Day 180 – The Final Strides

The End Approaches

 

Six weeks ago, we pulled Johnny, Griva, and Düldül out of a field, just a stone’s throw away from Greece. None of us had any idea of what we were in for, though for our part Quentin and I had high hopes and lots of worries. Our only goal was to safely conduct our herd from the southern border the long 800km trek north to Valbona Valley. Each day our worries lessened as our horses began to trust us and we began to understand them. The way was not easy – over 22,000 cumulative meters of ascent, countless trails that petered out into nothing, and occasional bad weather, and now in Zherkë we were finally almost to Valbona. All the lay between us and the end were the ominously named “Accursed Mountains.”

The Accursed Mountains

A quick Google search will tell you the Accursed Mountains surround you during the 14km walk from Theth to Valbona; most people do not explore them further than this though they stretch to Montenegro and east to Kosovo. The name maybe comes from the translated Serbian “Prokletje,” because they were impossible to invade. It’s a shame people don’t visit deeper, because the wisdom and secrets of the Accursed Mountains can be only be revealed by entering the canyon north of Old Tropojë village, climbing along the Tropojë river until Doberdol pass, at 2400m, and run along the Montenegrin/Albanian border until Cerem, and then down to Valbona. These 70 kilometers construct the route we took after leaving Zherkë, by the Koscovar border.

As we climbed towards the edge of the tree line the river thundered beside us, too loud to talk. This didn’t bother us, as we were lost in our thoughts, appreciating the last kilometers of the trek. We made camp that night with local friends who drove up in their 4x4 to see us. What a wonderful feeling to be “home” in the north! While the horses rolled and grazed in the most luscious grass of the trip, we roasted sausages over the campfire and told folk tales in English and Albanian. Düldül snuck over to steal some bread – it’s hard to believe this little troublemaker is the stoic pony who wouldn’t look a human in the eye six weeks ago.

The Love of a Horse

 

Well after dark that evening we trudged into Valbona, tired, hungry and out-of-patience. With the horses cooled out we loaded up into our friend’s 4x4 and went home to sleep. In the morning we were struck with a big realization: just like that the trek was finished. Looking back, we hardly recognize the horses and riders that set out together six weeks ago, so much further south. Where there was hesitation between us there is now trust, where there was confusion there is now understanding, where there was fear there is now love. Their hoof prints may have disappeared in the dust, in the mud, in the water, but the Trans-Albanian trail that they created will remain.

Since the planning stages of the trek, one of the most important elements of the trek was our horses’ home after us. Johnny, Griva and Düldül’s new home together is with an American woman who runs the NGO TOKA, an organization dedicated to protecting the region from big business operators that would destroy the national park, and to promoting local entrepreneurs eco-responsible businesses. Our horses are under her watchful eye, and they are available for local guides to use on mounted tours of the area. Even knowing they will be loved and well cared for, how to you say goodbye and thank you to the horses who brought you so far? We thanked them, hugged them and left choking back tears.