I got into trouble about a day after I left Mojkovac. It had been normal until that point; I struggled up a huge hill directly on the banks of the river that wound from the south of the town to the west. I could follow the road if I wanted, take a direct 66km route to Zabljak, the gateway to Durmitor National Park that I was on my way towards. But no, I’d take the mountain path. I’m following an official route now, called the Via Dinarica. It stretches from Slovenia down to Macedonia and I finally picked it up last week. It means there are markings on the ground for me to follow, red and white flashes painted onto rocks and trees, occasional signs with distances to landmarks. I can also download a gpx route onto my map and know exactly where I am in relation to a thin black line that I can follow blindly to my destinations. It makes route finding easier, but the places it takes me to are wilder and more remote.
At first there were the usual tiny settlements, I’m not sure they can even qualify as villages. Collections of triangular shacks, roofed in shiny tin or wooden shingles, weathered grey. One for the humans, one for the cows, one for storage, one for the hay. A small square toilet cubicle a short walk away. Usually two or three would be together in one landscape, spaced shouting distance away from one another. I knew that somewhere in that area would be water, a trough carved from a thick tree trunk, water dribbling in from a spout, sometimes another carved piece of wood stuck into the rocks and sometimes a black pipe. The trough would be overflowing onto the ground, moss collecting on the wet wood, hoof prints grinding the earth to mud, butterflies gathering to drink at the damp edges.
I was carrying 2 litres but this is only about half a days supply so I would top up at almost every source I came to, drink at least a few mouthfuls if not half a litre before refilling.
Each settlement had a name on the map – Pribranci, Okrugljak, Katun Ckara.
I came to such a place towards the end of the first day, less than a litre of water left in my bottle and the buildings here were derelict, a dip in the earth that showed what once was a stream running next to the road. I sat at a handy bench to consider my options. Three huge lorries came roaring down and the first one stopped, the man getting out to check something underneath. I asked him about water. “There’s none here” he said. “All the way to Zabljak?” “You’re going to Zabljak? Owwwww,” he said in that familiar noise of appreciation people make here. “Bravo, svaka chasse.” He handed me the water that he had for me to decant into my bottles, then called to the lorry behind him who gave me another 2 litre bottle. They shook my hand and roared away, leaving me with three litres. It was too heavy, I was already carrying six days food, and so came my dilemma, struggle on under too heavy a weight or liberate myself and walk light but closer to danger.
As I wended my way upwards, walking the final two hours of the day, a series of battered cars came past me, inhabitants waving and smiling. I should have seen this as a sign, that people weren’t living up here, just visiting for the day.
There was something labelled as a ‘planinarski dom’ ahead, a mountain house. I thought it might be a bothy so I struggled up to it with the beginnings of sunset. It was a big house, timber and concrete and brick, but it was locked and bolted. No matter, I made my camp in the flat part inside the fence and watched as an old woman walked down off the mountain with her 30 sheep. She was hunched and leaning on a stick, a slow and awkward movement, but it didn’t matter, she was faster than the sheep and felt no need to hurry them. I watched the herd move on the hillside 200m away, she lent on a rock ahead of them and waited as they inched towards her and home. A much younger boy came from the dip that held their house and disappeared further up the hillside. There was a long period of time where the sheep nibbled, the woman sat and I waited, as the shadows lengthened and the sky over the faraway peaks turned lilac; then slowly, one by one, eight cows lumbered downhill, the bells around their necks softly clanging, adding to the music of the sheep in perfect discordance.
The boy came and lingered by the fence to the mountain house compound, watching me as I put my tent up. I tried to say hello but he didn’t speak, just stared, and I was happy to be left alone to sleep.
The next day, as I walked higher, I began to see that water would be a problem here. The problem was that up here, as I climbed further away from the inhabited valley town, the gaps between settlements became bigger, and some of them no longer existed, just rotting cabins and long grass where animals would have grazed. The sun was relentless, no clouds, the sky just a blaze of blue, the grasses and stones of the road reflecting white at me. I wore a cap and shades, lathered on suncream (factor 50) but it was no good, merely slowing down the roasting process. Sweat basted me, rolling down my arms, into my eyes, saturating my clothes. There was no escape, no more trees up here, I would squeeze into thin lines of shade against heaps of stone, sometimes with the stomach to eat something and sometimes too jumbled with the heat to do anything but sit and calm down, wait for my cells to stop buzzing and clarity to return.
I didn’t notice that the road ahead turned left and my path went straight ahead, I hadn’t seen it coming on the map. There’d been no water for a while now, I had about a litre and a quarter left, and now, ahead of me, there was a wild land. There were no houses any more, no road, just undulating land, up and down in hollows and slopes, pitted with bowls and lumps, waving grasses knee high and a variety of wildflowers and butterflies. The varied lumps and hollows of tussock and root made it incredibly slow to walk through, the path meandered around contours, climbing and dipping, most of the time it was barely there, just a line of trodden grass catching the sunlight differently to mark it out. Pustules of paint marked regular rocks, a white blob encircled with red, an outbreak of human activity. It was well marked, there was usually something to make a line for.
This was a problem now. There was a lake just off the path, a detour wriggled down from the high plateau into a bowl of forest where a lake was marked, with a spring feeding it. But I wouldn’t reach it until the next day. So rationing water it was then, a mouthful every so often, keeping my tongue wet, as I headed towards a pass between two of the higher points, up to 1900m and back down again to 1700m. I camped just on the other side of the pass, in the first hollow I came to, where the ground held the draining of the snow in springtime, before it trickled down towards the lower levels.
I made it to the lake at 10am the next day, after starting before 7am, trying to walk as much as I could before the heat came unerring. It was beautiful there, surrounded by pine forest, pure clear water and small fish curling around each other, grouped in the shallows, coming in to taste the clouds of dirt I left behind as I stood ankle deep. I filled my bottles and drank, ate breakfast and allowed my body to absorb the water before drinking again. There was a family camping there and I watched as they took turns with an airgun, aiming it over the lake to make the pellets skip like curled stones.
I couldn’t wait there too long, there was a walk ahead and nothing to do but tackle it. After the long climb back up to the plateau, there it was, only 7 miles to the next mountain but over the same pathless grassland as yesterday, and I was only covering it at about a mile an hour. I stopped for a rest at 1pm in the thin line of shade provided by a cowshed, only enough to cover my head, my cleavage sticking out into the light. A man came along, surprised to see me there. We chatted a little and I asked about the water. He said they got their water from the lake, three miles away now. The cows had a muddly pool for theirs. “Is there water over there?” I asked him, pointing to the houses over at the base of the mountain. “Nema” he said. No water. No water on this whole plateau. He was kind enough to give me a litre, which I gulped down. Rationing again then, until I could get over the next mountain and down into the next valley.
I didn’t get far that day, my period had started which means I suffer with a distinct lack of energy for the first day or two. The previous day I’d passed out in a patch of shade, thinking I was just sitting down for a rest and then finding myself scrunching down into a lying position, eyes closing all by themselves, lapsing into unconsciousness for a short period. Today it meant that I stopped at 5pm, at a haybarn, meaning only to pause for a snack I found myself settled into immobility, head empty, staring into space and utterly lacking the impulse to walk further. I looked around the house, empty. The cow barn was full of rubbish too, perhaps the owners only came up here to harvest the grass, no water available for the stock. I camped there, no energy to go further. It was 5pm and I’d pissed once that day; despite drinking 3.5 litres of water it had only just been enough.
Early again the next day, starting at 7am. There was a mountain to climb but I’d go around the shoulder of it, missing the final 100m. I couldn’t chance this, all too aware of my dwindling water. Small sips every so often, rationing myself. “I’ll take a mouthful when I reach that mound” “I’ll take a mouthful after another kilometre”. There were bilberries to wet my mouth in small bursts of sweetness. After four hours of walking I made it down to the beginning of the next valley. There was a road only a few km ahead and I felt sure that the houses there would have water. I sat for a while to rest, watching the occasional cloud shadow move over the hillsides, somehow never hitting me. I heard movement and looked over to find a man walking towards me in a yellow t-shirt. We shook hands, his fingers and shirt stained with purple smears from the bilberries he’d been picking. I couldn’t really make conversation, all I could think about was water, and once he saw that he reached out a hand again, pulled me up off the ground, shouldered my bag for me and we set off towards his house. I followed behind, occasionally reaching forward to take my bottle out of the side pocket and gulp down the final hoarded contents. We took a stick each to help him up the hill. This wasn’t where he lived, he told me, his brother and mother lived here, he was in Podgorica, the capital, just come up for part of the summer. He called out across the valley to where his brother stood, raking hay. He also came to meet us and it was clear who was the awkward countryman and who was the more suave city boy of the pair. The brother didn’t speak much, avoided eye contact and returned to the hay while we continued to the house where a mother waited, shuffling, paralysed down one side, with bright eyes and long white hair in a plait over her shoulder.
It was one of the more bizarre encounters I’ve had. At first I couldn’t speak, my throat choked until I’d had a few glasses of water. But then we ended up talking about whether I was single or not. It’s a pretty typical conversation, but this one seemed to go further until I realised that the mother was sizing me up for her youngest son, the one who ran the farm and had stayed outside to rake the hay because he was shy. Meanwhile, yellow t-shirt brother was twinkling and mildly flirting with me, in the way that sexual men will do with most women.
It’s a thing that I’ve encountered a lot in the last few months, since entering Serbia. People seem to love matchmaking here, everyone always knows a single friend that they must tell me about. “He’s got four cows” they’ll say, “it’s a friend of my brother’s”. Women tell me about their single sons, “working in the ski resort” they say, “he speaks good English”. “Oh, you want an English daughter-in-law?” I laugh. “Hochesh snaika Ingleska?” and we laugh until the offer goes away.
There’s an immediacy to the decision making here, “meet this man, he’s single”
“I want you. Be my woman” say the single men I meet, over and over, with a quickness that feels false to my reserved British self.
I was called into a mountain hut one day, by a lean man, craggy faced, with thick hands. He was jumpy, full of nervous energy, trying to offer me beer until I insisted on coffee. We talked a little about his life here, he’d worked abroad in electrical engineering but for about ten years had been home in Montenegro, even staying up here in the hut during the previous winter, which was incredible in that small, leaky space, uninsulated, with the sun shining though the gaps between the roof and the walls. “I love the nature and the mountains” he said, showing me bundles of flowers he was drying to make tea. He propositioned me, “stay here and be my woman. We can live together, milk the cows and make cheese” It’s tempting, in a way. I knew that if I touched his body it would be solid with muscle. I imagined how his rough hands would graze my curves, how I could hold him, calm, in the nestled softness of a heated bed. Be someone’s woman. A position, ready made, for me to fit into. But I know I’m the wrong shape, that I’d always be crushing part of myself in order to try and complete the jigsaw; this isn’t truly the place for me. And so I tell them I can’t, that I don’t want a man, and I leave. And I’m sure they forget about me as soon as I’m around the corner.
The mother in this house though, she wouldn’t leave the subject alone. How much money have I got? Where does it come from? “She could buy a house in Zabljak” she says to the yellow t-shirt son. She comments on my body, even asks me if I’ve got my own teeth. “She’s not wearing any nail varnish, that’s good” she comments. “No makeup. I can’t stand women who wear makeup” I imagine the women that her city son has brought home. It’s normal for town women here to be heavily made up, acrylic nails are normal too. The mother screws up her face and swears. I can’t help laughing. It’s so strange to me to be lined up for someone I have exchanged a hello with. They’re laying out lunch and it’s time for me to leave. In a final surreal twist, as I’m outside saying goodbye, the farm son comes striding up towards the house, he’s wearing a t-shirt and no trousers. Something to do with itchy hay. I burst out laughing, as does everyone. He reaches the shower outside and strips down to his pants. I am laughing as I walk away with yellow t-shirt brother, he shows me the path down to the road and I look back to see mother talking to shy brother as he hoses himself down, probably telling him how he missed his chance.
I walked away happy and relieved, with a stomach full of water, more bottles of it in my pockets and only another day and a half until the next town. I was going to walk right through that one with more mountains ahead, a difficult climb, an even steeper descent, a sighting of bears, and an even worse period without water. But this blog is already too long and the journey goes on and on.
I’m in Plužine, and I’ve passed through Durmitor National Park, climbed the highest mountain of my life so far (2330m), endured 8 days of blazing sunshine which has turned me brittle and exhausted. Now I’m on the road again, a days walk away from Bosnia and Hercegovina. I’ll take the road towards the border and then hit the mountains again, hopefully in slightly cooler weather.