Bump­ing along in the high Hi­malayas

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - VIR­GINIA JEAL­OUS

BUMPA laughs, winc­ing as he does so. He is telling us about his tes­ti­cles, squashed and painful af­ter eight hours rid­ing pil­lion on a mo­tor­bike on bumpy sideroads in the high Hi­malayas.

There is a nice con­gru­ence be­tween the state of the tracks, the state of his tes­ti­cles and his name.

We are new­found friends, un­ex­pect­edly in the same place at the same time. A three-man Bhutanese doc­u­men­tary film crew, a two-man Ladakhi wildlife sur­vey team and a one-woman Aus­tralian bird­watcher, we have been thrown to­gether in com­mon pur­suit of the de­cid­edly un­com­mon black­necked crane.

Bumpa is the cam­era­man and to­day has been search­ing for crane chicks — it’s the fi­nal footage the crew needs.

His re­cov­ery is tak­ing place in a small stone-and-yak-dung house in Sa­mad vil­lage, on the edge of the Tso Kar flood­plain in Ladakh. The al­ti­tude is 4530m and the air is thin. The near­est town is Leh, a five-hour drive away, along 150km of hair­pin bends and over the world’s sec­ond-high­est ‘‘mo­torable’’ pass.

The 70 or so house­holds in Sa­mad are al­most de­serted for the sum­mer; their in­hab­i­tants, no­madic Chang­tang peo­ple, have moved with their an­i­mals to higher sum­mer pas­tures. The vil­lage is a j ig­saw of houses and an­i­mal en­clo­sures that emerges un­ob­tru­sively from the sur­round­ing land­scape.

Walls and door­ways are dec­o­rated with the skulls and skins of yaks, and with wind-bat­tered prayer- flags. De­hy­drated sheep and goat pel­lets gravel the path­ways.

Com­mu­nal wa­ter pumps are shared by sev­eral fam­i­lies, as are com­mu­nal long-drop toi­lets. There is no elec­tric­ity, no phone, no in­ter­net ac­cess. Life is un­com­pli­cated here.

Our base is one of th­ese low­ceilinged, flat-roofed, earth-floored houses. In def­er­ence to my gen­der and

ALAMY need for pri­vacy, the men have cheer­fully de­camped into one of its two small rooms, which now serves all pur­poses — pre­par­ing, cook­ing and eat­ing food plus work­ing and rest­ing. On the floor are mat­tresses, where we sit dur­ing the day and where they sleep at night. A two-ring gas cooker is in the cor­ner, be­side a makeshift shelf hold­ing tea, spices, tinned milk, oil and salt. There is a bag of rice and of flour.

Bumpa drinks sweet tea and eats flat­bread as he props, up­right, in the door­way.

The col­lec­tive sym­pa­thy soon runs out for Bumpa’s dis­com­fort. Kinga, the film’s pro­ducer, can’t wait any longer to see if there is footage of chicks. Mov­ing care­fully, Bumpa sets up his gear to re­play the day’s im­ages.

Be­hind us, through the dusty win­dow, we hear the res­i­dent pair of cranes on the flood­plain trum­pet­ing as the cam­era rolls.

A rare black-necked crane.

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