Montenegrin Mountains

A small blue bus sat waiting on the cracked pavement of a bus station in the outskirts of Sarajevo.  By chance I happened to pass by the station a day earlier on my walk about the city and bought a ticket for one of the twenty seats headed towards Zabljak, Montenegro.  I passed two Euro coin to the driver for the storage of my backpack and clambered aboard, choosing an empty seat on the left-hand side of the bus to pass then next few hours.  With my last few Bosnian marks I had just made a stop at the bakery across the street, and I took the last few moments before setting off to enjoy a cheese filled pastry and the last of a bottle of orange juice.  The blue and gray stripes running down the seat in front of me  looked as tired as I was.

The bus was slated to depart at seven in the morning, and to my surprise we actually stuck to the schedule.  With the sun on the rise our bus rumbled to life and, after spitting out a few charcoal colored puffs of smoke, took to the streets and made its way south of the city.

Bosnia’s transportation development truthfully cannot hold a candle to its northern neighbors.   The highway  south to Montenegro was no recently paved highway funded by the European Union.  Instead, it was a two-lane road snaking its way among and through mountains, passing only rarely small villages marked by a grocery and guesthouse sitting a few meters from the road.  No one dared emerge from their houses in this heat, and I wondered myself how I would fare with just one small bottle of water to keep me going for the next few hours on the road.

The drive through southern Bosnia was at once exhausting, mesmerizing, and at times a bit scary.   Mountains appeared around every corner, their valley guiding the land upon which the road was built.  Even under the intense heat of the summer sun I kept the window curtain open, hoping to watch for as long as possible as the fascinating and wild forests and rivers sped past.  It was only when we drove through dark tunnels drilled through the mountain base when I became uneasy.  The tunnels were completely unlit save for the faint glow which barely emanated from the headlights of this blue bus, and heaven help anyone who tried to approach from the opposite direction.  It was a curious thing to watch the stone walls of the tunnel rush by in a smooth cold wave.  I could compare the sensation only to what I imagine it is to be underwater in the dark, knowing that the world around you is continuously moving but not quite being able to define how you sensed it.

The light at the end of these tunnels was always a much appreciated climax of a rather nerve-wracking drive.  I suppose this bus driver had been through the tunnels a thousand times over, but there is something still disconcerting about traveling through pitch black with only something a bit stronger than a lantern to illuminate the path while moving 30 miles an hour through a seemingly endless hole.  Nevertheless, we reached the Bosnian-Montenegrin border without a scratch, and picked up two female backpackers in the process.

By late morning the bus pulled into a station and the patrons began filing outside.  I was quite confused – this was Niksic, not Zabljak!  Tuning my ear to the conversation of another backpacker with the bus driver, I soon learned that this bus would go no further and I had to transfer onto another but in a half hour.  There was barely a spot left on this bus as it was already packed with travelers coming from the coast, but I managed to snag a seat near the back and catch some rest as we departed for Durmitor National Park in northern central Montenegro.

The town of Zabljak is a quaint little place.  I wove through only a few sleepy streets before turning down a lane to reach Hostel Hikers Den.  A few Australians sat on the wooden picnic benches occupying the front yard.  They would be the first of many Aussies and Brits whom I met during this stay.  In contrast to the Austrian and Italian tourists enjoying Slovenia, the Balkans have become quite a hotspot for those hailing from Great Britain or Down Under.  The others who arrived with my bus decided upon arrival that the following day would be one for the mountains.  Less heat, more clouds, good company – a perfect recipe to enjoy the great outdoors of Montenegro.

We all rose early in the morning to catch a taxi bus from the hostel to highest starting trail point to Bobotov Kuk.  This 2,523m tall mountain is the tallest within the Durmitor mountain range and within all of Montenegro.  The initial ascent seemed a bit daunting for the group, many of whom had spent the past weeks at beach parties rather than on mountainsides.  After ten minutes of scrambling however, the path quickly reached a plateau upon which we ventured through brilliant green pasture and limestone boulders tucked away among the grass.  Sheep bells chinked softly drifted through the fresh mountain air, and the sun shone as a welcome friend in contrast to its fiery fury the day prior.  The heat was not so kind to the mountain though; our turning point to once again start ascending was described as a small pond nestled at the base of tall peaks, but all we found was a patch of brown soil long dried by the sun.  The path continued on, weaving its way across fields of large rocks in pursuit of the peak.

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Bobotov Kuk was described as a manageable peak, but one not for those who would be uncomfortable with traversing exposed mountain faces.  Having overcome most anxiety of this type of situation long ago on Skuta mountain, the steady iron ferrata ropes were more than enough to make the route to the top of the mountain feel secure.  For those who had never done such a thing, the challenge gave a bit of exhilaration to an otherwise mellow hike.

Once at the top I dropped my pack and turned to appreciate the awesome sight which stood before me.  To the northeast stood the hills of Serbia; to the northwest peaks of Bosnia; someone said we could even catch a glance of northern Albania in the distance.  As the tallest peak within a relatively small country, Bobotov Kuk provided an impressive point from which to appreciate the mountainous geography of the Balkan states.  I took a seat upon a boulder near the edge and soaked in the moment, reveling in the simple satisfaction of enjoying nature’s beauty from a mountaintop.

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While the views were incredible, the presence of flies atop Bobotov Kok certainly was not, and so we began our descent much soon than we would have liked.  Scree just below the peak made for a precarious first few minutes, but beyond that point and below the ferrata route, the path was once again smooth sailing.  The trail took us back over gentle hills from which views of the fascinating results of former glaciers were a dime a dozen.  All too soon the trail returned to the parking lot from which we had begun, and within a few minutes we had all managed to hitch our way back to the town of Zabljak.

A full night of sleep after a hearty meal were just what the doctor ordered before starting a second day of hiking.  This trail would be much longer than the first; we had our sights set this time on the infamous ice cave, burrowed deep within the mountain range.  The trail began after a pleasant morning trail past Black Lake.  Black pines reflected across the smooth surface, calling us towards the water to take a quick swim.  The lake would be our reward; first we had to scale the mountain.

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Our path began a seemingly endless ascent through forest, twisting and turning over moist dirt and knotted tree trunks towards an upper valley among the mountains.  About two hours along we came across a man living in a shack no bigger than the average kitchen.  An old and weathered man sat outside next to a lonely donkey and a steel bucket labeling advertising “pivo”.  As enticing as that sounded, we had a long way to go and were not quite ready to kick back with a can of beer.  What we did pick up, however, was a group of three friends who approached from another side of the valley.  They had originally planned to go to Bobotov Kuk, but decided against it when they realized how long the hike would be.  This was a curious crowd: two guys and one girl, they had only recently met but decided to travel and camp together throughout Montenegro and beyond.  One of the guys hiked barefoot, and told of his many years volunteering and working in many different nations and receiving odd looks during his most recent decision to walk always without shoes.  They were a jovial bunch and made for good company as we continued our way up the trail.

A couple of hours and a few wrong turns later, we finally came across a IMG_0991boulder painted in red with the words “ledena pecina” in Cyrillic, meaning ice cave.  Finally, it was about time we stopped for lunch and a rest!  The ice cave was interesting, though perhaps not as stunning as what we had all imagined.  From the path the only way into the belly of the cave was by a very steep descent down an almost entirely frozen and smooth slab of rock.  I chose not to descend for fear of not being able to make it back up, though a few people decided to slide their way down.  After all, where else would they find such a convenient place to quickly chill the beer they’d brought for the halfway point? I enjoyed the cool air for a few minutes before retiring back to the entrance of the cave and pulling out a sandwich for lunch.  A light breeze felt refreshing across my feet which lay dangling along the other edge of a steep drop from the trail.

The cave eventually became too cold even for the most avid beer drinker, and so we soon finished our meals and headed back down towards Zabljak.  The trail back to town was unfamiliar but marked well enough and wove through a pocketed field of boulders before bottoming out in a grassy valley above the tree line.  There in the valley sat one lonely house, perfectly still in the center of an expanse of green space.  I wondered how beautiful yet lonesome a life in such a place would be, though of course this did not reflect consideration of life in decades past.  Perhaps, like the man selling beer on our ascent, this house used to be lively but had slowly lost its relevance as people moved from the mountains for jobs in the cities.  The hut’s owners must have cared for it greatly all the same; the rich dark color of the wood brought out the perfect angles of a well constructed dwelling to withstand hard mountain winters and enjoy pleasant sunny summers.

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We finally reached the forest, and from there the descent to the Black Lake was a rather quick affair.  The Australians in the group departed to return to the hostel for shower and food while I stayed behind to lounge by the lake with the hikers we’d met that day on the hike.  The water, while clear and smooth, was a bit too cold for a relaxing swim, so I joined the others instead in merely soaking up the sun from the rocky shore of the lake.

Eventually hunger got the better of me, so I bid a last goodbye to this ragtag group of hikers and made my way back to the hostel for one last night in Zabljak.  A quick bowl of cheesy pasta hit the spot, and I devoured it in minutes before taking a seat on the crowded benches outside the hostel to join the Australians, Brits, and two Montenegrins who ran the hostel for a night of music and talk.  Rakija began to flow, the rhythm transitioned from jazz to bossa nova to rock, and talk of hiking, travel, and life carried us all late into the night.

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