Awaking refreshed after a good night’s sleep in a nice cool room at the guesthouse in Babino Polje, we were relieved to see the rainclouds had cleared leaving a clear blue sky.
We bought some homemade yoghurt from our hosts, made from a wonderfully tangy mix of cow, sheep and goats’ milk; with the muesli we were carrying with us it made a fine breakfast. After saying goodbye to our hosts and the other hikers, we set off up a track through the forest. The route looked straightforward enough on the map, and the description was pretty simple and included only six GPS waypoints for the full 20km day, so we thought navigation would be easy. We were wrong! The wide track became a boggy path, then a meandering, barely discernible trod through beech woodland, before hitting a couple of blown down trees and disappearing altogether. Searching upslope and downslope we could find no trace of a path, so decided to retrace our steps to the last waymarking. We had just turned around when we spotted two hikers coming up behind us – it was the two Polish hikers we’d met on our first day on the trail, Adam and Basia. Luckily for us they had a background map on their GPS, so could see that our trail was about 70 metres up the hillside. After a brief but steep slog we were all back on trail, and headed for the lovely Lake Hrid. Unfortunately the mosquitoes had got to the lake before us, so after taking a few quick photos we moved on, along the ridge and down a hot dusty track covered with crickets, round the side of Kofiljaca Mountain and down to the city of Plav, set beside a lake in a wide, fertile river valley. The route description calls it a city: in reality it is a town of about 20,000 people, but compared to the mountain villages we had been passing through it did feel like a city!
Our first port of call on reaching Plav was the police station, where we had been told we must go with our passports to collect letters authorising us to be in the country, as we had entered Montenegro via an unmanned border crossing. (This letter had been arranged with the help of Zbulo travel agency, before we left the UK.) It was just a formality, but there was still a very tense moment when the policeman couldn’t find our letter of authorisation!
Feeling a bit hot and frazzled, we enjoyed some cold drinks and pizza with Adam and Basia before they hiked on to find somewhere to camp outside the town. We opted for a night in town, at Timm’s Pizza, where we got a really comfortable room for €15 each including a large breakfast. After a nice cool shower we headed out for the evening. There weren’t many bars to choose from – it seemed to be quite a religious town, with lots of mosques and churches, so maybe that was why. But eventually we found a pleasant bar where they were selling local wine by the glass, and we sat outside watching Wimbledon on a large TV screen while sipping wine, as the muezzin’s evening call to prayer echoed round the valley – a bit surreal!
The next morning, after a misty start the sky cleared to give us another extremely hot day. A long walk along a gradually rising track, with great views back to the wide valley below, led us up into the mountains and into thick pine forest. As the track got steeper and steeper, the forest changed to beech. Sweating profusely we stopped for a break, but were immediately mobbed by mosquitoes, so we carried on. A wrong turn into a wide flat-floored corrie with shepherds’ huts required a stupidly steep ascent to get back onto the path on top of the ridge, but once we there the views were absolutely outstanding! We were also very relieved to see the English guys, Simon and Dan, ahead of us, with one of the Finnish girls. Scorched by the sun and amazed by the views, we dawdled along, taking lots of photos as we traversed the head of a valley before dropping down to follow the valley down to the village of Vusanje. The path led us through some beautiful limestone features, keeping Neil entertained as he poked around at promising-looking holes and depressions. However, the path which was initially well marked with red spots painted on the rock soon disappeared, leaving us with another cross-country bash down a dry valley and through thick beech woods before we eventually found the path again, with a feeling of great relief.
Then it was an easy plod down to Vusanje, where we were really happy to bump into Simon, Dan and Katia, and also Adam and Basia outside a restaurant. Cold beer in good company went down far too easily! Once night fell, we went over to the large grassy car park where the restaurant staff had told us we were welcome to camp, and set up our tent, then retired to an open-sided shelter with Adam and Basia (who were also camping there) to drink bottled beer and cook dinner, while the moon rose and fireflies bobbed about in the darkness.
Our final day on the trail began unpromisingly with a long hike along a dirt road, which gradually became a tough, stony riverbed. But after a few kilometres we turned off onto a smaller path, and the scenery just got better and better, as we walked through meadows and across a dried-up lake bed with huge limestone crags towering above, towards the Albanian border. As the valley floor rose and narrowed, we came across bunkers and gun emplacements dating from the Communist era, when Albania was a closed country, and citizens trying to leave were routinely shot. It was a sobering thought as we wandered through such a beautiful place.
Crossing the Pejes Pass at 1700m, the path took us through more stunning limestone scenery before starting the steep descent back to our starting point 12 days ago, at Thethi. The path was well made, with lots of tight switchbacks, and enormous drops to either side. When we reached a little cafe near Okol village (cans of pop and beer, cooled in icy spring water, for one euro each) it was great to sit in the shade and look back at the steep terrain we’d just come down, with huge cliffs on either side! Just as we were about to leave, first Katia, then Simon and Dan arrived, so we enjoyed some more cold drinks with them before we all continued along the valley to Thethi, back to the starting point of our hike.
So now we’re back in Shkoder, temperatures are around 38 degrees Celsius, and it feels good not to have to pick up our rucksacks for a while!
We really enjoyed the Peaks of the Balkans trail. It has some amazing scenery, and great cultural interest. Even though it is relatively short (192km), it packs in 9,800m of ascent over 11 days of hiking. As the ascents and descents are typically long and steep, and temperatures are mostly in the 30’s during the summer, it feels reasonably hard. Of course, it is possible to make it easier by staying in guesthouses all the way, paying for meals and packed lunches as you go. In the interests of saving money, we took full camping gear, and 6 days of food when we set off, resupplying at Plav. We chose it partly as preparation for hiking the Continental Divide Trail in America next year – a reminder of what hiking in hot weather is like while carrying several days’ supply of food. As such, it was a good reminder of the absolute necessity of keeping our rucksack weights as low as possible.
We were surprised and impressed to meet so many other hikers doing the Peaks of the Balkans trail, or at least doing large portions of it, in spite of the shortage of detailed information about the trail in English. Once the English guide book is published in November (Cicerone Press), I can see this becoming a very popular hike. As such, it will have impacts, hopefully mostly positive, on the communities along the way. Who knows, some enterprising guesthouse owners might even put signs out to advertise their services, which will make life a lot easier for hikers like us who prefer not to book accommodation in advance!