If You Go Down To The Woods Today…

24 03 2009


bear-wm1When I was little I always wanted to attend a Teddy Bear’s picnic. Later in life when I finally did go down to the woods, I began to re-think my wish when I nearly became a nibbly!


Many towns in Northern Ontario are troubled by black bears. Every summer evening, bears emerge from the forests and have their own picnic in backyards, dumps and garbage cans. The province do their best to control the problem but short of a hunt, it isn’t easy to solve…until one local campground owner saw an opportunity to engage in a bit of ecotourism.


After presenting his proposal to local authorities, he built a tall wooden platform in a forest clearing. His plan was to take people to the lookout, and then lure the bears away from the town with leftovers…much the same way that some African lodges lure leopards. It’s perhaps not the most genuine or natural experience but for people short on time or without the ability to venture deep into the bush, it was a great opportunity. And it helped protect the bears.


Late one afternoon, a van collected us from a remote rest stop. We turned off the highway and, after opening a large metal gate, continued deep into the forest. As the dirt track continued we soon spied our first bear ambling slowly through the trees nearby. A short distance later we stopped at the base of the lookout tower and turned off the engine.


The guide surveyed the clearing before opening the van’s door. The moment my foot touched the ground, a young cub tumbled from the trees and made an inquisitive beeline for our vehicle….and everyone knows that where there’s a cub there’s a protective mother. Armed with nothing more than a whistle and some pepper spray, our guide ushered us up the stairs to the platform all the while keeping a close eye on the cub and an even closer eye for its mother.


The platform had a roof but no other protection from the elements…and was obviously also a picnic spot for mosquitoes. The day’s leftovers were dumped in a large drum on the edge of the clearing and our only link with the bear-free outside world drove away. Within moments, the picnic was underway.


The first bear was an enormous male. I had seen them on television and in zoos, but a close encounter with a large, healthy wild bear is seriously impressive. His coat gleamed almost blue and every step resonated with power and authority. He loped to the drum and began digging around for dinner.  No sooner was his head buried amid the butcher’s discards than more bears revealed themselves until we were surrounded by eight adults and two cubs…which quickly raced to safety up the nearest tree trunk.


The feast continued and although there was clearly a hierarchy and the occasional aggressive grunt to warn off rivals, there were no fights or challenges. It then occurred to me that we were well and truly stranded in the middle of their picnic much like sweet pastries on a tiered cake tray.


“Right, time to go,” the guide announced.


“How do we, err, do that?” I asked, looking down to see us completely surrounded.


“They’ll be gone shortly, then the van will come back,” he replied nonchalantly.


With the sun dipped below the tree tops, the clearing was quickly in heavy shadow. The van arrived and our guide looked through the spy-hole in the door to see if there were any bears on the stairs. He cautiously opened the door and poked his head out to ensure we were indeed alone before leading us down to the ground. Every shadow, bush and tree trunk looked like a bear and only once we were inside the van did we heave a sigh of relief.


The moment we slammed the door shut and began scratching our mosquito bites, an enormous male emerged from the dark woods just yards away and stared at us.


“Hmmm,” our guide muttered. “I didn’t see him.” And with that we left the picnic and headed home for dinner.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan


Fancy a Bite?

25 04 2008


Lake Baringo, Kenya


It had been a hot and humid night filled with the buzz and whine of unseen insects, the high-pitched lilt of frogs, and the occasional sing-song snort of hippos. I climbed from the stuffy tent and headed for rejuvenation in the cold showers. The cubicle was small and I eased in, closing the slatted wooden door behind me and hanging my towel and shorts on a rusty nail. As I turned to open the tap I noticed the mosquitoes.


Wall-to-wall mosquitoes. Covering every square inch of the three walls. Millions of them. It was like a horror film when someone enters the chamber filled with sleeping zombies, or that scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when every roof, tree and telephone line is covered with starlings and crows.


I stood motionless and silent, wondering whether I could escape without rousing the masses and being eaten alive. The deliriously cold water dripped from the naked showerhead, taunting me to escape the heat. Reasoning that mosquitoes don’t bite during heavy rain, I turned on the water, all the while keeping an eye on the fuzzy wallpaper and an ear open for the sound of them licking their chops. The bloodsuckers didn’t stir. They’d clearly enjoyed a night of feasting and were now enduring the parasitic-equivalent of a hangover.  I finished washing, threw on my shorts, and fled as quickly as I could to dry off somewhere else.


In the First World, mosquitoes are little more than an inconvenience, but for most people in developing countries they are a threat from the moment they are born. While the worst we tend to suffer are nasty itchy bites, more than a billion people each year contract malaria, yellow fever and dengue.


Today is UN World Malaria Day, aimed at increasing awareness of the disease that infects more than half a billion people a year. The United Nations is endeavouring to eradicate the disease through education and the distribution of bed nets, repellent, and free or affordable drugs.


For tourists, malaria should be respected but not particularly feared. It can generally be avoided completely through the use of prophylactics, insect repellent, nets and by taking sensible precautions like wearing lighter coloured clothes, and covering up in the mornings and evenings. Should we still be unfortunate enough to contract it, we already have an advantage over many locals in that we are generally fit, strong and well fed. In addition, we usually have travel insurance and can access medication and proper medical care quickly even when on vacation. Although certainly not a pleasant experience, malaria is very rarely fatal for travellers unless they happen to be in an extremely remote area far removed from all medical assistance.


When travelling to any tropical area, be sure to visit your travel clinic before leaving – and if you ever have a nightmare of being locked naked in a small cubicle with several million blood-suckers staring hungrily, just remember to cover your unmentionables and run really, really quickly!


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008