Only twice have I truly feared for my life. The first time was during a car accident, and the second was a few nights ago while camping in the Himalayas.
Our migraine-inducing first train ride (you can read that rollercoaster of a story here if you missed it) brought us to Rishikesh, a yogic paradise where the Beatles famously brainstormed The White Album in ’68. While Rishikesh is crawling with ashrams and yoga centers, it is also an ideal point of departure for mountain trekking since it’s nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Neither Kim nor I are avid hikers, but we both love the outdoors, and we weren’t about to pass up the opportunity to traverse a Himalaya. Our hostel in Rishikesh helped us arrange a 3 day trek with two guides, and before we knew it, we were on our way.
From the get-go, we were mesmerized. The 7 hour drive to the trailhead took us literally above the clouds.
With plenty of adrenaline pumping through our otherwise road-weary veins, we arrived at the base of the mountain about 2 PM. Surjit and Raju, our experienced guides, helped us load our gear onto a very cooperative horse, and after caking on some sunscreen, we set off.
Many drops of sweat and a few hours later, a gentle rain welcomed us to our lakeside campsite. Under the pitter-patter of a tin roof we ate dinner around an open fire, then tucked into our sleeping bags and gave our bodies a rest. Day 1 was a big, exhausting hit.
Day 2 began with watching the sunrise over the peaks of the Himalayas. So basically, your average morning.
I’m at once brimming with flowery descriptions and completely silenced by the majesty of these iconic mountains. We had to literally be dragged away from the vista to start our second day of trekking. The morning air was so crisp you could almost hear it crackle. We wanted to bask in the stillness forever.
But the task of climbing to the highest temple in the Himalayas lay ahead. The program for Day 2 was to hike to the temple during the day, then camp for the night in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary.
“What kind of animals are in the sanctuary?” Kim asks Surjit.
“Many… Birds, monkeys, leopards, tigers, bears…”
“Oh wow!! So we should keep our eyes peeled!” Kim’s the big animal lover of our duo.
On a scale of 1 to jello, our legs were ringing in about a 3 or 4 after the trek to the lake, but the promise of 360-degree views of the Himalayan peaks propelled us onward. A little after 10 o’clock, we hit the trail.
Day 2 was another success, although since it’s the rainy season here we didn’t end up seeing any peaks. Still, we enjoyed the challenge of the trek and felt satisfied when we settled down for some hard-earned sleep at the end of our day.
Or at least — what was supposed to be the end of our day.
The night starts out normally enough. We’re both thrilled to be horizontal, although after two days of trekking I’m sure I could’ve fallen asleep standing up. Sleep descends with the blink of an eye.
But things take quite a turn about 3 AM. In a half-awake haze I roll over in my staticky sleeping bag to find a more comfortable position, when —
“Cath. Stop moving,” Kim urgently whispers.
I stop at her command.
“There’s a tiger literally eating a cow out there. I’m really scared.”
“Are you sure?”
We hear a deep, roar-like bellow followed by a weaker, moo-like moan.
“Yes,” I whisper. “So… we’re going to wake up in the morning and find a dead carcass on the farm?”
“Unless the tiger drags it away. I think I read that they do that in the wild.”
The bestial noises ring out again. I’ve never heard a tiger eating a cow, but this certainly seems like an accurate description of the sounds wafting into our tent. My anxiety starts to mount. Surjit and Raju are in a cabin at the top of the hill — we’re alone in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary. What if the tiger finishes its dinner and comes to our neck of the woods for dessert?
For a long time we lie completely motionless in an effort to conceal our location from our potential predator. Gradually, the roaring/mooing dies down. After more than a few minutes of quiet, I move for the first time, boldly rustling in my sleeping bag.
“It sounds like it’s gone. I think we’re safe,” I say, to comfort both myself and my panic-stricken compadre. We breathe a little more easily and try to doze off in the wake of our sudden fright. Seems like it was a false alarm.
Then — a crunching noise. Much closer than the animal cries… at most a few meters from my side of the tent.
“…do you hear that?” a tiny, petrified voice asks me.
“Yes…” My adrenaline skyrockets.
The sound gets even closer. It’s a ripping, gnawing type of noise accompanied by some heavy breathing and intermittent licking. I picture our friendly neighborhood tiger outside our door, going to town on a dismembered limb of its latest prey.
Something hits our tent.
It’s a chord from the tent’s rain fly. The tiger must’ve tripped over a stake and caused the chord to pop. Kim and I did the same thing at least 5 times before going to bed.
The eating noise resumes, this time on Kim’s side. Our visitor is circling the tent.
Another chord snaps. The munching continues — but now, it’s at our heads. A matter of inches between our jaws and the jaws of doom.
“Cath, what if it smells us and tries to get in?”
I too am more than moderately freaked out, but my rational brain is telling me that we’re probably fine. “I think if it was going to come after us, it would have by now.” Why would our guides leave us alone in a wildlife sanctuary if death by tiger was even a remote possibility? “I think it’s just eating.”
“What if that’s the tiger pawing at our tent?”
Each time I attempt to calm us down, Kim has a horrifying but fully plausible explanation for what we’re hearing. With each passing second I’m more and more convinced that we’re next up on the menu at this nocturnal tiger’s Himalayan feast.
Then — a second munching sound, a little farther away.
“There are two of them……” Kim whispers, like a line from Saw II.
My bird’s eye view zooms out and I envision our puny little tent surrounded by ravenous tigers. The CNN headline flashes before my eyes:
TWO AMERICANS TREKKING IN HIMALAYAS MAULED TO DEATH
I breathe more carefully than ever. My arms and legs are falling asleep, but one small movement and it’s over.
After what seems like an eternity, the closer tiger apparently backs away. The other soon vacates the premises, too. The farm grows quiet. No biting, clawing, ripping, or gnawing. Silence.
“…do you think it’s safe?” We stare at each other in the dark. We’ve been lying there frozen in fear for at least an hour.
“I have no idea…” We’re both shaking. “I just want the sun to come up.”
As if on cue, an alarm goes off somewhere on the farm. We hear someone coughing in the distance and a faint light from a lantern spills into our tent. Morning is beginning, and it finds us safe and sound.
“I’m going to try to sleep,” I sigh with relief. My head is pounding from the stress of our narrow escape.
“Same. I’m so hot,” Kim replies. “I tucked myself in as much as possible so the tigers wouldn’t smell me as easily.”
I let out a little chuckle, a necessary release.
“This is definitely the scariest night of my life.”
“Same,” I confess. We snuggle up to each other and miraculously fall back asleep.
Next thing I know it’s light outside, and I’m in the tent alone. I layer up and venture out. Kim is at the top of the hill having morning tea with Surjit and Raju, laughing. It’s about 6 30 AM.
“So… I have some good news, and some bad news,” she braces me. Her mood seems awfully good considering how we spent the night. “You know that tiger I was so sure I heard?”
I crack a smile. I have an inkling of what’s coming.
“Yeah… It was a cow. Just cows. Surjit was up most of the night and saw them grazing near our tent.”
I burst out laughing at the thought that a cow eating grass was death incarnate just a few hours ago.
But I have to say, I’ve never heard a cow that sounded so much like a wildcat.
“Whatever,” Kim chortles. “Still goes down as the scariest night of my ljfe. I’m telling people it was a tiger.”