Anyone who knows me will know that I have no sense of direction what-so-ever, and as I work in the travel industry, the irony is not lost on me. At a push, I could get lost in my own house, I certainly never turn the right way first time around on coming out of a restaurant toilet. I have been known to take an inadvertent 25 mile detour to get myself back from visiting a town that is only 34 miles away. Working as a walking guide in Austria, which I did for a summer, also posed various challenges.
Living in India was therefore a godsend. I had a driver who knew where he was going! I could just jump in the back of the car, state my destination and then faff about on my blackberry until we ‘reached.’ Of course, this did occasionally pose the odd problem, for example when friends told me to give my long suffering driver a night off and they would drop me home, a great idea in theory, not so great in practice as I had no idea where I lived!!! Yes, I am that bad. I also have great friends in Gurgaon, whom I must have visited on over 100 occasions over the years, yet get me in a taxi with a new driver and can I figure out how the hell to get there? Correct, no! I have never got myself there, not once, without having to phone for directions. Why, oh why then, did I think it would be a great idea to set off out on a walk, on my own, when I lived not 20 minutes from the core area of Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, very central and jungly India.
In my defence, I had done this particular walk four times before, accompanied by a member of staff from the lodge that I was running, Mahsingh, a local tribal guy who had been born in the jungle and lived there until all the tribes were removed when the area was declared a national park. It was a lovely walk up the hill behind camp, which was the highest point for miles around. Once one reached the ‘peak’ there was a fabulous view over the entire national park and I would sit and day dream, with Mahsingh hovering close by, and think how lucky I was to work in such a stunning, remote and wild destination.
On this particular morning I decided to brave it alone and I set off just after dawn. Despite having been a walking guide for 2 years in the Alps and thus knowing better, I neglected to tell anyone where I was going, and didn’t take any water, a hat or put any sun cream on. Why would I? I would be back in camp by 0730. Ironically all I did have was a belief that I knew where I was going and would be able to return to camp safely in time for my morning coffee and gossip with Katie, the owner. How wrong can a girl be? Striding boldly out, dogs in tow, I headed out in the direction of the hill, so far so good. Hills after all, are easy to spot from a distance and burning thighs indicate an uphill trajectory. I was confident that I was definitely headed in the right direction. I am not sure exactly where it all went wrong. Maybe in trying to spot and recognise new bird types rather than paying attention to the route, the point I decided to follow a snake to photograph it so that I could ask Raj, the naturalist, whether or not it had been poisonous, or deciding to continue on, even when the dogs turned back, who knows? But, having wandered aimlessly for much more time than the walk usually took, and having not reached any kind of peak with a great view it finally dawned on me that I had no idea where I was. Let me tell you, realising that you are utterly and completely lost in an area of forest that is adjacent to a tiger and leopard infested National Park really is absolutely no fun whatsoever.
I have to admit to what can only be described as more than a mere moment of panic before sitting myself down, taking some deep breaths and attempting to think logically about the situation. Some of you may realise the desperation of my situation when I, yes, me, decided to try and apply logic to the situation. I decided that I could either a) stay where I was and hope that when I hadn’t got back to camp in time for lunch (at the latest) that a rescue party would be sent out to find me. The problem with this is that the jungle is a fairly big place and it would also depend on someone having an inkling as to which direction I had headed out of camp and even if they figured this out, how far from the known track I had veered? However, thoughts of not surviving aside, the embarrassment of this would be too much to bear and yes, the possibility of not actually being found was a tad worrying, so I thought further through the problem and came up with Plan B.
Some mornings I would sit on the lodge steps, overlooking the lake and watch the sunrise over camp and thus it dawned on me – use the sun as a navigation tool! What a great idea! Second nature for most people, a revelation for me. Now I have always been baffled by anyone who can, without the use of a compass, tell you which way is north, even with a compass for that matter. I once phoned my mate Stuart for directions from the tube station to his house and he said, ‘Come out of the tube station and head east.’ Now come on, which girl knows that? Anyhow, this aside, by the time I had decided that I could actually figure this out, I had been lost for more than five hours and the sun was really rather high in the sky and so despite chanting to myself over and over again, Never Eat Shredded Wheat, and gazing up at the sky and spinning around trying to find shadows, I was still none the wiser. Ten very frustrating minutes later, I was still lost, getting quite thirsty, getting increasingly hot, could feel my freckled, exposed parts beginning to burn and was considerably more panicked than before.
I flopped down in despair. I needed a new plan. Then it dawned on me, I had headed out to the hill behind camp, a hill, the highest point around, ergo, climb to the top of the highest point, get my bearings and get myself back from there, simple. Except, I was to discover, finding the highest point in the middle of dense forest, is not easy. Add to that, the noise of every twig snapped or leaf rustled seemed magnified by my fear, and with even a normally productive imagination, naturally meant the proximity of one of India’s stunning beautiful (from the safety of a jeep) carnivores, whether a tiger, leopard, jackal or wild dog.
Eventually, I reached the peak. Though how many circles I walked and rocks I clambered over in the interim, is anyone’s guess. Needless to say, my relief was palpable. Though I couldn’t spot the camp, goodness knows how far I had drifted, I deduced that the view with buildings in it rather than plain forest was the one to head for. I proceeded in a straight line which nothing was going to make me deviate from and somehow, I did eventually made it back to camp, seven hours after I had left and just in time for lunch.
I staggered in, exhausted, hot, thirsty, sunburnt and scratched to pieces by the undergrowth but immensely relieved. My next emotion was concern. First of all that I would have an awful lot of explaining to do and then secondly that tents would not have been cleaned, beds not made and that no lunch would have been prepared. At least I had made it back before the guests arrived back from the morning safari. I headed straight to the main lodge building where I was expecting to find the command unit of a search party comprising concerned camp owners, staff, and forest officials who would no doubt have been drafted in to aid in my rescue mission. But no. What met me was an oasis of calm, tents had been cleaned, beds had been made, the boys proudly showed me that lunch was almost ready even without my supervision. All that happened was that Katie barely glanced up from her book casually smiled and said ‘’Hi, good safari?’ and that was it. No one had even realised I had been missing!