Voices: I literally had to choose between ‘man or bear’ in the wild – and I chose wrong

‘I camped alone in bear country, just outside Gnishik in Vayots Dzor, Armenia’  (Anna Richards)
‘I camped alone in bear country, just outside Gnishik in Vayots Dzor, Armenia’ (Anna Richards)

That viral TikTok video asking women whether they’d rather be stuck in the forest with a man or a bear got over 2 million views – and sparked much debate over women’s safety (and perception of men).

In fact, of the eight women asked, seven said they’d take their chances with the bear. “One hundred per cent a bear,” one said, “which is terrifying to say… definitely a bear, some men are very scary out there.”

Having made the wrong choice myself, I can’t help but agree.

I love hiking alone, often for days on end. People often ask me whether I feel safe, a woman alone in the wild. Generally, I’d answer that I feel much safer than I would alone in a city. My hiking trip to Armenia in 2022 was not one of those times.

The Transcaucasian Trail, a long-distance hiking trail running for 1,500 km across Armenia and Georgia, had just opened. I’d signed up to test out the first four weeks, from Meghri, on the Iran-Armenia border, up to Tumanyan, in northern Armenia.

As one of the first hikers to tackle it, I’d undergone extensive training online about the potential dangers I might encounter along the way. Giant hogweed, whose stalks, when broken, could leave permanent scarring if they came into contact with your bare skin. Four types of venomous snakes. Flash storms. Bears.

Shepherd dogs, roughly the size of Alsatians which generally travel in a pack of three – these, I’ll admit, were pretty intimidating the first few times I came across them. But the biggest danger that I faced during that month hiking alone was men.

I spent the second week of the trail hiking through the ochre gorges of Vayots Dzor, where the trail crumbled and slid below me on the down hills. Tiny little monasteries with bell towers shaped like party hats looked no bigger than thumbprints in the canyon.

Vayots Dzor translates as “Valley of Woes”, probably in reference to the inhospitable environment, but the Mars-like scenery was spectacular. The way was punctuated by frequent, cowpat-like piles of faeces full of berry seeds – signs that I was in the habitat of the Syrian Brown Bear.

By the looks of all the s*** they were leaving, they were pretty numerous. I’d crossed a Danish hiker travelling the other way a few days earlier who’d had his food supplies raided by a bear in the night. He’d had the good sense to stash his food away from his tent – a must, in bear country.

As the light began to fade on my 11th day of walking, after 25km of weary plodding, I looked for a place to camp. I wasn’t overly keen to camp in the middle of the bears’ lavatory, but it seemed expansive.

There was very little in the way of civilisation, save a few beekeepers’ homes. Passing one, with its primary-coloured little wooden hives, I asked the beekeeper if I could fill up my water pouch. The limited Armenian I’d learnt from classes in the months before my trip allowed us basic communication. When I explained I was looking for a place to camp, he looked concerned and the word “arj” was used again and again – Armenian for bear.

I accepted his offer to sleep on his porch, behind a fence he’d told me would keep the bears away. He didn’t seem threatening; he was skinny as a rake, ageing and shorter than me. That evening we ate pheasant cooked over the fire with some of his beekeeper friends, who’d shot the pheasants themselves. They knocked back homemade vodka shots, toasting everyone imaginable, from their parents to God.

It was past midnight before the pheasant barbecue wound down and I rolled out my sleeping bag on the patio floor. No sooner than I’d closed my eyes did I feel a body on mine – and hot breath on my neck.

It’s rare that I wouldn’t be physically overpowered by a man. This time, I was lucky. I was heavier than him and marginally taller. I slapped, kicked and hit with no technique or real direction and succeeded in pushing him off me.

When he left, I stayed. My brain was in overdrive: did I pack up and look for a place to camp in bear country in the middle of the night, where it was pitch black, or was that even more dangerous?

I decided to risk it, stashing my open penknife under the pouch of spare clothes I used as a pillow and waiting for dawn. As soon as the first light arrived, I left.

Man vs bear is a hypothetical debate for most of us, but for the rest of the trail, I took my chances with the bears.