Exploring Eastern Montenegro’s Mountains on Foot

January 20, 2011

This is a guest contribution for http://www.travelwithpapino.com/ recounting a story from Summer 2009.

Our trip started in Biogradska Gora National Park, a little south of Mojkovac in Eastern Montenegro. It was slated to be about seven days from there to Kučka Krajina with a few day trips in between. First, southeast from Biogradska Gora, then saddling the border with Albania southwest until Veruša. The national park has some pretty modern facilities for camping close to Biogradsko Jezero. There is quite a bit of tourist traffic to the area during the day, so they even have a restaurant and souvenir shop. We chose to set up our tents a ways up the hill, out of sight from the rest of the grounds. We spent two days camped there, each day going into Mojkovac to gather supplies. Our expectations of Mojkovac were slightly optimistic, it’s little more than a small town with a few shops. It did, however, afford us basic food materials like dried meat and peanuts, which was essentially the corpus of our diet for the seven days in the mountains.

We got an early start out of the campground and headed up the switchback road to the east that leads up to a few settlements in northern Bjelasica. The Bjelasica mountain range was to be our general path for the first several days, leading us to Komovi, near the border with Albania. The most difficult part of the day was definitely the climb up the seemingly-never-ending switchbacks. Once we reached the top, it was a leisurely and beautiful walk along the high ground. What looked to be a day’s journey on paper was surmounted fairly easily by early afternoon, so we chose to pass up a good-looking tent site at Šiško Jezero and push on. The day was starting to wear thin, so we kept our site-identifying eyes open. Nothing near the trail was looking particularly good, so we dropped our bags and ventured off a bit in search of some flat land. There was a large hill to the right of the trail, up the hill a bit was a promising looking dip that both shielded us from view of the trail as well as protected us from the westerly wind. We lugged our gear up there and pitched the tents. There were some ominous-looking clouds on the horizon that were being carried with shocking speed in our direction, so we cracked open our much-needed peanuts and meat. Rain in Montenegro tends to be either torrential or non-existent, so I knew what we were in for. At the first sprinkle we leapt into our respective tents to wait out the deluge. The sky certainly opened up, with rain pouring in unbelievable amounts accompanied by a cacophonous thunderstorm. As suddenly as it had started, it stopped. We heard whoops and cries off in the distance growing nearer, a few local boys on horseback rode up to our site, invariably interested in the signs of foreigners. We spoke briefly about where we were from and things of such merit, they left us be to get an early night’s sleep in preparation for our second day.

About mid day on our second day we came to a crossing with a country road. A bit down the road was a big wooden A-frame where a man made food to be sold. It had only been a few days of camping, but we were certainly in the mood for something warm, or least something not peanuts and dried meat. We got a few local specialties, and of course, the guy broke out the homemade borovnica (brandy made from blueberries — a common spirit in the mountainous portions of Montenegro)… the rakija flowed freely for a few hours, and we were quite drunk by the time we convinced him we had to leave. Unfortunately the next portion of our trip was a difficult one. It was back up out of the valley which held the road and onto high ground again, and then onward to Štavna, the ridge leading up to Komovi. After a wobbly and unsettling 10 or so kilometers, we made it to the beginning of Štavna. There were a few katuni (mountain huts frequently-encountered in the Balkans) marking the area, and there was even a little shack which sold snacks and had a few cans of beer under the table. We picked a spot to pitch our tents in the shadow of Kom Vasojevićki, the peak I was to hike the next day. Fortunately there was a spring nearby, because our water supply was entirely out and our hung over bodies were badly in need of some water. We refilled our water and waited for somebody willing to sell us beer to come open up the shack/shop. It was a good few hours before that happened, but the hours following were considerably easier. Again, the clouds came rolling in and unleashed a considerable downpour. We stayed in our tents for the rest of the night and caught up on reading.

The next day we awoke at a reasonable hour. I planned my route up Kom Vasojevićki, Taylor’s feet were badly-banged-up due to the shoes he was wearing, so he sat this one out. It was a pretty tough ascent, and the way was littered with tombstones for unfortunate climbers who had fallen to their deaths (there were quite a few vertical drops fairly close to the trail, and extremely high winds near the top). The weather was a bit capricious that morning and I was really hoping I could avoid another rainstorm like the night before. Sure enough, as I neared the top, the clouds and thick fog gave way to a beautiful blue sky. The summit imparted some spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. There was a metal ammunition box at the peak which contained, among other things, a small flask of rakija and a signing book. I took a swig of the rakija, signed the book, and pondered my existence for a good few hours while taking in the amazing scenery. Taylor was catching up on the details of the route ahead when I got back. We scraped together the remaining money we had (we didn’t bring much considering we were going to be out in the middle of nowhere) and spent it on more beer. This time, the rain hit when we were at the shack. We were invited in with the locals and had a raucous and drunken time exchanging stories.

The next day we got our things together fairly early and plotted our course between the mountains of Komovi. This was probably the most challenging day of the hike, there were a lot of tough ascents and a fair bit of trekking deep into dead-end valleys. We reached our highest point by mid day and began to descend and follow a fairly well-established trail. Our knees were punished by the end of that, and paused for a break at a small church isolated in the mountains. We continued on to a confusing crossroads, one which wasn’t very well-covered by our maps. We spent several hours walking down each fork until we were convinced it wasn’t the right one, then turning back and starting all over again at the crossroads. There was a katun several kilometers down one trail, out in front of which the inhabitant was sitting. I asked where Maglič (a fairly well-known peak which could get us on our way) was. He said he didn’t know, but mentioned an old shepherd on the other side of the crossroads who would certainly know. He accompanied us in that direction. We spotted the man and his flock of sheep up a switchback leading the other direction. Our friend called out to him repeatedly across the ravine at the top of his lungs: “Koji put za Maglič?” The old shepherd came down, he was toothless and missing a few fingers with a rifle slung on his shoulder, he was carrying a piglet. I had little luck understanding his particularly strange dialect of Serbian — he apparently had lived in that same place his entire life — but after much pointing we were able to discern which peak was Maglič. He told us about an old shepherd’s path which led a more direct, if relatively unused, path to our destination. The path led us several kilometers through a dense forest and promptly disappeared. After much searching and consulting our topo map, we concluded (shakily) that we were meant to cross a rocky clearing and ascend a steep slope. We spotted remnants of our not-so-trusty shepherd’s trail several times along the slope which made us slightly more confident in our chosen route. The slope abruptly evened out to a shelf on the side of a ridge that held the CT1, Montenegro’s main hiking trail (although you couldn’t tell, by the look of it). After a few kilometers of flat along the shelf (with a very threatening drop to our left), we made it to Maglič and immediately set up camp off the trail a ways next to a gulley. The day had gotten to us and we were ready for some food and a good rest.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of passersby on the trail, locals I presumed. I stepped out of my tent and greeted them. We exchanged pleasantries and they asked where we were headed, and if we knew how to get there. Friendly fellows, they were. I confirmed and they went along their way. We packed up our gear and headed down the side of Maglič, we passed a few katuni on the way down, a dirt road led down from them which we followed. The dirt road met up with several other paved roads at the bottom of the valley, this is were things started getting really confusing. None of the roads showed up on our maps, we really hadn’t the slightest idea where we were supposed to go to get to our final destination of Bukumirsko Jezero. We ended up flagging down a few cars and asking directions, eventually we sorted ourselves out and headed off in the right direction. We had to follow a switchback dirt road up and over one of the walls of the valley. At the top we saw Bukumirsko off in the distance. On the other side of the ridge we split off from the road and followed a trail back into Kučka Krajina, which is essentially a dead-end valley surrounded by high mountains. We found a spring and some nice, flat ground next to a forest on the west side of the valley, it was nicely secluded from the rest of the valley up on a bank. We spent the rest of the day lazing around the surrounding fields and relaxing.

We had a leisurely start the next day and headed off in what we though was the direction of Veruša, a small town where we could catch some sort of transport into Podgorica and then on down to Petrovac (where part of my family is from). We knew Veruša was 12 kilometers from Bukumirsko Jezero. After we had walked about 18 kilometers, I asked an old man on the side of the road where Veruša was. He pointed back in the direction we came, he said it was about 30 kilometers that way. Great, so we just walked 18 kilometers in the wrong direction. I asked what lay in the direction we were heading, he said Podgorica, but it was another 40 kilometers. Taylor and I stepped up the pace considerably and concluded that we’d make it all the way to Podgorica by foot if we had to, but that we’d hitchhike in either direction. After a few more kilometers we ended up narrowly convincing a man in a van to give us a lift back to Bukumirsko Jezero, the man was visibly put-off by the fact that we had no cigarettes, but he grudgingly motioned for us into the back of the van. The ride was bumpy on that old suspension, but it was better than walking 40 kilometers. We confirmed from the driver after he let us out which direction Veruša actually was, and headed off again. After all that, the 12 kilometers seemed more like 30, but eventually we made it. It turned out that there were two buses from Veruša to Podgorica per day and we had just missed the last one. We made our way out to the main road and stuck out our thumbs. About an hour went by before somebody stopped and offered us a ride, his car was small but we squeezed in. He was a nice guy in his late 20s on his was back home (Podgorica) from his uncle’s house. He stopped on the way and picked up a few beers (insisted on paying as well), cracked them open and continued driving. The scenery along the way was beautiful, and you couldn’t have asked for better weather. He dropped us off in Podgorica and we made our way to the bus station. First things first, we picked up a couple burek from the shop in the bus station. Never in my life has bus station burek tasted so good… that was clearly just because I’d been living off dried meat and peanuts for the past week.

We hopped on the next bus to Petrovac, and boy was the coast a beautiful sight.

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