There's a bear in there

Greg Lenthen takes his chances on a panda safari high in the Qinling Mountains.

We stumble to a stop in thick bamboo at the top of a steep hill, panting for air, looking for a foothold. The chief tracker - "call me Rolfe" - talks softly on a two-way radio to another tracker further down the valley.

Then Rolfe slips the radio into his pocket and gives us a big smile: "Quickly, quick. Panda in tree, quickly quick."

Before we can catch our breath, we are slithering back down the hill. Feet slipping on wet leaves and mud. Bamboo snapping. Hands grabbing for holds that aren't there. Stumbling back, tripping forward, backpacks lurching one way, cameras swinging the other.

We tumble into a dry creek bed, crawl up the opposite bank and crouch among the bamboo - and find ourselves face to face with a panda.

It's no more than five metres away, sitting in the crook of a tree where the trunk divides just above the ground. The panda wiggles its behind, then turns around to have a careful look at us.

Cameras click. Unperturbed, the panda looks away and jiggles its bulk from side to side, trying to get comfortable. Quite casually, it turns to take another look straight at us. At me. Click, click, click. Then, in an almost graceful lunge, it's down from the tree and gone.

How long was that? Maybe 10 minutes? Not more. But we are ecstatic.

Just one hour into our first day of tracking pandas in the Foping National Nature Reserve, high in the Qinling Mountains of northern China, and we've not only seen one but we've been as close as we could ever hope. What are the odds when there are estimated to be just 100 pandas in the 300-square-kilometre reserve?

Our trio of trackers is excited, too, but for a different reason: the sighting ends their day's work. Panda found. Tick. An early finish. Back to the Qinling Giant Panda Research Base and the rest of the day off.

Our swift success seems even more remarkable because we've been preparing ourselves for disappointment. The tour brochure was quite specific: "Panda sightings not guaranteed." We were ready for five full days' trekking from the research base through the forest with little to show for it: perhaps just a glimpse filtered through thick bamboo.

The trackers are not the only ones pleased the day is ending early. After those last frantic minutes spent beating uphill and down, I'm more than ready to head to the base. If this is what an hour feels like, how will I manage a full day?

But it turns out that panda tracking is as much about waiting as walking. There's a lot of standing and sitting around while the trackers do the hard work. We chat (quietly) about work, kids, grandkids, menopause, prostate surgery. The usual. There are just eight of us and our tour leader, Ged Caddick. We know each other unexpectedly well at the end of a week together in the mountains.

It's not all panda tracking. When the pursuit ends early we take time to meet the neighbours. The path down the valley from the base follows a river to the local "village": half a dozen houses strung along the bank. It's warm, the sun is shining and the sky is a blue unimaginable in China's malignantly hazy mega-cities.

The villagers are farmers, many very old. When they die, so will the village. The farmers are here on sufferance; the government doesn't want people living in what has become a panda reserve. When the elderly are gone, the forest will reclaim their cornfields, orchards, vegetable patches, pigpens and beehives. The traditional tiled-roof houses with their mud walls will be allowed to melt into the ground.

But that's for the future. Today, when we visit, the villagers are busy drying bamboo shoots and mushrooms on large trays. Corn cobs hang like bananas in bunches on verandas. Chickens cluck, pigs snort and we are transported to a rural life seemingly unchanged by the 21st-century China on the other side of the ranges - until you notice the satellite dishes.

The 21st century has also seemingly bypassed the Qinling Giant Panda Research Base, a group of severe-looking cement-block buildings so plain they must have been intended as a deliberate foil to the striking beauty of the setting. It's laughter all round when I ask if there's wi-fi. But the food is good. The cook, Mrs Zhao, fills us with wok-loads of bok choy, beans, carrots, cucumber, squash, zucchini, lotus roots ... and that's just breakfast.

Our two-storey accommodation block forms one side of a quadrangle and our rooms could have offered spectacular valley views but instead look the wrong way - out to the quad where packhorses graze on weeds. Packhorses? The research base is an eight-kilometre hike from the road. Everything, including us, arrives on foot or hoof. A minibus drops us off after a four-hour drive south from the provincial capital, Xi'an; our bags are then strapped to the horses and we set off along a path that winds through dappled light in forests of birch and oak, beech and dogwood.

The mountains are soft with a light-green spring canopy; below the canopy are the fresh bamboo shoots that draw the pandas into the valleys. It's a blissful welcome to the mountains and not a bad stress test for our legs as we hike from the road (at 2300 metres) into a valley, then up to the base at 1500 metres.

Our legs get another workout on day three when we trudge and wait, trudge and wait, and see nothing. The trackers spot a panda but it refuses to let us catch up. That's OK. We're still buoyed by our second day, which delivered a panda nonchalantly snacking on shoots. Not quite as close as on the first day, but the view was clearer. Again the panda looked straight at us and, after obliging our cameras, flicked its head in farewell and lumbered off. Maybe it was hungry, as even a few minutes without food is crash-dieting for a panda. Bamboo is a poor nutrient, so pandas have to eat a lot of it. That's a boon for trackers. Moving through the forest as quietly as shadows, they listen for the sound of the 100-kilogram animals lumbering through the bamboo, look for half-eaten shoots and follow the piles of pale panda poo.

Despite the tour brochure's warning that panda sightings are not guaranteed, Caddick reveals that all the groups his company has brought to the research base have had multiple sightings.

Our third and last sighting is on the fourth day: another fully grown panda lolls on its back, bamboo held almost delicately in one paw, like a cigar, waving to us with the other while reclining on the hillside as though in a deckchair.

Rare as pandas are, foreign tourists are just as scarce at the base; fewer than 100 a year are permitted. Our small group is mainly of American professionals who, significantly, have travelled with Caddick before, mostly to Rwanda. Caddick is a confident and capable sometime Liverpudlian, with a ready smile and a mischievous sense of humour. A zookeeper by training, he was a cruise-line expedition leader before founding Florida-based Terra Incognita Ecotours seven years ago. He leads most of the tours himself.

Our final day at the base brings a change of target as we clamber up a rocky riverbed for a glimpse of a flying squirrel. On cue, a squirrel comes soaring out of the tall trees, swooping down the gully - like a ginger cat in a flying suit - before disappearing into the hollow of a tree.

Rolfe says the Chinese name for squirrels is "flying tigers" and pandas are "bear cats". Hmm. Flying tiger, hidden bear cats. Great name for a movie.

Greg Lenthen travelled courtesy of Terra Incognita Ecotours.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

China Southern Airlines has a fare to Xi'an from Sydney and Melbourne for about $830 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Guangzhou (about 9hr) and then to Xi'an (2hr 30min); see flychinasouthern.com. This fare allows you to fly back from another Chinese city. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

Touring there

Terra Incognita Ecotours takes two small groups a year (both in May) to the Qinling Giant Panda Research Base in Shaanxi Province's Foping National Nature Reserve. A 12-day tour, including two days spent touring Xi'an and a trip to the Great Wall of China, costs $US5999 ($5900) a person, twin share. Airfares to Xi'an not included. Terra Incognita's Australasian agent is Unparalleled Journeys. Phone 1800 790 704, see unparalleledjourneys.com.

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