Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Black Mountains Of The Balkans – Day 6

Friday 26th July 2013 – Babino Polje to Kućište

Total Distance: 18.40km / Total Ascent: 1529m / Total Descent: 1536m

The Eco Village is in a beautiful setting: quiet and surrounded by trees, and even more glorious this morning in the clear, storm-washed air.

Dimitrije indicating the size of breakfast

Today was the start of our 4-day trek into Kosovo. We took breakfast on the decking, checked our gear and set off up the road. The first 15 minutes were relatively easy. Then we left the track, crossed the valley and the hard work began with a ferociously steep climb towards the ridge.

Climbing steeply out of the valley

Already, the benefit of the extra guide was clear. Although waymarked the trails in this neck of the woods are pretty rarely walked (understandable, I imagine, given the low profile of the area for tourism). At this time of year, with plenty of new, lush vegetation growth underfoot, there are places where almost no evidence of the route exists on the ground. Local knowledge, in such circumstances, is invaluable.

Looking back to the peaks above Hridsko Lake

At a slow but steady pace, and with several stops on the way, we finally reached the Zavoj Pass (2167m) by about noon. This spot marks the border between Montenegro and Kosovo, so congratulations were shared and photographs taken to mark the occasion.

Signpost at the Zavoj Pass 

Judging by the way Kosovo has been portrayed in the news in the last decade, I’m reasonably sure this would not be most people’s picture of the Kosovan border: no guards, no guns, no fence, no bunkers, no passport control, no duty free – no sign, in fact, that you are on the cusp of a different country at all.

Three Brits on the border

The situation and status of Kosovo is a complex and delicate matter, and the historical, political, religious and ethnic mélange is so fearsomely labyrinthine that I don’t intend to elaborate on it here. Others have attempted it, and their volumes are notoriously lengthy. Suffice it to say, there was a definite frisson of excitement to be standing on the brink of one of the world’s newest and most misunderstood countries.

Cross-border co-operation - Kushtrim and Dimitrije

A four-hour trek south from here would bring us to the summit of Tromeda, the meeting point of three countries – Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. But our route lay the other way, northwards along the ridge.

Looking into Kosovo

Having said earlier that we had reached the border, I now have to contradict myself. In fact we had reached what is considered the border by Montenegro along with much of the world. The precise line here is currently under debate between Kosovo and Montenegro, so our route passed through a sort of both-man’s-land of still-to-be-decided territory. See, I told you nothing was straightforward!

Mountain path

We followed a contour path along the mountainside, threading a route between minor summits with views alternating between the peaks and valleys of two countries. The wild flowers were prolific, and a short while later we took our lunch on a grassy col surrounded by thousands of blooms. A quick overview of these can be found here:

Heading for the pass

After lunch, we continued along the ridge, making for an obvious saddle in the ridge ahead, the Jelenak Pass. A rising traverse beneath the cliffs to our right took the sting out of the ascent, but we were all a bit breathless as we reached the top at 2274m. 

Looking back towards Montenegro

An hour and a half from here stood the summit of Guri I Kuq, at 2522m one of the highest in the vicinity. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to bag it today – a 9.00pm finish would be a finish in the dark – but we were sorely tempted.

Beginning our descent

We began our descent on a steep, rocky path. The combination of loose scree, small boulders and uneven, grassy ground meant carefully picking our way step by step. Then, having reached the more level stretches, the path became indistinct and treacherous with hidden rocks. Concentration was required for every step: with over 800m of descent to negotiate, we were keen to avoid the possibility of a fall or a twisted ankle.

Ex-Yu waymarking

Part way down, we passed the first of two lakes: a dark blue-green, plectrum-shaped pond in a shadowy basin. 

Liqeni i Drelajve

We re-filled water at a nearby spring, then carried on. A short sharp uphill stretch took us rather by surprise, as did the appearance of the second lake. Liqeni i Kuçishtёs has a much sunnier aspect than Liqeni i Drelajve, pale cliffs reflected in the still waters.

Still waters at Liqeni i Kuçishtёs

A reflective moment

The final descent remained steep as we dropped through a swathe of fire damaged trees into mature woods. As if from nowhere, the sound of voices and the smell of woodsmoke drifted up to meet us. We found goats quietly grazing in a glade, and all of a sudden we were back in civilization.

First signs of civilisation

Our overnight stay was at the Guri i Kuq complex, a surprisingly nice restaurant with guest cabins in the grounds. The food was delicious but prodigious (again!), with plenty of local specialities and a more-than-passable local beer. I had two bowls of soup: one on the inside and one on the outside. The poor waiter was mortified, but there was no damage done, and soon the conversation got round to the speed of my reflexes rather than the faint whiff of chicken noodle clinging to my shirt-tails. The only slight drawback about the whole evening was a lack of hot water: unfortunately the previous night’s storm had knocked out the power. But we were made of stern stuff, and cold showers could do nothing to dampen the spirits of this hardy group!

Missy G, CJ, Musa, Dimitrije, Kushtrim, Jules tackling another mammoth meal

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