Time to breathe a sigh of relief. The Wahkan corridor is vast, dusty, beautiful, the Hindu Kush mountains rising up to 25,000feet around us. It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, it’s safe. And that’s a welcome change from Faizabad.
4AM and I was startled out of bad, twisted dreams by what I thought was an earthquake. The windows were shaking violently and there was a bright blue light flooding the room. I thought maybe I was still dreaming – but no – and then I thought we were under attack by insurgents. Luckily, it wasn’t us, and it wasn’t insurgents: it was a special forces raid on the house directly across from the hotel. The helicopter dived low and a floodlight hit the building – black silhouettes plummeted down ropes. Then it was dark again. The support helicopter circled for a few more minutes, then departed. Confused, shaken, I fell back into an equally disturbed dreamworld.
In the morning Stephane informed me that we might not be able to fly due to weather conditions (as the pilot, Daniel, later said: “Clouds, mountains, airplanes. Pick two.”) This was not what I wanted to hear – Faizabad and me were done. We waited on the phone call telling us the plane was coming. Nothing.
We headed off to the airstrip anyway, communications being what they are here, and were met with a welcome sight. The Kodiak was on the strip, fueling. Daniel greeted us and we loaded up.
I’d been on plenty of twin otter flights in Nepal, but nothing like this. Yu practically felt like there wasn’t a plane around you – like you were levitating at 21,000 feet over the massive snowcapped Hindu Kush. We didn’t end up needing oxygen, and Daniel dipped in low, flying just meters from the rocks and ice. The wind caught us and tossed us like a toy, giving me a whole new concept of “turbulence”. It was beautiful.
We hit the strip and immediately I was working. I miked up Stephane and we shot – all the way along the bumpy 2 hour ride to Qal-e-panja, then for several hours more with the now complete cast of characters. As Tony put it, we’re hosing this one down – shooting everything until we track down our story.
Qal-e-panja is wonderful, and there’s even internet and power at a cute little office built by a foreign aid grant. I’m feeling safer and happier than I have all trip. In fact, it reminds me a little of the yurts on Spruce Knob, West Virginia, that I visited as a kid. Tomorrow we hit the mountain trails to scout trap sites, and I couldn’t be more excited. I met Ali Hussein, the Afghani student of Rodney Jackson (seems like there’s only a few people working with these leopards, and they all know each other.) We met John Goodrich, the other trapper, and people started trading trapping stories.
Stephane: “Once we had a Persian leopard break through his chain, so he was held only by the spring [the spring is a narrow coil of metal used to reduce shock to the animal's leg when it jerks against the trap.] He was charging at us, and we expected him to stop after 2 meters, but he kept coming. The vet with the tranquilizer gun froze and stared and the leopard leapt at him – but the spring caught him just meters away.”
John nods at this and shows us the mauling scar on his hand when one of his traps failed.
It brings up a difficult and complex question. What do we do if we catch, for example, a cub, whose mother is free and mad? What if we catch one of a mated pair and the other hangs around? What if it’s at night, when the cat could kill all of us without a problem? And – what if the animal is injured and needs to be euthanized? Stephane said it best in Faizabad: there’s no real plan. You adapt and hope for the best.
But first, we need to catch a leopard.
Thanks for reading, missing home.