Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/altai)

We’ve just finished the turnaround at Novosibirsk and I have handed over to Adam Stickler (see www.biosphere-expeditions.org/staff) for the last two groups. Adam will be trained by Jenny (who is also a full-blown expedition leader in her other lives in Namibia and the Azores for example). I am writing this from the Sibir in Novosibirsk, waiting for my flight back to Australia tonight. Here’s the summary (with pictures at https://biosphereexpeditions.wordpress.com/) of what happened on slot 3 since the last update.

22 July

Base camp was like a beehive this morning, buzzing with activity. We were getting ready for our first overnighter at Salyugem lake and it is quite incredible how much stuff we manage to pack into our small backpacks. Not only all our sleeping gear, but also the food for two days and all the scientific gear Jenny needs. Coming up the valley we really did look like an expedition.

The first ibex of the day showed up not far from the forest and when we climbed the very last ledge facing the lake, there was another herd of 15. The overnight team set up advanced camp while I headed back with Samara and Dani. Although tired, they negotiated the famous lake scree magnificently and we flew through the valley. And then Samara saw another viper. She certainly has a gift for animal spotting.

When we got to base camp, the weather took a turn for the worse. The whole steppe was bathed in thick haze and cold and a strong wind was blowing through. But looking over Salyugem, there was not a cloud in sight.

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23 July

It was a cold night and the lake team felt it first thing in the morning. Climbing up the ridge it even started hailing, but luckily it didn’t last too long and no one got too wet. Then the disappointment of the non-functional camera trap (see my 23 July entry below). The entire team then took a lesson from Oleg in scree running and safely made it back to the lake. They enjoyed their time in the mountains so much that they didn’t make it back to base until 19:00.

We didn’t have a bad day at base either. In the very early morning we headed to Kokoria with Olga to stock up on groceries, only to find the shop closed. Luckily someone saw us hanging around and alerted the shop owner, a lovely lady called Irina, who came running after us and kindly opened her “magazine”. Later on I took the rest of the group and went to find the elusive petroglyph everyone keeps talking about. After some rather extensive search, we found an enormous wall with numerous inscriptions of mostly deer, ibex and wild boar. On the small rock nearby was an incredibly realistic depiction of a man on a horse hunting deer. A very enjoyable afternoon.

Unfortunately that was it for the science for the day. Samara’s birthday determined the course of the evening. Happy birthday!

25 July

Excellent day! Time to retrieve our first camera in Kunduayk valley. Walking well above the river, we wondered why we have very little water at camp when only a kilometre up the river is still a raging torrent. We reached the end of the valley in record time. Jenny and Oleg took Gordon and Dani to take a look at the saddle above the main ridge, but it was hard for them to cross the slippery scree. Meanwhile Fred, Mark, Friedie and I climbed to the camera trap and I nervously slipped the memory card into my laptop. It was quite a relief to find it full of ibex pictures. We left the camera there, hoping for more and slowly returned to base camp where we were rewarded for our efforts by Olga’s excellent borscht and a spectacular sunset later on.

26 July

Last day in the mountains. Kampi Petrovich has kindly agreed to show us his secret valley with mineral springs and possibly a waterfall. We picked him up from his yurt, attended to his injured horse and set off. Yet again it was glorious day and the drive through the steppe was spectacular. Fred and Mark negotiated all the stream crossing and bogs really well and before long, we arrived at one the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen. Unfortunately the mineral spring was full of mud, to Kampi’s disgust, so we headed off over to the waterfall. Once we climbed the short hill, the scenery got even better, with a blue lake dominating the landscape. While some decided to rest by the lake, Fred, Gordon and I headed over to the waterfall a little bit further on. 15 minutes later we were sitting in the cool pool below. Mark and Friedy kept the science going and spotted both a golden eagle’s nest and two lammergeyers flying in and out. They then topped it up with three ibex on the top of the ridge. What a great day. Or was it? After all the training and explaining how to get through the mud, I managed to get myself nicely stuck with the Land Rover and there was nothing that would move the car. In the end we had to jack each wheel and put rocks under it to get it out. Our camp fire was roaring till late at night, as was Gordon and with his beautiful signing. Ivan then recited some Russian poems to us before we finally retired to bed.

27 and 28 July

The scenery on the way was spectacular; nothing like we have seen before. Clear skies meant that for the first time we could see the Altai mountains in their full beauty. We made it to Kamlak in record time and all plunged into the river to cool down. We noticed the forest fires along the way and the ever-present smell of smoke. Later on we found out that we were in the midst of one of the worst forest fires in Siberian history, so far wiping out around 50,000 hectares of forest.

We arrived back at Novosibirsk in the afternoon. It has been great expedition, well done team 3. You will be missed. All the best for Adam’s teams four and five – I will be thinking of you and follow Adam’s diaries with interest.

Best wishes


Update from our snow leopard conservation expedition to the high mountains of the Altai Republic in Central Asia.

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