PrologueAugust 23, 6.45pm
Croatia, the old road Zagreb - Varaždin, parallel to the motorway, somewhere before Novi Marof. Sharp right turn, badly profiled, tightening. Fourth gear, gas blip, third, fuck it, still getting tighter, I didn’t predict that, now I know I’m gonna fly out of my lane. A big lorry slowly crawls up the opposite lane. I lose traction, tyres screeching, I’m going head on into the lorry. A glimpse of a wide, bumpy, gravelled shoulder on the outside. Coincidence, or maybe the road designers predicted it. Alright, let’s get the fuck out of here. Regaining traction, getting the wheels straight, still braking, I cut past the front of the lorry, five, maybe ten metres from it, into the roadside, my mind registering everything in slow motion. Shaking on the bumps, losing speed. Immediately I get back on the road and drive on. Only after a while I realise what happened and my heart jumps into my throat. Gratefulness. Someone’s keeping an eye. Karabaja again? Perhaps a higher instance this time.
August 24, 4.30am
Poland, the road to Katowice. Maybe 3 hours from home but I feel I have to pull in. Petrol station, the last night on the road. I put back the reclining seat and spread my sleeping bag. The words of the story slowly begin to settle in my head.
The GatheringThe year before (2005) we had a great time with my Czech friends David and Ivoš hanging around the Balkan mountains. We spent most of the time in Prokletije, a.k.a. Bjeshket e Nemuna. Both the Serbian and Albanian name means the Accursed Mountains. There was something there that made me return.
|At least we had an opportunity to do a lot of sightseeing in the old centre of Split, and then, when things got better, spent the last two days at the beautiful seaside town of Primošten. Agnieszka then had to return to work, so in the morning of 12 August I drove her to the nearby airport at Trogir near Split where she caught a plane to Poland and then to Holland. Later that day I drove the highest road in Croatia, from Makarska to the top of Sv. Jure (1752 m), met some Polish friends at the seaside, to finally get to the Place of the Gathering – the campsite at Mlini near Dubrovnik. Although it was late at night, the SP-er Gordan (Dinaric-ZG) was still waiting for me. I had to wait till the morning to see another SP-er Azra look out into the daylight from the tent. I had known them only from correspondence and it was great to finally see their faces for the first time.|
Thethi? No way!August 13
|After breakfast we packed all the stuff we needed for the mountains into my car, and all the rest into Gord’s, which was about to stay in Dubrovnik at his friend’s. Gord and Azra drove to Dubrovnik and were picked by their mates to the crossroads where I waited. Via Trebinje (Bosnia & Herzegovina) and Podgorica (Montenegro), joking with customs officers about our ‘international expedition’, we headed for Albania. We stopped by the river Cijevna which flows in the ‘smallest canyon of the world’.|
Most of the way we were accompanied by showers. But only when we were approaching the last border of the day, the wet hell broke loose. We had to leave the car to fill in the Albanian entry documents, which was not easy, as the road turned into a river. At least the border crossing was under a roof. To our surprise, Azra and Gord had to pay 10€ each for their visas. For citizens of distant Poland, however, the entry to Albania was free.
We were welcomed by ubiquitous Albanian bunkers. At Koplik it almost stopped raining. Only the mountains up north, our goal for the following days, were still hidden under a heavy cap of clouds.
I knocked at the door. A tall, about 20-year-old bloke opened. Shooting in the dark, I greeted him in Polish. Bingo! Staszek – the Polish volunteer introduced himself.
After a few minutes came the rest of the crew – Agnieszka, Karolina and Paulina, also volunteers from Poland who helped Fr. Artan in the work with local kids. They invited us for dinner, we did the cooking together and sat at the table. The language barrier between Polish and Bosnian/Croatian was not too big, sometimes I had to translate a few words, sometimes we had to resort to English.
The hosts invited us to stay the night. Very nice of them. We said we could pitch our tents outside at the yard but they decided on our behalf that we stay inside.
It was Sunday so Fr. Artan was still on the way from Thethi where he had the service. He was supposed to go straight to the church here at Koplik for another service. Staszek asked if we would like to attend it too. Service in Albanian, always a new experience.
Up north there was still a heavy black cloud over Prokletije but here it stopped raining a long while ago and we could even see some bits of blue sky. It could only go for the better the next day.
After the service we finally talked to Fr. Artan. I realised I would never guess he is not Polish if I had not known, his accent was so perfect! I asked him what he thought of the chances of our Škoda to reach Thethi. He gave me a gobsmacked look. Thethi? No way! – he said. He himself had to drive slowly and carefully on that road in his Nissan Terrano. Not the kind of road for a mere Škoda Felicia. A feeling of disappointment stung me. I had already imagined myself in the spotlight, telling frightening, unbelievable stories about driving in a Škoda on that legendary road across the Albanian heart of darkness. Maybe even escaping the fire of some ruthless bandits and confusing their chase.
Fr. Artan advised we drive to Boge, although the last several kilometres there would be gravel anyway and could be difficult. There we could leave the car and look for a hitch, mentioning his name, which would help us for sure.
We took a shower, the last one for the next several days, and crashed out on the floor and on bunk beds. Under the roof for the last time in a while. Some comfort did us good. After all, the next day we were going to conquer the Accursed Mountains.
Cappo di ThethiAugust 14
|As we expected, the morning was sunny and clear. Even the cloud cap over Prokletije was much lighter.|
It was time to say goodbye, or rather see you soon, to Fr. Artan and his crew, as we were supposed to come back and pick the rest of our stuff on our way back anyway. Before we set off, Agnieszka went with us to the centre of Koplik to scan our topographic maps, burn a CD and get the printouts. Together with our mutual friends, she wanted to go to Maja Jezerce a week or so later.
Like anywhere in Albania, Koplik was a mixture of the old and the new. The traffic was hectic, with a peaceful coexistence of new swish cars, rusty old bangers and horse-drawn carts. A cop in the middle of the main crossing was having a good old chinwag with one or another driver in between supervising the traffic. Many of the new-looking cars had Italian, German or even English number plates. They obviously did not belong to tourists but to the locals working in the mentioned countries.
A narrow asphalted road led us across a vast, bunker-scattered plain towards the better and better visible mountains. We were often stopping for photos. The weather was improving. It was all gonna be alright.
|After several kilometres asphalt was replaced by gravel and dirt. The road was winding across a rolling landscape. Finally we reached Boge, a very long village sitting along the road. We had an impression we were never going to reach its end, perhaps because the slow speed of our car, not designed for this kind of roads. That was where Fr. Artan advised to leave the car.|
Suddenly I heard a loud cracking sound against the chassis. Louder than all those before, caused by pebbles hitting the fenders. We got out, looked under the car but did not find anything to worry about. Maybe I was getting over-sensitive, inside a closed metal tin every knock from the outside sounds loud after all. I had watched every stone so far but from then on decided to be even more careful.
So far the road, although bumpy, was perfectly passable so we just went on, forgetting what might be waiting ahead. The village ended and we drove on up the empty valley. Its flat bottom was soon to become a steeper slope. We pulled over by a large boulder to eat and suss out the situation.
|Another car was coming from the direction of Thethi, this time a 4x4. It also stopped by. A local driver and two passengers. One older, with greyish hair, the other one about thirty. Stocky guys in shades, heavy chains around their necks, laid back on their seats. Southern-looking, perhaps Albanians too. Like mafiosi from Brooklyn or Bronx - laughed Gord.|
You get there alright, just drive slowly and you can make it - the older passenger replied to our question in flawless American English - that bit up the hill you see from here is the worst, then it’s getting much easier. Do you work in the States? - I asked. - We live there! - So just sightseeing here? - No, business!
- When you’re at Thethi, leave the car by the big red-roofed house at the end of the village, just mention my name - he said before they drove on. And he gave us a piece of paper where he wrote his name.
The road started to climb the slope and its quality indeed deteriorated. It was not too steep, just getting a lot bumpier. Sometimes Azra and Gord were leaving the car to reduce its weight, sometimes I was also getting out to check out the best if not the only way to negotiate the bumps. We only planned to reach Thethi that day anyway so there was no hurry.
|We saw an approaching van. Being in a wider place I pulled in to make way but the van driver did the same where he was. He waved his hand so I would go ahead. I thought he must have known every stone here so I drove on. It looked wide enough indeed, I drove on and... felt that the right front wheel hung loose in the air.|
We immediately jumped out to see what happened. The wheel fell into a hole that was not visible from the driving seat. The car was supported on its threshold and I could not find any damage except the mudflap that got torn off.
The van driver also got off, with an apologetic expression on his face. Together with his passengers they wanted to help. I showed them to hoist the mudguard up together so that I could reverse. It happened to me before on mountain roads so that time it worked too. Before we parted, the driver said something in Albanian that we could not understand, probably that he was sorry, and asked where we were from. Gord answered him in Italian.
|The road was very bad and I had to drive on the first gear all the time. We passed two memorial plates for drivers who died in accidents there. Finally we could see the Qafa e Thores pass (1770 m) with a cross on it. We got there after another half an hour, about 3pm. The view made us feel like we just crossed a gate to another world.|
The view back on our road so far was equally impressive. I felt some kind of relief after negotiating that apparently hardest bit but I knew too well it was still far from the end.
I wanted to have a pic of my Škoda with Maja Jezerce in the background. We thought we could see it from there. Only later we realised it was some other mountain group, probably Maja Hekurave.
|It soon turned out that our Cappo di Thethi was right. On the other side of Qafa e Thores the road became much less bumpy. It more or less followed a contour line, sometimes along a shelf across a very steep slope. It was that dramatic section we knew from some pictures. Azra and Gord, sitting on the right, had a pleasure of looking down the cliff.|
The recent downpours left some surprises on the road - assorted stones of different sizes. Gord and Azra then had to walk a few metres in front of the car to clean the road. I preferred to drive my car myself but still did not feel too comfortable with the woman doing the dirty work for me so I often stopped to get off and move some heavier stones too. Once or twice we had to move some really big bastards together with Gord.
|From there on we finally started descending. The surface was less and less bumpy so I could use the second gear more often. Polako, polako... Kamil je se raspištolio (Easy, cowboy, not so fast) – laughed Gord. Polako has nothing to do with my nationality but means ‘slowly’ – those language ‘similarities’ were a reason for a good laugh many more times!|
Soon we passed a deserted house with a national park sign and then came to the first inhabited building at Thethi which turned out to be the first hotel there. The landlady spoke very good English. The rooms were quite expensive, perhaps she thought that if someone is deteremined enough to get there, they can afford anything. We asked her and some other locals about Don Beba. They looked at one another, seemed not to know him at all. The landlady only warned us about the much worse road down the village. Maybe it was true, maybe she just wanted us to stay at her hotel, or maybe both. We still wanted to go a bit further to suss out.
But just a couple hundred metres further down the road we found the famous BUFE that my friend told me about. It was a shop, bar and campsite in one. We were welcomed by the owners, Pietro and Vittori. Their son knew some English from school so he was a great help in conversation. Pietro also knew a few Slavic words as he had guests from Poland and Slovakia before. Hearing we are going to Maja Jezerce, he clapped his thighs with his hands, perhaps showing how tired our legs will get.
Except Pietro’s family there were a few other locals. We asked them about Don Beba too. They exchanged a few sentences in Albanian. We understood just one word – mafia.
In the light of our headlamps we pitched our tents and cooked the dinner. On the car radio some Montenegrin station was playing the song ‘Ulična molitva’ by a Croatian rock band Osmi putnik. Our spirits were high, we could not believe we had just driven that impossible road in an ordinary Škoda. From next day the car would take a well-deserved rest and we were about to take over as transporting mules.
Mule caravanAugust 15
|In the morning we went to Bufe to buy some grub for breakfast. The electricity was on, which is not always the case there, so we took advantage and recharged batteries for our cameras. After breakfast we packed our backpaks, said goodbye to our hosts and set off for the mountains. First we had to descend quite a lot to the bottom of the valley. Instead of going down the road we took a steep shortcut down a forest-covered slope, crossing a stream on the way. According to the map we were in a village called Okolj, leaving the main part of Thethi on our right, where the other road goes. That one, we heard, is even worse for driving, and goes through some remote villages where they say the ancient law of vendetta still works.|
|We reached a river bank grown with dense bushes and could not find a bridge for quite a while. We started thinking of crossing it anyway but soon we found a path going to another part of the village. It led us straight into someone’s yard. An elderly woman went out of her house to greet us. We tried to ask her about Don Beba’s house. She showed us a nearby big white house with red roof, looking a bit like a run down miniature of a palace. We understood that the woman was his relative. After all it was good we met that guy the day before, in a way thanks to him impossible became possible for us.|
In that place the river bed was dry. We crossed it next to an old, half-destroyed wooden bridge. Leaving the last houses behind we went into an empty field that was the upper part of the valley. We put our backpacks down in the shadow of a wild plum tree and helped ourselves to its fruits. There were a few bunkers nearby. Of course there had always been a possibility that Yugoslavian or any other bandits could invade the country, crossing the Qafa e Pejës pass. The majestic wall of Maja Harapit (2218 m) was closing the valley from the north.
|We came to a spring by the path and filled our bottles and stomachs with water. Gord again made use of his Italian talking to a local family that was there. Then we went up the mule track, initially flat, then suddenly getting steeper. Surprisingly I managed well to keep up with Azra and Gord who had already spent some time in the mountains that year.|
We rested a while under a great rocky overhang. Just above it we met two blokes and a girl from Czech Republic – Martin, Vaclav and Gabi. They stayed at the shepherds’ settlement (katun) below Maja Jezerce, tried to climb it but the weather did not let them. Yeah, two days ago there was that downpour that caught us on the road, yesterday must have been quite bad up here too. Shame they did not have any more time, it looked like the beginning of a real schorcher. We talked in a mixture of all possible Slavic languages, they told us about a little earthquake a few days before, I promised to scan and send them my military map that I got from David and Ivoš the previous year. Finally they went down and our mule caravan slowly set off up the hill too.
|We soon passed a wooden cross, from where a characteristic sharp profile of one peak was visible. We thought it was Maja Popluks. Later it turned out it was the lowest of its three summits, with the other ones hidden behind it.|
Qafa e Pejës opened in front of us suddenly, like a gate to the northern part of Prokletije. The mountains I remembered from the previous year seemed within my reach again. We were now on a trail that we had considered with Ivoš and David as an ascent route to Maja Jezerce when we first saw it from our ‘eagle’s nest’ bivvy on the ridge, although we knew absolutely nothing about it. Now, in turn, I could see that ridge very closely from below.
|We went down the other side to the Liqeni e Pejës lake. We had plenty of time, our goal for the day was only to pitch up somewhere near the Buni i Gropaet katun below Maja Jezerce.|
From the col we took a shortcut straight up to the east. We had to gain a lot of elevation only to lose it going down to the cauldron. A lot more mountains showed up, maybe Maja Jezerce too, it was hard to guess. From the threshold we could finally see the settlement, we also heard the dogs bark. On our way down they were still barking at us but kept their distance.
A young shepherd, Afrim, greeted us and introduced his family. He knew a few words in English and his wife spoke Italian. There were also some elders and two young kids. In the days to follow the katun crew would be changing, with some family members going down to Thethi and some others coming up. Azra and Gord’s photocopies of Albanian-English and Albanian-Croatian phrasebooks would come in very handy many a time.
The next day we were off for Maja Jezerce. Like a year before, only from the other side.
Small worldAugust 16
|We woke up before the rays of sun reached the bottom of our cauldron, although the highest peaks were already in its light.|
We could see some faint smoke rising above the next threshold. Afrim, who was seeing to the sheep together with his family, told us there is another katun up there, called Buni i Gropes Bokoll (Grassy). Place where we were was called Buni i Gropaet Ujit (Water), as it had its own water spring.
Afrim said that the red marks on the trail to Maja Jezerce, mentioned at Summitpost, can be found there indeed. On the other hand we knew from my friends who were here a month before that the description was not very accurate. It took them two days and two attempts to find the way. First time, confused by the description, they tried to gain the ridge much too early. For us the only way was to go and suss it out ourselves.
|Afrim wished us good luck and we started up the first threshold. Soon we reached the lush green meadow with some grazing horses and donkeys, with the settlement at the side. Further up we were sticking with the north side of the valley (to our left). Thanks to my aforementioned friends we knew we should not go up the ridge too early. We went up another threshold, realising that could not be the final cauldron yet. That one, from what we had heard, was supposed to be closed by ridges from all sides. A great view opened to the group of Maja Radohines (2570 m) above the Thethi valley. We could also see the main summit of Maja Popluks for the first time. From there it still looked lower than the other two that we saw before. We also tried to find Maja Jezerce but with no result.|
The view did not make our life easier, giving us no clue where to go. Somehow we split for a while, each of us taking their own way, Azra straight up the scree, Gord and me to her right, up some chossy rocks. Suddenly a stone fell down with a bang, almost hitting Azra. She loudly scolded Gord who turned out to be the culprit. We made a strong resolution not to split in the unknown areas anymore.
|We got to the big shelves and started traversing them to the right, looking for the most convenient way. The orientation was far from evident. To our right, at the opposite side of the valley, we had a great view to Maja Popluks.|
We already started planning how to climb it one of the following days. I was tempted by the big snowy gully to the left of the highest summit. Gord thought of going straight up the slope. But to think of that we first had to climb our today’s peak and return.
We reached the point where the shelves were turning left. Ahead of us was the Maja Jezerce summit ridge, beyond doubt. But where was the summit and how were we supposed to get there? As if in reply to our question, we saw two people descending to the left of what looked like the highest point. They disappeared behind the ridge, must have been going down the north side, like me a year before with David and Ivoš.
|The shelves ended there. To reach the two characteristic trapezoidal blocks in the lowest point of the ridge, we had to traverse a slope of scree. From between those blocks I could finally see the north side that I knew. A few more metres of traverse led us to a convenient place to climb the ridge. There was a faded red stain on the rock there, or maybe it was just a remnant of some moss or lichen?|
A couple metres of scrambling, not harder than grade I UIAA, and we were finally on the ridge.
|The view opened to the whole western ridge that was now all below us. We wondered why not try to go all the way from our katun to Maja Kolacit. It seemed like the ridge, although steep and rocky on both sides, was all covered with grass along its crest and was giving a good chance to make it.|
From the ridge we soon turned left into a spectacular shelf below a large overhang. Reaching its end we noticed a red mark on a rock nearby. We were on the northern trail.
For a minute that lasted forever the rocks kept falling and we kept hiding and swearing. When the bombardment finally ceased we carefully lurked from our hidings and went up. The bombardier appeared in our sight. Holy shit... we knew him! But how could all three of us know him when I met Azra and Gord just a few days before?
|Milovan from Belgrade. They met him in Durmitor some time ago. I knew him from our previous year’s meeting by the Liqueni Madhe lake at the northern side of Maja Jezerce!|
He apologised for the bombardment. But the mountain was as chossy as it gets, we all knew that, it could have happened to anyone. Milovan and me recalled our evasive tales from the summer before. Maybe it had been unnecessary but who could be sure then. Both our crews had been there illegally after all. Now we laughed about that. Then they backed out from below the infamous chute, now Milovan came back on his own to climb Maja Jezerce the same way.
Before going up we wished him luck for the nasty downclimb. For us the choss was over, we reached the final flat bit of the ridge. From a distance we could see a bunch of people sitting at the summit.
|3.30pm. The cairn that we built with Ivoš and David a year before was still there. We congratulated one another and greeted the bunch of six Czechs. Those two that we saw from below were their friends too. It was time for them to start descending too so they soon said goodbye and went down.|
|We spent over an hour at the top. Maja Popluks, the closest neighbour and one of the highest peaks of Prokletije at the same time, was well below us. We were more than 100 m higher after all. To the east, far behind Valbona valley, there was the Serbian Đeravica. Even further, hidden somewhere in the fogs, there must have been Korab. Radohines and Shkurts groups to the west, with Komovi and Kučka Krajina on the horizon. And the little town of Gusinje that I knew so well, down below to the north.|
Taking a good look, it was possible to notice the tiny spots of our tents. So the peak must be visible from Buni i Gropaet too!
Some cirruses flew in from nowhere and it immediately became colder. Was the weather about to deteriorate? It was time to go down.
In the light of our headlamps we got back to the flat meadow with the higher katun. To our nice surprise, Afrim went up to meet us there.
We cooked a big dinner, recalling the eventful day. Our hospitable hosts invited us for milk and cheese afterwards. Our phrasebook photocopies came in handy, helped by a few English and Italian words, and also some Albanian ones that we had already learned.
Where should we go tomorrow? Our valley offered several possibilities. Maybe that nice ridge starting right above our katun that goes all the way to Maja Kolacit? From Maja Jezerce it looked like there would be some kind of meadow all along its crest, we only had to get to that crest somehow. We would see, anyway.
We were lying in our tents, falling asleep. A wolf howled nearby.
End of part 1.
See Part 2. The meadow that is not there.
See Part 3. Curse of the Accursed Mountains.
Photos: Azra, Dinaric-ZG and me.