TRUE STORY - STORM OF 87 - THE DAY WE CAME FACE TO FACE WITH A SNOW LEOPARD


Thirty years ago this week the great storm of 1987 had ravaged the south of England and as an electrical craftsman in the electricity supply industry I was involved, along with thousands of colleagues, restoring power to properties.

What follows is the heroic story of just one small team of chaps who came together from different disciplines to bond and do their bit towards getting the lights back on here in east Kent.

Manpower was stretched to the limits after the storm and to make best use of the human resources available, electrical craftsmen of different kinds were paired with labourers or ‘mates’ to create small teams in order to deal with the enormous and daunting task of rebuilding the electricity supply system.

During the chaos I was teamed with one of Seeboard’s most colourful characters – a then young Pat Doughty was to be my ‘mate’.

Following a very businesslike briefing, Pat and I set off in our van towards Littlebourne in order to patrol an 11kv overhead line running adjacent to the wild animal park. On the way we passed many (now historic) scenes of devastation caused by the storm and we talked about our own experiences during the night of the storm itself.

Arriving near to the wildlife park we parked up next to the road, and whilst we were donning our overalls, donkey jackets, wellies and hanging binoculars around our necks, the local news was coming across on the radio. One particular report made us stop in our tracks: One of a pair of snow leopards had escaped from Howlett’s Wild Animal Park during the storm and local residents were being warned not to approach it and to report any sightings.

We both stopped dead in our tracks and looked at each other – both extremely alarmed. As you can imagine, a full and frank discussion about our situation took place – none of which can be repeated here in print.

We were both much younger and more fearless back then, and despite our very colourful discussion, in the end we decided that in these current disastrous circumstances, the public good must come first, way above our own safety, and we would indeed set about patrolling the overhead line – as planned.

I remember clearly setting off and stopping still at every little tiny rustle in nearby bushes, but we soldiered on each time and after a while we became quite blaze’, eventually marching with confidence along the line between the poles and out into open farmland. I believe I even remember us both singing together out loud at one point – just to prove our chivalrous bravery.

Then suddenly it happened!

We were totally exposed – right out in open farmland - walking a line that went straight down the centre of a field that had the ominous green chain link fencing of the wild animal park running parallel to us twenty yards to our left side and a wooded area running parallel to us twenty yards to the right. The latter – the wooded area – was where we briefly spotted the snow leopard. The huge white cat bounding like lightening between trees – just a few yards away from us.

For a split second we both stopped dead in our tracks with fear and as our heads slowly turned towards each other and our eyes finally met, the realization hit us and we both shouted “******* run”.

And did we run? You bet we did! We may have been wearing wellies, overalls, donkey jackets and been carrying binoculars and clipboards etc. but boy did we run. Despite the uneven terrain, I reckon we’d have made the Olympics if we’d been in trials. And we didn’t look back – not once. We were on the snow leopards territory and he held all the aces when it came to speed and agility. Oh and, just for good measure – after a long night on the run he must have been getting hungry.

Back at the van we leapt inside and slammed the doors shut tight. Our hearts were pounding; our faces were drowning in sweat. The windows immediately steamed up with our panting but after a few minutes getting our breath back, the conversation started. We exchanged our individual versions of our close encounter with the wild world of the snow leopard and just how scary it had all been – again – the detail cannot be repeated here in print.

However, on two things we were positively united – we’d been in the close company of a big white snow leopard and we were both very lucky to still be alive.

We got onto the Seeboard radio system back to our base at St Peters depot in Thanet and reported our terrifying encounter. We could hear the laughing in the control room along with ‘Guess what? Harty and Doughty reckon they’ve have been chased by a snow leopard”. After the harrowing events they’d been dealing with all night, our ‘radio controllers’ were finally having the time of their lives responding to us. “Face it down” came the advice from one controller. “Don’t show any fear,” said another. And the belly laughing and jibes just went on and on.

In the end our ‘controllers’ made contact with the wild animal park and we were instructed to head to the main gate where we would be ‘de-briefed’.

At the park we joined a long line of people who had reported sightings. However, our ‘trustworthy’ sighting must have been much more convincing than others as we were taken out of the line and into a nearby fenced area. We repeated our experience to the actual ‘snow leopard keeper’ who was listening intently whilst holding on to the handle of a door. As we finished our story he opened the door and simultaneously he said, “Did he look like this one”.

The remaining captive snow leopard turned his head and growled at us just like the MGM lion at the start of a movie.

For the third time that day Pat and I turned in stunned and shocked silence towards each other and shouted in unison “******* run”. This time Pat was much faster than me and I remember seeing the red toe protector part of his wellies passing my face horizontally as he leaped straight across and over me. My view of his blurred wellies cleared just in time to see the door slammed back shut and the very, very grey remaining snow leopard inside was locked safely away yet again.

Thing is, wild snow leopards are indeed grey - very grey indeed - and earlier that day we’d both spotted the biggest domestic white pussycat in east Kent!

Please note - no names were changed to protect anyone and no cats - domestic or wild - were harmed.

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Clive Hart