I had been thinking of those mountains for a while, one of the last remaining wild spots in Europe really. Tried to twist my old climbing mate’s arm to go there but he could not make it, being happily married and having a wee sprog to look after. I logged on Summitpost and asked if anyone had been there. A Czech bloke called Michal, known here as tjalfi, answered me that he and his two mates were going exactly where I was planning to. He was off for Bosnia and Herzegovina first, while Ivoš, David and me were supposed to meet him somewhere in Montenegro later.
Couple weeks later Ivoš emailed me that Michal fell off and died somewhere in the Prenj mountains between Sarajevo and Mostar. Shocking, ain’t it. I had never met him but still felt uneasy. David and Ivoš were off to Prague for the funeral and told me they would decide if they were going or not within a few days. I would have perfectly understood if they had not.
Ivoš and David decided to give it a go. They had their tickets booked for the Brno-Belgrade coach, I was supposed to pick them from Belgrade bus station in my car so we could go on further south together. We planned to start with Maja e Korabit (Golem Korab) from the Albanian side, as we wanted to avoid all this Macedonian redtape (cheers, albinfo, for the route description). Our next target was Đeravica in Kosovo, the highest peak of eastern Prokletije. Then we wanted to move west to Montenegro, cross the Albanian border and climb Maja Jezerce. Until 2004 it was enough to report to local police at Gusinje and follow the easy path across the border. That year, however, you needed a special permit from Albanian embassy in Belgrade, which was virtually impossible to obtain. I heard a party of Czech hikers was nicked earlier that summer by Montenegrin police somewhere near Rikavacko lake when they came too close to the Albanian border. The easy way being out of question, we had to find a clever way round. Then, Ivoš and David would have a few more days to stay in Prokletije and I would leave them after climbing Maja Jezerce to return home in my car.
A little road trip July 22
In the morning I set off from my home town of Łódź. I drove via half of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, only to be fined for speeding by some over-zealous Croatian cops who ambushed me just before midnight on an empty road in the middle of nowhere. After crossing the Serbian border I was flagged down again but once bitten, twice shy, I was driving slowly and they only checked my papers, wishing me a happy journey. I reached Belgrade, or rather a petrol station just before it on the motorway, about 2am, where I promptly kipped down on the reclining seat.
’Dein Auto nicht gut!’ July 23
At 6.30am I drove into some shabby-looking parking lot next to the main bus station. The guard asked for 100 dinars’ fee, then looked at my plates and changed his mind to 200. Smiling, I handed him a 100-dinar note, saying that was the right fee for Serbian-speaking foreigners. He smiled too. The bus with Ivoš and David was 2 hours late.
I met the guys, we jumped in the car and within a few hours reached the Kosovar border. We found a while to pop in to the capital, Priština, where the traffic seems to obey no rules. Most of the bilingual road signs throughout the province had the Serbian names painted over, with only the Albanian ones left. We left Kosovo and entered Albania in the early evening. The redtape took longer than at any other border. The officers were surprised we had not bought a Kosovar car insurance while entering the province, as they told us Kosovo does not belong to the green card system. Quite a surprise. They let us go but warned we would have to buy it anyway on the next entry.
A while later we encountered a bunch of aggressive-looking teenagers standing in the middle of the road. I slowed down a bit but did not stop so they reluctantly moved away shouting something at us. The small stone bunkers were scattered all over the land, the most ubiquitous Communist heritage. We passed the town of Kukësi, the surfaced road ended just before the village of Kolesjan. ‘Dein Auto nicht gut!’ – one of the locals, in bad German, loudly expressed his disbelief in the potential of our Skoda Felicia to tackle Albanian mountain roads. Some 30 km of dirt road of unknown passability separated us from our target, the village of Radomirë at the foot of Maja Korabit. The ‘German’ bloke jumped in his van with his companions and waved at us to follow them. Once in a while we had to negotiate the water streams crossing the road, with our guides getting out of the van, trying to help and shouting encouragements. Finally they had to return, I handed them a bottle of Polish vodka. Faleminderit! – thank you! A while later the van caught up with us again. Seemingly, vodka makes miracles. They led us through 3 more forks in the road, all unmarked on our maps, and showed us the way ahead. We were really grateful. It was already dark and the road was not getting any better. When we heard a river below us we knew we were at Bushtrice, about halfway to Radomirë. We pulled in by the road for a kip. While we were having a snack, a guy came up from the building opposite and gestured us an offer to sleep in his yard. I parked the car there, we spread our sleeping bags on the grass and fell asleep below billions of stars and midges.
London connection July 24
The house turned out to be a village shop and bar. In the morning the locals travelling in their cars and Trans Alpin vans down to Kukësi looked at us with interest. Especially one guy came up to us and, in perfect English, congratulated us on riding a Skoda on Albanian roads. It turned out he had worked in London for several years. We bought a couple beers from our host, gave him a few packets of cigs and drove off. It was pissing down all the way to Radomirë. Luckily the road became an ‘Albanian highway’, which means the second gear was in use more often than the first one. We reached the end of our road about 10am to be immediately surrounded by local boys, after a while followed by men. No women or girls were in view, as in a traditional Muslim village. We met another bloke with London work experience, he even had a Polish girlfriend there. However, his command of Polish was limited to a few bad words, not of much use in our situation, so in our conversation we resorted to English. He was interpreting when one of the older guys showed us where to park the car to keep it safer from the ever-present kids. Again a couple of packets of fags changed ownership. We packed our backpacks and, armed with Russian and Yugoslavian military maps from the 80’s brought by David and Ivoš, set off for Maja Korabit.
We soon left the village fields. All the way there was a path accessible for donkeys and horses. Through a steep gully we reached the great plain of Fusha Korabit, full of grazing horses, cows and sheep.
Towards the end of the valley we met some shepherds, kids really. They knew a few words in English from school and told us they had been at the top of Korab. They accompanied us to the top of the threshold separating Fusha Korabit from the cauldron of Panair.
We descended, crossed the great flat bottom of Panair and about 4.30pm left most of our gear at its opposite end, under a boulder, close to where we planned to camp. Looking up towards the summit, we chose the most obvious way to our left. Within an hour or so we came on top of the border ridge, which we could tell by the red marks of the Macedonian trail. There was no trace of Macedonian soldiers, although at Radomirë we had been warned to stay clear of them. I had spent the previous couple months working, without much time for outdoor activities, and I was beginning to feel my lack of stamina. I was dragging at a sluggish pace well behind my mates. At 6.30pm we reached the summit, marked with an old border pole. When the clouds gave way, we could see Panair and some of the surrounding mountains, all below us. The Czechs produced a flask of homemade plum brandy, we all took a gulp. To Michal, who I had not known but whose idea brought us there. We knew he was there with us.
We could see another peak very close within our reach. It was of about the same height. It was not marked on our maps but had to be in the Albanian territory.
The guys felt like climbing that one as well and descending to Panair straight from the col between the summits. I was still knackered so my reaction somehow lacked enthusiasm. Anyway, we reached the col and I told them I would wait for them. They soon disappeared behind a pinnacle in the ridge. A while later I got a grip on myself and followed them. Would have been easy another day but not then. Having negotiated some loose rocks I scrambled to the second summit at 7.30pm where the Czechs were already waiting. Thanks to the setting sun and clouds the main (border) peak appeared in an unusual lighting.
On the way down I felt like I was almost hitting the wall. David quickly ran down the scree, Ivoš patiently adjusted to my pace to keep company. We descended with our headlights on. At Panair David was already waiting with the gear that he had taken out of our hideout. We put the tent up and cooked the dinner. It went down nicely with another gulp or two of plum brandy. I thanked the guys for their patience. They assured me one more day in the mountains would get me back in shape.
Autobahn tax July 25
Next morning we were awaken by a beatiful sunny day. I quickly crawled out the tent to shoot a few pics.
When we were about to leave, two shepherds approached us. We could not understand one another, except the names of our countries and smiles we exchanged. They gave us some bread and some peppers marinated in sour goat milk. We tried only a little ‘cos we were afraid how our unaccustomed stomachs would react to a larger dose. They got some Czech bread and Polish cigs in return.
We returned to Radomirë following the same route as the day before. Better weather allowed us to get some good views to the Korab main range. The two highest peaks we climbed yesterday are at the left (border summit) and in the middle (Albanian summit).
Early afternoon we were back in Radomirë. The car was there waiting for us. Only after a while I noticed the bonnet was scratched all over, certainly by some young and promising Picasso from the village. A passing peasant gave me a sympathetic look, his eyes saying ‘it was neither me nor my kid’. I swore badly but then thought it was most important we could still drive on. At the central place kids again started swarming around the car.
We negotiated the now familiar section of dirt road to Kolesjan and soon returned to Murine border crossing. As expected, we had to buy the insurance for 25 euros. One officer, apparently fluent in some German-English pidgin, also wanted 4 euros of ‘Autobahn tax’. Did he mean the ‘Albanian highway’ fee? That way we left this beautiful mountainous country, planning to return in a few days, just not quite legally. But for the time being our next goal was Đeravica, the highest peak of Kosovo and Serbia.