After three nights in the Great Himalayan National Park, it was time to get on the road again, this time heading west to the lower altitudes of Palampur. Stopping along the way for a breakfast of simosas, and later a lunch of egg noodles, we were diverted in the afternoon due to a landslide, and spent an hour or two going along an even bumpier road than we were used to at this point. Eventually, as we approached Palampur, we came out of the hills to find a wide, flat plain stretching before us. By dusk, we had arrived at the guest house where we would be staying.
That night, we actually got a call to come and remove a snake from a local home. The room containing the snake – which the residents believed to be a cobra – was another good example of how these urban habitats attract potentially dangerous snakes: there were not only clothes, blankets and bits of paper piled everywhere, but evidence of rodents in the darker corners. Upstairs, there was even a nest of wasps. Unfortunately, even though just about everything was turned over, the snake could not be found – having either escaped or gone inside the walls – so Ben told the owners to immediately let us know if they saw it again.
There were plenty of reptiles to be found in Palampur, even within the vicinity of the guest house. Small, pale geckos (Cyrtodactylus lawderanus) frequently appeared on the inside walls. A trinket snake (Coelognathus helena), another non-venomous species, was found just down the road. A bit further away, there was a stone wall harbouring a population of leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius). I’d already heard that the expedition had found some of these before I headed out, which came as a surprise as leopard geckos are more commonly associated with dry, desert habitats. The fact that I own a pet leopard gecko at home made it even more exciting to meet a wild one!
A couple more snakes had also been brought from Dehra: a living and very skittish Ptyas mucosa, almost two metres long; and another Indian cobra. This one was black, as is typical for Naja naja from Himachal Pradesh – so black that you could barely see the spectacle marking on the back of the hood. He was also a grumpy sort: every time he came out of his bag, he was always ready to rear up, spread his hood and hiss loudly. (We did confirm that the cobra was male – this is done by inserting a small probe into the cloaca; it goes in further with males than with females. Overall, we found more male than female snakes, which is typical, as males tend to disperse more.)
In the morning, there was another call to deal with a problem snake. This time, the snake had taken shelter in a pile of rocks outside the house, and the owners were convinced that it was a deadly Russell’s viper. This time, we did uncover the snake – and it turned out to be a harmless buff-striped keelback (Amphiesma stomatum). This species belongs to a subfamily of snakes called natricines, which includes European grass snakes and North American garter snakes. There was a noticeable bulge in its mid-section, most likely a recently consumed frog. When I was handed the keelback, it defecated on my hand.
The survey site for that night was a grassy slope outside Palampur, another site where Gloydius had previously been found. It felt like a long climb in the dark, with no real way to determine where the top was. As before, the snakes remained elusive, though there were several toads about.
We were never really isolated in India; everywhere we went, there were plenty of people around. And if we happened to be working with our captured snakes when somebody passed by, it usually caught their interest. On this particular morning, when the black cobra was brought out, it drew a crowd of curious locals, giving Ben and Vishal the opportunity to educate more people on the animals they shared their land with.
In the late afternoon, we headed to a nearby hotel, where some rather cuddlier animals than snakes were waiting for us. Earlier in the expedition, Ben and Vishal had found three puppies abandoned by the side of the road, and two of them had been adopted by the hotel owner – now, more well grown than when Ben and Vishal had last seen them, they were up for a good play and a scratch. But we couldn’t spend all of our time with the puppies; while it was still daylight, we searched for Russell’s vipers around the long grass close to the hotel. Afterwards, we returned to the hotel and waited for night to fall; in the meantime, it started raining heavily, and the river nearby transformed into a raging torrent in an alarmingly short time.
Following another night-time search along the roadside, Akshay the driver gave us a very pleasant dinner at his house, and then we took a drive to the leopard gecko wall to see if there were any more about. There weren’t, but as we were heading back to the guest house, Ben suddenly called for the car to stop and dived out into the pouring rain. He returned with a small snake, a Boiga trigonata, probably washed out of the vegetation.
Our final surveying area for the expedition was to be in the district of Chamba, further west and back up in the mountains; Ben had said that he had previously found the greatest number of snakes there. We had intended to leave early in the morning, but the monsoon weather was continuing to wreak havoc. While it was not as bad as the floods further south in Kerala that were happening at the same time – which were bad enough to be a top headline on BBC News – landslides had blocked the roads that we had intended to travel on. It was past 3pm before we heard that the roads had cleared, and we headed on our way.
After driving along some more mountain roads in the dark and mist, we came steeply down into the town of Chamba itself, where we stopped for a meal – which succeeded in waking me up a bit – and then carried on a little further to the Forest Rest House Pukhri (elevation 1241 metres), our quickly arranged stop for the next two nights.