Saturday, 25 June 2011

Bulgaria: Bears and tales of missing loaves

The Bulgarian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) is a subspecies of the brown bear (Ursus arctos), and found across northern Eurasia.The animal is widespread in Bulgaria..

"Jilly!" said a voice behind me interrupting my thoughts of  the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster as I looked down at the waves curling over the edge of the boat and covering my sandals. I struggled to turn my head to see who on earth I'd know while hemmed in between a cattle truck and the side of the car ferry which was now transporting me across the river Danube from Bechet in Romania to Orjahovo in Bulgaria.  A florid pockmarked face under a lime baseball cap came into view and my hand was grasped, pumped with vigour while my arm slapped. Aah, it was the rotund chap from a 'campsite' I'd stayed at the night before who'd bought me 2 beers while teaching me to say 'Multumesc' the Romanian word for "thank you" which I think I'd finally mastered when departing the country (ie I hadn't received a confused look from the person being thanked) as I purchased my ticket before boarding the ferry. "I work in marketing" he'd said but now I realised it was of the cattle type of market and I think he saw it in my face as he gave me a final slap on the arm and hurriedly retreated to the cabin of his truck in preparation to disembark.

Leaving Bulgarian passport control where I'd spluttered and made up a word for 'Hello' I spotted two fluorescent waist-coated people tucking into a plate of food at a roadside cafe, two touring bikes leant up against a corrugated fence. I waved and cycled towards them as they beckoned me to join them. This amiable couple were from Holland, retired and on their final leg of the Danube river route which they'd completed over a series of summers "The best way to spend our retirement money" he said. They were doing the next leg in Romania to 'avoid the hills of Bulgaria'. Hills...?

Shortly after leaving them, my heart was battering my chest and I breathlessly asked a bemused old lady who stood with head cocked at her garden gate "Bank(e)?" -adding an e to the end for no particular reason just it sounded more foreign - and she smiled and pointed at another hill and up I went and at the ATM stood confused again as to what the currency and exchange rate was. My safe bet is to now select the second amount down on the left hand side!

I weaved my way through rural roads, thick with mud and deep pools in the chasmal potholes after an earlier storm. At the next village a sudden short yet almost vertical hill caused me to get off and push and 3 ladies, their faces as crinkled as their thick black stockings, chuckled and tried to push my bike with me. Let me say that pushing a fully loaded tour bike is more exhausting then getting on the bike and pedalling and the pain in my increasingly weak wrists is unbearable yet I was soon distracted from any suffering as the Bulgarian countryside is stunning. I became absorbed by the hedgerows of poppies, golden ragwort, plump magenta thistles and the deep violet of wild lupins as I left the villages and climbed up to a rolling plain looking down at the River Danube.

 My camp that evening was on the edge of a village, the heat of the day had erupted into a ferocious storm and I sheltered under the trees, camoflaged and relatively dry. This was my spot where I was treated to a dazzling firefly display

 I woke needing coffee and at the next village the cafe was a coffee machine in a small store. I tried to count how many people were helping me with coins, buttons, strength, size, sugar and milk options. Amusing start to the day yet things took a slight turn for the worse when many kilometres later I was on a deserted strech of road and had overtaken a horse and cart with 2 rather shifty looking men onboard. Blame it on fatigue, too much time alone, an overactive imagination sprinkled with a slight hint of paranoia, whatever you want but something gnawed at me so when the thundering of hooves commenced - and believe me that pounding sound on tarmac when you are going full pelt and wishing you had an extra gear to get more pedal power is really quite frightening- I knew that this was the day it would all go wrong. I was expecting to be lassooed, jumped on, robbed of all my possessions and tied to a tree. I could hear the Lone Ranger theme tune playing its tinny sound in my head, interspersed with the dandyish chants of Stand and Deliver.  What did happen was I lost the glorious fresh loaf of bread and feta from the back of my panniers, arrived sweating and shaking in another village and hid under a tree waiting for them to ride on past looking for me. They didn't of course and they were probably just late for lunch.. in fact they probably stopped and had my lunch!

A few hours later I found myself panicking again - where to sleep? I'd met a policeman in the most depressing town which had looked so appealing on the map being by the river and surrounded by forest. I asked the way to Svishtov and he pointed at a sign post which had "prison" and "Nuclear Power Plant" written on it.

He laughed, said 'Bravo', shook my hand and slapped me on the back. So that was my route.. 8km of nuclear power plant later the sun was setting, I approached a vacant looking guard to ask directions while his possessed manic dog circled me and snarled (very discreetly i was zapping him with my Dazer - the dog not the guard..) and after some confusion remembered that a shake of the head in Bulgarian meant yes not no so I was still heading in the right directon. More kilometres later and I found a spot on a raised bank with the Nuclear Power Station to my right and a Power Station to my left and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of crashing machinery, generators and throbbing turbines.

2 nights later I was in a warm bed, devoid of snails, slugs, centipedes and mosquitos. My stomach groaned in agreeable discomfort with its contents of Bulgarian stew washed down with beer and a splattering of chardonnay. The bike had been replaced by a horse, my own repetitive thoughts with stimulating conversation, damp fields with cool tiled floors. I'd reached the sanctuary of my friend's brother-in-law David, his partner Detelina and their baby son David - ironically precisely 4000km from my mother's house where I'd commenced my journey. A delightful day and a half spent with them and eternally grateful for their warmth and hospitality (and for getting me to a bike shop!)

My inadequate map, bought hastily at a petrol station, showed all the place names in English yet the road signs were in Cyrillic causing me to navigate by sun and directions from people . It also failed to show any difference in terrain and a text from a friend tracking me online enlightened me that I was heading towards the Central Balkans national park with a mountain pass to cross and an abundance of wildlife: wild boar, wolves and bears. Bears. I cycled through densely forested mountains.. Bears, .. and took a steady ascent of the Pass of Republic, a meagre 700m yet the top afforded views, a delicious yoghurt and an encounter with 2 Dutch cycle tourers who were on their journey back to Western Europe having cycled through Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. Bears. I love when I meet a couple of tourers: the lady usually natters the most while the man stands smiling politely, surreptitiously glancing at my bike until I then take a nose at theirs, ask questions and then you see the relief and we talk schwalbe tyres, maintenance and rohloff hubs.

Nothing like a bit of bike talk to take ones mind off bears. "Hey, watch out for the bears" he shouted as they started their descent blessed with a tail wind while I struggled up the last 3 metres to the top of the pass.  What bears?!! I shouted back trying to look over my shoulder and seeing only a cheery wave as he freewheeled down. Bears

Centuries old forests of spruce, beech and fir carpeted the mountains around me as I rested my thighs and enjoyed the downhill.

and of course the obligatory sweaty, inane grin self-portrait

I wasn't really that phased by being in the most populated bear area in Europe and once I'd found a camp, hidden in long grass again with a mountain meadow in front of me I was content
That night I dreamt of bears.

The following evening I rejoiced at the camp I'd found on the edge of a lake. The hills had taken their toll on my already strained back and I realised I needed to lie down and rest it for a day. I didn't get much rest as I pitched my tent and then noticed the footprints..

I was totally oblivious as to what a bear print looks like but there were enough large footprints around my tent to make me realise I was slap bang in the middle of some animal's nightly jolly to the lake.

A few texts later I was fully informed to leave my food and toiletries 50m from my tent and what to do with a bear encounter.
  • Speak in a calm authorative voice
  • Do not run
  • Do not climb a tree
  • Stand tall and show the bear you are not there to steal its food?! (what if it's there to steal mine?)
  • If the bear attacks you, curl up in foetal position, keep calm (yeah, right!) and act passive (cough!)
All very helpful advice if I wasn't prostate in a one man tent with a door that didn't close due to recent zip failure. Yet I survived the night and the next day woke to a glorious sunrise and I forgot about bears

as life doesn't really get much better than this.

After a lazy day willing my back to repair itself I once again took my food bag and one of my panniers containing my cooking equipment and my toiletry bag and hid them in some bushes about 50m from my tent. The next morning I returned to the bush and my bright orange Sea to Summit bag containing my yorkshire tea bags, oats, couscous, a loaf of bread, chilli powder, tomato & garlic purees was.. gone! the pannier was still there - it had been on top of the orange bag- and I lifted it up, thankful I still had it but.. I'm not sure how long I stared at the empty spot, my brain ticking.. yes, the fishermen must have stolen my food bag. I'd seen 2 young guys the night before, 200m or so away from me and presumed it must have been them so I stomped on over to confront them. One man lay snoring under a chequered blanket beneath a tree. I looked around and examined their small picnic table: a loaf of bread lay untouched (it wasn't my loaf as I'd mauled the top of mine the night before), olive stones and pistachio shells shared an ashtray of white cigarette butts. I saw a carrier bag underneath and with my foot tried to nudge it open. A man appeared from the trees, and gave me a questionable look. "Bag" I said forming a fist in the air in a pitiful attempt to mime carrying a bag. "Orange" I continued looking down at my orange t-shirt and pointing to it, "Sea to Summit" I stupidly added my hands trying to sign a rough ocean and then a pyramid shape, "bushes" I said pointing behind me, "food.. my bloomin food" I exclaimed, pointing at their table and looking him straight in the eyes.  The man was not in his 20s but with grey hair and slightly stooped. His friend had woken up by now and they both looked at me blankly and I frustratedly stormed off. After I'd calmed down and appeased my stomach with a small yoghurt I'd forgotten to hide I chuckled at how bizarre I must have appeared. fist, t-shirt, sea, pyramid, in the bush, the table. Mad wild english woman trying to nick our food

So I never knew what happened with my food bag. If the young fishermen who'd disappeared by the morning stole it I can only thank them for being such considerate thieves and leaving my Ortlieb pannier containing my MSR stove, my titanium pots, my repair kits, my toiletries and 6 packs of lithium batteries for my SPOT Gps tracker. If it was an animal then good.. it left me alone and I hope it enjoyed the chilli powder.

1 comment:

  1. I've just read 'Rubyrideon' - another excellent blog - and she dreamed of being 'rubymeat' for bears too - whilst wildcamping. My OH assures me they are very small bears in Europe. Still. Scary stuff. Love your attitude.