I've got a history of paranoid bush walking in foreign countries. Some would tell you I'm skilled at dramatising a situation, but what I say to them is, "If you were hiking through a forest infested with creatures whose life goal was to shred you into small pieces, you'd take precautions too."
When I see signs advertising walks in these countries, I think "do they realise they have bears lurking in their woods? Not to mention snakes and wild dogs?" Many a hostel owner has become infuriated at my endless questions: "How likely are we to see a bear? What should we do if one attacks? Do wolves come out in the open or are they soundless stalkers?"
That last concern came from a disturbing fact I learned about cougars. Friends who lived in Canada told me tramping there is taking your life into your hands. "Oh I can imagine," I said, "You wouldn't want to see a mountain lion." "Actually it's the not seeing that's the problem," they replied. "They're so furtive their teeth will be in your throat before you've heard a leaf rustle." How comforting. Canadians on their morning strolls must then pray for glimpses of wild cats.
If you did spot one you'd congratulate yourself on dodging that set of incisors, but what about the ones that remain hidden? Yesterday I was tramping in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains (at a place called "Rocky Knob") and I realised I'd forgotten to check whether the region was home to cougars. I'd been too preoccupied thinking about bears. I imagined my elaborate and horrific death. Would it hurt much? Which part of me would the beast go for first? Poor Ted would have to call my mother to deliver the bad news. "I tried to save her, Mrs Roil, but the lion was too quick. All that's left is a bit of skin and a finger I wrestled from its mouth." Muffled sobs ...the line goes dead.
I spent most of the time looking into the trees - was that a streak of yellow fur? Nope, just some golden moss. "Ted! Something's chasing us!" "No, Amy, it's a deer running away from us." You can imagine Ted's delight at putting up with that behaviour for four hours.
I've been overcome by forest paranoia before, but that time there was no one to rescue me from my warped imagination. My friend Kate and I egged each other on until every tree stump became a wild beast lying in wait. At one point we spent a good five minutes yelling and throwing rocks at a log that bore an uncanny resemblance to a slumbering bear.
We were shaken up early in our exploration of Romania's Carpathian Mountains when a savage dog attacked us. Luckily it was muzzled or who knows what would've been the damage? Its owner was thrown a few choice words. He couldn't understand English, but he got the gist. By the end of the day we were walking with rocks in our hands, every rustle in the bushes a wolf.
It all comes from living in a country where the most dangerous animal you'll encounter is an amorous kakapo setting its sights on your head for a mate. Visitors to New Zealand must struggle to adapt to wandering carefree, whereas when we're in their countries we're faced with such upbeat advice as: "If the bear shows no interest in your food and you're physically attacked, fight back aggressively with any available object - the bear may consider you as prey!"
That I've never seen a wild animal more vicious than a deer is meaningless. I think we all underestimate the cunning of these creatures. And before you tell me I'm overreacting, read this story about a Russian girl who was eaten by brown bears. At least I'm prepared.
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