Saturday, November 01, 2014

What to do if you meet a bear

Published in Business Standard on October 18, 2014

In June this year, I drove up to the Jalori Pass, in Himachal Pradesh. It’s absolutely gorgeous, but if you’d told me I’d be on those spine-shattering roads again less than four months later, I would have laughed very loudly, and tossed salt over my shoulder, and washed your mouth out with soap, and punched you in the nose, and maybe also thrown you off the balcony, just to be safe.

Imagine my surprise, then, at finding myself there again at the beginning of October. This time I had pepper spray. That’s because our Jalori Pass walk was a tiny, easy little warm-up walk before the next day’s longer, harder walk into the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), which is a spectacular wilderness bristling with black bears. Like many city slickers, my relationship with nature has an edge of paranoia, so I’d asked a biologist friend what one should do if one meets an aggressive bear, and the guidelines he’d sent me said: “If you have pepper spray, prepare to use it”. By pure coincidence I had recently bought a pepper spray to support a campaign against acid attacks, so I was all kitted out.

The walk from the pass wound through misty woods and past dozens of pimply adolescents, all of whom seemed to have found their way to Serolsar Lake. We never made it, in the time we had, because we got confused by a fork in the path, so instead we settled down on a grassy knoll to have a picnic of tuna sandwiches and coffee while keeping a sharp eye out for tuna-loving bears. It was a nice easy walk, and nobody got eaten, so we called it a success. One’s bar for success drops sharply in middle age.

Speaking of sharp drops, the entry to the GHNP from Goshaini village is a 6km walk through parkland to the main entry gate, and a couple more kilometres to the campsite called Bhalu Bangla. The impossible beauty of the place—the lush dense green, blossoms, birds, a narrow sun-dappled trail, and the pretty blue Tirthan River sparkling along the valley floor, leaves your mouth hanging open. This makes a convenient aperture for your lolling tongue, which is possibly dripping sweat like a dog as you climb the hill. The thundering chirp of the cicadas were drowned out by weeping cries of ‘Help me, kill me now, I’m too old for this!’ which I eventually realised were coming from me.

Just when I thought the end was nigh, we scampered down to a gorgeous waterfall where I lay slumped upon the rocks, just like a walrus, but with a bigger moustache. It was only a few more minutes from there up to the gate, where we hit survival rations that we had carefully packed in hipflasks, and congratulated each other on not having suffered cardiac arrest.

Later that evening, returning from a midnight, moonlit walk, and via a series of alleged events that I continue to contest, I managed to step off the trail, and ended up dangling from the edge by my hands (one of which, acting from atavistic instinct, retained a vice-like grip on my cell phone), with the river rushing below. I doubt that the fall would have killed me, but I’d certainly have suffered severe depreciation. Do your push-ups, kids, they will save you a spot of bother someday.

Anyway, I feel that if you haven’t almost drowned in a river and almost fallen off a mountain to an uncertain fate, you aren’t doing it right. Also, in hindsight, and now that I’ve finally caught my breath two weeks later, the walk up was really just bracing.

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