Saturday, 21 April 2012

In the Forests of the Night

There I was, in a town I didn't even know the name of, with no bike or luggage, wearing only my VC167 jersey, my 3/4 length shorts with the hole at the crotch which I've already repaired once but which had split again, and carrying only my camera, wallet, phone and passport. And there was no room at the inn. The night was warm, and I was eyeing up the benches as a decent place to sleep. I cracked a beer, lit a fag, and waited to see what the landlord would say.

I'd camped up quite happily in light jungle within sight of the highway, and my biggest concern was keeping the big spiders, beetles, fire ants, enormous moths and crickets out of my tent. I had no appetite so I didn't break out my stove. I had a beer which I'd only bought earlier in the day as the shop couldn't change a 500 rupee note, and after half a day in my pannier it was warm to the touch, and it wasn't going down well.

A local lad came past, and asked for some of my water. It's lucky that I didn't need any for cooking, as he drank a whole litre in one gulp. He warned me against camping, as he said there were tigers around, but they say that sort of thing everywhere. I think he was inviting me back to stay with his family, but I'd already put up my tent and I couldn't be bothered to strike camp when it was getting dark. I told him that I'd just sleep there, which he misinterpreted as a sign that he should take a nap, which he did, laying down in the brush with his back against the tree trunk.

About half an hour after he'd left, another couple of young locals came up the same way, walking towards the road. Again they asked for some water, though only the elder of the two drank any. I gave another bottle to the younger, who seemed grateful for it. He never spoke; only the elder did, in a mix of Nepali and English which I could hardly understand. I did understand the word "tiger" again, and he kept asking if I had any friends with me, even going to the extent of shining his phone light into my tent to confirm there was no one else with me, at which he gleefully said "no friend!" I chased them off, and sat uncomfortably in my tent, sweating gently in the heat and humidity.

I stepped out of my tent to get some fresher air, and to shoo away the wee beasties that were gathering around my tent.

I heard rustling in the trees to the east. I ignored it at first, as it was probably leaves and other debris falling from the trees. Back into the tent to concentrate on drinking and not being so paranoid.

However, the sound was drawing closer, and it was a big sound. I got back out, and shone my head torch in the direction of the noise. It was away from the path, into the heart of the jungle, but I shouted a couple of "hellos" and "namastes", in case it was a local gathering wood or taking a shortcut. It was getting slowly closer, and it was clearly something big. I shone my head torch in that direction again, and half-thought it was a pair of tiger's eyes reflecting the light, but I told myself not to be so daft as it was more likely to be a couple of the glowflies that were flitting about, or a spider in one of the trees.

However, I then heard a low but distinct growl coming from the same direction. I'll never forget that sound. It wasn't loud, but it contained such a promise of danger and menace that I didn't hesitate. It was long past the point where I could have struck camp; I went to grab my phone, realised I'd already put it into my jersey pocket, and retreated to the road, listening carefully for sounds of pursuit.

None came. The road was utterly deserted, though, and the traffic that did come along ignored my increasingly desperate arm signals. I was alert to every sound coming from the undergrowth, every falling leaf and crackle of dead branches.

After what felt like an age but was probably ten minutes, a bus stopped for me. I stood in the doorway and let the night breeze cool me down. The conductor and other passengers said there was a hotel 30 km away, and that was where I'd be getting off. While I was on the bus and my heart rate came down from a whine to a purr, I did wonder if it had been some elaborate hoax by the locals to scare me away and steal all my kit. I'd only find out in the morning. Luckily, I had my most nickable items (camera, phone, iPod, passport and wallet) on my person, and more importantly I'm not especially tied to my possessions. Other cycle tourists have commented on how relaxed I am about leaving my bike unlocked and not bothering to take my panniers off. I had made a conscious decision that I wouldn't be tied to my bike while on this trip, which made it very easy to leave it all behind rather than face the wrath of a tiger in its territory.

Realistically, it seemed that it was too over-elaborate to have been an attempt at theft when they could have just outnumbered me and intimidated me into handing over my possessions. And the approach of whatever it was had been too slow, too stealthy, and too focussed in one place to have been a gang of locals playing tricks. I did worry that the second local who'd come along had been very specific about checking that I was alone, but that's a question I get asked so often that to be paranoid about it as absurd. The other possibility was that it was a wild cow, rustling through the jungle and scavenging for food, but the cows around here are well domesticated, and there was that growl...

The landlord found a room for me, with a mattress about half an inch thick and a hard wooden board underneath. I didn't care, especially for the equivalent of less than two quid. I scrounged some pen and paper to record my thoughts, as I didn't want to waste my phone battery. I'd had the forethought to mark my position on the highway, and I was going to use my phone to find my way back there the next morning. I'd worry about my possessions then.

I slept straight through until 6 am and I was immediately awake, catching the world's slowest bus back. I did find out the name of the town where I slept (Lamki) and I explained - or tried to explain - to the bus driver that I wanted to go to a point about 5 km after Sukhad. They understood Sukhad.

I was too worried and nervous to get travel sick on those journeys, not to mention that it was in the cool parts of the day. Midday on those buses would be deeply unpleasant, but I was starting to think that I might have to catch buses, if my bike and tent and luggage had been stolen. I was preparing myself for the worst.
I had locked my bike, however, and wrapped one of the guy ropes around the lock, which I usually do when I'm camping, if only to give myself some reassurance. I am relaxed about the idea of theft, and most people are deserving of trust, but I'm not daft. I'd looped my locks around both wheels, so stealing the bike would have meant the thief snipping the guy rope, lifting the bike and carrying it away. I was hoping that, at worst, scavengers might have come along and nicked my panniers. I could live with that, and carry on, as long as my bike was still there.

The bus overshot my location, as the GPS function on my phone was struggling to find my location in the poor reception pocket between villages. I spotted a landmark I recognised and shouted at the driver to stop. I didn't really need my phone to find the spot, but it was reassuring to have that backup.

It was with some trepidation that I walked back down that track, my feet crackling over the dead leaves. I jumped at every sound as the leaves and catweasels (local equivalent, anyway: fist-sized stickles dropping from the trees made a frighteningly loud noise) fell to earth.

No tigers, and my tent and bike and all my possessions were there, just as I'd left them. I was so relieved. I'd been imagining that I'd come back to a bare campsite, and have to call the police, explain to them where I was, go through the rigmarole of filling in reports and insurance claims, as well as coming away feeling like a right idiot for having been gulled so easily.

I packed up quickly. I wasn't going to hang about. I rolled to the next town and booked into a cheap guest house to have a day off. Looking at the map, I'm only 20 kilometres from Bardia National Park, where there are wild tigers. Maybe I should have taken those locals seriously.

But was it a tiger? It could have been anything. A cow, or a nervous deer creeping through the undergrowth.
When I had dragged my bike back up to the road, I stopped for a drink, and in the loose sand by the road I saw fresh pawprints, which I recognised from Corbett National Park as being the prints of a tiger.

camping in the jungle, Nepal

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