Everybody has a spleen. If you haven't got one, something is missing. I live in Central Europe and I am 66 years old. My spleen goes commensurate with my age and inclinations. I am not a missionary; you are not supposed to follow me. I will not convert you. But if there are thousands of mountains surrounding you, all worth to be climbed, and if your life is limited and you cannot climb them all, you must filter. I have invented filtering criteria for myself: Each highpoint in every European country and "independent" areas.
It is not only about climbing “my” mountains, I have to reach them first. And I must survive them, for where I climb there is nobody else around. I prefer to be alone with my mountains. I'm gonna show you one: Đeravica, the highest in Kosovo.
„You insurance pay“, says the officer at the border in Savine Vode, coming from Montenegro, and points at a small barrack by the wayside. (Both Montenegro and Kosovo are emerging states in the agitated post-communist European patchwork of states.) Inside I find a tired bureaucrat behind a computer: „Insurance cheap for 15 days, costs 50 Euros. If want have 1 month, then 30 Euros cheaper.“ I do not immediately grasp his logic. Deep analysis reveals he wanted to say 1 month costs 70 Euros, 30 less than expected arithmetically. I decide. The official hands me a print-out titled „Transit Insurance Policy“ . I am allowed to proceed, allegedly insured now. Insured against what? I don't know. I do not even care. There is no feeling of security in Kosovo.
That I enter a new country is not visible – there are no insignia of a new sovereignty. The border officials wear black jacketts, “police” on the back. No emblems or shoulder-straps. Ahead the unexpected view down onto a blessed lowland, the Kosovo Polje in Serbian, or Fushë Kosovë in Albanian. Two small children offer soft-drink cans in a bucket for sale. It's Sunday. Children who need to work on Sundays to support themselves and their families! Poverty ahead in Kosovo.
Next impression: The car license plates are pretty straightforward. 3 digits in front, followed by “KS” and 3 digits behind. There is no separate plate with the county code on. “KS” stands for Kyrgyzstan. Am I in the Pamir? Kosovo would have to find a new code, as it needs to find itself in a new state. All the old “YU” license plates have gone; so do the “SCG” ones that stood for the transient, late combi-state of Serbia with Montenegro. Kosovo is proud of its nullity. Kosovo has become independent.
I am driving through Péc, now called Pejë in Albanian. With its corrugated-iron barracks, „Auto-Servis“ stations and wooden sheds, where fruit, telephone cards and spark plugs are being dealt with, the town could as well be in Africa or Asia. For example in India – because it is an Indian UN officer, showing me the escape route for Dečani. The same picture there: many youngsters, blasé-macho, much scrap along the sidewalks, yet nevertheless a small signpost at a traffic circle, indicating the way to Visoki Dečani Monastir, the big monastery outside Dečani. At a road fork the obviously better branch is marked: „No entry“. Clearly visible, but I decide to ignore the sign; I will be guided by signs only as long as they please me.
Somehow I manage, before it's getting dark, to drive the pothole-rich distance to the barrier manned by Italian KFOR-soldiers of the United Nations. Halt. The turnpike bars onward driving into the narrow valley leading to the mountains around Ðeravica. A soldier closes up to me at the window of my car. He has seen already my German license plate and surprisingly addresses me in German, although in a kind of strangely broken language: He is from the Trentino. I tell him what I plan to do – drive to the end of the valley road still this evening, park there and ascend Ðeravica tomorrow – for which I expect a straight no. But yes, all seems possible! I enquire for the risk of landmines in the field, I will enter the border zone to Albania after all. No, he says, mines would not be there – „I believe“ – and if so, then only close to the border. Well, Ðeravica is about one kilometer from the border. „Yes, that may be o.k.“, he replies. Not very convincingly. „Tell me“, I continue, „if I walk along in the field, will I see mines lying around?“ „Well,“ he answers, „if you are lucky. Most times they are buried in the ground.“ „And if I see them, how will they look like? Have you seen some already?“ „No, I don't know. You simply have to take care a bit.“
The barrier is being lifted and I am permitted to drive on. So I simply take care „a bit“. In the hurry and ecstasy about the surpassed hurdle I don't pay attention to the Visoki Dečani monastery now; this can wait, until I will be back. 8,9 kilometers up in the valley, guided by a gurgling stream, on a macadam road till the power station Hidrocentrali „Lumbardh“. On my completely insufficient map a settlement is noted here, called Kožnjar, on another map the village Belaj. Confusing. When I arrive at the power station, a black night has fallen. In the right angle of my eye I see only a merry group of tipplers sitting in front of the power station building.
Somewhere I must have driven too far, I don't know where, for there are no signs anymore. Without knowing where I go I drive up three hairpin bends on a slope, beyond the bifurcation of the valleys, and further on upwards in the forest, until my doubts become overwhelming. A light is heading towards me. It's of a truck that stops when passing me. The driver speaks passable German, but a native girl on the back seat helps in perfect Swiss German. Kosovo live! Born in Kosovo, growing up in Switzerland. I explain that I wish to climb Ðeravica, no, rather wish to drive as closely as possible. They have no idea, only tell me that I presumably am wrong. But I could well continue the way I came from the valley, I would come into a beautiful landscape up here. Germans would have been here already.
No, thanks. No beautiful landscape tonight in the dark, please! The conversation does not hit the point. It is not easy to make it clear that „beautiful landscape“ is of no use to me right now. I want to climb Ðeravica, nothing else.
The next truck driver is more to the point. He speaks German as well – that time the Nuremburg variation; he greets with „Gruess Gott“ and spontaneously pours a glass of blackberry wine for me. He proposes that I follow him down into the valley again, back to the hydroelectric station, that is to say Kožnjar. There I should park my car and stay overnight. He also shows me, where my way tomorrow will branch off from the main road in the third hairpin curve. I note quickly on a piece of paper, so that I will remember tomorrow: from Kožnjar walk the road straight; at the junction of a street coming from right hand side do not get tempted to turn right, but continue straight, then 180 degrees to the right, 180 degrees again to the left, and finally, when the main road turns 180 degrees right again, walk straight on further into the valley on a walkway, not the main road up the mountain!
I am being delivered in pitch-darkness to the merry drinkers at the hydroelectric station, where the fiesta is at its climax now. I am offered whisky and beer, and I shall sit with them. Only with effort I succeed extracting useful information from the comrades in their partying mood. Where are the mines?
After the third glass they eventually let me go sleep. Outside, on the wall, my car is parked. The mattress is ready behind the driver's seat. Tonight there will be no thunderstorm drawing on, by way of exception. For a while I still watch from the distance the party as it goes on, but soon I can no longer keep my eyes open.
Walking up to Pločice
6:30 a.m. I set off at a clear morning sky. The party has gone without leaving a trace. It is 7:10h when I leave the driving road to find my way into the valley of the Kožnjacka Bistrica. The way leads up on the left bank, then it swings over to the right one and back and forth. I would no longer like to drive a 4x4 vehicle here, there are just too many holes in the wooden planks laid across the bridges.
8:45h the forest valley widens to a broad mountain meadow, partly covered with rubble that floods have deposited here. I sit down on a trunk and allow myself a longer rest to study my little map and the descriptions from the web that I have taken with me from home. Rupa – „the hole“ – is the name of the beautiful, tranquil meadow.
Half an hour later I find myself at its upper end, surrounded by dense wood. I lose the white-point-inside-a-red-circle marking of the old Yugoslavian ages, and even intensive searching for it between the trees does not help. So it must go ahead without a marking.
Still there is a way, continuing beyond the meadow Rupa, but soon ending up in steep serpentines which climb up the slope. As the forest way bears too much to the right, I turn left on a somewhat more modest, but less steep timber removal track which hopefully will take me into the correct side valley coming from south east. After a short while walking in the forest without overview over the surrounding landscape I realize: I have drawn the right lot. I arrive at the tree-line, step out into open pasture and state that I am on the orographically left slope – right in walking direction – of the desired side valley. Shortly afterwards two nicely set springs wait for me in the neighbourhood of a few completely new, but abandoned wooden huts: This could be Pločice, I guess – pronounced Plochitsa. It is 10:15 a.m.
From here, the matter becomes unclear again. Out of the valley circle I first turn steeply right up, because there is apparently life in another hut. As I approach, a woman disappears with her child into the hut. Her husband steps forward, instead, and receives me friendly in Albanian language and requests me to come in. Inside the orderly, but simple hut I am offered milk and cheese, everything what is available to these brave people, and in addition to that they even have to tell me where to go next. Where is Đeravica?
They explain the way with many gestures, as good as they can and as good as I will comprehend. Only the husband speaks; women have nothing to do with strangers, in particular if they are still young, and children have to keep quiet anyway. I get inspected, though. In compensation I hand out a bar of chocolate. I don't wish to give it directly to the little boy who would certainly grab and eat it up like a beast; instead I give it to his mother, believing she is in charge. But here the master and chief straddles in between, protecting his breed. I had committed a grave fauxpas.
The friendly keepers of the Pločice pasture
Up to the Gusanit amphitheatre
I must now traverse the entire valley circle to the left again – east – just a couple of storeys higher. Then I follow the stream upwards to the right – southeast. There I meet two chaps, herdsmen, who draw a sketch for me, explaining where I have to go next.
The wall of an impressive rock dome towers in front of me. No, this is not Đeravica, explain the herdsmen; Đeravica is to be somewhere behind. I would have to make a wide bend up to the right, cross a saddle on top, and then flatly down into a shallow trough, passing a dried lake that they call “Bozen”. Perhaps do they mean “basin”? Keep right, they say. Then I would need to snuggle my way between the imposing mountain ahead and two additional lakes, which I would let at the right hand side, then to the left outwards up onto a ridge bounding the cauldron, and finally straight towards the summit of Đeravica. I would see Đeravica only from this last ridge. Everything somewhat mysterious and unclear, but nevertheless they give me the feeling that I am not helplessly wrong.
As recommended I clamber up the stream, cross the saddle at the end of the steep slope and wander leisurely downhill, as predicted, into the said basin. Here would be a good site for setting up a tent or for spending the night open-air, if one wanted so. I have no clue as to where the former mountain club hut has been standing, somewhere around here. In the meantime it is 12:45h, and I am getting tired a bit already, of the fight in the rough terrain.
At the „second basin“ in front of Gusanit
And therewith the various undulations, ridges and crests that bisect the ground make the walking even more complex. Towards the right I must cross a flat ridge now. Beyond I realize joyfully that I approach already the second basin, this time filled with water. Water! This means I can drink unrestraintly of my bottle water that I carry with me for safety; here I will be able to fill up if necessary.
What's that? I hear cries from the amphitheatralic scene of the Gusanit wall ahead of me; the wall forms a fort against Albania, a natural border, the official border runs over its cracked summit. Are these scramblers? No, by the time I see a herd of sheep emerging from the cirque, driven by a young shepherd. I set my steps in such a way that I circle around the second basin without extra effort and meet him comfortably. He confirms that the peak in my back is Đeravica, he even indicates where the bottom is of the distinctly visible track leading up the slope to the final crest. Immediately I encounter the old, somewhat faint Yugoslavian markers. For the first time since hours I am now without any doubt on the right track. I have taken up Đeravica's scent.
Time again for a long rest. Time to savour the view. Beyond the lake in the distance the pyramid of Maja Rops touches the sky.
Towards the summit
The way, now a properly laid path, leads up the rugged slope of Đeravica's south east spur in serpentines, without revealing where exactly the summit is. Still it is 300 meters vertical to ascend. Eventually I reach the notch in the ridge opening the view to the south. I find two Albanians with a little boy here, they shout their welcome already from a distance. I am glad to see that the summit of Đeravica, now visible for the first time, looks easy to climb, other than the threatening Gusanit; over an uncomplicated grassy ridge. We exchange addresses, promise to send pictures; never have I heard of them again.
The rest is easily done. Indeed it takes me awhile to gasp my way up the ridge to the summit, always at its right, southern side, but then I am overwhelmed by the feeling that takes over on every summit, when it's getting closer and closer and nobody can take it away, when all lines converge in one point and when the shrinking distance to the top approaches zero. Just following my nose ahead over the heathy ground. Finally there is a little boulder hopping with hands-on, then I am on top; it is 16:15h, when I arrive at the huge triangulation pillar, like everywhere in Yugoslavia an about 1 m high concrete block positioned on a broad plate, that I favourably misuse for a seat, and with an overhanging plate on top. From all sides the pillar is smeared with red and black hieroglyphs. Its advanced weathering tells me that the concrete was cast with big pebblestones admixed, precisely the same pebbles that lie about here on the summit knoll. In the cover plate sticks a metal knob, serving as the focal point of triangulation.
On top of Đeravica
From the pillar my view goes first to the neighboring eastern side summit, which appears a few meters less in altitude. In the counter direction over the entire chain of the Montenegrinian/Albanian Prokletije mountains all along its length towards west, beginning with Gusanit in the south west till Maja e Jezercë far behind; further to the right I recognize the group of the Kolatas on the border to Montenegro. And in breadth the chain along the Kosovo/Albanian border from north west to south east. Almost all around only mountain tops, as far as the eye can reach: Close-by Bogdaš and Maja Rops in the north west, further away and very faint also Durmitor, Montenegro's best known mountain complex. Only the small angle ranging from north east to east is free of mountains: There lies the Metohija plain of western Kosovo. I can see the towns of Peć and Dečani at the edge of the plain under the haze.
Somebody must have shot with a gun all over the summit and celebrated a party up here. Cartridge cases and beer cans all scattered around in funny harmony. The Kosovo Liberation Army UÇK has had a rendezvous here, at closer inspection, not long ago. Making a telephone call, telling the folks home where I am, fails as expected: there is no signal for my cell phone up here at the remotest place of Europe. On the summit I find no space either, flat and free of stones, where I could lie down; spending the night on this summits, as I like it so much, will not work tonight. A pity in fact, today, where the good weather appears so stable. There are almost no clouds, only vast horizons in haze. But there is also wind freshening up, a wind that sends me a freeze once in a while as I am sitting and writing my notes. I must descend, back into the zone of green pastures, if I want to sleep comfortably to a certain extent tonight. So let me have another tangerine quick, and down again! At 17h I break up.
Ðeravica from the notch in the ridge
Two lakes have remained from ice-age south west of the summit. The view goes towards the Albanian border around Mt Gusanit. Maja e Jezercë sails in the haze far away behind.
The summit of Ðeravica with its triangulation pillar. View towards south east
The summit of Ðeravica with its triangulation pillar. View towards west
A certain Murat ... was here, too, and looked at the two lakes in the south west.
The first „basin“ from above. I came up to the summit from the left in a lengthy loop leading around the mountain with the long shadow.
An unusual night
The shadows have become significantly longer as I approach the notch again from above via the grassy slopes and look back for a last time. The Albanians have disappeared. Through the notch I rush further down over the gravel slope to the so-called „second basin“. The shepherd with his herd of sheep – also gone. I am alone with myself looking round. Almost threatening the arrow of Gusanit stands in front of me, its wall overcast by a black shadow, and this causes me to decamp quickly. If I cannot camp on the summit, I like to find at least a comfortably upholstered, grassy couch over night.
At 18:30h I have found a place, directly on the grass covering my way. This offers a rubble-free support with ideal bend of my back. The night promises to become clear and therefore a little cooler than before, presumably with some dew at morning. Since I am so low already, the sun sets already early into her hide-out behind the spiky-black chain of mountains on the Albanian border, even more so: behind my back. So every spectacle of of a blazing sunset is missing, a flare I would have experienced probably on the summit of Đeravica.
One hour later – I have just put the last hard piece of bread between my teeth – it is already so cold that I have to put on anorak and gloves and glide into my sleeping-bag.
Already during the night the weather changes to something different than expected. The wind freshes up, gusty but relatively warm, the stars in the sky grow pale already long before the morning draws near. I see the explanation when I decide to wake up: cirro-stratus clouds, a signal for deteriorating weather. Still, however, the sun rises, and there will be a sunny day as ever. At breakfast I feel funny wrapped in my sleeping-bag sitting on the way and looking around chewing. Fortunately there is no shepherd yet underway here, I would have offered a curious picture, surrounded by my boots, walking sticks, backpack and plastic bottles.
The morning after
Descent and satisfaction
But how shall I descend further without leaving the marked path? I know, yesterday I came up here without markers, and now I wander the marked path in a wide bend towards west. I try to realize the sense of this wide western loop which the way opted for. I don't grasp it, so I decide for a short-circuit and rather to follow my instinct: descent without path and markers, at least in analogy to the way I took upwards. His works nicely and uneventfully. I leave the hut with the Albanian couple and their boy to the left and bear directly towards the lower, abandoned hut of Pločice, the one with the wooden shed and the cold spring water. Down there I reach the well-known forest way, and after a tough march I soon reach the mountain meadow of Rupa. From here it is only a boring trod along the thalweg, only a lonely rider on a horse meeting me on his way up. Back at the Hidrostation „Lumbardh“ there is still my car waiting for me, unhurt and intact. Only the personnel of the power station has changed. Nobody knows me anymore.
I am not a missionary; you are not supposed to follow me. But once you do, be warned: it might be the last trip of your life. I have not stepped on a mine! Still I am alive! But I may be a lucky exception only.