It’s all a bit of a mess this morning, the main reason being that we’re not actually in Gusinje, but still in Plav. Instead of getting up early (ish) and setting off into the mountains as per usual, we wake a little later and set off on a shorter, but equally challenging mission – to the Border Police Station in Plav, to pick up our border crossing permits (attempt two).
We leave the little room we stayed in last night and head back up to the police station, about a kilometre away. It’s still quite early, but Plav already has a certain warm stuffiness in the air which suggests you’d better get on with things before it really gets hot. It’s going to be stifling. People are driving and walking around a little less sedately than last night, with a little less patience, a little more self-interest. Perhaps us included.
The border police station last night was pretty empty. Just one officer manning the desk. But this morning there’s three of them, one behind the desk, two standing outside smoking, plus, very excitingly, two other hikers waiting on a couch. This is a good sign. We hand over our passports (again) and the approval forms emailed to us a few weeks ago, and join the other hikers in the waiting corner.
They’re a friendly couple, a Spanish man and a German woman. They were also turned back from the station last night and have been waiting here this morning for a couple of hours now. Apparently the police had to call in a certain officer who could do the relevant paperwork, but he was finally in there now, doing whatever he needed to do, and it should be ready soon… We wait patiently for the man to tick boxes.
The couple are doing a walk called the Peaks of the Balkans, which has become quite popular, especially with Germans, since it’s conception in 2013. It’s a loop track of 192 km which links the border mountains of Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo, aiming to bring tourists back into the region and to help heal tensions existing between the countries in the wake of their recent history. It includes one extremely popular stretch which many, many tourists come to do as a day hike, the ‘Thethi to Valbonë’ walk. This walk links the two small towns of Thethi (or Theth) and Valbonë by travelling over a pass in those infamous Accursed Mountains on the border of Montenegro and Albania. It’s going to be extremely busy. Think the Coast Track in Royal National Park on a sunny Saturday. This day walk is actually going to be the last day of the Via Dinarica too. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Imagine you pull yourself through a thick, impenetrable rainforest for days, fighting bears and lions, you’re covered in mud and blood and sweat, your hair is dreadlocked (i.e. our humble majestic selves)… And for the last 20 km, you have to walk in line behind a stream of other people who have no idea why you never learnt to use a shower. Or a hairbrush. Or deodorant.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s still two full days away. My mind whirs away regardless as we sit in the police station. I guess the end is so close now that I feel like this whole journey is already over.
At last the man comes out with our papers. He looks a little harassed and asks why our application says we should have crossed five days ago… Ah, yes. That little thing.
The Montenegrin police required us to apply weeks in advance for this crossing, and also required a specific date and time. This was a little tricky for us – we often change our plans halfway through the day, having overestimated or underestimated length, terrain, beauty, weather, campsite-appropriateness, or any number of other parameters. As such, with our unplanned rest day in Mojkovac, our schmozzle at the Bosnian-Montenegrin border including extra days in Sarajevo and the last few days having been low in distance, we were pretty late. We just had to hope that they would understand… I explain earnestly and apologetically about weather troubles and Callum’s knee but he waves his hand, stamps the form for today’s date instead, and off we go! He’s already driving home by the time we walk out of the station. We’re free!!
After a celebratory coffee, packing our bags, hiking up to the bus stop, realising there mightn’t be a bus for a while but that a taxi would only be 5€ and catching said taxi, we arrive back in Gusinje around lunchtime. Somehow, the morning has gotten away from us and the rest of the day is not far behind. Should we just stay in Gusinje? It has technically been a week since Mojkovac… Although we half-jokingly discuss it, we both know that the end is too close to slow down now. Plus, our border crossing has been signed for today and I don’t want to risk any further delays. So we shoulder our packs and set out for Albania.
The heat isn’t so bad anymore for some reason, despite the fact that our first five kilometres is simply along the main road connecting Gusinje to the border town of Vusange. It’s fairly quiet and peaceful. No people or cars, just fields and fields. As we’re plodding along I find a 20 Eurocent coin and a 1 Eurocent coin, which I’m quite pleased with, followed by an iPhone, which I have no idea what to do with.
As we approach Vusange, two things suddenly increase in frequency – firstly, the amount of rubbish, especially in the river beside us; it’s just everywhere, of every kind imaginable but mainly empty bottles of car products. Secondly, the number of NO LITTERING signs. I think it’s a bit late.
Suddenly, completely out of the blue, another hiker appears walking our way, grinning and waving. Thomas?!! Thomas, you may or may not recall, is our German friend from waaaay back in early Croatia (think blue caterpillar) who was hiking with another guy called Andy. He’s amazed to see us again, and we are just as amazed to see him. He finished the Via Dinarica two weeks ago and was now on Peaks of the Balkans. Crazy. We take a selfie to send to Andy, who had already returned to the states, wish each other well and head off, elated at the coincidence. Thomas mentioned that Vusange was about an hour onwards, so we walk quickly towards lunch.
As we reach Vusange proper, a third thing dramatically increases in frequency too – tourists.
It appears Vusange is the latest victim of tourist overload. As with Lepushë, it’s like Vusange has been chosen and raised up from obscurity into the harsh white light of the tourist trail. The main attraction is a stunning waterfall which spirals down into the deep Gërla Canyon carved with huge rounded pools. It’s very beautiful, the pale blue and orange colours especially. We have lunch under a picnic shelter as the buses come and go.
As we’re just packing up to head off, another hiker comes up to us. He’s very tall and has incredible blue-green eyes, wide and alert. With dark grey walking poles, a Patagonia cap and a neat, compact backpack, he looks like he knows what he’s doing. Even before he asks with an accent, subtle and distinct as the taste of an almond, “Are you guys German?” I’m pretty sure that’s where he’s from.
It turns out that he’s doing the Peaks of the Balkans walk, too, and he’s come from Plav this morning like us – the only difference being that he walked the whole way, whereas we got the taxi (which is technically fair enough; Plav is on the Peaks route, whereas for us it was just an inconvenient errand). He’s heading to Liqjentës e Jezercës for the night like us (pronounced ‘li-chen‘, it’s our new word for lake), but stopping for a coffee in Vusange first, so we have a head-start. I have a slight feeling he’s going to overtake us.
We take off along the road towards the border mountains. The flat vehicle track winds its way deeper, the sky darkening slowly and the trees thickening. Bladed peaks are rising to either side of us, as if we’re walking through a great parted sea of rock. Time continues to slip away as we peel off left from the main track and start to climb.
As the vehicle track shifts to a leafy single path and gets progressively steeper, weaving up a well-worn path through beech forest, the German hiker does indeed overtake us. He’s impressively quick, clicking rapidly along the route. Unlike many people with hiking poles, he really uses them to propel himself along and up the hill. We’re pretty fit by this stage, but I feel a little outclassed as we pace more slowly behind him. But something I’ve gained from this hike is a better ability to judge my pace and distance – I have no doubt in my ability to get there before dinner, and feel no need to push myself any harder. Perhaps on day four, yes, even day thirty- or forty-four. But sixty-four? I’m happy to take it easy.
It’s an hour later that we emerge from the beech forest into high meadows, green and rocky, the air cooler and everything quiet. We’re shoulder to shoulder with the grey peaks now, and only a few hundred metres from our campsite. This is where Montenegro becomes Albania.
Liqjentës e Jezercës is the name given to the cluster of five lakes high up in Prokletije near the base of Maja e Jezercës, the highest peak in Albania. In a few minutes, we are wandering through them. These lakes are pure and beautiful, with a tranquility that makes me feel closer to the sky. We walk between them in silent appreciation. This is a particularly lovely place.
We set up Herbie on the grassy banks of the highest lake, and make a cuppa using the bunches of čaj given to us the day before yesterday. I have mine with a sachet of honey I’ve been carrying, mixing it into the dark, leafy brew. We chat a little to the speedy German, already relaxing in his camp clothes, and ruffle the head of the stray dog that lives up here. The peaks and snowdrifts blush pink in the late evening. I set up our beds, watching the sky gently fade, knowing that this will probably be the last time.
Montenegro and Albania, Stage 44 (Part 1 of an alternate route via Maja e Jezercës and Qafa e Pejës)
Start and end points: Gusinje (a short bus ride back from Plav) to Liqjentës e Jezercës (cluster of high lakes in Prokletije where you can camp at the last lake, near the summit of Maja e Jezercës)
Approximate distance: 17.5 km
Villages: Gusinje – Vusange