Saturday 22 July 2017

Back In Black Mountain: Part 1

Day 1: Two Lakes and a Transfer


Although only a short 5-day jaunt, this trip – our fourth visit to Montenegro – had been some 3 years in the making. We had been hoping to visit our good friend Dimitrije and do some hiking together for some while, but time, circumstance and other commitments had meant it had taken a little longer than expected to arrange.

After all this time, we were justifiably excited to be heading back to Montenegro – it’s such a wonderful destination for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts! Thankfully, our flights ran smoothly, and with customs cleared we met Dimitrije in the arrivals foyer. It was so good to see him again after all this time.

Approaching Black Lake 
Our first objective was to transfer to the small mountain resort of Žabljak, the main base for exploring Durmitor National Park. Located in the northeast of the country, Durmitor NP is probably the premier outdoor location in Montenegro, containing the Tara Canyon, numerous glacial lakes and cirques, and almost 50 peaks topping out at over 2000m, so there are huge opportunities for hiking, biking, canyoning, rafting and other outdoor pursuits.

Looking across both lakes

Having dropped by our lodgings (the Lalovic Apartments) to drop off our kit and taken lunch at a nearby restaurant, we decided to walk round the twin pools of Black Lake by way of a warm-up. Being both beautiful and close to Žabljak, Black Lake is a popular destination for tourists and day-trippers. 

And it’s easy to see why, with it’s clear waters set in an amphitheatre of wooded slopes beneath impressive peaks, it makes for a picture-postcard setting. But walk a little way round the perimeter and the crowds disappear, leaving scope for quiet reflection.

Quietly exploring the lakeside

That evening we ate, as at lunchtime, at the Kotoba Luna, a simple, inexpensive mountain-type restaurant with large portions of traditional fare. The local diet based around ample helpings of meat, potatoes, grilled vegetables and salad may not be to everyone’s taste, but it suited us just fine.  

Zabljak at sundown

Day 2: Three Lakes and Half a Mountain


Having taken an early breakfast in town and stocked up with sandwiches and snacks for lunch, we were ready for the day’s objective – an ascent of 2522m Bobotov Kuk, which is usually regarded as the highest peak in Montenegro (although there are some slightly higher summits in the Prokletije sharing the border with Albania).

We met up with two of Dimitrije’s friends from their outdoor club, Slavko and Veljko, and headed off towards our starting point at the 1907m pass on the south edge of the massif.

The road up to the pass where we started our hike

But despite all our plans and preparations, one thing beyond our control was the weather. Usually, ascents of Bobotov Kuk are accompanied by photographs of far-reaching views from a summit bathed in sunshine, but today the sky was having other ideas. A strong wind was gusting and low cloud scudded across the mountain tops, and we all paused to don extra layers before setting off.

On the right track for Bobotov Kuk

The walk to the base of the peak follows a typically undulating mountain path, clear enough on the ground and mostly straightforward but with one or two tricky sections requiring a hands-on approach. 

Patches of old snow still lying at the end of June

What was quite a surprise (although maybe not, given the weather conditions today) was the sight of patches of old snow, still lying in places even though it is almost July – a reminder, if one were needed, that winters in these parts are tough and cold.

Hiking in beneath the rock formation Zupci, which means "teeth"

After a little over an hour’s walking, we descended steeply towards a small lake, ready for a short break. From here on the route would get steeper, with loose rocks and protected sections to negotiate, so we took the chance to rest briefly and gather our thoughts before tackling the next section.

Lake at the base of the peak 

The trouble was that since we had set off the skies had got darker, the low cloud much lower and the winds even stronger. To reach the summit from here takes two stages – firstly climbing to a saddle at around 2350m, then on to the 2522m summit itself after a rocky scramble – and we were conscious that the saddle was now only intermittently visible through the mist, and the peak itself completely hidden.

We decided to carry on for a while, and review the situation as we went. Half way to the saddle, we met a couple of other hikers who had got that far but turned back because of the inclement conditions. 

Decision time: deciding to head back down

It seems that Bobotov Kuk was determined to hide it's charms from hikers today. Slavko and Veljko decided to carry on towards the saddle (which they eventually reached, filming a short video of themselves clinging to the mountainside and showing just how windy it was), but with the clouds ripping across the sky like time-lapse photography, we three decided it was just a bit too risky and turned back.

A glimpse of what might be visible from the summit on a good day 

After a longer rest stop at the lake, we started to retrace our steps towards the cars. Of course, just at that moment the sun came out! The temperature rose and the mist evaporated a little, all of which made our retreat look over-cautious.

But the cloud was still whizzing past overhead and the wind buffeting and gusting strongly enough to force us into a stagger and knock us off the path, so we were happy we’d made the right choice especially as, moments later, the summit was again immersed in thick cloud.

Confirmation we had made the right decision

By now, Slavko and Veljko had returned from the saddle. Having taken a short cut near the bottom, they’d cut off a chunk of the route and we found them lounging beside the path waiting for us.

Because of our prompt start to the day it was still quite early, and people were heading out to the mountain as we were heading back. On the way, we met a couple of Scots and a group of Norwegians and stopped to discuss conditions.

Descending one of the protected sections
on our way back to the car

Our climb was over, but with plenty of the day left, we had a chance to do something more. So, after a quick stop for drinks in Žabljak, we headed for Ivan Do, near Black Lake, to do the 3-Lakes walk.

Snake Lake!

Our first objective was Zminje Lake (which translates as Snake Lake, and doesn’t refer to the shape) about a 40-minute hike away. We followed the track from Ivan Do, soon cutting up into the woods on a pleasant path between the trees. At this lower altitude, it was a warm, sunny afternoon, a long way from the cool, windy, misty conditions of the morning.

Walking with Natasha & Yasha

As we ambled through the woods, we met up with Natasha and Yasha, a mother and son from St Petersburg. Chatting as we went, we talked about everything from the Russian education system to Premier League football to the fact that their flight from Moscow to Podgorica was quicker than ours from Stansted. It’s always interesting to learn about other cultures, even if only briefly. 

We are on the route of the Via Dinarica, the new Balkans mega-trail

Part way back we said farewell to Natasha and Yasha, and headed off uphill towards Jablan Lake, about 90 minutes away.

After a 40-minute uphill section, the path levelled off, traversing the hillside through grassy pasture and thin woodland before a slight drop down to a small lake beneath tall cliffs. By now, it was around 7.00pm, so we had the lake pretty much to ourselves as we had a quick snack and a drink and soaked up the beauty and quiet.

Low evening sunlight on the mountains

Retracing our steps to the path junction and on to Ivan Do took about an hour-and-a-quarter, but the journey was eased by the wonderful views and gorgeous quality of the low evening light.

Black Lake in the distance

It had been a long day, but an excellent one. Sure, we were slightly disappointed not to have summited Bobotov Kuk (we will have to come back again to do that!) but the opportunity to explore other areas of the park meant we saw more of Durmitor than we had expected, which was a real bonus.

Nearing the end of the hike in fading light

We had dinner at the Kotoba Luna again, with kebabs and chicken, grilled veg, salad and beers on the menu – just the job after a full day on foot. It was almost 10.00pm when we arrived at our digs after a long but fantastic and diverse day, and even the power cut just before bedtime couldn’t take the shine off an excellent day.

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