A taste for the spirit of survival

8th August 2003 at 01:00
A trapper's tales of big cat encounters flow as fast as the vodka, in the latest instalment of Simon Chapman's wilderness diary

Our driver, Anatoli, is the nearest we've come to a real Dersu Uzala, the trapper who inspired Vladimir Arsenyev's autobiographical tale of Siberian survival 100 years ago. True, he's a Russian, not indigenous Siberian like the original, but he is a man of the Taiga.

The modern Dersu brings Pot Noodles into the forest. And at the end of a long day canoeing, it's good to be given instant hot food.

Every winter, Anatoli sets off into the forest for two months with his rifle and hunts on skis. The album of black and white photos he brings out at his wooden house in the forest at the edge of Terney shows him with dark-furred sables lined up on the snow, Gorbushka salmon and stags he's shot. Anatoli has seen wild tigers seven times. As we sit around our campfire, he promises to tell me the story of "his" tigers; half a mug of vodka for each one.

Anatoli is softly spoken. Next to Sergei, our large, ebullient guide, he seems almost introverted. When he speaks of tigers, though, he becomes animated. He acts out the encounters, the flickering firelight accentuating his expressions.

On his first encounter, he'd been carrying a heavy load though the snow to a logging camp. His pack was so cumbersome that he could neither look up nor reach his rifle. He came across a recently killed stag and was eyeing up the antlers as a trophy when he noticed a tiger cub a couple of metres away. Then he saw two more. Their mother was behind the stag. She got up and growled. Anatoli fumbled for his rifle without success. The tiger approached. Anatoli felt there was only one option - to roll over, drop the pack and grab the gun - though he knew sudden movement could provoke an attack. But his plan worked. He loosed off two warning shots and the tigers fled.

Anatoli's second tiger was close to his forest house. One morning, he found tracks in his garden. All the same, he set off into the forest to fetch meat from a red deer he had shot the previous day. As he was cutting flesh from the carcass, a tiger jumped out from behind a fallen tree. "My hair stuck up on end," he smiles. "And lookI it's been grey like this ever since."

Our own count of animals encountered on our Siberian forest odyssey is less impressive - three chipmunks, one hare and a glimpse of something sinuous, dark and furry that may well have been a sable. No tigers as yet, and nor is an encounter likely. I'll have to stick to Anatoli's anecdotes.

Evidently, I have a lower alcohol tolerance than him. I still have five stories to go.

Simon Chapman is head of physics at Morecambe high school, Lancashire, and author of The Monster of the Madidi (Aurum Press) and the Explorers Wanted! series for children (Egmont). Throughout his expedition he will be videoconferencing with summer schools in Knowsley (www.kirkbyclc.org.ukexplorers) via satellite phone. You can follow him every week in The TES

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