See Part 2. Đeravica.
Next morning we first popped in to the police station at Berane to get our Montenegrin ‘boravišne karte’ (residence cards) as advised by our mountain-loving officer the night before. Again we declared Durmitor as our destination so we did not want to have anything to do with Gusinje police. Redtape sorted, we could at last set off for Gusinje, which we reached at noon. From there the logical way to Maja Jezerce was via Vusanje and Ropojana valley. From Vusanje you can go up and down in a day. But Vusanje also has a border police post. Until the previous year (2004) it was enough to register there to get the permit. This time, according to our knowledge, the attempt to register would end by turning us back. And the attempt to pass without permit... we better not try. That’s why, instead of Ropojana, we took the direction of Grbaja valley.
We left the car by the last house of Ahmedmujovići village. The landlady assured us it would be perfectly safe there. She asked us where we were heading. I said Volušnica, Karanfili, mountains around Grbaja in general. I told her I would be back on my own to pick the car in a few days and my mates would stay up there a bit longer. At least this last thing was true!
There was quite a long bit of asphalt road up Grbaja. Lunch washed down with lots of spring water and off we went. There we could take a close look at Karanfili and all the beautiful Montenegrin Prokletije for the first time. With so many tales told so far it would be a shame not to visit them someday.
We passed the Grbaja hut and came up to a meadow with signposts showing all the marked trails. Not for us this time. Trying to find some sort of path that would take us to the border the shortest way, we found ourselves in no man’s land after some pointless bushwhacking through dense undergrowth. We backed down a bit and there was just a trace of an old path and some faded, hardly visible red marks on trees and stones. That meant no official trail anymore, but the direction was alright by the Yugoslavian military map. Once found, the path was easy to follow but was becoming steeper all the time.
We lost the old trail but it did not matter anymore. Then came another shower, as sudden as the first one but a lot heavier. We got soaked before we could even put our goretexes on. But just a few minutes more and there we were on the col. We reached the border undisturbed. The sky cleared again and the setting sun lit the mountains. Backpacks down, tent up. Welcome to Albania!
We melted some snow and cooked a multi-course meal, washed down with Albanian beer. Even smoked a cig each, although all three of us were declared non-smokers. Got them from an Albanian shoemaker who mended David’s boot at Kolesjan, on the return from Korab couple days before. We had given him a packet of fags only to get three back, one for each. Maybe the next day we could climb Maja Jezerce and go our separate ways then, so we had to celebrate it with a proper farewell dinner. How could we know how many farewell dinners were ahead of us.
|Michal had been here some time before. He had made a light reconaissance trip from Grbaja into Albanian Prokletije, without going all the way to Maja Jezerce. He told David and Ivoš about some possible way via ‘tři sedélka’ (three cols). That was all we knew. The rising sun brightly lit up the wall above our bivvy. It was time to go look for three cols.|
We went down a glacial cauldron, looking for the best way through, and left our backpacks at the bottom of a large snow field. Two saddles were above us. If we managed to get down the other side of the one on the left, we would probably reach the Albanian part of upper Ropojana, from where it would be a stone’s throw to Maja Jezerce. Probably, as our map, although detailed, did not show contour lines in rocky terrain. Especially I had high hopes for that solution to be working but the Czechs were less optimistic. Anyway, we went up that col, looked down and saw not much chance of going down. The guys were right. So we slid down the snow field on our boots, grabbed the backpacks and up we went to the other saddle. We looked around at the surrounding peaks and got some better idea where we were. We thought Ropojana would be behind the next ridge.
We started cooking dinner. A young shepherd had been following us from the cauldron and was sitting at a distance. We invited him for some instant soup but he refused. Was it because he was a Muslim and thought there might be pork in there? He was glad to get some chocolate instead. He went back down to his valley after a while. The Czechs came up with an idea of climbing a peak to our left and having a bivvy there. Why not? A while later we found a flat space on the ridge, built up a low stone wall for protection against wind and spread our mats and sleeping bags inside. The sun was still casting an alpenglow at Maja Jezerce.
|Some instinct made me wake up and grab the camera. 5.50am. Made it.|
|The world immediately took new colours.|
|Death Valley and the Kučka krajina mountains behind it also looked somewhat different...|
|... and at the opposite side of the horizon Maja Jezerce was closer than ever before. Today?|
After the usual morning rituals we started descending straight from the ridge, without even going back to the col. I hoped my knee would be better after the night’s rest. Wishful thinking. I tried not to lag behind too much and delay the descent. A crappy descent as usual, very steep and full of scree. Sometimes there was an odd snow field or some rocks for a change.
We were close to the bottom of Ropojana. We passed a corral with some sheep and goats, a horse and a donkey. To make the picture complete, a dog came out of his shadowy hiding to bark at us. We threw ourselves down in the shadow of a big boulder and drank some water with šumak. A shepherd approached us. He was Albanian but spoke good Serbian. His name was Rasim. He invited us to his shed and poured us some rakija (homemade grape brandy). Gezuar! [gzhur] – cheers! Just one shot, we refused any more as we were facing a long way up in the blazing sun. Instead we drank plenty of ice-cold water and fresh milk and had some cottage cheese. Rasim told us about his long walks or donkey rides to the nearest village which is still four hours by car from the nearest town where he sells his cheese and milk. His daughter lives in the US. We learned a few Albanian words, helped ourselves to some more excellent cheese and told one another a bit about our countries. Then it was time to thank our host and say goodbye.
We walked down the valley for an hour or so to find a path leading to the last col. The fourth, extra one. The ascent was pretty nice except for the scorching sun. At least my knee was not hurting on the way up.
When we were high above the bottom of the valley, we saw a group of over twenty people led by a policeman, probably Montenegrin. We took a close look through binoculars. They were putting up tents and talking to shepherds. Fortunately we were already high enough and did not find ourselves at the wrong place and wrong time.
Just before the saddle we stopped to eat. Dried fruit, peanuts, šumak. We wrapped some snow in black foil, left it in the sun and collected water into bottles. The sole of David’s boot got torn off again. He was fixing it with a cord and my Swiss army knife. He made some use of a corkscrew in it. We had a good laugh about the Czech and Polish words for a corkscrew. Our languages are at the same time similar and different enough to sound well funny to one another’s users.
The last col. Not even 3pm. Maja Jezerce looks like you can reach out and touch it. Going up today?
We were in Prokletije already longer than I had planned and I was a bit in a hurry. I had another trip planned – Croatia with my girlfriend, and some work to do in between. I thought if we get there that day I might run down to Gusinje the same night, could be even easier to avoid Montenegrin police. The guys started persuading me it would not be the best idea, we could have to descend from the summit in the dark. After a longer while I admitted they were right.
We noticed three silhouettes on the snowfield below, descending from the direction of Maja Jezerce, then they got out of sight and appeared again at the Liqeni Madhe lake’s side, it seemed they would stay there for longer. We dumped our stuff where we were, it looked like a good camping place. We also wanted to bathe in the lake but gave it a thought if it was worth it to risk a meeting with anyone in our situation. With our strangers showing no intention of moving, finally we moved our bums down to the lake.
Half an hour later we were there. They were hidden behind some rocks, quite a distance from us. We jumped into the lake. It was cold but alright to swim. That was exactly what we needed after so many days without a shower.
We had to get some water from a stream flowing into the lake but for that we needed to pass by the three strangers. A woman and two men from Belgrade, one of them turned out to be a Serbian policeman on holiday, off duty of course. They were staying at the Zastan hut just above Ropojana, which is used by the police as a holiday hut. They tried to climb Maja Jezerce but backed down from just above the col below the summit. Apparently it was too difficult and the rock was loose so they decided it was not worth a risk. They said it would be possible with some climbing gear. We had a rope and some rack just in case.
We fed them with a version that we entered Prokletije from Albanian side, were going to the summit tomorrow and then we would decide what next. Playing the fool, I asked if they had a permit as I had heard it was hard to obtain. They did not have it, just crossed the border the easiest way. Except the Vusanje watchtower there were no guards. Perhaps for a policeman, although Serbian and not Montenegrin, it was easier anyway. But I preferred not to dig too deep into that, feeling happy for the good news I just heard. We said goodbye and went each our way.
That time we had a farewell dinner for sure. We drank that Ivoš and David’s thyme concoction again. There was no wind at all and clouds of midges got up from the grass. They were quite persistent in their attempts to fly into our eyes and noses and under our clothes. With Ivoš we moved the tent onto a snow field, no grass – no midges. David heroically stayed on the meadow for the night and was rewarded – after the sunset a light wind came and blew those wee bastards away. Early next morning we were off for Maja Jezerce.
The longest day
I did not sleep very well on that snow and woke up before dawn, but that was even better as we could start earlier. After breakfast we stashed all the unnecessary stuff away, ran down to the bottom of the valley and started up the opposite slope. My knee did not hurt anymore and walking with a light backpack was a sheer joy. The route to the col below the summit block went through large snow fields and some rocks. Soon we walked out of the shadow and it instantly got very hot although it was still early. Then we could again see Ropojana and the mountains on its opposite side. We learned their topography pretty well during the previous days. At the col the red marks started that lead to the top.
After a short rest we went up. A slope covered with scree led us to the bottom of a snow-filled couloir that we recognised as our further route by the Summitpost description. Then the nasty stuff began. Probably our Serbs returned at this place yesterday. The hard snow was too steep to go without crampons so we started up the right hand side of the couloir. It took some dodgy scrambling, would be a lot easier if not the loose rocks flying from under our feet at every step, if we did not have to check every hold before use. Makadamska hora! (gravel mountain) – said David in mixed Serbian-Czech. Kurwa mać, indeed! – my answer could be understood by all Eastern Europeans.
After that rotten bit we stopped to drink some šumak. Further on it was not that steep anymore but the scree was still everywhere and we had to tread with greatest care. Gravel mountain after all. We scrambled up to the ridge that flattened out at the last metres, we jumped from boulder to boulder. And finally there was nothing more above, we were at the roof of Prokletije. It was only 9.10am. Quick work.
We recognised the peaks that were Ivoš and David’s next goals – Maja Rosit and Maja Kolata. We built a big cairn and rested in the sun for an hour and a half, did not feel like coming down but at some point we had to. As usual, descending on loose rocks was worse than going up. At the worst section we were sticking together. Maybe if one of us had fallen it could have been dangerous for the one below, but on the other hand we could somehow help one another just in case. None of us fell off, we reached the base of the couloir and the col.
|The further way down was a piece of cake. In the steeper places we were sliding down the snow fields on our boots.|
At noon we were back at our yesterday’s bivvy place. We repacked all our gear, I gave the rope back to the guys. We did not even have to use it once. In turn I took the whole litter bag to take it down. All that time I also had a bottle of Wyborowa vodka as a possible last argument in case of meeting some uniformed services. We descended to the lake and had a swim. I took the last shot of the lake and mountains above. The memory card in my camera was just full so I took it out and put another one in, partly filled with the previous New Year’s Eve party shots. I stashed the full one in the medicine box. No more pics till Montenegro. No proof I was in Albania. Getting slightly paranoid?
We picked some wild garlic to add to our meal. We only had the Czech’s supply at that point, my grub had been finished, I did not expect to stay in Prokletije that long. The same day the guys were planning to climb Maja Rosit at the Albanian-Montenegrin border. I promised to burn and send them a CD with my pics. The battery in my mobile was completely flat but I said I would try to text them from Gusinje while drinking a cold beer. Or maybe you text us from jail – they laughed. We said goodbye and I went down towards the border.
The path between lakes soon brought me to a deserted bunker and an old border stone. There was nobody in sight. Montenegro, here I come!
Then the path began descending steeply through forest and branched into plenty of disappearing tracks. I chose one of them, it soon vanished as well, I started running down the steep wooded slope, sometimes catching trees for balance. I knew where to go judging by sun and direction of the slope but at at some point I had doubts so I turned left to the bottom of the valley. Orientation became easier but I had to climb up and down some big limestone boulders in between plodding through nettles and fallen trees. According to the map there was about 300 m height difference from the valley threshold to the Zastan meadow so I had to be almost there. But at such speed it could take me God knows how long. After half an hour of this close contact with nature I thought I was going like an utter arsehole instead of trying the slopes on the sides. So I first turned left into the forest, then right, as the rocks and the undergrowth allowed. The air was heavy despite the forest shadow. Why did I take so little water? Suddenly the trees became scarcer and I walked out into a meadow. There was a stone with red arrow showing the path to Maja Jezerce that I must have missed. But it didn't matter anymore. I was at Zastan.
I found the spring that was marked on the map. It was a thin rubber hose sticking out of a concrete manhole. Water was hardly dripping, filling a big plastic bottle took a few minutes. I drank it almost all at once, pouring the rest over my head, and filled it again. I changed the minging sweaty T-shirt to another one, equally dirty but dry. When I walked across the meadow, a snake escaped from right under my feet, hissing. I had no idea if it was poisonous but decided to walk more carefully through tall grass. Then, at the distance of some 20 metres, I passed a free-standing house. It was the Zastan hut. I saw some couple sitting in front. The man turned around. Zdravo, Poljak! (Hi, Pole!) – I heard. Our yesterday’s Serbs. Surprise on their faces, they didn't expect me there. Yeah, my story was quite different the day before. Tamo je bliže! (that way’s closer) – I said, showing the direction down to Ropojana, as if it explained anything. They asked if we climbed the summit and if we needed the gear. I told them the story in a nutshell. I didn't feel like carrying on that conversation so I said goodbye and quickly went down the gravel road to the bottom of Ropojana.
There was still about 5 km to Vusanje and another 5 to Gusinje, and I my legs were becoming slightly heavy. At least I took enough water as that part of Ropojana was dry. It was early evening and the sun was beginning to hide behind a high ridge. Then I saw an oncoming 4x4 car. Two guys inside greeted me and asked where I was coming from. Of course I fibbed I had just descended from Karanfili, having climbed it from Grbaja before. Looking at their gobsmacked faces I said that yes, it was hard but I made it. I had heard before that the way down from Karanfili to Ropojana is quite problematic. Gdje druge? (where are the others?) – asked the driver. Kakve druge? (what others?) – I fired back – there were no others, I was on my own! I started thinking – they were in civvies, the car looked private, were they after someone? Did they know about the Czechs? A call from our Serbs? Or maybe the landlady was worried we were away for too long and kicked off some action? C’mon, chill out you eejit, they just wonder what the hell a foreigner is doing here alone – I thought to myself. The other bloke said something about his visit to Poland some time ago and asked where exactly I was from. Then they said goodbye and drove off.
Some time later I met a bunch of locals going for a walk. They also asked me where I was back from and they heard the same. Another half an hour and I was in Vusanje. I could see the last obstacle – the watchtower. The narrow road going next to it, with buildings and fences on both sides, no reasonable way round. From a distance I could see several policemen sitting on the terrace of the low tower. Nothing to worry about, I was coming back from Karanfili after all, wasn’t I? I slowly walked past, looking ahead. Nobody called after me. The bottle of vodka will go to the landlords at Ahmedmujovići.
Halfway between Vusanje and Gusinje a local driver stopped and gave me a lift to Gusinje. Nice of him, especially that I was well knackered.
It was getting dark when I got off near the main street. I bought some food for the road, had a cake, walked the streets swarming with people for a while. I sat at a kafana (bar) and enjoyed a cold Nikšićko beer and then another one. Tried to switch my mobile on but with no result. The guys would have to wait for my text till I get home. It was after 10pm when I made a move. Some 3 km left to my car. More and more people and cars on streets, nightlife was thriving in this little town. Already outside Gusinje I was offered a lift again. A family from Belgrade on holiday in their 4x4, going to the Grbaja hut so Ahmedmujovići was on their way.
My Skoda was waiting where I left her, windows of the house were lit. The landlady opened the door, her husband and daughter were also in, they invited me for a coffee. The Czechs were still in Albania so I had to tell my hosts we had only been hanging around in the Montenegrin part of Prokletije and my friends were still camping somewhere up there. Luckily they were not too inquisitive. The landlady showed me some photos of her family, most of them lived in Sweden and the US. I asked if I could make a quick call to Poland. I talked to Ag for a while, told her I should be back in two days if all goes well. Wanted to pay for the call but my hosts did not agree. I thanked them and handed them a bottle of Wyborowa before I left.
There was no point driving too far that night. When I passed Gusinje, it was as packed as an hour before. Just outside it I gave a lift to a local lad going to the next village. A couple kilometres further there was an empty place by the road near Plavsko lake. I pulled in, put back the reclining seat and jumped in my sleeping bag. I fell asleep with music on. The longest day was over.
I woke up early, this time with a lake view for a change. I had a long way ahead, rather in terms of time than distance, with lots of mountains to cross. Durmitor, Sarajevo, next night in Hungary. I thought I could first pop to the Čakor pass and back but I rejected that idea after I assessed the time. At least there would be an excuse to return. I would be crossing some more mountain passes that day, including Sedlo in Durmitor which is even higher that Čakor.
Right after the start I took an elderly hitchhiker, a local guy going to pick his pension at Andrijevica. We had a nice chat. At the end he asked if I was married. Almost – I said. He wished me a thousand women anyway before he got off.
To my surprise, the road to the 1573 pass was surfaced when I expected nothing but gravel. Another local discouraged me from going there. How could he know what kind of roads my car had tackled just a few days before.
Then I gave a lift to one more older man who was on his way to the Mateševo town to buy a newspaper. He told me he had been to Poland on a student exchange many years ago and he still remembered the beauty of Polish girls. At Mojkovac I turned into the legendary Tara canyon towards the famous bridge. That is definitely a place worth seeing.
The next stage was that famous Durmitor gravel road across the Sedlo pass (1908 m). However, unlike on the Albanian special stages I did not have to worry about my suspension, the road quallity was a lot better or maybe I was just getting immune. From Sedlo it would have been no more than 5 hours to Bobotov Kuk and back. Another time, however. Another excuse to come back.
Another bit of scenic road awaited me. This time Piva canyon, which is at least as impressive to me as the more famous Tara canyon.
Having crossed the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I reached Sarajevo in the late afternoon. I walked along the streets for several hours, had a meal, bought some local music and headed north again.
Just before Kladanj I stopped for another hitcher. Šeki worked somewhere there at a building site and was going home to Tuzla. He was 35 with a wife and baby son and had extremely difficult financial situation as the employer stopped paying wages, and there were no other jobs in the area.
About 9.30pm we had to stop at some village. There were a few cars waiting and a very angry crowd. In the lights we could see a body lying by the side of the road, a crying woman kneeling over it and people running around and shouting. Just a while before a lorry driver killed a local boy and ran away. Half an hour later a police car arrived. A few men ran to the officers, shouting abuse, but they just secured the accident site without reacting. The queue of cars was growing behind us. Apparently we had to wait for coroner’s arrival and nobody knew how long this could take. In the meantime the news spread that the hit-and-run driver was caught. Someone covered the body and put it further aside. People started walking away. A few minutes past 11 the cops started letting the cars through on one lane without waiting for the coroner.
I dropped Šeki off at the fork near Tuzla, we wished each other good luck. About midnight I entered Croatia at the town of Županja. I tried to drive slowly, often there were police patrols by the road, and also I still remembered the scene of the accident. I recall that last 120 km through Croatia as one blurred streak. Eyes closing, the stereo playing to the full, drinking some water every couple minutes and blowing the cold fan right in my face to ward off tiredness, I passed Vinkovce and Borovo without registering them in memory. In Osijek the sleepiness ebbed away a bit but then returned with double force. Empty road, a short stop in a forest, some town, slow down, a patrol, blurred streak, don’t drop off for fucksake, it’s almost Hungary. Udvar, the border crossing, I opened the window to show my passport. A few kilometres later a red torch waving, a Hungarian patrol flagged me down. Deutsch? English? Just a routine check. It was 2.30am when I pulled in at the next petrol station to sleep.
‘Sedime v Beograde’
I got up at 8, still quite tired. Returned the same way via Slovakia and Czech Republic. A Polish customs officer looked with surprise at my passport with an Albanian stamp on the ‘Children’ page. At 10.30pm I was back home.
* * *
First thing next morning I texted David and Ivoš. Got the answer right back. Ahoj, vystoupili na oba vrcholy a prosli labyrintem skal - zajimave, ale umorne. Sedime v Beograde, cekame na bus do Cech. Hezkou dovolenou v Chorvatsku! (Hi, we climbed both peaks and went through a labyrinth of rocks – interesting but tiring. We are sitting in Belgrade waiting for our bus to the Czech republic. Have a great holiday in Croatia!).
Ivoše a Davide, přátelé, velky dik za společnost a cely hodne hezky vylet! :-)