arrive Delhi
When you arrive in Delhi, you will be greeted by a company representative who will take you to your hotel. You will be on your own for the rest of the day (no meals included). The last night of the trip will also be spent in Delhi.
Day 2 – 4: Leh
The next several days are very important for acclimating to the altitude: 3,524 metres (11,562 ft). During this time you will have the opportunity to visit Leh Palace, the Old Quarter of Leh, and the monasteries of Shey, Thiksey, and Hemis. In the evenings Jock will offer friendly critique sessions of your photographs. There will also be interactive presentations on wildlife and conservation efforts in the region.
Day 5 – 13: Hemis National Park
In the morning we drive to Zingchen, a dramatic entrance to Hemis National Park, and camp around 12,000 feet. For the next nine evenings our trekking and camping will revolve around sightings of snow leopards as well as other exotic Himalayan animals such as the Tibetan Argali and wolf. Along the way, we will explore local villages
Day 14 – 15: Leh
We will return to Leh late in the day and check back into our hotel. We have built in an extra day to accommodate the very frequent canceling of flights due to weather. The group will have a chance to prepare their photos for our final slide show and critique.
Day 16: Delhi
In the morning, we will fly to Delhi. We then check into our hotel and have the rest of the day for leisure and optional activities.
Day 17: Depart Delhi
Stay in Delhi to visit Taj Mahal at Agra or board a flight to an onward destination. Due to common delays, flights out of Delhi should be scheduled for the late afternoon or evening.
2015 Trip Dates
October 31 – November 13, 2015
Trip Duration: 17 days / 16 nights
Starting City: Delhi (airport code – DEL)
Ending City: Delhi (airport code – DEL)
LAND COST: per person, based on twin share
4 – 6 participants: $4,890
7 – 8 participants: $4700
If single occupancy is required, please add $500
Minimum: 4 participants
Maximum: 8 participants
Internal Asia Airfare: none
Included in Land Cost
• All accommodations, based on double occupancy
• All taxes and service charges
• All transportation using private, air-conditioned vehicles
• All arrival/departure airport/hotel transfers
• All entrance and photography fees
• All meals (from breakfast Day 2 to Breakfast Day 17)
• Bottled water as needed
• Services of Tour & Photography Leader Jock Montgomery
• Services of certified, English speaking local guides during all sightseeing excursions
• TourDirect’s Medical ($25,000), Accident and Evacuation Insurance ($500,000) and Assistance Plan
Not Included in Land Cost
• International airfare to/from India
• Gratuities to local staff (guides, drivers, bell boys, porters, etc.)
• Items of a personal nature, such as alcoholic beverages, laundry, phone calls, etc.
• Trip Cancellation insurance
(Note: This optional coverage is highly recommended and can be purchased through TourDirect)
At TourDirect, we will assist you in obtaining any necessary visas or other travel permits required for your journey, all done through our Visa Service Partner. Detailed visa instructions, application forms, and information about applicable visa fees will be included in your Pre-Departure Packet.
You must have a valid passport with an expiration date more than 6 months from the date of your return to the U.S. The passport must also have at least 2 blank pages for each country that you will be visiting in Asia.
India: Visas on arrival (with pre-authorization) are available for most nationals, but can only be applied for 30 days prior to arrival, and are valid for single entry only. Visas can also be procured prior to departure from your home country.
No immunizations are required for entry into India or to return to the U.S. However, proof of yellow fever vaccination is required if you are coming from (or have recently visited) a country that has risk of yellow fever. Several immunizations are recommended by the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
A copy of the CDC’s recommended immunization list and additional health information will be included in our Pre-Departure Packet.
Please let us know if you wish to arrive early or extend your stay to visit any other sites in India and we will be happy to make the additional arrangements for your extension.
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Ground Operators are local companies that provide the actual travel services in a destination. Typically, they own vehicles, employ guides, and negotiate special rates with hotels, combining these and other elements to create a quality full-service experience.