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June 29th, 2024 - Exploring the Slovak Carpathians


Along the Border Trail


It’s the middle of June, but summer storms are already here. Whipping up around the passes, tumbling down from the Slovak side of the border, we must become experts at whipping out our ponchos. The horses, able to thermoregulate better than us, don’t mind the rain. And we appreciate how the droplets chase away the horseflies. These they do mind: the gnawing teeth of the horsefly take all the horses’ attention, and they don’t watch where they put their feet, tripping and jigging down the trail. Brando develops a new technique of slamming his neck and bags into trees, to chase away the flies from his neck. We begin to pray for rainy days.

The clouds here never fully block out the light, even when it’s raining, even when we’re deep in a beech or spruce forest. It’s easy to imagine how the dancing, fleeting and lingering light here inspired Polish writer Andrezj Stasiuk. Before sleep drags her down, Ashley reads a few pages of his book Dukla each night.

Days slip away as we ride along the ridge separating Poland from Slovakia. In one jump, it’s our last night in Poland, and Agata, our angel from Bieszczady has driven hours to spend one last afternoon together. It feels significant: once she leaves and once we cross the border into Slovakia, the bearings we’ve built for ourselves in Poland will disappear. The heart a little heavy, under a cold wind and drizzling rain, we head for Slovakia.



Across the Agricultural Plains


The same cold wind that had tormented us the day we left Poland, cleared the skies for us in Slovakia. Of course, our bearings didn’t disappear. The horses are showing us all they’ve learned about the mountain forests these past weeks: they step carefully over bulking fallen trees, choose the best grass in the lush meadows and keep watch for deer. The trails are drier and rockier than in Poland. In the distance we can see the Grand Tatras, the largest mountain in this part of the Carpathians.


Smaller and more densely populated than Poland, we find ourselves chasing forests: each valley has swaths of agricultural land and usually one busy highway. Michal Kralik, an expert in large carnivore migration, sends us a voice message and GPS points of how we can cross the highway between Levoca and Spisska Nova Ves. There is a tunnel with a large wildlife passage on top, or several underpasses.


Traveling on horseback, we are faced with the same problems as other large mammals: human urbanization that blocks safe movement patterns. We’re lucky to have a map and Michal to show us the way, but the bears and deer? They have to trust their instincts.



To the End of (our) Carpathians


We’ll never know how heavenly the National Park of Slovak Paradise is inside, because the horse trails are regulated to the outer edges of the park. But from our team there are no complaints. The horses like the rolling terrain of the 4x4 roads through the forests. And we like lunching at empty shepherds’ cabins, their communist shape reminds us of Kyrgyzstan.


They say home is where you lay your head and who you wake up next to; each night the horses seem to sleep as close to our tent as possible, so we know they feel at home with us. At night, we find campsites without any trouble. One of our favorites remains the night in a deer stand, perched in the spruce trees. A view out over the horses and the quiet sounds of the forest render the two square meter boards more comfortable than any bed. Or is our favorite on the 5th-floor viewing platform of the Zbojska tower, on the other side of the Muranska Planina park? Or maybe it’s the farm where we slept atop sweet smelling hay, in the Vepor range, just a few days before our Carpathian journey comes to its end?


Because the end of the Carpathians we have reached. When we come out of the woods in Celienec, the little hamlet above L’Ubietova, Michal meets us with a smile. His neighbor loans us a 7 hectare (17 acres) pasture. The horses are supposed to be resting, but at dusk each night they go for a big gallop across the fields together, celebrating their freedom and happiness here. After looking at the valleys that await us, and the increasing urbanization from Banska Bystrica, to Nitra, and then the plains around Bratislava and Vienna, we make an easy decision: we’ll save ourselves a month of urban troubles, and take a truck to the foot of the Alps.

Our Carpathian journey has come to an end. More than 500km through these ancient mountains has helped our new team of five feel like a family. We have learned just enough about our Polish and Slovak neighbors that we’re itching to come back to the region one day.

Slowly we’re approaching our home in France, but first we must cross the Alps.​​

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