This is it. This is really it. Our last day on the Via Dinarica. You’re probably as relieved as I am.
It’s an odd place to be finishing. After so many weeks of hiking in remote, tiny places you wouldn’t or couldn’t drive to; traversing the little-seen mountains of the region considered second-best to something like Durmitor or Prenj, not quite good enough to visit if you’ve only got one day; spending night after night in tiny sklonište, alone at beautiful campsites, in the amazing homestays – after all that, we finish here, walking from Thethi to Valbonë, which is one of the most popular things to do in all of Albania. I mentioned it in my last post too, because it’s kind of been looming over us. Google ‘Albania travel’ and one of the top must-sees is this very walk in the Accursed Mountains.
So it’s filled with tourists – literally hundreds. We start early, as advised by walkers past, to escape the sun and crowds, and head up out of Thethi in the cool light of morning.
It’s dusty and fairly dull for the first few kilometres up the gravel road. Callum pats a silly-looking dog, apparently owner-less, but groomed to perfection and white as a cotton boll. It steadily gets warmer, and at times we lose the cover of the trees to see an expansive view back towards the north. The hill surges relentlessly upwards towards Valbonë peraj, the high mountain pass, but we get into a good rhythm and surge up with it, like body-surfing a big earthen wave.
Rhythm is certainly something we’ve developed on this hike. Knowing when to rest, when to push on, what pace will both push us and be sustainable. There’s a peace that develops when your days feel well-paced and well-balanced – not too easy, not too hard, not too full or too empty. Of course, not all our days achieve such harmony, as is abundantly clear from this blog! But I suppose it also builds up over time, one hard day balancing itself against an easy one.
I think this perspective is part of the reason that I don’t envy the groups of day walkers we keep passing. Coming out of the blue to a walk like this would be tough – so far, it’s been a fairly unrewarding and exposed slog, including a few kilometres along a wide road shared by four-wheel drives; not particularly fun, especially if you’re not already hill-fit; and not particularly escapist.
It’s thus a pensive walk, as many of these late-stage days have been, and also involves a few logistical overtaking manoeuvres around slower hikers, but we nonetheless reach the pass well before lunch. It’s a small dusty saddle shared by about thirty other people, awkwardly sidling round each other like passengers on a crowded train. We leave our packs there and head up to the little view point off to the side, a steep, dusty slope ending in an outcrop of white rocks. It’s a good, wide view across the valley to Valbonë. I see a familiar expanse of flat valley floor, pine trees and chalky white river pebbles that has defined much of our hiking in Albania. But for us, this view point is much more than just the view. For this, ladies and gentlemen, is our final hill. From here on, it’s literally downhill all the way home.
As we gaze out, I wonder if we can see the end point from here. I don’t know what’s waiting for me there – a sense of achievement? Happiness? Relief? Loss?
We scuttle back down from the viewpoint to the pass, still inhabited by a perpetual crowd. I hear accents from France, New Zealand, Germany and America. There are tour guides too, plus a line of horses laden with huge hiking packs strapped round the bellies. We shoulder our packs and head down the other side of the pass, which is gravelly and well-worn, even sunnier and more exposed than the other. And it’s here that it really gets busy. After the horses, the line of hikers doesn’t break for a solid three kilometres.
As we get further and further from the pass, the hikers heading up become fewer and far between. They look hot, heavy and tired, some alone, some with little kids. How much further? They ask. How long do we think? Does it get really steep? We answer as best we can. I feel a bit guilty thinking it, but I’m so glad it’s not me. It’s so hot; they have so much further to go; the track is alright, but pretty crumbly in parts; and it’s not even particularly scenic. I never say this, of course. I admire their game. Maybe I’m just a bit worn out.
We filter our way slowly down the rest of the hill to the flat tracks of the valley bed. Valbonë is another of these long towns that spread a few longitudinal kilometres between the high mountains on either side. When we see the first houses (invariably, these are also the first guesthouses) it’s pretty exciting, but I know there’s still another 8 km to go before the official end point. Still a bit of plodding to do. We have lunch at a huge outdoor restaurant and continue on a few more kilometres. We buy ice-creams with a sense of nostalgia, knowing we can’t keep eating this many sugary foods after today, and walk slowly along the middle of the quiet road.
It’s all wrapping up now. This is it. We’ve hiked 65 and three quarters of our 66 days, amounting to almost 1500 km, and now it’s almost, almost done. Suddenly, five kilometres out, Callum slows a bit, pulls a face and sits down by the side of the road with a sigh.
“Can you get out the first aid kit?”
He’s just developed his first blisters.
Five minutes later, he sighs again, bends over and fiddles with his boots.
His shoelaces have come undone.
We keep walking, thankfully with no further foot-related delays, until we reach a little hostel-like place where we’ve planned to spend our final night. It’s a lovely big house owned by a local family, with apple trees and a deep, swift-flowing river coloured in soft orange and pale blue water colours. We weren’t really sure what the best option was for staying in Valbonë – would we want to camp out our final night, or stay in accommodation? Our decision was eventually finalised by the weather; dark storm clouds pouring into the valley and a chirping warmth to the air that hit after lunch (we need to get a bus tomorrow morning to more affordable realms; a bus which leaves at 7:00 am. Packing up all our gear in the pouring rain at 6:00 am and waiting by the roadside wasn’t the most appealing prospect).
What this means, however, is that our home in Valbonë is still 2 km before the official end point (which, as it so happens, is at a seemingly arbitrary campsite down the road). So, sticklers to the last, we leave our gear at the household and head off down the road to finish it officially.
As we walk, I try to feel into my feet as much as possible. They’re warm and snug in my boots; sore and a little wobbly on the rocks, as I adjust to walking in the absence of my pack. This is what it feels like to walk the Via Dinarica. I look around at the muddy track, dense with little hoof prints, the trickling river, the ramshackle fences made from limber young branches, the lumbering cows with their soft, drooping necks. This is what it looks like to walk the Via Dinarica. I breathe in the smells… mainly of the lumbering cows. Hmm. Yep, this is definitely what the Via Dinarica smells like.
It’s only twenty minutes before we emerge from the path to find the campsite. It’s just a few grassy patches along the river, which has split at this point into a few smaller rivulets. I see a smattering of tents, a restaurant off to the side. A spring is gushing onto the grass, making big puddles on the road. A woman is doing yoga beside her tent. We follow the GPS to the middle of the campsite and stop. Nobody blinks an eyelid. Why does the Via Dinarica end here, in this small patch of earth? I have no idea.
Is this it?
We hug. I get a little tear in my eye.
We’ve really done it.
I stop our GPS tracker for the final time.
Is this the end?
It’s not quite over yet.
I thought it was too. Sorry. You’re not off the hook just yet. The Via Dinarica gets the last laugh in this story.
We walk, liberated and happy, back up the hill. Inane things, how we can’t believe it’s finally over, how we feel, how ridiculous it is that we managed to pull through without killing each other. And then?
The skies decide that now is the time.
Maybe they’re happy for us too, and just want to join in?
Either way, in about five seconds the rain accelerates from 0 to 100, drenching us silly. We dart under a tree, laughing, because what else can we do? We’re still a good twenty minute walk from home and didn’t bring raincoats. Our tree umbrella is thick with foliage, but starts springing leaks under the weight of the water.
Suddenly, I realise it doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter if I get cold and wet, because I can have a shower back at the house. It doesn’t matter if my hiking clothes get drenched, because I don’t have to wear them tomorrow – I can wear anything I like. Indeed, it’ll probably help with the smell. And it doesn’t matter if the rain just gets heavier and never lets up, dripping into every nook and cranny, because I’m not carrying any of my precious dry gear. What freedom!
So we leave the safety of the tree and begin running majestically through the downpour up the hill. I can literally drink the water streaming down my face, so heavy is the deluge. Slowing to a walk, we watch the rain dripping off each other’s faces with big grins on. How ridiculous.
Then, something miraculous happens.
Someone offers us a lift.
We only have 200 m to go, but we are giddy with delight. Finally. Our time has come.
We accept that damn lift. The two middle-aged French men laugh at us, shaking their heads.
We’re dropped off outside the front gate.
Sprint the last hundred metres up to the house.
I feel the power in my legs and a lightness in my chest.
This is it.
Albania, Stage 45
Start and end points: Thethi to Valbonë
Approximate distance: 23.5 km
Villages: Thethi (Theth) – Rrogam – Valbonë (Valbona)
Features: Mini mart in Thethi (Mini Market Jezerca) – Guesthouses in Thethi – Thethi National Park – Qafa e Valbonës (Valbona Col/Pass) – Valbonë National Park – Basic cafes on either side of the pass – Kiosks and big restaurant (Krojet e Rrogamit) along the main road in Valbonë – Guesthouses in Valbonë (Arben Selimaj household, others) – Free campsite in Valbonë (very end of the walk, opposite Hotel Rilindja)