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We're Back!! The story of Week 1 and of our BEAR!

We are back in the land of the living after what feels a lot longer than just two weeks. Today has turned in to a rest day after the bad weather that has been plaguing us along the way finally caught up, so we are making the most of a basic bear proof cabin on the outskirts of a small town called Obira while the wind blows everything else away outside.

Bear proof?? For all of the stories we had heard before we left, in our hearts we really didn't think (or hope?) we would have any real encounters and while the signs were along the roadside, the only hairy beasts we were meeting were the reflections of my face in the mirrors at each of our toilet stops along the way. Why does a beard grow so fast when you aren't looking? Despite some horrible weather that greeted our first week, we were enjoying the days and were happy to be finally walking these roads from Cape Soya. Our initial plan was to walk 15kms each section, but as we discovered, not much really exists up here between the towns, so in order to enjoy a bit of porcelain luxury at the end of the day, we decided it was worth a bit more pain along the way and so after the first day, we began averaging distances between 20 - 25 kms over periods of up to 10hours! Our bodies were not prepared for the pain that comes after a 20km walk on stilts - rather than the muscular pain you feel after a workout, this hits you in the bones and as walking on stilts is like tiptoeing your way along a 3inch gang plank for 10hours, it was our feet that have been suffering a pain that just doesn't seem to go away. If any bears were to find us, I think our only option would have been to hit them with the stilts or repel them with our smells as running away was now looking as unlikely as finding a decent shower or bath. But bears, up to now, had only appeared in our imaginations as we walked along the highways heading south.

Our days were being filled with much more interesting things. An appearance in the Hokkaido newspapers which had been organized by BOS Japan, meant that many people knew of our challenge and those that lived along our route all seemed to be waiting at their windows for our passage through their town in order to hand over a bag of sweets here or a bottle of tea there. The hospitality was a warm welcome from the cold weather that we had been getting and a nice reminder that, despite what you come to believe from watching too much news, the hearts of people everywhere are genuinely good and that friends are easy to find if only your eyes are open to what is going on around you.

While the first 2 weeks were always going to be the crux of this Hokkaido section, for me, they were also shaping to be the most exciting, with landscapes as wild as we would find anywhere along this trip. Wildflowers that have adapted to these frigid conditions were making the most of the respite from an 8 month winter up here, and dotted the green landscape with speckles of yellows, reds, purples and whites. If you did happen to get tired of that sight, a glance up in to the skies above revealed a moving grey stage with a million types of birds the actors in an ever evolving play about life on this broad plain. Sarobetsu Genya is one of the world's great gathering places for migratory birds on their way from the frozen north and here we were, lucky to be right in the middle of their transit lounge.

On some days, the distance passed by like a flash, but then there were those that seemed to last forever and ever. With signs marking the distances at 1km intervals, you always had an idea how far you had come, but knowing how far was left was always a surprise that wasn't revealed until you came within 2 kms of the next parking or rest stop. With the hours ticking and the sun decending faster and faster, these were the times that you wished you had chosen a bicycle to do this challenge on, like ever other sane person up here. It was on one such day, when the kilometers had taken their toll, that we had our first ever close encounter with Hokkaido's wildest life!

After walking a total of 25kms, we were relieved to get to a parking area at a place called Wakkasakanai, right at the heart of the Sarobetwu Genya. We had asked the locals about bears and had been told that there were none around this area, so after a few days walk, we had all but lost the fear, even deciding to leave the bear bell that I had been kindly lent by a teacher at school, in the dark recesses of the pack. And so on this day, with tired legs and sore feet, all we were interested in was retiring to the warmth of our sleeping bags for an early night and a well deserved rest. No sooner had I closed my eyes, or so it seemed, that we were awoken by the sound of a rustling outside. The thing I that I had always loved about camping was that feeling of being 'in' nature, the thin walls of the tent amlifying the sounds around you, especially at night. Now, with the sound of rustling no more than a few feet from my head, I had completely forgotten about that notion as I fumbled around for a light and for Pongo, our orangutan mascot that we had brought along with us. If anything was there, perhaps he would prove the more effective option in repelling whatever was looking for a quick snack. No sooner had I found the torch, than a light came on through the door and in peered the faces of two young police officers on duty, it seemed, in a place where the only thing to do while on duty was to wake weary stilt walkers.

"Good evening. We're sorry to bother you....."
"What time is it?", I asked through sleep crusted eyes.
"It's midnight. Once again we're sorry to bother you but we thought you might want to know that there is a bear in the area".
"Yes. We saw a bear just a while ago not far from here crossing the road."
"What?!! How far is not far?", suddenly much more awake than I had been a second ago.
"A few hundred metres away. Just over that hill."
" You're joking aren't you."
"No. We don't get them here often so it was quite a surprise. If you haven't been cooking anything and you just turn on your radio to make some noise, I'm sure he won't be any trouble, " he replied without the slightest hint of concern in his voice.
"Oh. Oh dear."
"What should we do? Can we sleep in that shop entrance over there", pointing to the cafe next to the parking.
"No. I'm afraid that is private property so you can't do that. If you just make some noise, I'm sure you will be fine. Bears don't often come here anyway. Anyway, once again, we are sorry to bother you. Have a good night and just keep an eye out for us OK."

And with that, our very polite but completely unhelpful local law enforcers disappeared back into the blackness that they had so unexpectedly emerged from, leaving us with a bit of a dilemma.

What on earth were we going to do at midnight with no radio and no place to stay in order to escape our marauding surprise visitor?!
A quick glance at Miki was all that was needed and without a word being uttered, we had the tent down and all of our belongings in that coffee shop entrance before we could say "Yogi bugger off!" We slept fitfully for the rest of the night wrapped in a cocoon of every noise making possession we had. It was not the ideal rest after such a long day.

We woke sore and exhausted from the ordeal and despite a thorough search of the surrounds, the only thing we managed to find were a pair of my underpants that must have fallen out in our haste to get inside the night before. Perhaps it was the sight of these, more than the crackling sound of a radio, that were what had spared us from the hungry jaws of our unexpected visitor. Either way, we were not hanging around to ask, and after a quick wash and pack, we were off, looking down the barrell of another 20km day that would take us to the edge of the park and back towards civilization.


posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:28 PM,


At July 18, 2009 at 5:02 AM, Blogger loren said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At July 18, 2009 at 5:10 AM, Blogger loren said...

After getting a new computer and some time off, I'm finally checking in on your blog. I'm glad to see you haven't been eaten by bears. It's encouraging to hear your comment that despite what we hear from watching too much news, there are a lot of good people. We just need to take a look around. A couple of crazy people walking the length of Japan on stilts can help. I wonder what more we can do to shock ourselves out of our normal routines so that we can realize that we too are those good people.

The students are doing a great job of working together to prepare for the cultural festival. I'm impressed.


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