Via Dinarica White Trail Part 3: Montenegro & Albania
This is the 3rd and final entry on Glenn and Ray’s thru-hike of the Via Dinarica White Trail 2017. Started in Predjama, Slovenia July 3rd. And finished…………well, read on.
Montenegro August 13/2017 We entered Montenegro, according to the GPS, in a low point, mixed forest and meadow, and then came to a beautiful lake and (open) hut with lots of tenting sites. There were a few hikers there from the Czech Republic who had summited the great mountain; Maglic, the day before. They were a little hungover this morning though.
We checked in with the ranger there, paid our fee, had a bite to eat and a coffee and headed up. A few kms out, we ran into one of the few northbounders (NOBO) we would see on our hike. He was from France and had started at the beginning (or our ending point) in Albania. We stopped to trade info of course, and wish we had more time, but had a big climb in front of us.
The views looking back were spectacular of the heart shaped Trnovacko lake below.
But the mountain was calling us and it was getting colder and colder as we climbed. Near the top, a slight rain made us decide we didn’t need to bag Maglic peak as it was socked in a cloud anyway, so we turned right on the Via Dinarica and hurriedly moved on to beat the storm. There was a spring up there and we stopped for that but descended quickly on tired legs.
Down through a combination of rocky traverses and beautiful deep forest.
We were hoping to make it down to a spot where there was supposedly some kind of small shelter. But as darkness fell, we set up our tents in a clearing short of this small village and shelter. The next morning, we had a breakfast break there and the owner, or builder came out and we spoke a bit about his work on the shelter. Once again, friendly people, even through the language barrier. (Ray and he were speaking German, although by this time, Ray knew a lot of the Bosnian or Croatian words and sure sounded like he could speak each local language. )
Down through the village that went on and on. Down all the way to a big lake and dam. Just before the dam itself, the roadwalk went through about 7 tunnels cut through the mountain. The last one being dark and long.
At the dam itself, a bigger road comes in with traffic and we were told no pictures! Nyet! So, we hurried through there and began one of the tougher climbs on the whole trail. The trail switchbacked almost straight up this little winding path through small trees and man, it was steep. Good views looking back.
And finally the top, and a house with a friendly man who gladly gives you water from his well. No English or German though so we had to rely on our Croatian, or Bosnian language skills.
Now the trail was in the form of a meandering road that went through meadows of sheep and cow farming country, with little to no houses for about 10kms. Eventually to a Bed and Breakfast we had heard everyone raving about in the comments. But sorry: It was full!
They let us set up tents across the road and the restaurant was open to us. Ray had one last night of sickness here and had to interrupt the party going on a few times during the night to get to the lieu.
We were glad to leave as it was not a good night’s sleep and with the long hiking days we were doing, we needed our rest at night. We did talk to a family there who was spending their holiday whitewater kayaking! A sport I was heavily into in the 80’s and was glad to hear people were out enjoying the beautiful mountains of the former Yugoslavia.
The mountains were definitely getting higher and harder now, here in Montenegro. Another beautiful country with it’s rugged mountains and not many people taking advantage of the great hiking we were having.
So, another gorge, this time the river Piva (beer?) and a steep climb up to 2350 meter; Plananika peak.
Leaving another beautiful lake behind for this climb. We got some water at the lake, never saw the hut there, but after another very steep one, we saw a lot of people at the top. We figure they must come up a different way than we had as it was lots of scree, steep and even I had to get a stick to help me up this one. Talked to some couples from Italy at the top and they were peak bagging some nearby peaks. But our food bags were near empty and there was a town about 12 kms away, so, we started our descent.
And a beautiful descent it was.
Right past the beautiful “Black Lake”, and on to the busy, touristy town of Zabljak. Oh my……….town was crowded. Was it the weekend. You lost track of stuff like that on a hike. We’d been out about 6 weeks already and weren’t used to this! No wonder there were so many people on top of the mountain and more we saw on our descent. There were thousands in this little town. Everyone we asked said all rooms were full. So Ray went into the biggest hotel, right in the center of town and asked if we could get 2 rooms. Nema Problema (we learned that phrase quickly on this hike, meaning “No Problem”!
Best place in town, 2 big rooms, and a buffet that we both agree was the best of the whole trail.
We ate for hours and I believe it was 8 Euros! I didn’t get a picture of that, but here is breakfast (or late lunch) the next day, as we took a rest day here.
Leaving Zabljak was another road walk but this time, quite scenic with little to no traffic on the road.
Then a small mom and pop bar/restaurant in a tiny village for some refreshments and continued on.
Past a lake with fishing boats and a house being built, all going well, until BLAM! A gate with a sign: Keep out! No trespassing. But our GPS track showed us continuing on this small dirt road. What to do?
So, we turned right and looked for a way around it. Finally seeing someone in a small house
Ray went up and asked the man and his wife if we could go through their land. They said, only after you stop in for a drink. Typical great Balkan hospitality strikes again! Now, I don’t drink and it was only around 1 in the afternoon. But Ray is a good sport and drank both of our glasses of plum brandy and we told them what we were doing. They said, too many bikes and cars were tearing up his road and leaving trash, so they put up the gate and sign but, hikers were very welcome. So, we begged off and continued on our way, through his fields to cut back into our GPS track again.
Continuing on, we had a mountain to climb and could see storm clouds ahead. Sure enough, on our way up the mountain, we could hear thunder and see lighting and rain off in the distance.
We picked up the pace. But it seemed that both us and the storm were both headed for the top of this grassy mountain. So, we looked at the map on the GPS and shot for the gap to the right of the mountain. Just as we hit the gap, the lighting struck near the top of the mountain. That was close. We started running. We saw some shacks off in the distance (one km away?) and made a beeline for it.
By now the rains were falling also and the lighting was close, but more behind us. When we got to the shack, it was all locked up with no where to get out of the rain except a small stable. So, we went in, sprea some plastic over the cow dung there and waited it out for about an hour. We had a little window so watched the storm from the manger.
Continuing on, past small villages from time to time, there were many horses out here. We never could figure out what they do with these horses. But there were more horses than cows so, we figured maybe they eat them. They do like their meat in this part of the world.
Our next town would be Mojkovac and the track showed us bushwhacking down a steep mountain with no trail. The trail ended at a cell phone tower and we were thinking that they didn’t want people in there, so, re-routed the trail. But we were used to following the GPS and ended up going quite a long way around to get down to the town.
But once there, it was a big town, with good stores and a good hotel and restaurant. Good resupply and headed out the next morning.
Trail through town a bit, and then out the other side, went up through people’s yards and a bit of a bushwhack here and there. Eventually getting to a road up on top that went past another locked mountaineering hut. Then, once again needing water, we saw a small house with people feeding some livestock and went to get water. While they were filling our water bottles, an old car pulled up on this bad road and 4 or 5 guys got out. They slapped a beer down in front of each of us and wanted us to drink with them. Unfortunately, none of them knew a word of English or German so, we politely tried to refuse and moved on. (just so we would not appear rude, Ray drank one)
Here we are sneaking out of there:
We camped that night up high with a beautiful views of the sunset and sunrise.
Next day took us over a mountain with a government building and communications tower or something on top that we had been seeing for miles and miles. Then on the other side, was a touristy kind of camp with many small huts for rent and people around riding horses and day hiking. Nearby ski area may have been the attraction in winter.
Soon after was a manned mountaineering hut. And a big one. Very friendly caretaker who cooked us a big breakfast and we watched his wife baking the famous round bread in a separate kitchen.
Looking ahead we were getting excited as Albania was looking amazing with big mountains. We had heard it was the toughest part but we were pretty fit by now and eager to tackle the “Accursed Mountains of Albania”
That was our thoughts back here anyway, when we got there, we found out it was a lot tougher than anything we had done thus far.
But we weren’t there yet and the weather was getting worse. Coming into the pass above the town of Tsenjevik, we were starting to get wet when a restaurant and small resort showed up right on the trail. So, we indulged. Had a good meal, good converstation and 2 small A-fram bungalows were rented to us. Brand new place. Not on the comments yet. It rained all night so we were glad for the roof over our heads even though our tents are both proven and trustworthy.
In the morning, we saw that there were 2 or 3 other similar places in a tiny village right at the road crossing.
Not long after, it started to drizzle slightly. So we picked up the pace and it was a steady rain till we got to the next small town that had a restaurant and resort. We stopped in and ordered a bigger breakfast and dried out a bit. A lot of people came in in the next hour and we found out this was a popular spot to stay in order to climb some of the nearby mountains. But they all decided to take the day off and call it a rain day.
But we headed out and it turned out it was an excellent move as the rain stopped and we had the mountain to ourselves. It was a bit eerie looking with the fog as we were heading up into the clouds. But, really nice trail in here. Some scree to cross and then the saddle near the top. Once again we skipped the peak bagging as it was all socked in.
Coming down the other side there was an old abandoned village. Sign there explaining something about a family who had lived there before the war.
Then it was on to Albania. The last country on this trail as it stands now (or had in late August, 2017.
The view of the “Accursed’s” looked very rough and the introduction showed us how rough it was going to be.
Because almost as soon as we crossed the border, the trail not only disappeared again but it was steep, very rocky with patches of loose scree, ravines and no trail to be seen anywhere. But we followed the GPS. And then we finally made to the forest below and out of the exposed part. The steepness lessoned slightly but, still no trail. So, now we’re looking for trail in a beautiful forest and thinking, man, this could be so nice in here with some switchbacks and proper trail, but instead, it was blowdowns and steep bushwhacking for about 4 more kms!
Wow! Welcome to Albania aye. No trail, tough bushwhacking and finally……………….a dirt road to follow.
Eventually it got to the settlement and it was a wide, almost dry riverbed. With houses and people on bicycles. Pigs, sheep, chickens………..very rustic and old fashioned.
And then, among the houses and pigs and bicycles……….bomb shelters! Or pill-boxes. And lots of them.
We found out that these bomb shelters were actually built in the 60’s. The political leader at the time, a man named Hoxha, was fighting with his neighbors and had a fear of being invaded. So, he built with an average of 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometer. In Albania!
We saw 2 old men ride by on their bicycles and they were wearing black suits with starched white shirts. Go figure. Many people came out just before sunset to walk their sheep to the river for a drink. It was sort of the social hour I think We got to a big stone building and it was the local hotel. Unfortunately it was full. There was a big family of Italians partying there. But it was getting dark and we were tired, so we found room and cooked dinner on the steps of the porch.
And in the morning, we crossed the river on a bridge, although one wasn’t necessary for the almost dry river.
Now the houses were beginning to get more modern and a bigger road came in. Some tourists stopped and asked us where the immigration checkpoint was. Huh? We didn’t know about this and had entered the last 2 countries on trails with no checkpoint. We did have a stamp from the Bosnia/Montenegro border as it was a National Park and were going to try to get through with that.
When it came our turn to hand in our passports, the guy never even looked up. Just found a blank page and stamped it When we checked later, we saw that there was almost no ink on the stamp. You couldn’t read it anyway. Our worries vanished!
So now we had to go back into Montenegro for a short period and back to Albania again.
The route took us through the town of Gusinje. It was a large town by Via Dinarica standards with a huge grocery store and restaurant upstairs. Very classy place we thought and the waiter was very friendly. We ate a big breakfast (again). And then did our last section’s shopping. Last chance for gummy bears, fuel, Snickers and Ray’s pate’.
Heading out of town, we met a young couple who were from the area but had moved away. They said the reason the town was looking modern was because the young people move to the cities and work and send money back to their parents, who build bigger and better houses.
Leaving the town, we passes some fires and a swimming hole that had lots of tourists. But it was dry. Very dry. With no swimming going on there. Up and up we climbed as we were now heading up to the highest point on the whole Via Dinarica trail I believe.
We then came across a big cabin in a meadow. With signs saying it was a restaurant. OK. We can always eat. So we stopped in. But the caretaker lady said; “no food” “no drinks” “we are all out of everything” and my son took the horse into town to buy more. We said no problem, can we get some water. She told us it would be best to get it out of the spring that would be coming up in a few hundred meters up the trail. Sure enough, good cold piped water was there.
Near the top of that climb, we entered Albania again. Again it was rough. All rocks, cold. Looked like rain or snow about to start any minute.
There were supposed to be 4 or 5 lakes up here in a basin and that’s where we planned to camp. We saw a few rock climbers descending and they told us they were from Germany and had been up here or about 5 days and had did a few first ascents! Wow! They must’ve been pretty good.
They said there’s only water in one of the lakes and that’s where they camped.
When we got to the camp, the last of their party was just leaving. 2 guys who told us, they had such a great time, they were sorry to leave but it was time to head home. Oh oh. We too would be finished in a few days, but not yet! We still had the toughest yet to come.
We camped on the lake and it was cold. I built a small campfire there. It was the only time on the whole trail that we had a campfire.
That night we had a heavy frost. I had an inch or two on my tent in the morning. Now we were glad for the long underwear, fleece tops and down coats we had carried for 50 days!
Brr. We quickly broke camp to continue our climb and warmed up quickly.
Now the beauty got better yet. What great hiking up here. We did pass some folks who had camped above us and they passed us again when we stopped in the sun to dry out our tents. They were a guided group and planned to summit a nearby peak.
We passed each other a few times in the next hour or two and it was some awesome rock hopping, hiking. No trail really, just cairns to show you the best way.
Getting near the top, there were patches of snow we traversed.
THEN, the going got tough!
Rock climbing was the only way up. No trail, just GPS track showing to go up. Every once in a while, we’d see a blaze, but it was handholds and rock climbing moves. Very slow as we couldn’t afford to get hurt in here. A few times we had to take off the packs, climb and then hand them up.
I had done a bunch of rock climbing with my son so, I was enjoying it. But I didn’t get the feeling that Ray was too much. But, we both love adventure and this was some of the finest.
Then the top and looking back over what we’d just hiked. Awesome.
Now, down the other side. We figured (for some strange reason) that it would be easier than our ascent.
Wrong! It is easier rock climbing up a face than it is going down.
The most difficult hiking I’ve ever done awaited us on the other side.
Scrambling down rock faces using rock climbing moves and falling would have been disastrous a we were far away from any help. (even in these small towns we would see in the next and last few days had no hospital)
I loved it!
Challenging, steep, rocks everywhere. And after we got down the worst of the steep rock face, we had at least a mile of nothing but scree. Small stones that started a bit of an avalanche when you tried to walk on them. So, we traversed, far apart to avoid falling rocks as, of course, we had no helmets. And no water. If you see our video, (will post a link at the end of this story, this is where Ray is creating a river of rocks)
Down, down down. Till eventually, we saw a small shack.
With a yellow water container sitting outside. We yelled and yelled for someone to ask about the water and then, I opened the door a crack and looked inside. Closed it quickly. There was a man who appeared dead inside. But maybe just sleeping one off? Who knows. We didn’t look again, but we did each take a half litre of water out of his full water jug. And moved on.
Again, the trail was there sometimes and sometimes not. Still scrambling on rocks and then, all of a sudden, a better trail and people! Where did they come from?
We asked and they were hiking the “Peaks of the Balkans” trail. Well groomed, wide, beautiful trail. So, if I had it to do over again, what would I do? 1/ switch to the “Peak of the Balkans Trail” or do the dangerous, non-trail, rock face and mile of scree that was hot, dry, steep and dangerous.
Probably the steep one again as I really enjoy that stuff. And you have to if you are going to complete the entire Via Dinarica trail. But we really believe this is where they need to build some trail. Before someone gets seriously hurt
OK, now, we went down down down again. I believe our high point was 2700 meters and we dropped all the way down to about 700 I believe. A 2,000 meter downhill, mostly no trail, only rocks (that’s 6500 feet downhill)
The knees were complaining a little bit, but we kept going as there were now many bed and breakfasts along the way in the spread out town of Teth, Albania.
Still had people living off the land with their sheep and goats and animals, but you could tell the main money here was in tourism. Signs welcoming hikers, with cold drinks, food and rooms for rent.
So, we picked one and got 2 rooms for our last night on the trail.
August 24, 2017
The next day was going to be our last hiking. We woke up excited about that, but had another mountain to climb first. But this one was the Via Dinarica White Trail AND the Peaks of the Balkans Trail.
So it was very well marked, and well trodden, with snack bars and cold drinks along the climb.
At the top, there was a pass and the trail widened a bit. It was good it did as there must’ve been 20 hikers there. To them, this saddle was their goal and had beautiful views looking in all directions. They day hike up to this point from the town of Valbona, below.
We didn’t stay long as we weren’t used to people too much and the end was calling us. So, we headed down on the wide and a bit crowded trail.
Down to a big resort at the bottom and then a wide, hot, 2 lane road that would take us about 10 kms further to the official end of the trail and the end of the GPS track.
It’s quite an uneventful ending to a really awesome trail. We thought there would at least be a sign saying something about the terminus and trail. But nothing there but a small creek we forded and a nearby picnic table.
But, we had just passed a bar/restaurant/hotel. So, we retraced our steps, ordered a late lunch and had our celebratory beer!
Unfortunately, the hotel was full but they called a nearby hotel and they sent a driver over and picked us up.
52 days, 1263 kms, and full of adventurous hiking, our trail was finished.
At least for now. Plan are to extend the trail into nearby Kosovo and Macedonia.
We will go back. Not only for the beautiful mountains, full of history and great, hospital people who always made us feel at home.
People have asked me which is my favorite country that this trail passes through.
Man, that’s a tough one.
I remember at the time saying each one that we finished was now our favorite.
Yes, it was THAT GOOD!
Slovenia had it’s picturesque front yards with flowers and lush vegetable gardens and very welcoming people.
Croatia had those beautiful Adriatc sea views with quaint European towns.
Bosnia had the least amount of other hikers. Something we found just amazing as the countryside was so beautiful.
Montenegro where the mountains were getting bigger and rougher, and just beautiful and preparing us for:
Albania: Now, the trail in Albania isn’t very long. 3 or 4 days. But Wow! was it rough, and tough hiking and rocks everywhere with hardy people (and pillboxes)
I can’t pick a favorite. I’d go back to any one of them.
When they extend this trail into Kosovo and Macedonia, as planned, I will go back and hike more of this great trail for sure.
I do have 2 favorite pictures (OK 3)
Click Here for the 18-minute video we made of the hike. Enjoy!