Fagaras Mountains, Romania
I may have lost my nose to frostbite. I cannot be sure it is not about to add substance to the as yet uncooked noodle soup. The matches are too safe and the phoney blue fuel that only burns my hands is not Meths. For a moment, in near total darkness, I consider drinking it.
Guidebooks are supposed to help and ours definitely does what it says on the cover. Having missed the “warm beer and companionship” of the Cabanas Arpas, we stand alone, two wet Englishmen muttering in the rain.
The sun is creeping down behind the highest ridge of this Transylvanian range as we struggle with the essentials in its fading light. We are camped inadequately on the edge of a trail that will lead us up to the summit of Romania’s highest peak, Mount Moldoveanu.
Like a cow chewing cud, my travelling companion is regurgitating whole chunks of the guidebook in an attempt to lift our spirits. In the long shadows on the far side of the tent he sounds like a man speaking in tongues:
“Ceausescu… complete dick… exports food… imports grizzlies… 1989… revolution… hunting stops… bears..like..like.. rabbits… 8000 bears… can be found… Fagaras mountains….”
The last place name snakes its way under my radar. He stops for breath, breaks the monotone and points out emphatically:
“That’s here, that’s where we are!!”
We share a moment of horror.
“Export food, import bears!”
I look down at our packet of dehydrated noodles and then up at John’s paunch. It seems we are here to balance a deficit. I start whistling the tune from the Jungle Book, badly. We laugh, almost reassured by my limp joke. The cave dweller in me remains unimpressed and the quest for fire continues.
Soon a tiny blue flame flickers above the stove’s burner. I notice there is a picture of a girl in a lurid 1960s bikini on the front of the matchbox and I revise my opinion of Romanian safety matches. The fuel is producing a by-product that blackens the base of the pan which does seem to be getting hotter. Mosquitoes drone around our heads. Their intermittent attacks punctuate the distant babble of water, deep in the valley below. There is no other sound.
Still wary of larger predators, John recounts tales of the old Yukon. The lore of bear country is more extensive than I had imagined and I am uncertain as to how he has acquired such an impressive weight of knowledge. Then I remember the back catalogue of National Geographic Magazine piled high in his parent’s lavatory. The accumulation of such learning takes more than one sitting.
I don’t enjoy dinner, it is rammed with additives and the kind of gluten base that can give you nightmares. It does. I wake suddenly and it is still dark. I lie there with my indigestion, staring at the roof.
Then I hear it. A twig snapping at the edge of the tree line. Softly and with a cunning and guile honed over millennia, something unspeakable is circling the tent. The moon casts its shadow diagonally down across the canvas. Suddenly, without hesitating, a 200lb purple-fleeced grizzly unzips the tent and climbs into the sleeping bag next to mine.
I ask it what it thinks it is playing at. It responds with the wisdom of Jack London:
“When you are out in bear country, never leave your food anywhere but up a tree.”
I give London a left jab then fail to get back to sleep.