As with the Great Himalayan National Park, arriving in the dark had given me little sense of where we were, and it was only in the morning that I was able to fully appreciate our surroundings: tall mountain peaks on either side, swathed in early morning cloud, with a town just visible in the distance. In front of the guest house, a mongoose with two babies hurried past. Sitting in the middle of these majestic mountains, unable for the moment to place my position on a mental map, I was hit particularly strongly by the feeling of how far I was from home.
The cloud had cleared by late afternoon, when we went for another uphill climb. As with my 2015 trip to Alta Verapaz, it had taken me a while to build my confidence with climbing, but now I was more comfortable with it, especially using a snakehook for support. On the way up, another species of lizard – Calotes versicolor – was clinging to a perch alongside the trail. By the time we got to the top, and another logging road, we were treated to a wonderful sunset. We also got the first properly clear night of the trip, allowing me to use the Star Chart app on my phone, which everyone was fascinated by.
The sky was blue and clear the next morning – which happened to be India’s Independence Day – making for some even more beautiful views of the mountains. After a breakfast of jam rolls, we were on the road for another couple of hours to get to the Bhanjraru Inspection Hut, where we would stay for the last few nights of surveying. On one stop along the way, we saw a woman collecting winter fodder on a cliff face below the road; Vishal explained that those are exactly the sort of circumstances by which people in this area get bitten by the Himalayan pit viper (Gloydius himalayanus). Wikipedia says that G. himalayanus bites cause ‘intense local pain and swelling, which usually subsides within two to three days, even without treatment’, but information on these bites remains limited, and more is needed for an accurate picture.
We stopped at a hotel for lunch, which provided the first access to a television that we had had for a while. The screen showed the climax of a Bollywood action movie, where a man was climbing to rescue a child from a stuck Ferris wheel, while a fire raged around him and a distressed woman looked on. We didn’t see the very end, but Vishal told me that it would undoubtedly have the couple saving the child and then adopting him. He knew this because all these movies basically have the same plot; they can be relied upon to feature ‘drama, love, and action at the end’.
Bhanjraru was my favourite out of all the accommodation we stayed in. As well as how roomy it was, there were flowers outside which attracted plenty of butterflies to photograph, and again, some wonderful views of mountain peaks around us. One peak, off in the distance, even had snow on it. That evening, we all climbed to a point above the hut to watch the sunset together. Looking at the view gave a real sense of perspective; I reflected on how few people back in Britain would ever see this with their own eyes, and I thought of something my mum had said before I left: that everyone she had spoken to who had been to India had been affected by it in some way. I would definitely be able to say the same for myself.
We went road cruising after dark, hoping to find snakes that might be warming themselves on the road. A particular target in this region was another species of cobra, Naja oxiana; this was one of the snakes that Ben and Vishal most wanted to collect data on, for several reasons. Known as the Caspian cobra, it is mainly known from the Middle East, and there is little information on Indian populations. It lives at higher altitudes than Naja naja, up to 3000m above sea level. Much more information is needed on how many snakebites it is responsible for: we later heard a report of how, in at least one case, the polyvalent antivenom used to treat N. naja bites had no effect with a bite from a N. oxiana.
We came back from this road cruise with another non-venomous snake, Orthriopsis hodgsoni. There were also several geckos around the hut –Cyrtodactylus chamba, only described as a separate species from other Cyrtodactylus this year.
On another road cruise the following day – which I hadn’t gone on as I wasn’t feeling well – the team finally managed to find the long-elusive Gloydius himalayanus. They also picked up a Naja oxiana, which had unfortunately been freshly killed by a car.
Easily one of the best things about India was how friendly everybody was, sometimes to an overwhelming degree. Practically everyone we met had a cheery disposition, and a few people even wanted selfies with me. A good example was when Ben and I were in a village buying meat for dinner; a truck with soldiers stopped beside us and the man on the passenger side talked to us for several minutes, wanting to know what we’d been doing, but in a genial way. When he shook hands with me (twice), he held on for what felt like quite a long time.
We went to see Chamba’s Deputy Director of Horticulture, so Ben and Vishal could talk to him about their activities. At the same time, we were introduced to a woman who had bitten by a Gloydius a week previously, and was recuperating in an adjacent building. One foot was significantly swollen, and she was clearly still in pain. Even this relatively minor case helped to emphasise just what Captive and Field Herpetology have been working towards; you can read about the issue of snakebite in books or online, but seeing the effects first-hand has a far greater impact.
That night, we went for one last road cruise, releasing the snakes we had found in that area, including the two Gloydius.
Returning to the town of Chamba, Vishal gave a presentation on snake awareness and management to representatives of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, followed by a practice session on handling with our black cobra. The presentation included cartoons refuting some local snake myths which I hadn’t known about, such as the idea that snakes seek revenge against people who have harmed them, or kraits suck the life out of sleeping people, or owning a red sand boa brings you wealth. (‘If keeping a snake at home were to bring wealth, no one would sell it in the first place,’ said the caption with irrefutable logic.) Again, it made me reflect on everything I had learned about the local culture.
The previous evening, there had been fruit bats flying around the lodge in Chamba where we had slept, silhouetted against the darkening grey sky. In the morning, I went outside to find at least a hundred bats hanging from the adjacent trees, some of them still very much awake and either flapping or clambering around. Apparently these bats are considered a pest in Chamba.
After looking around the Chamba market, which featured local hand-made shoes and uniquely styled handkerchiefs, we headed back east towards Palampur. Before we got out of the mountains, one last snake revealed itself on the roadside: a wonderfully patterned checkered keelback (Xenochrophis piscator).
On the way back to Palampur was Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile are based. Driving up another hill, we came to the suburb of McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama’s temple is to be found. I have to admit, I didn’t bother taking any pictures in McLeod Ganj because nothing about it really impressed me. We had a look around a couple of rooms in the temple, which featured various shrines and statues, but I couldn’t get much out of it. Maybe the mood was spoiled by the man who had his wife on FaceTime and was waving his phone around to show her everything, providing a running commentary even though the rooms were supposed to be silent. Maybe the atmosphere of the place had had some of its spirituality stripped away in my mind by the oppressive crowds, and souvenir stands, and having to dodge vehicles on the very narrow main street. Ultimately, I had been far more emotionally affected just by looking at mountains.
Eventually, after releasing all the animals we still had with us, we made it back to the Palampur hotel (the same one with the puppies), for one last dinner of chicken, dal and rice together.
A recurring theme of our time in India was that everything – particularly travel – tended to take longer than expected, though we always ended up where we needed to be in the end. Ben and I both left the hotel early with the intent of getting a morning flight from Dharamshala to Delhi – but even with the adventure apparently over, India had to stay true to what had come before, and “adjust” our planned timetable one more time.
We arrived at the tiny Dharamshala Airport to find it wasn’t even open yet. Time passed, more would-be passengers gathered, and the airport doors still didn’t open; there were concerned murmurs about the state of our flight. Eventually, we were informed that the Alliance Air flight to Delhi had been cancelled altogether, presumably because there were too few passengers. Instead, the airline would take the clearly more sensible option of putting us in a taxi and driving us to Pathankot, two hours away, so we could get a flight from there. Concerned as I was about this hiccup, I tried to remain calm and trust in the people in charge to get me where I needed to be. Besides, my flight from Delhi to Dubai wasn’t until the evening; it was more of a worry for Ben, who had an afternoon flight.
Pathankot Airport was even smaller than Dharamshala and had a decidedly military look about it; indeed, we saw a fighter jet landing while we were there. (It’s not that far from the Pakistan border.) An additional annoyance cropped up when the security staff decided they didn’t want me to carry the AAA batteries for my head torch in my hand luggage and confiscated them, even though there had been no problem at all the previous airport checks I had been through. More waiting then ensued.
In the end, we did make it to Delhi, about four hours later than we were supposed to, and having eaten nothing since the previous day; I grabbed a Snickers at the first opportunity. While Ben hurried on ahead – fortunately, he still made his connection – I was left hanging around until I was able to check in. My priority was getting more food – whilst all the food we had on the trip was of excellent quality, I was in the mood for something different from chicken and rice by then – so I had a cheese sandwich and a brownie. Once I entered the departures waiting area, I had a Domino’s pizza, which despite being in an airport, was incredibly cheap, as had been typical for India. The journey home was uneventful, and I was surprised at how quickly I was able to settle back into my normal life after doing things so differently for two weeks.
Still, my first trip to India was an unforgettable one. I felt like I was able to soak up the local culture much more than in Guatemala or the Philippines; the Himalayan landscapes were incredible; and of course, the wildlife was great to see as well. While I already knew a lot on paper about what a serious issue snakebite is in India and other tropical countries, actually seeing the places and people affected, and gaining a better understanding of the reasons, had a much deeper impact than simply reading or listening to a lecture about it. This is an issue that truly needs more attention and support.
Thank you to Ben, Vishal, and Captive and Field Herpetology for giving me this opportunity. More information about their work can be found at http://captiveandfieldherpetology.com/.