Musk deer

November 20, 2008

It's been a day of nerves, physique and emotions. Beginning at 0730, Mukhiya and I ascended Gangapurna in search of Blue sheep and the elusive musk deer. On the way up the peak, just before passing the ridge over Gangapurna Lake, Mukhiya stops to ask a woodcutter if he's seen any musk deer (because he's so confident about finding Blue sheep he doesn't even ask about those!) And the answer is positive: a musk deer crossed the trail right around the "big rock".

Motivated by the response yet trying my best not to get too excited (so as to avoid being extremely disappointed if we don't see one!) I move onward. Thrilled at the possibility of seeing musk deer in the flesh. I'd worked on the trade of musk deer products before with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia. I'd read a lot about them, and seen their by-products, discussed their uses with herbalists. Never had I dreamed I would be on a trek to find one. It's not even on my life list of obscure animals to see. But here I am on the trail of the musk deer. I'm just trying to enjoy the view, the fresh air, and the rejuvenating energy that surrounds us in this wilderness.

Mukhiya decides to go off the trail. We find their droppings and spot their tracks in the dirt. This time of year the undergrowth is sparse and there are tracks of blue sheep and musk deer everywhere. "Here, it was resting here." Mukhiya shows me how to distinguish the tracks. We find a spot under a pine tree where the musk deer is believed to have rested for the night. Knowledge that these animals where here, sharing the same sun and sky as I was overwhelming. I was fascinated at my present.

We trudge through thorny bush. Mukhiya is wearing a pair of jeans. Perhaps that was a better material to adorn than my fancy hiking pants that despite all they claimed allowed the tiny torns to enter my shin. I sucked in my annoyances and psyched myself that this was going to be worth it. I'd regret if I began to whine.

It's hard to walk quietly through the thicket. The ground is littered with dry branches, thorns are waiting to injure me. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Mukhiya and I whisper to each other and I wonder why we even bother doing so because we are walking louder than we are talking.

Hours later, Mukhiya and I find a clearing. He takes out a red plastic bag from his pocket. "Lunch?" "Oh yes please." His soiled fingers break off a piece of bread and a pocket knife slices off a piece of Nak cheese (female Yaks are called Naks). I receive my lunch with fingers that are just as soiled. As he chews his lunch, he begins his exposition. "I don't know why the sheep aren't here today. They're always here. So easy to find. Don't worry, we'll find them. We'll take that trail up and have a look around. They must be up there. Their trails are everywhere! Just no sheep." I get the feeling he's a little concerned that we haven't seen any sheep. He was so sure we'd encounter them. This morning we set out to find musk deer, but now we seem focused on settling the sheep issue. Where are they? "I'm OK if we don't see one." I say, "It's just good to be out here." "Don't worry. We will definitely see the sheep. I just don't know how come they aren't here. It's funny."

We begin our trek again. Up and down Gangapurna. Round and round. We enter a birch forest. The barks of the trees flaking off. Thin as rice paper. I feel the bark on the trees and pick up a broken branch from the ground, peel off its salmon-coloured inner bark and amaze at its beauty in simplicity. There's another clearing and what seems like some sort of basin within the forest, littered with dried birch leaves. Mukhiya walks right into the pit of the basin. "Look at this." He reaches down to the earth and picks up a mess of something. He hands it to me. I hold it into my hands, then turn to gaze at where he picked it up from. I hadn't noticed it, but scattered beneath my feet were pieces of musk deer hide, still with its wirey, hollow, brown and black tipped fur attached. "Something kill it. Maybe wolf, maybe lynx." "Maybe snow leopard?" I inquire. "No, not snow leopard." I move about the scene and find a piece of hide that is in tact. I slip it into my pocket. I was content to have been able to feel its fur, although not meet the animal. Mukhiya had already left the area of disarray, peristent to find us what we'd set out to find.

We circle up, and circle down. We comb the ticket, find all the tracks, follow heaps of dung trails. We return to places we went to this morning. Walked the trail that crossed "big rock" over and over again. Mukhiya decides to head down this mountain and try the next one.

"Let's take the outside route. Sometimes they're there." Mukhiya leads me to a scree slope. "You've got to be kidding me. I'm not a goat." I protest. I'm not a mountain person. I have height issues. My motivation for coming here has been the wildlife and I wasn't about to go on an ego trip and prove to myself that I can scale down a 50 degree slope of loose rock. I stand there gazing down and down and down. I'm laughing myself silly - my way of getting rid of the stress that's really plaguing me. "OK come, follow my foot steps. Just take my path." Mukhiya who's born of this region and was already halfway down the slope even before I began protesting walks back up to indicate his path to me. "Take my step. It's no problem!" His enthusiasm encourages me, and laughing still with a huge nervous grin, I train my eyes on his steps. Step by step we make progress. I don't look down at all. Such a waste. I'm sure the view was splendid. Halfway through Mukhiya tells me that the path narrows ahead. "OK, we can't move together, I'm going to go first." "Oh that's just great." I'm still smiling, though at a loss. "Let me take your camera. It'll be easier for you." Mukhiya takes my 5kg load and bounces off the trail. He's back on solid ground. "I can't believe I'm doing this." I'm at my wits end. Gazing at the invisible trail that Mukhiya's pointing out to me. Then he hollers, "Look here!" and with my camera he snaps a picture of me. Good to know we both have a sense of humour. Step by step I find my way back to the edge of the slope and back into the bush thicket.

More mentally tired than I am physically, we're walking through the bushes and I'm trying hard not to acknowledge the pain of all the thorns in my shin. "Psst. Quiet. Musk deer." Mukhiya whispers. I stop in my tracks and all's silent sans the crunching of branches beneath my boots. I cringe at the loudness. "It's coming! Look up!" And there bounding towards me is a musk deer. I'm stunned. This solitary animal. Elusive and endangered. Millions of years old. Exploited and forgotten by the world. In front of me. I'm in the moment. I forget my camera. I stop breathing for a second. It bounds down the hill. We follow. Mukhiya coming up from below, and me circling downward along the edge of the slope. It sees Mukhiya and bounds back towards me. Sees me then disappears again. The trail is too steep. We do not follow. I'm elated. I have no troubles in the world.

We continue our way down Gangapurna, through the thicket. Contented with our find, I now find patience to appreciate life in the undergrowth - an assortment of fungi, herbs and flowers. Our footsteps and the wind the only sound in this sparse forest. I hear Mukhiya's footsteps halt. I turn up to look at him, he glances at me, then looks to our left. I look left, my eyes creep up the slope to a hill crest. A large tree is silhoutted against the sky, and beneath its broad crown, a musk deer is grazing. Its powerful hind legs and its narrow shoulders bent over a carpet of mustard-coloured grass. Once again, I'm awed. Crunch. It hears our feet shift. It lifts its head up, its large ears turn toward us, then away from us, and its hind legs push its compact body down the other side of the hill.