See Part 2. The meadow that is not there.
Curse of the Accursed MountainsAugust 18
Long before sunrise the call of nature made me leave the warmth and cosiness of the tent. Yeah, that dinner was too big. It was 4am. Still plenty of time to get more sleep. My stomach still felt a bit uneasy, I hoped it would be alright till we get up.
It was not alright. When I woke up again before 7am, I took my first half-conscious steps to the same place behind that high boulder. For breakfast I forced myself to drink a mug of hot tea and eat some dry bread, in the meantime doing some more sightseeing of the more prominent boulders around and thinking if it makes any sense to go up the mountain. I was already well dehydrated. Azra still did not feel like going so in any case there would be only me and Gord.
As every morning, Afrim came by to say hi. Hearing about my problems he pointed at the grass. I understood he suggested the sheep dungs could be the reason. We had been cooking there after all, although we never prepared anything directly on the grass. I shuffled through my medicine box. I had everything except what I needed. Sod’s law. Got anything for shits? – I asked my friends. Puno WC papira! (Lots of loo roll!) – answered Gord.
I made the decision. When the going gets tough... I think Gord was happy about it. It would be much slower with me but it is always better to have company in this wilderness. It was not far and we had the whole day. I could turn back anytime and Gord could go up alone if he wanted.
I took only bitter chocolate, a couple litres of water and some fizzy pellets. I mean, most water was kindly taken by Gord to get the weight off my back. Azra handed me her telescope poles. For the time being I tied them to my backpack, not being used to walking with them. I started at the speed more likely for 8000 m altitude rather than 2000 where we were, resting every 15 minutes or so. Gord patiently adapted to my pace.
We had been lucky with the weather all the time. But this time the scorching sun was sucking out the last bits of my strength. I was forcing myself to take every single step, in the meantime gulping hectolitres of water with fizzy pellets. What went in was almost immediately going out the other (wrong) end. With regularity of a Swiss watch, every half an hour I was marking the Maja Popluks trail the brown colour.
First we followed our tracks from two days before, next to Buni i Gropes Bokoll, the grassy katun, then under the col with vampire’s fangs below Maja Kolacit. But from there we went a bit further right than the first time, closer to the lowest saddle of Qafa Jezerce, but still keeping to its left side.
In the closed cauldron, instead of going at its bottom, we traversed the lower scree slopes of Maja Popluks, not wanting to lose too much height. Afrim recommended going straight up to the top somewhere there, as far as we understood him. But I thought that in my state it would be easier to go both up and down in that great snowy couloir that we saw from Maja Jezerce. At least there would be no orientational difficulties. Gord agreed with me. The frequency of trail marking decreased a bit. I was beginning to believe I could make it.
We had excellent views to our way to Maja Jezerce along the shelves from two days before. The ridge going west via Maja Kolacit was well visible too. Our Qatat e Verlla seemed only a tiny wee tooth in the ridge. We could not see the deep col that separates it from the Maja e Stierra ridge... the meadow that is not there.
The climb up the couloir may have been easy but on the col I still needed a long rest. I chowed down almost the whole packet of bitter chocolate. Down to the other, southern side, there was a snowy couloir similar to ours. Maybe the easiest way to Maja Popluks from the south, from Valbona valley?
|From here there was some more route finding towards the summit. We went up the scree and loose rock to some visible snow fields higher above. Straight through the first two, bypassing the third one by some rocks around it. We ended up at the foot of a rock barrier where we had a close view to the middle summit of Maja Popluks to our right. But we headed for the main summit.|
We scrambled some fifteen metres up that barrier, difficulties like those on Maja Jezerce, about I UIAA, on a perfectly solid rock. Even with the shape I was in it was no problem to me. Only the batteries in my camera went flat. Only Gord would be taking pics from then on.
From above the rocks we could finally see the huge dome of scree. There was a cairn in its highest point. The sun came from behind the clouds and again it became very hot. It was 2.30pm. Time to congratulate each other and to thank Gord for his extreme patience. Pobijedio sam Kletvu Prokletija! Thanks to him I have overcome the Curse of the Accursed Mountains!
Gord, being the only photographer, started snapping in all directions. He had to walk around the wide summit for better views while I was happy to lie down and rest. We were high above most of the peaks around us except Maja Jezerce, although from here it seemed only a wee bit higher really.
I caught the signal on my mobile and many texts arrived together. Some in reply to the ones from yesterday from Qatat e Verlla. I wrote to David and Ivoš who may still have been somewhere south of Kaukaz at that time. Got the reply right back. Gratuluju, jsi prokletji pirat! Preju bezpecny sestup i navrat. (Congrats, you’re the accursed pirate! Wish you a safe downclimb and return.)
Background: groups of Maja Shnikut and Maja Shkurts.
After an hour on the peak we started descending the same way. Just below the summit dome I had to mark the trail once more.
Although we were going down, I felt very weak and dehydrated again. In the couloir I found Azra’s poles very useful. Back at the bottom of the cauldron we took another long rest. We were just about to set off again when Gord noticed the pensive expression of my face. He gave me an inquiring look. Mislim – I said in my mixed Slavic patois – dal’ mi treba da se vyserem il’ ne. (I’m thinking... if I need a shite or not.) I grabbed the bog roll and disappeared round the nearest corner.
Step by step, with the help of the poles, I was slowly dragging my arse down. Qafa Jezerce, the threshold, the grassy katun... the sun shining straight in the eyes, the autopilot half-consciously registering the known views.
Maja Popluks in the background
Azra and the shepherds were waiting near our camp. Afrim invited us for some raki but I just could not be arsed. I did not even eat anything, just drank a mug of tea made by Azra and threw myself into the sleeping bag. Azra told us she had been invited for some cheese and the meat of a chamois that Afrim hunted down.
After an hour I left the tent for the last time. The midges had a feast, attracted by an easy prey. As one Polish climber-come-writer Piotr Korczak once wrote, nie ma nic bardziej bezbronnego, niż srający heros. There is nothing more vulnerable than a shitting hero.
I was feeling better, just completely knackered. I fell asleep with no problems at all.
The Curse strikes backAugust 19
In the morning it turned out the curse was not over. It only chose another victim and changed its way of acting.
Azra was still feeling yesterday’s meal in her stomach. She was already slightly unwell the night before, I was just too tired to notice that. Well, quite a specific diet, the stomach unused to it. For a change, her upper end was affected.
It was time to bid farewell to our great hosts. We thanked them for everything and took some pics together. We left them our phrasebook photocopies, after all Eastern European mountaineers visit this place from time to time.
Afrim and his wife standing in the middle.
In spite of Azra’s protests we packed some of her stuff into our backpacks. Instead of going to Qafa e Pejes we took a shortcut straight down to the cross, taking the last look back on the far away ridge of Maja Jezerce, the sharp profile of Maja Popluks, and to the smallest of them but most ‘ours’ – Qatat e Verlla, with its summit tower standing proud.
We were walking slowly and with many rests. This time Azra had to stop more often. That day she was fighting her own private battle. Under the overhang, down the slope, finally we reached the spring where we stopped for a longer while.
We still had to get to Bufe. The Bufe camp had one disadvantage. On the way back from the mountains you still have to climb there from the bottom of the valley. Especially for Azra that was one climb too many. But I was also still weak after yesterday and the thought of yomping up that slope with a heavy backpack did not make me happy either.
We found a shortcut across some meadows and bushes. Sometimes there was a path, sometimes we had to bushwhack. The sun was taking its toll and we were well knackered when we reached Bufe.
Pietro and Vittori were glad to see us, they expected us a few days earlier. Two local cops had just come to visit them. Taking the opportunity, they wrote down our names for registration. Drinking one hectolitre of water after another, we told the story of the recent days. Or, to be more precise, mentioned the names of the mountains, that was all we could say in Albanian.
In Bufe, behind the counter, Pietro poured a shot of raki for me. Then we bought some local booze to take away. I grabbed two bottles of local brandy and a few beers and tried to take them to the car in one go. Bang! One of the brandies smashed on the ground. I took the rest outside and returned to buy one more brandy. Bang! I hit my head against the low door. I had gone through this door a few times before always remembering to lower my head. But not this time. Tiredness, heat and raki teaming up against me?
We took one more hour’s rest, packing our stuff and ‘talking’ to our hosts and the cops. Finally it was time to say goodbye, ahead of us were the longest 23 kilometres in the world.
The special stage passed really smoothly. We took only one stop to let the engine cool down a bit. With so many pics taken on this road a few days before, we did not waste any time for that either. Just a bit over three hours and we were in the central part of Boge.
We stopped in front of a bar. The locals, seeing the strangers, at once invited us inside. We sat with them at a table, drinking coffee and lemonade. The nice elderly landlady refused to take any money from us.
Using gestures and single words in different languages, we tried to talk about the life here in the mountains, about them and us. One of the locals, pointing at himself, said musliman. Then he pointed at his neighbour – katolik. And he raised his hand high – we have the same God.
Near the bottom end of the village we stopped to talk to a bunch of trekkers sitting by the road. They were Slovaks hitching to Thethi, also going to Prokletije. Gord, although understanding what I was saying to them, asked what language I was using. A bit of Slovak, Czech, Polish, Croatian... – I said. Bosanski... – added Azra, smiling. Of course, Bosnian too! – I agreed.
Finally the gravel and dirt gave way to the new asphalt. The safari vas over. Long live Škodovka!
At the hospitable house at Koplik we were greeted by Agnieszka. The other volunteers went to take some rest at the seaside and Fr. Artan was about to come back at night. We could finally take a shower. Luckily, Azra was already feeling much better. At the dinner we took out our maps and showed Agnieszka where we had been. She was also going to climb Maja Jezerce soon with some friends.
While we were watching a Polish satellite channel on TV, Fr. Artan returned. He quietly sat at the table, looking really miserable. First we did not ask what was the matter with him. Then he said he just had his wisdom tooth removed. Of course he could not believe the Škoda made it to Thethi and back.
We hit the sack early. There was a long way and many borders ahead of us.
After saying goodbye to our wonderful hosts we first drove to Shkoder to buy some stuff and see the famous fortress. In Albanian towns there is one simple traffic rule – the bigger car has the right of way. And when it comes to other regulations, what works unofficially in many other countries, here is at least legalised...
The amount of autobahn tax had not changed since the previous year. Only this time it was announced to us in Italian-English – autostrada tax – or was it Polish-English? At the border crossing at Hani i Hoti we had to pay 15 euros – 2 for each day. We were probably charged 1€ extra for the Boge-Thethi motorway.
During the next couple hours, via Montenegro and Bosnia&Herzegovina, we drove to Dubrovnik. We parked near the supermarket by the harbour, waiting from Azra’s mates from Sarajevo who were coming back from Bosnian mountains. After half an hour a van drove by and the crew got off. One of them was an SP-er Samer (justahiker).
Azra and Samer asked why wouldn’t I drop by to Sarajevo on my way. Why not – I thought. Azra said it would be no prob if I crashed out at her place.
While Azra stayed with her mates, me and Gord went to where his car was parked, by his friend’s house. We packed the things belonging to each of us into our cars and both drove back to the car park by the supermarket. The van had already driven off. Azra and me got in my car. Gord saw us off to the bridge overlooking the sea where we said goodbye.
We went along the Adriatic coastal road and had a swim in the unbelievably warm sea at Neum. In the meantime Azra received Gord’s text that he must have left his sleeping mat in the boot of my car. It was almost midnight when we stopped in Mostar for some čevapčići – excellent grilled sausages – and to see the rebuilt old bridge. When I saw it two years before, it was still ruined after the war.
In the car we picked up some radio station broadcasting a concert that accompanied the just running film festival in Sarajevo. The dark road winding through the mountains, although known to me, seemed to go forever. Maybe it was just tiredness. But we must have been looked after by Karabaja, the ghost biker helping drivers on those roads. We did not know yet that tomorrow we would meet him in person and the day after tomorrow he would send us to work instead of him.
* * * * *
I was planning to leave Sarajevo that day to visit my other friends near Zagreb. In the morning Azra looked up the schedule of the film festival. Tonight was the concert of Zabranjeno pušenje. I could not believe my eyes, this band had been escaping me twice before. The year before we were staying in Croatia two days too short. Two weeks ago in Makarska at the coast I did not go as I was suffering from that mysterious allergy. Third time lucky! So the decision was made, I was staying one more night in Sarajevo. It was an extra gig, not scheduled on the band’s website, it accompanied the premiere of the film ‘Nafaka’ to which they recorded the soundtrack.
It took us a longer time to suss out where to score the tickets. We spent the whole day wandering around the city meeting Azra’s mates. In the meantime she told me lots of interesting, sometimes dramatic wartime stories from the times not so long ago.
We sat down at a beer garden near the concert hall in the Grbavica precinct, where Azra had an appointment with people connected with her work. Also Samer came by. Over a mug of Sarajevsko beer we talked about the past and future days in the mountains. He also thought of coming to the gig but did not know if he can make it.
After dinner and grabbing a few beers in the centre we were back at Grbavica. Azra texted Željko (smajli), her mate from Đakovo who was going to Aconcagua with her that winter. He replied, wishing us a good time and saying hi to Devan. It took Azra a while to work it out: devan – kamila (both words meaning ‘camel’) – Kamil. I had already got used to some foreigners pronouncing my name as ‘camel’ so what the hell, I didn’t mind being Devan as well!
It was well after midnight when the band entered the stage and the action kicked off at once...
Ponekad noću kada ne ma svijetla
i ne vidi se put od kiše i od vijetra,
sjetim se njega...
...Karabaja! – the audience loudly finished the first verse.
Sometimes at night when there’s no light
and you can’t see the road through the rain and the wind
I remember him...
Ghost of a biker, looking for a motorcycle to ride off to Heaven, helping drivers in trouble:
Karabaja mora dalje,
Karabaja naći mora,
Karabaja ne može na nebo
otić bez motora...
* * * * *
Azra was free till the afternoon. She asked if I wanted to see anything else before leaving. I suggested driving to the hill of Trebević to see the city from bird’s eye view.
The bad road was winding up the hill. It probably has not been resurfaced since the war, when tanks and heavy transporters damaged the asphalt. Billboards by its side were showing the way to the nearby skiing objects at Jahorina from the Winter Olympics of 1984.
Behind another hairpin we saw a red Volkswagen Golf with its front slammed into a stone barrier. Two blokes standing next to it, father and son perhaps, both seemed unhurt. They told us they lived just a kilometre from there. Yeah, indeed the best possible place to write off your car.
I tu počinje ta priča, negdje nasred Trebevića... – I suddenly remembered the yesterday’s song... so here it begins, somewhere in Trebević... Karabaja took a day off and sent us to work instead, right in the middle of his hood.
I took the triangle out of the boot and walked two switchbacks below to put it up. The wrecked Golf was facing backwards down the slope and backwards to the direction where it had to be towed. It was better not to try and start the engine, petrol may have been leaking, and it probably would not start anyway. I hooked the towline at its back and the other end to my back. Azra sat behind the wheel of the Golf. I towed it a couple metres but the Golf’s front wheels turned out to be blocked at an angle and started pulling it off the road even before we reached the first turn. Luckily at least the brakes were working.
So far we only managed to completely block the road. Another local driver was passing by and stopped to help. Four guys, we managed to lift the Golf a bit and, step by step, turn it by 90 degrees. We towed it a bit further until the blocked wheels pulled it off the road again. On those hairpins it made no sense. In the meantime a few more people gathered around us. Among them was a tractor driver who had a fork lift in front.
Now we had more than enough hands to help. We repeated the turning of the Golf by 90 degrees. The tractor driver worked out that he can catch the front of the Golf, which was completely smashed anyway, on his fork lift, and push it home.
Being in this action from the start, we decided to stay till the end. The tractor pushed the wreck in the yard and into the shed. The hosts offered us some rakija. I had to limit myself to water and chocolates. Dog’s life of the driver.
In the tractor the gear got blocked and the driver could not reverse it. He had to unscrew a big screw to get into the gear box but he had no monkey wrench. I went to my car to bring mine but it turned out to be too small. The tractor driver, like Mac Gyver, somehow managed using a hammer and an axe, but he still could not unblock the gear.
Suddenly Azra loudly said we were in a hurry and had to hit the road now. Yeah, she was right, but I was a bit baffled why she just said it like that out of the blue. She looked me in the eyes and I understood she had a reason. We said goodbye, the locals thanked us. I felt sorry for them, knowing they were not too well-off and would have a problem with replacing their old Golf.
In the car Azra told me that when I went to fetch the monkey wrench, the tractor driver said he had a much better view from those hills on Sarajevo in ’93. The year when the siege was at its peak. She lived in the city during the war. I understood how she could feel when she heard those words from that bloke. I thought how much time will pass before this war is finally over in some people’s heads. On the other hand they were great folks, hospitable and helpful, everyone here would stop and help the one in need without thinking twice.
Driving by the crags where Azra completed her rock climbing course not long ago, we returned to Sarajevo and bid farewell. I set off north towards the Croatian border to hit the Belgrade - Zagreb motorway.
It was getting dark when a few hours later I left the motorway and drove into the tiny local forest roads south of Zagreb. Once or twice I lost my way in that labyrinth. I stopped at some village, noticing I missed the fork. I returned, some other car was ahead of me. He was driving fast and so was I, it was getting late. I kept the distance but tried to follow his rear lights, it made things much easier on a dark road in the forest. Suddenly he accelerated like crazy and disappeared round the next turn, as if he was afraid I was chasing him. I slowed down, that was getting dangerous.
Several hundred metres ahead I saw a red Laguna waiting in a side road with its lights off. The driver decided to wait. And I really did not mean to scare the guy!
I stopped by the sign with the name Lijevo Sredičko and called Renata. She told me to wait for her by the church further down the village. A few minutes later I saw an approaching car with Warsaw number plates.
* * * * *
We had a walk around the neighbourhood by the river Kupa and then my friends cooked a wonderful lunch. I called Gord so that we could meet and I could give him back his sleeping mat. It was sad to say goodbye again but it was time for me to leave.
Gord was waiting in his car at the crossing south of Zagreb. We first drove to his place outside the city. He downloaded the pics from my camera to his computer and burned me a CD with his photos. Then we went to the centre where he gave me a quick guided tour. There was no time for more, the whole way home was ahead of me. He gave me a lift to the place where my car was parked and each of us took his way.
* * * * *
August 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 to 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 the reclining seat back and spread my sleeping bag. The words of the story slowly begin to settle in my head.
Azrice i Gordane, velika hvala na svemu, prijatelji!
Photos: Dinaric-ZG and me.