It was 3.00 am, we were camping at Mas la Bauma in the Spanish Pyrenees, and I had just been woken up by a female American voice blaring in my ear: “Congratulations. You have just run 9.2 kilometres in a new personal best time.” I was startled – for two reasons: first, I had not just run anywhere, let alone 9.2 kilometres in a new personal best time; second, to the best of my knowledge I had not been sharing my tent with a female American when I had fallen asleep.
This mystery was soon explained by my companion Chris Seeley, who had woken up and decided to read for a while from the e-book on her mobile phone, at which point the Nike GPS app had spontaneously switched itself on and informed both her and me of her running prowess in its distinctively strident female American tones. “Sorry,” Chris said. “It just went off.”
But I digress.
It was 3.00 am and I was – for reasons that are now apparent – wide awake. As I lay in the dark trying to still my jangled nerves, I became aware that we were not alone. The wooded glade in which we had pitched our tent was no longer silent but full of scuffling and mewling sounds; leaves in the branches of the tree above the tent rustled; bits of twig and pine cone pinged and bounced off the taut canvas over our heads; birds flapped and screeched. And amidst this nocturnal cacophony I was quite sure I could hear the undergrowth parting and feel the ground shaking under the heavy footfall of a large bear.
I turned towards Chris and – in the glow emanating from her mobile phone – placed a finger to my lips to caution her to be silent. She looked puzzled so I pointed meaningfully to the side of the tent. “There’s something out there,” I whispered. “Yes,” she said. “We’re camping in the woods. What did you expect?” She returned her attention to her e-book and continued reading with an incomprehensible disregard for our imminent danger.
I felt around surreptitiously in my rucksack until I found my sheath knife which I removed and slid beside me into the sleeping bag. When the bear burst through the feeble canvas barrier – as it surely would – I would go down fighting.
The scratching sounds outside the tent intensified. Then I remembered the bag of food tucked under the flysheet. You were supposed to hang food in a tree beyond the reach of bears weren’t you? I had read that somewhere about camping in North America. Why hadn’t I hung the food in a tree? Why hadn’t I hung Chris in a tree? Elementary mistakes which I was undoubtedly about to pay for with my life.
Lying down seemed to be another mistake: lying down I was a sitting duck. I sat up. “What are you doing?” asked Chris. A question so unnecessary under the circumstances that I refused to dignify it with an answer. “What do you think is out there?” she continued.
“Something big,” I said.
“Oh for goodness sake. It’s just those squirrel things. They’re tiny. I was listening to them for ages before you woke up; quite comforting really.”
Women. Honestly. I ask you. Now I really had something to prove.
“I’m going out,” I said. “For a pee.”
The tent unzipped noisily. I stepped out, ready to meet my maker, magnificently clad in tee shirt, underpants and long socks; the knife – still in its leather sheath – slipped nonchalantly into the waistband of my underpants just in case. The night sky was peppered with stars; the woods were utterly silent. Chris followed me out of the tent in her pink spotted pyjamas. I need one too,” she said wandering towards the bushes. I took a precautionary look around the tent. There was neither sight nor sound of any life form larger than an ant.
“Those squirrel things disappear when you come outside,” Chris called out. “They did last night too.”
We peed (at a polite distance from one another) and returned to the tent.
“Do you think you might go back to sleep now?” said Chris when we had got back into our sleeping bags.
I yawned loudly. “Might have been a bear,” I said sleepily. I didn’t listen for a reply but I thought I heard a faint “humph” before nodding off.
There are bears in the Pyrenees. It said so on the big laminated sheet of local animals displayed at the campsite when I checked it the next morning. Actually, once you deciphered the Catalan script, it said that there used to be bears in the Pyrenees until about 1990 when the last of the indigenous ursine population died out.
All but one, I say.