There was an intriguing lump of land that lay northwest of Niš, a strong patch of green on a white map, roads seemed to creep up the sides but none connected to each other, there was no way to climb then cross from east to west.
I wondered whether I should venture there or take the more direct low lying option but what am I walking for, to make fast progress or to have good experiences? I chose the experiences and traced a path that would take me from the centre of the big city out to the agricultural lands and then up to the high places.
It took five miles before I saw my first tractor. Five miles of of the city on pavements, then roadside then dirt track alongside river; from glamorous cafes with WiFi, a range of coffee options on a bilingual menu, beautiful waitresses swishing their slick ponytails as they marched outside to the cushioned seats under patio umbrellas, five miles to reach a set of planks balanced on empty beer crates outside the only shop in the village, a low table sticky with spilt beer and a fine dust of cigarette ash, where a group of men with work-thickened fingers and tatty clothing drank beer and joked with each other. One elderly gent came shuffling in on crutches, holding out a 100 dinar note for the shop owner to come and deliver his beer but they were busy bringing in a potato delivery, using a single potato as the carry handle of the net bags. Do you know any English? one called across to another, as I sat between them with my array of drinks, yoghurt, juice and water. No, he replied, then called out all the English he knew. Fuck. Fuck you. I gave him a sideways smile, acknowledging the attempt.
After a night in a cherry orchard, rows of trees with a nice space for tents in between them, I had a very slow day. I hadn’t really looked after myself properly in Niš, hadn’t really stretched my body or eaten good food, and I felt very low in energy.
Fate allowed for my slow progress by allowing a series of random interactions; I stopped outside a shop for a sit down, thinking that it was closed and that I’d drink my water before asking at the house opposite for a refill. It turned out the shop was open and all I had to do was ring the doorbell. I was invited inside for a coffee, which included a shot of rakia, then a full meal was laid out. The woman of the couple called her niece to come and help translate, up from Niš for a Sunday visit. Once I’d said goodbye and walked a short two miles to the next village the brother was waiting for me and I got invited in all over again, this time I refused all food and just stayed for another coffee. As they walked me down to the road and we said goodbye outside the village shop, people were calling out to me from their seats out front, inviting me to a beer. This is Serbia, where hospitality is strong.
Eventually I could progress further, coming to the final village in a string of small roads that lay along the base of the mountain, where forest rose up from the wide plain that led away from Niš, and was able to walk up away from the houses and into the trees. It had rained all night and into the morning, keeping me in the tent until 11am, happy to read my book in the comfort of my bed for a while; the wetness of the earth meant that the forest was humid. Wetness dripped from me in the effort of climbing the hill, a steep and winding earthen track to follow, the thickness of lush forest around me, mosses and leaf mulch. There were salamanders on the track, I would startle to see them immediately at my feet, the brightness of their yellow blotches shouting poison! They would ponderously slide away from me with a complete lack of urgency, their pudgy feet scraped at the earth to move themselves a few feet to safety. A dog whiffled at me from behind, then ran past in a light flickering motion. It was in its element, the liquid sway of a hunting dog, the wide perception of its surroundings coming through nose not eyes. I heard voices far below me and hastened as much as I could, not really wanting to meet anyone here. It worked, or they took another path, one of many tyre marked tracks through these hills, diverging for hunting and harvesting.
Boar prints were here, higgledy, large and small. The occasional canine print that I hoped were all dog and no wolf. They’d warned me of wolves, down in the village below, as they always do. The spectre of the wild haunts every rural imagination.
Rain spots flickered a little, enough to take the temperature down a little. I came to a plateau at 800m, where the trees thinned a little to meadow, a profusion of plants crowding the grasses. I was in cloud now, white and misty; not enough to impede navigation but just the right amount to make everything feel dangerous and uncertain. I thought of Jurassic Park, and my surroundings became a filmset forest, where dinosaurs stalked, or UFOs landed. I turned occasionally, wanting to see pigs on the track behind me, or a wolf glimmering into view, half shrouded. Nothing came, I saw no animals here, just the echoing calls of cuckoos.
Long grass would flatten down to become a bed, but it was as dusk fell that I made a terrible mistake. Shoving my rucksack awkwardly into the head of my tent, where it would act as height booster for my pillow, I heard a sharp crack. I’d snapped a tent pole where the bag had caught on the inner tent door and pulled the tent at an awkward angle. Oh dammmmmmmmm. The tent lay flat in a crumpled heap. I tried a couple of ineffectual splints before finally removing the cross piece of the tent and taping it to the broken stretch. It meant that my tent hung saggy and thin, with no ability to sit up without fabric brushing against my face and if hard wind came it would fill like a balloon, but I could sleep in there and that was all I needed in that moment.
Two days walk until I reached a town, which was too small to sell me a tent. I parsed through my options – live with saggy tent, go to a bigger city and find any tent as a replacement, stop in one place and wait while I source replacement poles from the UK. I could pack the tent up but it left vulnerable carbon poles sticking up from the rucksack like an antenna, waiting to catch on low hanging branches.
No matter what the future held, I was in the middle of a mountain range and nowhere to go but up to the peak. It rained that day, all day, through the cloud and mist. I ate a big meal early on, sitting down on a fallen pine trunk, emptying the goo out of a tin of kidney beans and mixing in tomato paste and cream cheese, chunks of salami. It felt good in my stomach, gentle carbs providing slow power for my day of trudging up and up, climbing on wet earthen tracks, avoiding the water trickles that ran in deepening tyre ruts. There were regular springs on this mountain, although not always accessible from the track, and when I came to one at a road, where the track crossed from left to right before the final long climb to the three biggest peaks, I stopped for lunch. Lunch of sorts, I tend to snack during the day and eat two big meals in morning and evening. This was more salami, then a mix of nuts and fruit, a piece of halva and a chocolate bar. All washed down with a litre and a half of spring water, as if I were a camel who could store hydration for the uncertain water access ahead.
The rain continued, although softer now, and I continued upwards, singing to myself, in between replaying the plot of Jurassic Park in my internal entertainment system. The rain became more substantial and I glanced down at my black jumper. “That’s snow” I had to repeat it a couple of times. It was snowing here in the forest, up at 1200m. Tiny flakes which melted immediately but here it was snow and I had a broken tent.
I decided to cut through the trees along a long grown over track, in order to miss out a huge loop of road. It was a gamble, as the track could have disappeared at any moment, as is so often my experience. I knocked with my sticks against every overhanging branch that speared into my path, trying to remove the water beads that illuminated each budding tip. Eventually the track disappeared and I came into an area of shorter meadowland, the cloud was thicker here and I could hardly see 20m ahead. A building loomed and I immediately headed for it. If I could sleep here it would be better than the tent. It was, but only just. An open doored shed, with another huge window, on a cracked concrete floor with earth gathered in one corner where the wind didn’t blow and a single plank bench along the rear. I sat there for a short time but needed to move quickly to secure my body heat. Change clothes, the first time on this journey I’ve needed to do so, then lay out bed, fire up handwarmer and place in centre of back, get into sleeping bag and pull it high up around your torso, prepare food, eat, lie down. My rucksack was too wet to make a pillow so I left it up on the bench. There were field mice in my hut, openly skittering in and out of view, peeking at me from corners. Another reason to keep everything up on the bench, at least nominally out of mouse reach. Instead of the rucksack, I pulled a small concrete block to put under my tiny travel pillow. It was only six thirty pm but I drifted into a half sleep, tired from a day of battling rain. It was too cold to sleep properly though, I could feel my body heat shrunken down into the centre of my body, very little of it emanating to warm up the feather insulation. It was my handwarmer that saved me that night, from hypothermia. The wind started to blow hard outside and it whipped around inside the shed, hitting my face with cold air and making it harder to warm myself. I placed my boots against the wall near my head, to block the drafts that were coming through the gaps where wall sat unevenly on stone, and pulled the mesh of the bivvy bag up to cover my face. It was the best I could do and I managed an uneven sleep, even though parts of me stayed cold all night.
The coldest part of the night was 4am, but once it came light I could sleep a final hour or so, before waking properly at 7am. I felt upwards for my glasses and gasped. They were iced over. I brought them into my bag to thaw, rubbed them clean and looked around me. Everything I’d left on the bench overnight was covered in ice, windblown crystals that showed the force of the gusts which had brought them there. Worse still, everything was covered in ice and earth, blown up from the corner and whirled into a fine coating over every single thing I’d left uncovered, including the corners of my pillow and the outer layer of my sleeping bag. I felt filthy, and did my best to wipe it all down with a piece of cloth as I packed away, pausing regularly to flex feeling back into my numb fingers. The world outside was very different, a gloom of white mist with the cloud thickening and thinning as the wind blew. Everything was covered in ice shards, showing the wind direction in the way they reached out behind every grass blade. I was cold, my feet were numb from being pushed into frozen boots, the laces too solid to pull tight. I picked my jacket from a nail on the wall, hung there wet in the evening it was now a solid sheet and I shook it before pushing my arms inside. I was wearing all my clothing but needed a barrier against the wind and this was all there was. I paced a while inside the hut but breakfast eaten, wee made, everything packed away, there was nothing left to do but step out into the wind. I left a small pile of oats for the mice, playing tag around my edges, today would be a hard forage otherwise.
Over the meadow and towards the road which lay on the other side, according to my GPS. But…what’s this? Another building. A small cabin, door and two windows, more solid, house like. Children’s playground equipment outside, sparse and rusting. I stepped onto the covered porch and tried the door. It opened. I stepped inside and saw four beds, with foam mattresses, and a wood burner. What. The. Fuck. I’m used to random wilderness cabins but they are always, in my experience, padlocked shut. An open cabin, 50m from where I’d spent the night shivering. I laughed for a long time, the kind of hilarity that is made all the funnier by the fact that it’s not funny at all.
A couple of minutes to photograph the interior and then I had a decision to make. I didn’t want to walk further in this wind, I was cold every time it blew. I knew I’d warm up after walking a while but right now my feet and fingers were numb and it was 3 miles to the highest point. What would I see when I got there? I could be at the highest point right now, I thought, and looked out at what I could see of the white meadow, trees faintly visible. It was underwhelming. Why do I need to get to the highest point, I thought, what does it achieve, apart from saying you did it. It would be three hours walking in freezing wind when I had low body heat to begin with. No, I thought, not this time, and turned left on the track, walking downwards towards the valleys.
It took half an hour to get out of the wind and an hour to get out of the cloud. It took about 45 minutes for my fingers to feel better and about four hours before my whole body felt warm again. I plodded downwards through the forest, stopping often to stretch out my cramped legs, very tight hamstrings and calves. Eventually I came to the cherry orchards which were the signs of human cultivation and could look for the first village and the beginning of an asphalt trail to the nearest town.
I got invited in for coffee in one small cluster of houses, a friendly set of neighbours gathering around one table to quiz me about my walking. They were kind and smiley, as so often. The man was a fruit farmer and he listed all his crops – apple, cherry, plum, raspberry, strawberry. For juice, he told me. They all told me to avoid Kosovo, as has happened so often in recent conversations. I’m getting closer to the disputed border. I told them the story of my tent and one guy asked to look at it, we all trooped out into the garden, the old lady shouting at her chickens to get back in the yard (successfully, I might add). The two men started rummaging for different solutions, one focusing on an internal split and the other thinking of an external bandage. Bandage man came back first, with a piece of hosepipe. Together they rammed it over the tent pole and voila, it’s not perfect but my tent is now only slightly saggy. I still have the dangerous antenna to think about as I squeeze under branches but hopefully I can arrange a replacement during my visit to the UK in June and this will do until then.
Crisis averted and the sun came out for my final asphalt trudge to town, heading for a much needed hotel room and a serious scrubbing of both kit and body together.
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