It was a long and splendid day. Up with the sunrise, blissful ride through vineyards, and a train ride to the end of the line. This would be the last we would see of the Douro River, the river we had crossed to enter Portugal, then pedaled down to it’s mouth at Oporto and up river again. We pedaled out of Pocinho, the whistle-stop town at the end of the train line, into the barren hill-country around 5pm. The road climbed out of the river valley and we slowly passed a traveler with a backpack walking up the same dusty road. Beyond the river’s edge, the land was bone dry and barren.
There was no real plan, so when we entered the town of Vila Nova de Foz Coa we had only small hopes of finding a place to stay. No luck with the youth hostel, we wondered through town finding little open and one hotel too expensive for just sleeping. The sun was setting, so we made a quick stop at the supermarket at the edge of town to round out our camp food.
Gone was the bucolic vineyards with white-washed houses flowing mile after mile, the edge of town brought an abrupt end to civilization and the fast descent into barren rock canyon and emptiness of a foreboding landscape. Any hope of finding a family or farm to ask for a place to camp was replaced by the knowledge that we were completely alone. Pedaling now with red lights blazing, we make out a couple of paths leading into ancient olive groves at the bottom of the 4 kms steep downhill. We opt to explore one in fading light and find a small flat ledge by an dry creek where small pools of water remained from a recent rain.
Darkness was coming quickly, but time for a quick “water bottle shower” and then on to making dinner of tortellini and tomato sauce with headlamps blazing. Surrounding us was absolute quiet except the hiss of our stove.
Something unknown, unremembered caught Willie’s ear as he turned off the camp stove and his hand shot out towards me and an intense “Schh!”. Then we both heard it. A step. The distinct, heavy crunch – a sound that carried weight. Two deep breaths came out of the darkness followed by a low, rumbling throaty sound.
Our headlamps couldn’t catch sight of anything. What was out there just beyond our light? We saw no movement as we waited in stillness listening for movement in the crisp-dry olive leaves.
Wild, panicky thoughts cross my mind, and I begin to make noise thinking noise might frighten “it” away. Simultaneously I consider if it’s possible to run to the road. If we did make it to the road, there was no one on the road. Would it follow? Would it charge? Was it gone? We hadn’t heard another sound although our ears strained into the darkness.
Terrified of what we could not see, did not know, I asked Willie to eat his dinner while I kept the light shining out making our circle of visibility 15 feet or so. Came time for me to eat and it was all I could do to choke down the dinner as my eyes constantly scanned the edge of light. Clean up was fast and my light flashed into the darkness again and again not believing that heavy foot could retreat without making a sound.
That night we placed the bicycles as barricades – one at the head and one at the left. To our right just a couple of feet was the 5 foot drop-off to the water shed. At our feet were all our panniers. Still deeply shaken, I entered the tent and laid down leaving all my clothes on – even my shoes – in case I needed to make a hasty exit. By now, Willie had grown confident that “it” was long gone and more afraid of us, but still, he found a large rock and placed it with the steel skillet for making a large racket. Noise would be our only defense.
Willie slept and I strained to hear, but I hadn’t even heard a vehicle pass, let alone a crunch of leaves on the ground. So eventually I too gave way to sleep. Restless sleep with dreams of not being able to wake in the face of danger.
I woke to “There’s something out there.” hissed from Willie. He grabbed the pan and rock banging and shouting, adrenaline pumping. A smaller animal this time, ran from our camp site on padded feet. A bark like a dog, but no domesticated dog, it ran and ran and ran with the staccato bark long in the distance. There was relief in hearing this visitor move far away.
Morning came with a whisper of rain on the tent. No lingering, lazy morning for us, instead we were up with sunrise. A beautiful glowing red morning sky produced a triple rainbow – the first either of us had ever seen. We packed our bikes with little talk. Up the other side of our long night-time decent to the river. The glowing sun was covered now with gray and at the first opportunity a few hours later, we road into a village and stopped at a small cafe for a warming coffee.
As we entered the door, Willie’s eye caught a hand-drawn notice taped to the window. It showed a dog chasing a wild boar. We beckoned the owner outside to ask if there were many boar’s in the area. Oh yes, many! He told us that wild boars travel up to 40 kilometers a what night in search of food. They had a hunt a few days earlier. We told him we thought one came to our camp last night and he said with a smile not to worry, if they hear you, their tail goes up and they run away.
Wild boar is the most likely source of the weighty footstep, heavy breathing and low, rumbling noise, and you can bet the next time I hear a noise in the night, I’ll clang a pot and hope to God I only see the tail as it retreats out of sight. I don’t like sleeping with my shoes on.