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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How I met a Bear and got chased by it..in Croatia



On the board was written ‘Pltivicka Jezera National Park’. “Finally”, I murmured to myself and got down from the bus and stretched my arms.
It was afternoon now.

I had first heard about the Plitvice lakes almost a year back. The waters were such a pristine mix of blue and green and it felt as if all the images had been photoshopped. As wrote a reviewer, ‘If you combine the blue waters of the Andamans with the Kuang Si waterfalls in Laos, and sprinkle Alaskan fauna all over, you will have – the Plitvice Lakes


























Ever since, the lakes became a part of my bucket list.

The country wasn’t part of my original Europe solo trip plan. Back then, I had only decided to backpack and couchsurf across Spain and Italy. But a few days earlier, while standing at Padova rail station, I saw a poster for a train to Croatia and immediately altered my future plans.

Two days later, I bid a sorry farewell to my rather pretty Couchsurfing host, and boarded the train to Italy’s north eastern town of Trieste, sandwiched between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia. The rail journey is beautiful and you can see the Adriatic from the large train windows.

From Trieste, I took a bus to Dubrovnik – located in the very bottom of Croatia. The town has been declared as “Europe’s Best Preserved Heritage City” on quitea few forums and it made sense to visit the place before I made my final assault on the national park I so wanted to visit.

Back to the story.

I got down from the bus, and walked over to the bus station to book my return ticket for the evening. There they told methat the return buses would only leave next morning. I knew a hotel room would cost me at least 30 Euros here, and being on a tight budget, I was not overjoyed at this sudden turn of events.

And that’s when Ivo told me that he had a tent and we could camp in the forest. Immediately visions of Enid Blyton stories and camping came to mind, and I nodded my head enthusiastically.

I had met Ivo on the bus. A proud Serbian, he was tall and had big beefy arms. It made sense to never get into a fight with this guy, because I had a feeling that he could easily pick me up and toss me all the way to Serbia.

We started walking.

Just like most of Europe, this region too had a regular campsite, and we reached there soon enough. But Ivo had other plans.

Aye Nero, there are too many people here. Let’s go camp in a real forest.”

There are a few things I am never able to say no to.  One of those is stupid suggestions.

I nodded my head, and we walked on, proud that we were not just tourists but the real thing.

After hiking for ten miles, we stopped in a small clearing in the woods and pitched up our tent.

Oii Nero, I am hungry. Let’s go hunt for some food.” Appalled at the thought that he might expect me to hurt an animal, I began to protest.

Animals? Who spoke of animals. We’ll eat berries” said my friend, with a sagely look on his face.

I studied his six foot four frame closely. His legs were as thick as the tree trunks in the forest. As he bent to pick up a torch, I saw it concealed almost wholly in his big palm. Some of his fingers were thicker than my thighs.

And he wanted to eat berries. I wondered if a sack full would be enough for this Goliath.

It was getting dark now. We strolled out of our tent and walked into the trees, whistling merry tunes. Oh we were adventurers, men of the land. We were not those who looked for material pleasures. In our hearts lived Robinson Crusoe, Long John Silver, George Mallory and Captain Cook. Oh we were adventurers.

I looked at the stars, pretending as if that was all I needed to guide me. I had to look back at the ground, when I tripped over a stone.

And that is when we saw it.

A giant brown bear.

I wondered what Robinson Crusoe would have done in a situation like this. I wondered if this is how Captain Cook would have felt when he saw the natives on the New Zealand Coast.

And from the pits of Ivo’s stomach came an eloquent voice, “Uh oh”.

Maybe he’s a nice, friendly bear”, I whispered to Ivo. When we proceeded to weakly smile at the bear, he let out such a snarl that we quickly subsided.

What does one do when one sees a bear ten metres ahead of them? Weeks later when I read on the topic, the most popular recommendation was “to lie down on the ground and pretend to play dead.”

You know, I do not say that this isn’t the right thing to do. But I would really like to meet a man who on suddenly encountering a bear, actually thought ‘Alright, let’s lie down casually and wait for the big fellow to pass by.

They also say that you can, alternatively, try to look bigger than the bear, scream at it and make intimidating gestures. That might make it retreat. I looked at myself and wondered how many beers this bear would have to have to believe that I was bigger than him.

But hey, Ivo was a big man. He could do something. I turned to my right, excitedly to tell him my plan. Err why is there no Ivo on my right. I spun to my left, and again no Ivo.

Ivo, my massive Serbian friend, had turned around and was running for his life. I shot a glance at the bear who looked a little more irked now to see one of us give him the slip. What would Rambo do now, I wondered.

 The next moment, I was scampering behind Ivo. And since animals love me and can’t do without me, the bear bounded right after me. Ivo, me, the bear, all running in one line, with the occasional graceful hop over a pesky bush sitting in the way.

For some reason, Ivo ran right into the tent. For some reason, and I suspect not very sound ones, I followed right behind.

Why did you run into the tent”, I screamed at him. “What if there are other bears in the forest”, he screamed back. Point.

Meanwhile, the bear had stopped outside the tent and was probably figuring out which side to enter from. His shadow fell on the tent’s face, and we stood at the opposite end in pin drop silence. Ivo was, oddly, holding on to the tent’s zip.

Hey Nero, if he comes in, we’ll rush out from this side and zip him inside” whispered Ivo. For his sake, I hope he only meant it as a nervous joke. Nice that I am, I nodded and put my palm on the zip too.

 As the bear circled around the tent, snarling and growling, his shadow followed on the tent canvas, and dutifully, we tiptoed in circles inside as well. A couple of times it came and pawed the tent and slashed at it, and our hearts were in our mouths. Those were really tense minutes, and we would not stop staring at the bear’s shadow. Only three weeks earlier, I had fallen right in front of a bull during the Spanish bull run, and I have no idea why it did not gore me.  Right, one last miracle I need now, I told myself.

A little later, the bear retreated a few metres and plonked itself there. We took turns to look at it from a small opening. Then it moved a bit, and we could see it no longer. It was night now, and in the forest everything was pitch dark. Even the sound of rustling leaves or the wind, was enough to create doubt in our heads.  We had no clue if it had given up on us and left or if the fellow was hiding behind some tree waiting for us to make a move. Either way, we refused to budge.

Two hours later.

I want to pee” Ivo informed me.
Right, let me tell the bear that we want a loo break
You know Nero, I think I could fight him bare handed
You could barely stand on your feet when you saw him
Want a bear hug?”
I can’t bear these wisecracks of yours

And thus continued two men, cracking beary bad jokes, through the night lying in a tent in a Croatian forest. Oh they were adventurers, men of heart. In their hearts lived Robinson Crusoe, Long John Silver, George Mallory and Captain Cook.

Months later, I read that the forests around Plitive were home to bears, wolves, nineteen varieties of snakes besides other small animals. Not the best idea to camp in unknown forests, I guess. As for the story of the lakes, it is but another one.