If you had asked us whether 'bear attack survivor' was a title we would someday hold we would have called you crazy.
We had travelled from the mountainous region of Pokhara to Chitwan in search of animals we'd never seen before.
It never crossed our minds that this would turn into one of the most traumatising events in our lives!
Chitwan National Park, Nepal
Chitwan is a draw card for wildlife lovers internationally and is known for having animals including the highly endangered Asian One Horned Rhino and the elusive Bengal Tiger.
It also has Leopards, Wild Elephants and - of course - the Sloth Bear.
To most, this reads as a list of the most dangerous animals in the world. Add to that they're wild and share a very confined space (Tigers usually have a territory of 100 square miles) and you may think that this place should come with a warning sign not a walking stick.
As there's so many animals condensed into a small space, walking tours have become a popular choice for visitors to Chitwan.
Most wildlife lovers say that the best way to spot animals is quietly on foot and walking gets you to deeper parts of the jungle where the jeep tracks don’t go; this is where most of the wildlife resides.
The first time we heard about the potential risks of walking in Chitwan (yes we did know the risks), was sitting at home in our London flat reading the Lonely Planet guide to Nepal.
It has a whole page called "Jungle Survival" which is all about what to do in the event of an attack. Their advice goes something like this:
Tiger: Maintain eye contact and walk slowly backwards.
Rhino: Climb or hide behind a tree, throw out a decoy for them to smell or run in a zig-zag pattern.
Elephant: Run in any direction and hide behind a tree.
Sloth Bear: They are quick, have good eyesight and are brilliant swimmers and climbers. The best idea is to bash a stick on the ground.
It was unnerving but also a bit exciting and let’s face it, these things never actually happen to you do they?!
The day we arrived in Sauraha, the village that borders Chitwan, we booked the full day walking trip for the very next day.
The walking tour
The day started early with a leisurely trip down the river in a dugout canoe, bringing us to the entry point for Chitwan.
We turned up to find that we were the only people on the trip. Well us, two guides and three wooden sticks for protection. No guns or flares are carried like they are in many African parks.
After setting foot on dry land the guide began the safety briefing. Most of it echoed what we had already read in the Lonely Planet.
The one that really got the heart racing though was the genuine look of fear in the guides eyes when describing the sloth bear.
‘You can’t run, they are faster. You can’t climb trees, they are better and you can’t swim for they can also do that too. When fighting they always try to strike at the victim’s eyes or genitals’.
With a growing sense of unease we began to hike. After four hours we had only seen deer, monkeys and a few birds and we began to relax.
The guides suggested that we take a different route, believing that other people in jeeps on the main paths had dispersed the wildlife.
Following their advice, we agreed. This was our mistake.
After 30 minutes of hiking the new route we heard a rustle in the distance, about 30m ahead on the track we saw a flash of black.
The guide put his finger to his lips and we all stopped dead. There were huge sighs of relief all around when everything went quiet and it appeared whatever it was had made off in the opposite direction to us.
We were wrong.
A few minutes later as we were cautiously making our way along the path when suddenly we heard heavy breathing, grunting and long nails kicking up dirt. It was a charge and there were not one, not two but THREE adult bears!
Let’s pause on that for a moment. Here we were, with two Nepali guides and just three sticks between us, staring down Sloth Bears, animals that go for the eyes or genitals and are known to fight to the death.
I had nothing but my bare hands for protection as I had declined the offer of a stick.
The guides shouted to get close together and bang our sticks on the ground to make a lot of noise. The aim was to look like one huge scary animal.
The bears were not deterred and in minutes they were standing up on their hind legs and taking swipes at us.
Having nothing to defend myself with, I dived to the floor to shield my face. Joe and the guides fought the bears, when one turned and started making its way over towards me Joe gave it a hefty whack on the back and it turned away.
In that moment I had truly thought it was the end. I couldn’t scream or make any sound and just felt an overwhelming fear, followed by regret at what my family would think when they heard the news.
It was almost like an out of body experience, watching a horror movie scene unfold.
The guides were shouting at each other in Nepali and then switched to English and told me to run. I didn’t want to leave them or run off alone and unarmed in to the jungle, especially as we had been warned earlier you shouldn’t run or they might chase after you.
However, I knew they were trying to save me and I took their advice.
Everything they say about adrenaline is true, you can run faster and longer than you ever thought possible.
After what felt like hours, I stopped and then heard noise coming from behind me.
Thankfully this was Joe and our guides. One of them was badly injured and struggling to walk whilst dragging one leg behind him.
I then saw what I had been fearing, the bears were in hot pursuit. I can honestly say our guides saved our lives.
They both turned back towards the bears and fought them again, despite the injury one guide was already carrying. Miraculously after a time the bears began to retreat and we hastily moved on.
Sloth bears are known to be solitary animals and will often fight to the death. If you're wondering why they turned back, so were we. The guides believed that the bears retreated because they were guarding young and they did not want to leave them too far behind. I guess we'll never know.
Escape from the jungle
After 15 minutes or so we stopped beside a tree to assess the damage to our guide's arm and leg. Luckily - if you can call it that - he had been bitten rather than clawed.
This is "lucky" as the claws often cause infection which can be extremely dangerous. It was treated as best you can in the middle of a jungle with iodine solution.
The guide also created make shift bandages from his torn shirt.
Our thoughts now turned to getting out of this nightmare. In a role reversal, Joe and I were now the spotters, one at the front and one at the back as the injured guide needed to be supported by his friend.
They told us there was still an army post in the jungle and we were only about 20 minutes away. We could radio for help there.
What I am about to say next probably sounds a little farfetched but this is exactly what happened.
We arrived at the site where the army post had once stood, but it had been destroyed by wild elephants! There was no longer any human presence in the jungle that could help us.
Things were continuing to go against us.
Our quickest way out was to go back the way we had come but passing near the bears was tantamount to a death sentence.
Our only choice was to make our own tracks through a part of the jungle that no one walked in.
When we got to the grass that was taller than me I stopped. I had seen this kind of grass on David Attenborough documentaries, this was tiger territory.
Our guide tapped me on the shoulder and told me ‘You must be brave’.
Not finished yet
We walked on for kilometres and kilometres, none of us saying anything and all the while I wondered whether we would survive.
I knew that animals could smell blood and may pick up the sound of wounded murmurings coming from the injured guide who was obviously in a huge amount of pain.
At one point we spotted a rhino and all had to hide behind the tree until he moved on.
We continued for another 15km crossing river, swamp and forest until finally reaching the border of a village. We knew then we were just one hour from the place we could exit the jungle and our guide could get to hospital.
I guess Chitwan wanted one last harah and out of the thick grass a two-ton male rhino crossed directly in front of our path. I’m sure my heart nearly stopped.
It didn’t give us a second glance and wondered off back in to the tall grass where he became completely invisible. Never trust long grass.
It felt like an eternity, but we made it through that final hour. The villagers lent a horse and cart to get our guide straight to hospital.
He lived to tell the tale (thank god) and within a week was back working in the Chitwan National Park, no doubt with a few scars and a wicked story to tell.
Our guides were heroes and there’s no doubt we are still here today due to their bravery. If you are planning to walk in the park make sure you have gone with reputable guides.
Oh and probably don't wander off the main paths....
PS: As I was looking for an image of a sloth bear to use in this blog as for obvious reasons we didn't take any, I came across some horrific bear attack articles. It really makes me feel truly blessed to still be alive and all in one piece, so many others weren't so lucky. Stay safe on the trails everyone!
Have you ever experienced an animal encounter like this one? Has it affected the kind of things you are comfortable doing when travelling? It certainly made us feel a lot less invincible and we are much more cautious now. If you have any questions about walking in Chitwan let us know in the comments.