At 23, Sue Bedford was a twice-over university dropout working as a waitress and living with her parents. The Toronto-native decided to quit her job for a year to travel the globe in 2010. Now a yoga teacher living in Vancouver, she has published a book about her experiences on the road. The antidote to pristine travel-related Instagram feeds, It’s Only It’s Only the Himalayas: And Other Tales of Miscalculation from an Overconfident Backpacker reveals the less-glamorous, sometimes embarrassing, but always entertaining side of travel, an excerpt from which is below.
Our last major destination in Africa was Victoria Falls. Having grown up less than two hours from Niagara Falls, Ont., I envisioned Vic Falls to be a bustling epicentre. Which was why, upon arrival, I was somewhat surprised to learn that the last official census had listed the population as around 33,000. Our hostel was a squat stucco building behind a 12-foot gate topped with spikes. On the other side of the dirt road was thick jungle.
Wait, what was that? Did I say hostel?
There was a near riot as we each scrambled to be the first off the truck and into the shower. Hair was pulled, eyes were poked, underwear was wedgied without mercy. To be honest, I was almost more stoked about the prospect of a bug-free bed than I’d been about the elephants. The sand fleas in my sleeping bag had reduced in numbers since the Delta, but I was still waking up every morning with a couple of fresh bites — itchy reminders of how I was slowly being consumed in my sleep. I nearly cried with joy when I learned that, after dinner, tea would be served.
“Welcome,” said the hostel manager as she dropped the room keys — like Halloween candy — into our eager hands. “We hope you enjoy your stay. We only have one rule here: never ever leave the compound. You see that giant gate? That will be closed, and under no circumstances are you to open it and venture outside.”
“Because of muggers?” asked Sara.
“Well, yes, them. And also buffalo and jaguars and other wild animals.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. Forget leaving the compound — I wasn’t planning on leaving my bed.
When it finally came time to crash, Sara, Kendra and I returned to our shared room, where we stripped down to our sleeping attire and flung back the covers . . . only to discover that our beds were swarming with ants.
Hang on, let me rephrase that: My bed and Kendra’s bed were swarming with ants — thrice-segmented devils running all over our clean sheets with their dirty feet. Sara’s bed, of course, was ant free. There’s no justice in this world.
“Shit!” cried Kendra, slapping at the bastard that was inching up her leg. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know! We can’t sleep here.”
“Good luck with that, guys,” said Sara as she pulled on her eye mask, turned over, and began snoring gently.
Panicked, we went to Charlie the Tour Guide’s room and banged hysterically on the door until he opened up, wearing nothing but his underpants. His usual cigarette had been replaced with a large joint.
“Hello,” he said as though two perturbed girls in their jammies appearing at his door at such an hour was perfectly unremarkable.
“There are ants in our bed!” whined Kendra.
“Lots of them!” I added.
“I see. Well, I’ve got two spare beds in this room, you’re welcome to spend the night here until we get things sorted out tomorrow,” he said. “Now, onto more pressing matters. Do either of you have a lighter?”
Grinning with relief, we stepped inside. His room wasn’t as nice as ours — the box springs squeaked and the springs dug into our asses when we sat down — but it was better than sleeping on an anthill, and we thanked him graciously. He cracked a beer and passed the joint, and then transfixed us with stories of growing up in the bush as a daring rapscallion. We shuddered in delight as we pictured him scarcely escaping charging hippos and angry buffalo.
“Man, that is so cool,” said Kendra, shaking her head. “I wish I had stories like that. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this trip’s been awesome, but I wish we could do something really wild, you know?”
Charlie’s blue eyes glinted mischievously. He sucked back the last of the joint and dropped the still-burning cherry into an empty beer can. “Ladies,” he said in a tone that rang of trouble in a most titillating way. “Fancy a walk?”
We opened his door and stepped quietly into the courtyard, looking around for any telltale reading lights glowing underneath doors. Everything was dark.
“Now, if anybody asks,” said Charlie as he unlocked the padlock, unwrapped the chain, and pushed the gate along its tracks. “This never happened.”
Kendra and I nodded, wide-eyed, and stood a little closer together. A part of me knew this was a terrible idea, and a montage flashed through my mind in which I was devoured by a score of wild beasts. What would it feel like to have my face torn off by a howling baboon, or my intestines feasted upon by a hungry jaguar, or my bones crushed under the hoof of a stampeding buffalo? On the other hand, what would it feel like to wander through the Zimbabwean jungle at night and survive, death tracking my every move but never attacking because . . . why? Because I was with a stoned lunatic who had previously flirted with danger so many times that, while he appeared to be privy to some sort of clandestine jungle knowledge, statistically speaking his odds of survival were becoming increasingly low.
I suddenly realized that Charlie and Kendra had already stepped out onto the dirt road, and I quickly scampered after them so I wouldn’t get left behind.
The moon was waning, and whispery tendrils of clouds filtered its beams. While we could see one another clearly, the jungle looming before us was so black that colours blossomed before my eyes as I strained to see what harrowing fate awaited us in the darkness.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I whispered to Kendra.
“I never said that,” she whispered back.
Charlie led the way and we followed about ten paces behind, abandoning all delusions of coolness and clutching each other’s hands with white knuckles. Wondering whether it was true that animals could smell fear, I willed myself to calm the hell down. It’s okay, I told myself. We had survived Africa thus far. And Charlie wouldn’t be leading us out here if he truly thought we were in danger, right? After all, deep down, he was a sensible, responsible guy. Right?
“What’s that?” asked Kendra in a low, panicked voice. She stopped. I stopped. Charlie stopped.
“Those eyes . . . look! Yellow ones. Waist high. Do you see them?”
I squinted into the darkness. Was there something there? Or were her nerves just playing tricks on her?
“There’s another pair! And a third! Sue, right there!”
Sure enough, I saw what she was looking at. There were indeed eyes glimmering in the darkness, and while we stood in the open road watching them, they were undoubtedly watching us. My knees began to tremble and my body flushed hot with surging adrenaline. Charlie held up one hand, motioning for us to stay where we were, and took a few steps forward. There was an expectant pause in which I came closer than I ever have to actually shitting my pants.
“Go!” he shouted suddenly. “Go go gogogo!”
We turned and bolted back toward the hostel, our flip-flops flapping as we ran. Charlie was hot on our heels and the three of us exploded into the safety of the courtyard, hyperventilating and drenched in cold sweat. He slammed the gate and wrapped the chain, clicking the padlock tightly shut.
“What . . . the hell . . .” panted Kendra, “was that?”
Charlie paused for a moment with his back to us, then turned around and forced a toothy grin. “Nothing!” he chirped, far cheerier than the moment called for. “Absolutely nothing at all. Right. Now let’s go to bed and never speak of this again.”
That night, I fell asleep with visions of bloody claws dancing beneath my eyelids. When I woke up the next morning, I noticed a couple of the girls milling about on the road around where we had ventured last night.
“What are you guys looking at?” I asked.
“Lion tracks,” said Karin. “You see? Paw prints in the sand.”
I nearly choked on my own tongue. Lion tracks! I looked closer. Sure enough, there was a paw print — a gigantic paw print — in the fine dirt by the edge of the road. I couldn’t believe it. Those eyes . . . we’d very nearly . . .
“You guys are idiots!” exclaimed Sara when we confessed to our nocturnal adventure. “Seriously. What the hell were you thinking? And Sue, don’t give me this whole pushing our limits/facing our fears crap. There’s a difference between pussying out and not wanting to die. You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“Imagine the Facebook status?” was all I could think of to say.
It’s Only the Himalayas and Other Tales of Miscalculation from an Overconfident Backpacker is available now for $19.95 at Brindle & Glass publishing and Amazon.ca. Excerpt and images reprinted with permission of Brindle & Glass.