Balkans 2012 - Travelogue Part 5 - Canyons and Mountains

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Michael J Spraggon
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Balkans 2012 - Travelogue Part 5 - Canyons and Mountains

Post by Michael J Spraggon » Sat Nov 24, 2012 9:45 am

Good afternoon! A little later than usual, here is your Saturday installment of the Balkans story. We explore a forest on the side of the deepest canyon in Europe and have a snowball fight...

Happy reading,

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Balkans 2012 Expedition - Part 5

Day 8 continued: Crna Poda and Zabljak, Montenegro

By late morning we have reached Crna Poda, on the edge of Durmitor National Park. Almost without our noticing the river we have been following has dropped away and is now 2000ft below us at the bottom of a steep gorge. The pure turquoise channel of the Tara River stretches away into the distance between vast limestone cliffs dotted with fully grown black pines clinging like designer stubble to the near vertical faces. Each tree will be anchored to the soft limestone by a deep intricate root system that has literally eaten its way into the limestone over decades or centuries, probably in a symbiotic partnership with another organism which dissolves the limestone, making it palatable for the tree.
The start of the Tara Canyon

This is the beginning of the Tara Canyon, the deepest canyon in Europe and one of the deepest on Earth. It will get much deeper yet: over 4200 feet in places. We park in a layby and peer gingerly over the crash barrier at the drop. On the hillside here is the Crna Poda forest, a terrace on the steep side supporting stands of tall black pines (Pinus nigra) up to 400 years old reaching through an understorey of beech. The National Park literature claims that there are trees of up to 50 metres in height but the trees we can see from the road are not much over 40 metres.

As we begin surveying the stands below the road Jeroen and Kouta are already measuring trees of around 45 metres and I see a tall trunk in the distance near the bottom of the hairpin bend. J & K both measure it from different positions and it turns out to be 47.4m tall – a new record for laser measured black pines. After lunch we explore the top of the terrace above the road and find other tall trees and also a huge double tree – clearly two trees fused together but each trunk as fat as the largest single trees in the forest. Having surveyed much of this small reserve we continue into the mighty Tara Canyon.

We stop at one of the deeper parts of the canyon where the road has dropped down close to the river. There are black pines dotted about near the top of the opposite wall about three quarters of a vertical mile above us. To put the scale into perspective I pick one of these specks and, holding my camera a still as possible, zoom in and in up to the full 78x magnification. The wobbling, grainy image becomes a large, impressively spreading tree which must weigh several tonnes, hanging on at an impossible angle to the crumbly limestone; one of many thousands of tenacious overweight rock climbers.

After driving the length of the canyon we come to the Tara Bridge, a tall thin concrete structure 170m (560 feet) above the river, and the only crossing point of the canyon. The original central arch was blown up in 1942 by the bridge’s engineer to stop the invading Italian/Chetnik armies. He was later executed for his efforts.

Soon the road climbs onto a high grassy plateau with the Durmitor massif looming way off in the distance. The trees all but vanish and the empty landscape is dotted with tall thin brightly coloured alpine houses, which look like confectionery. The road eventually ends at Žabljak, nearly 5000ft up and the highest town in the Balkans. The rarefied atmosphere of Žabljak is as I would imagine a wilderness town in Alaska to be. There is a central square, overshadowed by ‘Hotel Žabljak’, a skewed, sloping monstrosity in the old communist style juxtaposed against a modern parade of shops opposite. There are lots of parked cars and off-road vehicles but few other buildings, the gaps in between being occupied by grassy banks and alpine houses as if the surrounding plateau is spilling into the town. There is a lot of sky in this place.

The road continues a little further, up a slight incline and ending up at a tiny campsite high up in an alpine meadow, facing a perfect panorama of the Durmitor massif. The owner appears. He resembles a slightly taller version of Dudley Moore and is followed by an inquisitive young tabby cat whose job at the campsite is to make putting up tents as difficult as possible. There is a slight chill in the air. This is the first time we have actually been cold since the trip began.
Above: Žabljak by night. Below: Breakfast at the round table.

Day 9

The next morning I’m awakened by the cat attacking my feet through the wall of my tent. Unzipping my tent reveals a postcard view even more spectacular than yesterday evening with the morning sun hitting the mountains. J & K drive into Žabljak for supplies while I sit at the campsites round table in the sun, finishing the yoghurt and Plazma biscuits under the attentive gaze of my feline supervisor. One of the young women in the tent opposite is getting changed outside the tent and has, without any self-consciousness, stripped down to just her underwear in full view of the campsite. Feeling very English all of a sudden, I try not to stare.

After breakfast and carrying our packed lunches we walk up the gravel track into the forest. There is a ranger standing by an old car who sells us tickets to enter the park. There is a reserve of primeval forest here, the Zminje Jezero Prašumski Rezervat, which is approximately 10 Hectares in size. Kouta was here in 2008 and remembers seeing some very tall and old Norway spruce. As we walk into the reserve there is evidence of some forest management, tree stumps, clearings and a landslide with a large plastic drainage pipe crossing it. Kouta finds the largest spruce on a slope at one end of the reserve. It is 49m tall and almost 5 metres in girth, and a thin silver fir 47.2 m tall. The trees here are not as large as we had expected them to be.

We have lunch in a lush grassy clearing with youngish firs about 40 years old forming a sort of avenue. Wild strawberry plants provide the dessert. Beyond this is the edge of the reserve and the land is immediately more rugged and bare. The huge white cliffs of Veliki Pass (Big Dog) below the peak of Crvena Greda tower more than 2000ft above us. On our way back we decide to follow the Mlinski Potok river to the Crno Jezero lake, whose still transparent water makes a perfect inverted image of the Durmitor massif, now immediately behind, which the Wikipedia article describes as ‘a sort of amphitheatre’.

We are at an Italian restaurant in Žabljak this evening and I get my first reminder of the country I’ve left behind: a large screen is showing a tennis match: Andy Murray is playing in the 4th round at Wimbledon. I leave the veranda for a while to watch some of it in the main bar. He’s looking more confident than ever this time. Could this be his year? A wide boy in a pimped up car cruises past with the pumping bass on his mobile disco temporarily drowning out the tennis – some things are the same in every town no matter how remote. He seems to be doing laps of the town and on lap 3 he has a girl in the passenger seat so he must be doing something right.

Day 10

Another cold sunny breakfast at the round table: this time with a naughty Jack Russell trying to steal our food, and a young French couple on a walking holiday. The man is shy, bespectacled, and has his nose in a book entitled ‘Hemisphere Droit’; the woman, Natalie is more talkative. They both came from different parts of rural France to work in Paris where they now live. I go to settle up our bill with Dudley Moore and we reluctantly leave this friendly alpine campsite for our next destination: Tjentište and the Sutjeska National Park.

The featureless plateau becomes more undulating and our car is soon climbing on a narrow road with no barriers and steep drops off to the left. Jeroen, remembering Kouta’s Finnish predisposition to rally driving, urges him to take care. To the left is a mountain which looks like the Matterhorn and ahead is the Sedlo Pass, which at 1907m is the highest road pass in Montenegro. There is a small parking area just below the summit of the pass. Seven men are putting up a small wooden sign, disproving the theory that many hands make light work. In front of us the road meanders down into a vast rocky basin interspersed with clumpy grass and a few alpine style farm houses, surrounded by mountains on all sides.

To the left is Sedlana Greda, a double headed mountain, the nearest peak of which is Zupci (2148m). The mountain is sometimes called ‘the Saddle of God’. My GPS unit is reading an altitude of 1894m. I suddenly get the urge to see a reading of 2000m and begin running up the slope of ‘the Saddle’. In almost no time I am gasping for breath and remember that at 6500 feet the air is only 75% of the pressure at sea level. I carry on at a rather hypoxic stumble until I reach a cliff face. To my disappointment my GPS reads only 1992m. The cars are now just tiny coloured dots below me and I am still short of my goal by 25 feet. Undeterred I start free-climbing the cliff and soon pull myself up onto a small terrace. I check the GPS again: 2005m (6578 feet) – I’ve done it! The others are probably wondering what I’ve been doing all this time so I had better get back down.
‘The Saddle of God.’

A bit further along the road and I see another experience to add to my list today: snow. Like a child I leave the car and run excitedly down the slope onto the patch of snow to make a snowball, which I throw at Jeroen. It falls short. Having the advantage of higher ground Jeroen throws some of it back with more success. We continue across the basin, past a herd of cows and a stone memorial to young man who died in 2005. There is a photograph and some sentimental items including a bottle of his favourite wine. We can’t translate the plaque but maybe he came off the road at this point and was killed. From a distance I can really see the shape of Sedlana Greda. I’ve never seen a mountain resemble a saddle so closely.
“Do you want some?” (A world apart from the 40° heat of Croatia.)

As we descend from the pass we come across a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The owners run out to our passing car to beckon us in. It is a bit early for lunch but all that running about has made me hungry so we accept. The lamb is delicious and the waiter brings out a bottle of raki, announcing proudly: “Best slivovice we have!” Kouta is driving but the waiter pours Jeroen and I two large tumblers full of the distillate. “Smoothe!” I gasp. It is actually very fine, with a bready, honeyed taste - it’s just that I can’t breathe for the next ten seconds. Another couple have also found this oasis. To Kouta’s delight they are from Finland and soon they are chatting in Suomi.

Not too much further down the hillside we pass a tiny solitary café with a hand painted sign nailed to the veranda advertising: ‘Cold beer, Juices, Coffee…Horseback Riding.’

Soon we are dropping down into the Piva Canyon, second only to the Tara in its scale. The road passes through many tunnels in the rock as it winds its way down to the Piva River. At one point we cross the canyon over the Mratinje Hydroelectric Dam, a colossal, convex concrete construction, 220m (720 feet) high and just 4.5m (15 feet) wide at the top. At the far end the road disappears into a gaping hole – another tunnel hewn into the rock. We lean over the flimsy iron railings at the grey bowl sweeping away into the chasm and I can’t help imagining what it must be like to dive off the top. The canyon becomes lower and wider as it approached the border. On the opposite bank is Bosnia and not far beyond is Tjentište.

Looking down from the 220m (720 ft) Mratinje Hydroelectric Dam.

Michael Spraggon


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