A Tale of a Mountain, a Snake and Destiny
Please note that although I'm publishing this story in October 2010, it was written in July 2007 after I had just visited Slovenia for the first time. The destiny part that I refer to in the title will be explained at the end.
Ever since I first saw pictures of this little country I have wanted to pay a visit. But it looked so wonderful that I would have felt guilty going there alone. This funny characteristic explains why I have just spent three months travelling around West Africa when I actually really wanted to go to Ethiopia. Fortunately while pouring over the maps looking for somewhere less appealing to go to, my pal Dawn decided to come along. After the excesses of five days at EXIT Festival in Serbia a wholesome week of mountains, cool lakes and fresh air was just what we needed.
Quite how wholesome Slovenia is came as a shock to us. Everyone is so fit and healthy. The lakes are full of people swimming, there are cyclists everywhere, we saw whole families jogging together, the market stalls burst with gorgeous fruits and berries, and the air and water seem so clean and pure. Combined with such beautiful natural surroundings it isn’t hard to see why they are also a happy, friendly bunch. I can remember Dawn and myself coming out of the tourist information office at Bled with shocked laughter at just how incredibly helpful they were.
Determined to live here and become like them we decided to take the first test. Mount Triglav at 2864m is Slovenia’s highest peak and the highest mountain in all of the former Yugoslavia. In 1991 Slovenia’s first president, Milan Kucan, said that it was the obligation of all Slovenians to climb Triglav in their lifetime. If he was telling everyone to do it, how hard could it be?
We set off from Hotel Zlatorog, at the eastern end of the gorgeous Bohinj Valley. The walk began fairly level through woodland, but we were soon climbing. As it got steeper we lost the protection of the trees and it became very hot. I later discovered that this week was the hottest all summer. Great timing for climbing a big mountain.
The route we took was up the Seven Lakes Valley that tended to alternate between long gradual climbs and really steep bits. At the top of the really steep bits came obvious vegetation changes. From broad leaf trees to pine forests to flower meadows and eventually bare broken rocks. The bright white limestone meant walking through the upper valley felt like being in an oven, as the reflection meant you were baked from all sides. The seven lakes all seemed to be just out of reach for a cooling dip.
We weren’t long into the walk when I realised that the Julian Alps here in Slovenia had just overtaken the Tatras Mountains in Slovakia as my favourite scenery in Europe. As we reached the hut where we would be spending the night I was so speechless with the view that I started comparing it to New Zealand or the Andes. True, there are no glaciers or huge unobtainable peaks, but it is just breathtaking.
It turned out that the Prehodavcih hut that the two pretty girls in the tourist information had booked for us, is, in the opinion of the seasoned trekkers staying there, the best one in all of the Julian Alps. It is smaller than most, so more personable, and you cannot fault the location. It sits on a ridge, surrounded by jagged rocky peaks and on one side the ground drops steeply to the Trenta Valley a long way below. At sunset and sunrise all of the inhabitants were out there watching and no one spoke. They sell beer too.
Following the goulash feast that most people tucked into before bed, the little but packed dormitory was full of the noises of burps and farts to assist you to sleep.
After an expensive breakfast of spam and eggs, I suppose you are paying for some poor chap to lug it up there, we set off again at about 0730. It was strange to be sweating in the heat and feeling yourself burn while passing large areas of snow and ice. A chunk on the back of the neck works wonders.
For about four hours the route went up and down through large boulder fields and across scree slopes until we reached the foot of a cliff. We had been able to see the big solid rock lump of Triglav for a while and assumed that as we got nearer, the path would take us to perhaps a gentler slope on the other side. Well, no such slope exists. The route goes up gullies, along ledges and occasionally traverses or climbs vertical cliffs. Metal pegs and wire ropes have been conveniently hammered in at the more difficult sections and I think we both surprised ourselves how quickly we got to the summit, arriving there at 1230. It wasn’t technical; there is just a large off-putting drop.
There were quite a few people on the top, but not too many to take the shine off the achievement. The view was spectacular. It was obvious that you are on the highest point for a hundred or so kilometres until you get to the proper Alps.
Descending was trickier and then we began the long slog back to the bottom. This is where things went a bit awry. We knew it was a long way down to Stara Fuzina and knew that buses back to Bled wouldn’t keep going too late. We were probably already running a bit late when a moment of madness on both our parts, set us back quite a bit more.
In the Triglav National Park, paths are marked with signs showing the time it takes to get to a certain place rather than the distance. Generally we had been walking ten or fifteen minutes slower than the signs suggested. At about 4pm we decided that we would stop for lunch at the next hut, which was up the side of the valley that we were currently at the bottom of. The sign said it was 35 minutes away. For some reason I was determined to beat it. I set off nearly running up the valley side and arrived 25 minutes later feeling very hot and tired but satisfied. Then I realised Dawn had the food. No worries, she’ll be here in a minute. 35 minutes later there was still no sign of Dawn and then I realised that I had all of the water. I set off back down the only path expecting to see her any minute. The further I got the more I started to worry and I ended up running to where we had last seen each other, now an hour and a quarter ago. The only other way she could have gone is down the valley bottom so I carried on running down there. Still no sign. It started going through my head, “what if I don’t find her at all?” Because Dawn had our map, I wouldn’t be able to find my way back without her. Hmmm.
While marching past a knackered old farm, a big, old and very red farmer was waving a stick at me, shouting “ENGLISCH! ENGLISCH!” He then pointed up the side of the valley and shouted “FRAU! FRAU!” This spurred me on as I ran up the hill toward the hut I had left sometime previously.
Eventually I saw the hut and on a wooden veranda was Dawn being cuddled by an old lady. Feeling very relieved but very hot and with burning legs, I collapsed into a patch of bracken, almost onto a snake that quickly slithered off. I haven’t made that up to make the story more dramatic, there really was a snake. A black one.
After laughing at each other, slapping each other and cooling down a bit, we set off again, having lost about two hours. Turns out, Dawn thought she would leave the only path and take a shortcut to the hut. She tried to let me know by shouting but I was too busy racing off. The hut then turned out to be the knackered old farm. We agreed that next time I won’t run off and Dawn won’t leave the path.
We reached the village at about 2230, having walked for about an hour and a half in the dark. Fortunately the path was wide and made of white limestone so you could follow it without a torch (which we didn’t have). The buses had long since stopped running so a very expensive taxi took us back to Bled.
I realised it was all worthwhile because as we arrived back at the hostel the owner asked where we had been. We told her we had just climbed Triglav. She replied “aahh, you are real Slovenians now.”
As a footnote; you can see from my scribblings that Slovenia made quite an impression on me. Therefore I decided to move there in September 2009.
I had the intention of climbing mountains every weekend and consequently I was rather annoyed to find that the winter is so long that the higher peaks are only accessible to a mere trekker like me for about three months of the year. Thus after a frustrating Autumn, Winter and Spring, I spent the summer of 2010 going up about three mountains a week. I can tell you with confidence that it never becomes any less beautiful.
I left in September 2010 and now live in Japan. Fittingly the last mountain I climbed was Triglav again. This time in a day from Rudno Polje. A great but comparatively uneventful trip.
I'm sure I'll spend a lot more time in Slovenia again in the future and may well move back there in time for summer 2011. If only for the pleskavica.