The idea came as I passed a green road sign, fixed at the side of an asphalt road where I followed the contour curves of a huge lake, dammed in 1974 to provide hydropower. The sign pointed to a turning that was a dirt and stone track, rutted with the marks of water runoff from the steep climb and tyre tracks. Vrtibog plateau, it said, with the small picture of a walker. I looked at the map and saw that the road led up to the plateau, circular loops of contour lines showing the billowing terrain, then a path went further north, climbing steep and suddenly to the high mountains of 1800m, a roughly level arc reached round for about 20 miles, ending in the highest peak of Midžor at 2167m. It looked simple; huge but relatively straightforward. I was tempted, so tempted, but didn’t have enough food, it had been a bit hard to come by recently as I passed through villages full of empty houses and shut down shops. I wasn’t going up there with just a loaf of bread for carbo fuel.
So I came away, out of the mountains towards Niš, looking back at the snow showing on distant huge peaks, wondering if I could safely walk there, whether I should attempt it.
I’ll go back there one day, I thought, when I finish this walk I’ll plan another. There’s a mountain path that runs right through the Bulgarian Stara Planina, from the sea to the west. I could walk the length of Bulgaria and then loop into the Serbian mountains. I imagined myself coming back in ten years to walk it, maybe taking a break from writing a book to take a walking holiday, maybe in my 60s, wrinkled but still heaving a rucksack on and walking slowly. I imagined adding it to the list of future journeys, of momentous places to walk in the world that I would slowly complete. I imagined adding it to a world walk, how I would fit it into a walk from Japan to the UK, which direction I would circle around the Caspian Sea in order to include it – to approach Bulgaria from Turkey which would be easier or from Ukraine which would be preferable.
I thought about it more as I took a day of rest in Kalna, my walk from Dimitrovgrad to Ćuštica completed. I was in the house of a man who lived alone, who had converted three rooms to be a ‘vila’, the word that was ‘pension’ in Romania, rooms to rent. He drove every day to sit in his empty restaurant and wait for birthdays, weddings and summer customers, the odd friend coming in to drink coffee and smoke with him. He was quiet and I couldn’t understand his speech, slurred in an accent I’m only just coming to hear as I walk from the clearer, crisper Bulgarian into the softer sounds of Serbia. We would talk in the mornings, about where to hang my wet clothes or that there was coffee in the kitchen, he would touch my arm gently, while I was still soft and warm from sleep and I would look at him for a long time in silence, still slow to interpret his words. Not a spark of connection between us, it was an ember that neither of us blew into further life, hesitating to step outside the formality of customer and service provider.
But while I lay in my bed, staring at the ceiling which had straw stuck to it in a reminder of the animal barn it used to be, I thought about the mountains. Why would I leave it for another time? I was ten miles away from a beautiful mountain walk and I was telling myself I’d come back in the next decade, put it on my to-do list? Come on now. I’d never do it, other things would take over once I get back to Wales, there will be book writing, jobs for money, houses to maintain and friends to plan fun with. There will be a writing course in Canada, a walk from Lands End to John o Groats. Maybe there will be a child. Maybe there will be a walk around the world. There will be unexpected events that will change the course of life. Why add this mountain walk into a pool of such uncertainty and expect to pick it out later. I was here. I should do it now. Why such stubbornness about not leaving my planned route?
I knew, in a way. The fact that I walk in one direction and complete the original thing I set myself has to become the whole creation; if I deviate from the plan I increase the possibility that I will slide away from the entire thing. My stubbornness is what has made it possible to do what I’ve done so far in life, to devote myself so utterly to an unusual goal and push myself onwards to completion.
But here I was ten miles away from a mountain with a strong feeling that I should climb it.
It was an intimidating prospect, no matter how inviting. There was snow up there and I had no crampons or snow shoes, I’d posted my spikes back to the UK once I’d passed the January mountains of Romania, important to save 500g off the weight on my shoulders. There were also wolves. As I’d walked into a small village one day, I’d been accosted by a shepherd, walking his small personal flock of 12 around the outskirts of the village. He thought I’d come down from the mountains and I didn’t have the language to tell him it had only been the lake. “Oooooh ley ley ley ley” he clucked, in the noise they use to show surprise here and he mimed the bite and snap of a hungry jawed pounce, “vukoshin, vukoshin”. Wolves, the shepherd’s nemesis. I shook my stick to show how I would fight them off, ‘nema problem’ say I in my naive bravado, and we laughed at the foolishness.
This was a very remote place, the high point of the arc formed the border between Bulgaria and Serbia, any habitation nestled down in the valleys at 1000m, not facing the wind up at 2000m. I’d have phone signal, that was a plus. Once I could climb up into the free air that faced Bulgaria I’d be able to access their 4g, otherwise, in Serbia, my phone was limited to WiFi only communication. But it was still a walk not a climb, even if it was going to be a very steep walk at times.
I’d met a couple in a village back on my walk the previous week, they had the village house of their grandparents and their main apartment in the big town of Pirot. I wondered if I could go and leave some non-essential kit at their place, lighten my load for the four day trek. I contacted them, Mirjana and Vule, and they said of course! So there it was, a plan being set in motion, I only had to follow along.
Walk to Niš to ensure a couple of days of rain hit me on easy territory, then take a slow train back to Pirot, chugging along and stopping every ten minutes at small, crumbling sheds, people descending directly onto the gravel trackside, no platforms at these small village stops. Then into the hugs of Mirjana and Vule, welcomed into their 8th floor apartment in the centre of the town, looking down across the sprawl of the houses, the rises of other blocks and hotels mixed with the familiar red tiled roofs of single storey older houses, shrouded in trees. They made me feel instantly at home, pulling out the bed in the study room, where a pc stood silent. It was raining the next morning and they urged me to stay longer but I knew that I only had a few days of clear weather before more rain was forecast. We’d been to the shops, me picking out what seemed like a sparse amount of food in a small bundle on the supermarket conveyor belt, but was a set of meals for four days. Oats and instant mash for carbs, salami and tuna for protein, cucumbers and a couple of small tins of peas for the illusion of vegetables. A single avocado and a single tomato for treats. Then halva, mixed nuts for snacks. Sachets of mayo and tomato sauce for the flavour that would replace the lack of cooking. A chocolate bar per day. Two larger bottles of water; I’d carry 3 litres instead of the usual 1.5, not being certain of the water I’d find up there, snow patches or springs.
I emptied out my rucksack, putting aside the non-essential items, the second notebook, keyboard, history books, maps, spare pants, swimming costume, knitting wool, extra pens, sunglasses, boot grease; only keeping a change of clothes and my sleeping kit, as well as first aid kit, tent, phone battery and other small things. The extra food and water I was carrying made the weight back up to the usual amount, around 13kg.
I took a taxi out of the town, back to the green sign, not wanting to use a day of food and clear walking just to get to the beginning of the climb. I didn’t feel nervous any more, I’d decided now and I was just going to do it. “Will there be wolves up there?” I’d asked Vule the night before, through the phone translator. “Yes, where there are sheep there are wolves” “But will they attack me?” “No. Man is the worst animal”
The rain was over but there was mist on the hilltops that I could see from the town centre, I tried to estimate their height, imagine what it might be like up at height, on the arc. I had at least a day of climbing ahead, to get me from 770m up to the plateau at 1500m and then a steep ascent to 1900m, before another 20 miles of walking at height, around the peaks, undulating between 1800m and up to the final peak of Midžor at 2167.
Nothing to do but get on with it, and I heaved my bag onto my shoulders and set out to walk.
There was a track to follow for my long slow climb, something I could always follow by my GPS and get the joy of always knowing exactly where I was, my altitude and exactly how much further I had to climb.
The lake grew smaller below me and I eventually came up onto the plateau, more unclear than I’d imagined, I couldn’t see far ahead to the higher climbs, not knowing yet whether they were misty, I stayed in the grasses and the scrubby trees, winding my track to follow what sometimes showed tyre marks and sometimes reduced to path. Suddenly I heard the noise of bells and looked up to see cows. Cows! Here at 1500m! They were young, silhouetted above me, moving across the skyline. I went closer and saw the man with them, waited for him to come towards me, his clothes were stained with layers of filth to a shiny black and he carried a bag over his shoulder, hooking a great thumb into the handle loop to hold it, his fingers and nails ingrained with grime. He was a younger man than the usual pensionable shepherds I see, with a woollen hat pulled low down over a gnomish face that bore scabs and signs of sun damage; talkative, although I understood little after I had asked him where his dogs were. He had none with him, just the man and 20 cows, climbing up here every day from the village of Gostuša, far down below to the west of us. He had three dogs but they were down in the village. I asked about wolves, no he wasn’t bothered about wolves. Were they only here in daylight perhaps, or was I scared of nothing?
I told him I was going to Midžor and he pointed to the huge rump of land that aligned to the east of us to show me the snow on top of it. It wasn’t a thick coating, more like a dusting, speckled with thicker white patches, like the broad back of a Frieisan cow. Just as I’d seen when I was looking back from my safe passage towards Kalna, making me feel like it might not be so bad up there, might be manageable. He wanted to talk more but I left him there, moved away to a valley head where I found a small spring, most of the ground was cow trodden but right up against the hillside a pipe trickled water onto the ground and I could jam a bottle underneath it. I drank a full litre, not knowing when the next replenishment would be. Climbing further up, small steps in long wiry grass, I came to the ruin of a building, a summer shelter for animals and humans. The walls were about a metre high, showing two rooms, there was cow shit amongst the stones in one place but not the other, where a huge stone sat in one corner and above it, wedged triangular to the corner, were pieces of wood and stone laid to make a tiny roof, large enough for one person to sit under and shelter from rain. I sat there for a while, imagined the silence of entire days spent with the cows and your own thoughts. Did he have a book, in that bag? Did he have a knife, to work at wood? Did he spend the entire day in the beatific state of zen nothingness? Being a person who requires regular distraction from her negative thought spirals and is also addicted to her smartphone, the shepherd’s inner life is a mystery. Maybe I should try it some day.
I wedged a portion of halva into the stone wall, plastic blue wrapping clearly visible, hoped he’d see it and eat it, a small sweet thing melting in his body heat, a softness where the wind blew hard.
I was still on the plateau in late afternoon, judging it better to be slow and not start climbing the steepness to the upper levels, find somewhere to camp here. The wind was blowing hard but at least it meant there was still no mist and I could navigate clearly. I passed my first snow patches, on the northern slopes where the ground waved gently up and down. As well as the large patches, there were small pellets of snow nestled down in pockets of grass, the remnants of a covering, but also the beginning of colder places. I wondered where I was going to sleep, there were no corners out of the wind but that was solved when, far down in a dip, the final flat place before the climb, there were buildings. Two ruins, one with a rebuilt makeshift roof of young pine trunks and plastic. I didn’t want to go in, everything was full of rubbish, a rusting wood stove outside, scattered stone and metal, a set of roofing sheets lent against one wall, but I could go around the back and set my tent in partial protection against the wind. A flickering fear of wolves came as I settled to sleep, unknown rustles sparking my imagination but, as the wind dropped, I was soon calmed in the utter silence of the dark.
The next day, oats and halva and banana for breakfast, no wind and the beginnings of a blue sky. Perfect, it was time to go up.
Snow patches became more frequent as I climbed and I couldn’t avoid walking through them. I started to see animal tracks, the most exciting part of my journey so far. Preserved, here was the record of all the animals that had crossed this earth recently, in I knew not how long, months perhaps, certainly weeks. The first I saw was badger, strong claw marks in an even line. There were hare, in an unusual triangle of holes with a single trailing imprint. There were many deer. I wondered if I could see the difference between deer and boar. Not without later googling it turns out. But now I know that I saw deer that day and the differences between deer and boar prints are subtle but clear once you know them.
I was waiting for the cat prints that would be lynx, for the dog prints that would be wolf. Eventually, higher up, I saw both. Single lines of solitary animals, loping, pacing, trailing their way over the land, looking for food, living, hunting. Up to 1900m where there was a small picnic shelter (this is no wild remote land here, it’s a Serbian tourist destination) and down again, now slipping up to knee deep in thick snow drifts on the north side as the track wound downhill towards pine forests and a pass between peaks. Snow here was speckled with pine needles, sometimes frozen hard so I could step onto it and sometimes unexpectedly soft so I’d sink down and have to catch myself with walking poles, working my thigh muscles unexpectedly hard. Crocus began at the pass, where a small pond caught the snowmelt that was trickling from every slope. Mountains are full of water, they catch it from the air every night, sending it back towards the sea.
I climbed again and here now was my first sight of Midžor, seemingly far away but still looming large, a gauze of snow on the entire peak, it was high enough there to turn the overnight rain that had smacked against my tent at 5am to snow.
I thought I could get over there that day but really I should have expected the slowness that comes of walking at such height – the panting steps of climbing hillsides, the illusion of mountains clear in the air at a touchable distance that is really many miles, the difficulty of stumbling feet on lumps of grass or finding stone footholds.
Another obstacle presented itself once I’d climbed to the beginning of the huge arc of high peaks that curved away in a semicircle towards Midžor. I wouldn’t climb each peak, they formed the border between Bulgaria and Serbia and paths either side stayed away from the border itself, encouraging walkers on the Serbian side to stay at a line 20m below the heights, winding in and out of the ripples of grassy slope at a roughly similar contour. I clambered through the low lying bushes to find the path, having moved off it to admire the view from an outcrop of rock. I gasped when I saw where I had to go next. The path dropped down slightly onto a north facing stretch and there was a huge swathe of snow, stretching hundreds of metres up and down the steep side. It was only 20 or 30 metres across to where the grass started poking through the snow again but it was smooth and incredibly steep, cliffs up to the right of me and a steep slope dropping down a couple of hundred metres to my left, nothing to break my fall, just snow and small bushes, right down to tiny pine trees deep in the valley. I’d been walking for 24 hours to reach this point, I couldn’t go back and find another way, I could climb the cliffs to my right but there’d be snow on every north slope I needed to cover. Twenty metres was a short enough stretch for me to attempt it. I took a deep breath and stepped onto the snow, stopping after a couple of steps to breathe through a sudden rise of fear. If I slipped and fell it really would be broken bones. The crust of the snow was frozen with a softer layer underneath. I had to concentrate for every step, not let my attention slip, drive my walking poles down, kick a foothold two or three kicks with every step, place my foot solidly, make sure I was balanced on 3 points before moving the fourth. Clumps of snow rolled away from each kick, mostly rolling down, gathering pace and skittering to crystals on the frozen slope. I kept my head down, focused on the snow at my feet, not allowing myself to look around wildly and lose balance, not allowing myself to stare for too long at the drop. Safely done, I stepped onto the grass, the snow still on the slope above me but with a nice line at the edge of the flat path that I could walk along. I turned to look at the line of footsteps marking my descent from the rocks above, not so agile as the deer.
It wasn’t the only snow slope. I walked miles that afternoon and every time I turned a ripple of the slope there would be a snow field covering the path in an unbroken diagonal, my thighs trembled as I held the weight of each kick, the snow absorbing much more muscle force than solid ground. Each time I told myself to remain steady, to concentrate. I couldn’t start doing this on autopilot, I had to laser my focus on each step, stay present.
The crocuses grew thickly here, covering the path that was gouged out of the rockside, maybe for a much older border patrol route. They were beautiful, a purple haze of colour stretching away from me, marking my route ahead.
It was clear that I wouldn’t make the final summit that day, nowhere near. I checked the forecast, fine today and tomorrow morning but showers and thunderstorms for the pm. Needed to be down off the highest point in the area before the lightening started didn’t I.
I set my mind to walk until the last 20 minutes before sunset at 19.30, noted a point I might reach on the map, but suddenly, when I came to a ruin of a building at a flat point that jutted out from the slope, I had to stop. My eyes felt strange, a flickering of light in them when I looked at the snow. I put the tent up and very much needed to collapse onto the bed, my head hurting. Dammit, I thought, and dragged myself up for a wee, checking the colour for dehydration. Good colour, I was well hydrated. So what then, why the headache. Brightness of snow glare perhaps, a step away from snow blindness. Dammit. I’d momentarily glanced at the sunglasses I never wear as I’d taken them out of my pack down in Pirot. Normally my cap is enough to stop my eyes from getting dazzled. Fool. I should have considered the light reflecting off the snow. I felt sick, found myself passing out but struggled to consciousness and took a painkiller, ate a banana to line my stomach, lying down to chew it as nausea churned. That was it, I pulled myself into the sleeping bag and slept for 11 hours. I missed a meal which wasn’t great but I still have the fat reserves to handle calorie fluctuation, even if they have steadily diminished over the last seven months of walking!
Fortunately I woke up the next morning feeling fine. Although I had food and water reserves, plus the ability to call for help just a short crawl away to the Bulgarian side of the mountain (or even on this side if I wanted to pay huge amounts of money to my phone company), I was very glad not to have to test myself that way.
So there it was, more of the same, all the way to the top. I felt a momentary flickering of fear as I stepped onto the first snow patch but brought myself to focus again. I knew I could do this, as long as I concentrated. The hill was a little less steep here, yesterday had been the worst section. I tried not to stare at the snow today, kept my eyes narrowed against the brightness, looked down at my shadow when it was absolutely necessary to watch my feet.
The crocuses grew thicker and I saw the slopes ahead tinged with a gentle purple. There were clouds in the sky and a white haze in the air but the sun still shone warm on me. I stalked bumblebees for a while, as they hummed happily in the crocus flowers, diving into the bottom of each bloom, just their back legs and bum visible, coming up from their sweet supping covered in pollen and perching on petal edge to clean themselves, scraping legs against head in an all over body shimmer before lightly flying to the next flower, more a long levitating hop than a flight, so thickly did the flowers crowd together. Once they sensed me waiting there, an unknown threat, the lump of my black camera intruding into their consciousness, they flew higher from the flower, weaving away into the air and towards another patch, safely away from this unusual colour and smell. Butterflies were up here too, just a few, too far away for me to see anything but their movement. Larks sang in the air above me, startled up from the ground to sound an alarm. It was a silent mountain, on the whole, I felt no singing from the ground, no sense of the presence of the land. Maybe it was speaking in a foreign language, a way I couldn’t interpret, not the same as my Welsh earth.
I heard the sounding of bells and looked down, far below me to see the small dots of horses grazing on the slopes leading up the the peak. I was close now, just a final 150m to climb. Small steps, stopping often, looking back along the entire semicircle of mountains, my first peak far away in the distance now, a white haze obscuring the details, just the snow glowing white to mark it out. Eventually I was there, hoof prints in the final snow patches as I hauled myself to the top, a thick blanket of snow falling away from the on the northern descent.
I may have been the first human of the year to walk this path to Midžor but the horses and the hares had been there before me.
I didn’t spend long at the summit, or feel too exhilarated. The experience had stretched so long this time, over two days just to climb up there that the excitement had dimmed and it felt normal. A few pictures and a video and then start the direction towards home. I saw human prints now, this was the easy access to the mountaintop, only five miles to the nearest car track, which was at a ski slope. There was a hotel there, maybe I could even get a coffee, use an inside toilet. Such luxury!
I passed other walkers on my way down, a family in tracksuits and trainers, come up early for the orthodox Easter weekend. I smiled to myself, thinking I was so wild and remote.
Eventually at the hotel I could go inside and claim my coffee, the waiter tried to usher me outside onto the terrace and when I went to the toilet I understood why – hair sticking straight up in the air from the grease and the wind, plus smeared remnants of suncream on my cheeks. I tidied myself up as best I could but still apologised as I left, for the many crumbs of earth I left scattered on the floor by my seat.
To the woods then, for a night of camping with the loud crashes and barks of deer nearby before waking up on day four to walk a final ten miles to the road, storms had held off but still threatening.
There is much forest in the foothills of the Stara Planina, I followed a thin 4×4 track that took the crest of many hills downwards. It was marked on the map as a road under construction but was many years away from any more than tentative jeep passage and eventually, as usual, I lost the track in the chaos of an area of felled beech wood and found myself pushing aside branches and descending the hillside at random, fortunately without too many spiky tendrils to restrain me, and holding onto a tree trunk to lower myself the final two metres onto a red earthen road, hazy and humid in the sunshine.
I stopped for lunch, my final planned meal before the food ran out to emergency dregs, exactly as hoped for, and took a short sleep by the side of the track, tired from the uncertain descent of the hill.
I was sticky and dirty, my hands smelt of tadpoles and algae where I’d scooped a dehydrated bundle of goo from a dry puddle and transported it to the next piece of water, hoping that a few remained still living. The leaves around me were the bright lime green of fresh growth and butterflies flickered nearby. There were many different species, peacock, tortoiseshell, cabbage white were easily identified. Then came a black and white striped one that I called the African queen, but might be a swallowtail (but without a proper list of Serbian butterflies I can’t be sure). There were smaller butterflies, blues and browns and oranges. The Stara Planina is a butterfly haven.
The final highlight of the track to the road, which was fast becoming a trudge with diminishing water in the heavy heat, were pigs! I saw a dark squat animal on the track ahead of me, at first thinking it was a bear, still attuned to the fears of the wild mountains, but no, the creature snorted in alarm and the shape morphed for me into a barrel roundness of a boar, long mellowness of its hairy snout. There were a few of them and they squeaked and crashed down the hillside away from me, a few waiting, poised, for me to appear again before confirming that yes, this terrible creature was coming their way and they should definitely run away. The beginning of each movement was accompanied by a clear pig snort. ‘So that’s how I shall know you’ I thought, to distinguish you from other crashing animals. The muddiness of the puddles in the road took on a new meaning, it wasn’t the passage of vehicles but the rooting of pigs. This was confirmed when, further on, the puddle water was still and clear enough for me to watch the tadpoles again, newly hatched and still small enough to turn around feed from the gel of their egg coating.
I groaned at the final hill, a slow and trudging ascent in the sunshine, then resented the final long stretch to the road, which I could see empty in the distance. I had to hitch back to Pirot, where my friends awaited with open hearts but it was Good Friday, how many cars would be on the road? I looked for traffic every time it came within view and every time it was bare. Fortunately though, almost as soon as I came to the tarmac and crashed my rucksack to the ground, panting and sweaty, a car stopped for me. A happy family, man and woman in the front and older grandmother in the back, headscarfed and smiling, squeezing my arm in chuckles, pretending to have heart palpitations when I said I’d come down from the mountain, telling me I should get a good Serbian man who worked hard, I could even have her son in law. They passed me a bottle of water and I gulped greedily, my own stash reduced to the final centimetre. Then, when we reached a shop, they pulled over and bought everyone in the car a beer. Folk music played, an echoing melodramatic tremble of male voice, with trilling trumpet or fast violin accompaniment and the grandmother raised her arm in the air as she sang along. I looked out of the window, sipping the cold beer and smiled, happy.
During this journey I’m raising funds for Target Ovarian Cancer – my own cancer 7 years ago led to the realisation that ovarian cancer is not diagnosed in many women until an advanced stage and British charity Target Ovarian Cancer do their best to improve early diagnosis, fund life-saving research and provide much-needed support to women with ovarian cancer. If you’d like to donate, click here. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/onewomanwalkseurope