Day 140 – First steps across Albania

The Valley of Zagoria

 

Two mountain ranges separate the cities of Gjirokaster and Permet in southern Albania. The green, sprawling valley between the two ranges is known as Zagoria. The peaks on either side reach more than 5900 feet, with only a few passes navigable by horseback. The first leg of our journey across Albanian would be to traverse this valley. The route would take us twenty seven miles north up the valley, and then another eighteen south to the small city of Permet, once we reached the other side.

Pastoral paradise

Our second day in the valley we shook off our hangovers, broke camp, packed the horses and set out before 8 am.  We’d fallen victim to Albanian hospitality the evening prior – dinner, lots of raki (homemade grappa) and a late night of laughter and story-telling with a local family. They’d assured us the route was really nice moving forward; their encouragements in mind, we hoped to reach the pass by mid-afternoon and begin the descent before making camp for the evening.

The morning passed blissfully – surrounded by pristine mountain prairies, full of wild flowers and singing birds. At lunch we picnicked on a small plateau where the horses could graze and we laid half asleep in the sun while we reviewed our route. Our friend Cecile had come from France to hike the first week with us and we appreciated her help managing the horses and helping scout the route. The night before we had been advised to take the ridge road – a shortcut that would save us more than 4 miles. When we arrived at the trail head we realized this was impossible for the horses; the path was made of lumpy black shale, a footing that is draining and difficult even for mules, and was less than a foot and a half wide. From the satellite images the route remained perilous throughout.

 

We had no choice but to take the long road: a hiking route that descended almost to the valley floor, and then an old military road that would lead us up and out. The sun beating on the back of our necks we descended down the steep path. As we approached a small river crossing, the trail narrowed and became rocky. Our pack horse Düldül carefully navigated down the boulders without missing a beat. Coming back up, he hopped with surprising agility from rock to rock, although we would have much preferred he step more carefully, as just inches away the ledge dropped off more than 80 feet down.

Phantom road

 

Our next challenge was a fifty-foot stretch of slick rock, slanted at a 20° grade. Düldül finally showed some prudence and tiptoed across, and a few minutes later we could all exhale, when we arrived at a road. It was a grass road but wide enough for a 4x4, with old but still visible tire tracks, and to top it off, it was even marked on the map. A shepherd appeared from the brush assuring us that if we followed this road we’d be at the top of the pass before 4pm and have no problem to find a campsite.

 

“Rruga makinë, ska problem per kuaj!”

It’s a car road, no problem for your horses!

 

Excuse my language but “ska problem”  my a**.

 

The shepherd’s words filled us with confidence and we remounted our horses. But within twenty minutes, the road split into not two or three but five paths. We followed the path that seemed the most traveled, but it rapidly became thickly choked in small brushy thorn bushes disguised as trees.  Dismounting literally into these trees, we took turns holding the horses and searching for the real route. Like meercats we popped in and out of the brush, yelling to each other,

 

“Where are you?”

“Here!”

“Where?”

“Did you find the road?”

“No!”

 

During these recon missions, we learned that some time ago several mudslides had taken out a big section of the winding road. Since then, nature had taken back the land and the nasty thorny trees blocked any real route back up. Though we had less than a kilometer to go, we couldn’t find a passable route.

As we approached an hour of trying to find a way out, the horses began to lose patience and became more and more fidgety, bickering between each other and stomping loudly. We had no more water, no more human food, and no more nerve. Just as I was ready to give up, return to where we’d met the shepherd and start again tomorrow, Quentin came trotting back with a tentative smile.

“It’s tricky but we can get out this way.”

Ten minutes later, we arrived at the “rruga makinë,” the car road, to find another shepherd sitting by his flock, staring at us incredulously.

“Where did you come from?” he asked.

“That road.”

“That is not a good road for horses,” he explained.

He must have sensed we didn’t appreciate his irony but he kindly pointed us the right way to the next village, where within five minutes we not only had a good spot for our horses to spend the night but an invitation to stay for dinner with an older couple. They took immense pleasure in pinching our cheeks and feeding us sweets.

Sweaty, dirty, and exhausted we sat down in their garden underneath the grape vines and exchanged relieved smiles. Our host arrived with a bottle of clear liquid and a smile.

.

“Raki?”

"Yes please."