Nicola Ashurst, Geoff Wallis, and eight Bulgarian friends walk to the top of the Balkans
We started 4,500 feet above sea-level, higher than Ben Nevis, at the well known ski-resort of Borovets. Our gently sloping path wound upwards through fragrant pines and little meadows ablaze with mauve, pink, yellow and blue wild flowers, and grass as high as ourselves. A few months earlier these were snow-covered pistes filled with skiers…. indeed I was one of them. In a few spring weeks nature’s change into summer clothes has been fantastically dramatic, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the skiing hardware doesn’t spoil them.
Onward, upward, head down, carefully placing every foot-fall on the stony path, little opportunity to admire the view. Growing hot, muscles ache, but we keep moving, ascending, hour after hour.
Before dark we must climb 3,600 feet to our mountain lodge, so the air-temperature will fall about 10 degrees. Soon we feel colder, but clammy from our body-heat and then…..thunder. A quick glance upwards……dark clouds everywhere swirling around the mountaintops. Man seems so small, insignificant and helpless in this grandeur. We pause to put on waterproofs,…more thunder….keep moving.
Lightning now, and refreshing wind, prove the storm is getting nearer. The light fades as mist turns to rain. Cool and refreshed we stride on and on. But soon cool becomes cold, anorak drains water into trousers, and trousers drain into boots.
Cold now becomes chill, but we stride on and on….. there is no alternative. Icy driving rain blows in our faces, then……what was that in my mouth? I have just eaten hail-stones! This would be frightening if I were not with a group and probably less than an hour from shelter, but it is definitely unpleasant. Why am I doing this? It cannot be worth it!
Soon we arrive at Ledenoto Ezero mountain lodge: basic, clean, and ruled by a formidable but friendly lady who had no difficulty seeing off two Vodka-tipsy Chechnian youths she didn’t trust.
We were welcomed, warmed, dried, and fed wonderful, refreshing, hot, herb-tea made from the little mauve ‘mashterka’ flowers which grow on the mountain. But none of us could find the toilet. We had noticed that, like trees, toilets in the lodges became scrubbier and rarer with altitude. Our enquiries elicited the reply: ‘We are in the mountains’, …so….. back to nature ….find a big rock, check wind-direction, don’t pollute the water-supply, and try to avoid embarrassment!
The Rila National Park is owned and operated by the Bulgarian government who build the lodges and lease them to operators. They are well-constructed and provide all the basics walkers need….. except a toilet. The additional cost of a simple facility would be miniscule and mean a lot to visitors, but it seems to have fallen off the list of priorities. In rural Bulgaria toilets are invariably of the ‘squat’ type, and were a source of considerable mirth (and some hazard) to the uninitiated throughout our trip.
Ledenoto Ezero Lodge ( =Icy Lake) is beside a beautiful lake, partially frozen over even in summer, beside which we were amused find a giant notice forbidding swimming! At nearly 8,000 feet the air was cold but crystal clear, galaxies of stars were visible, and our goal, the peak of Mount Moussala was towering above us. We were tired after seven hours walking, including one hours rest, but looking forward to the next day. We achieved some sleep in a packed dormitory and were up early. A quick breakfast, clean teeth under the icy outdoor water-spout, and on the path by 7.30am so as to beat the clouds that form on the peaks from around 9.00am.
The final 1,500 feet to the summit of Moussala are up a steep craggy ridge which was a challenge with a heavy rucksack. The rocks were huge, some were unstable, the wind gusted, and at one point we needed to traverse a snowfield. Instead, we diverted upwards to the ‘winter path’ where a strong cable marked the route and provided a swaying hand-hold. This was real mountaineering, the weather was good, our spirits were high, and we loved it!
The summit! 9,580 feet above sea level, the highest point on the Balkan peninsular.
Ecstasy of views glimpsed through the swirling mists. Have you ever seen a 360 degree rainbow around your shadows on the clouds? Mountain-high spirits, mutual congratulations, and lots of photos.
Joy of achievement……we have not let our sponsors down!
We had a whole day of sun and cool breezes to wander gently downwards over the Big and Little Twins (both over 8,000 feet) through flower-decked mountain-meadows, with frequent rests to gaze at the distant views across to Bulgaria’s other ranges, the Pirin, Rhodope and the Old Mountains.
Then, as we descended, what joy! …… trees again. Firstly, wind-swept bushes a few inches high, then dwarf trees, and soon noble pines on the steep sides of rocky valleys, home to deer, wolf, boar and bear. The Rila National Park covers 12,390 hectares and contains some of the oldest forests in Europe. All Bulgaria’s national parks are freely accessible via mapped and marked paths to anyone who is prepared to walk for a few hours between inexpensive lodges. I whole-heartedly recommend it.
Our day of achievement ended by a pine-smoke fire and a dinner of hot sausage, coleslaw, soft white bread, ‘lutenitsa’ (tomato and pepper sauce), fruit, and much herb tea….. all accompanied by the hot-diesel smell of a badly-maintained generator.
We spent another two happy days amongst tall pines, crystal cold streams, sparkling waterfalls, squelchy bogs, flower-filled clearings, and the debris of spectacular rock-falls where falling boulders the size of cars had smashed through 500mm diameter pine-trunks, snapping them like carrots.
At lower levels the lodges were more luxurious where they could be supplied by vehicles rather than by horse or human power. One memorable dinner comprised cold youghurt, cucumber and dill soup, savoury meatballs, chopped raw cabbage, lutenitsa, with watermelon to follow. Yummy, AND non-fattening!
We learned to recognize the herbs that make infusions and ointments, and helped our Bulgarian friends pick them. We grazed on piquant-flavoured alpine clover, (don’t try this at home), glimpsed
unknown forest birds, lizards, varied insects, hosts of colourful summer butterflies, and a snake. We saw a pair of deer, and marvelled at the enormous excavations made by wild boar rooting with their the tusks.
All too soon we were back in Sofia, and a hot shower….what bliss!
So, what did we achieve? We met wonderful new friends and got to know old ones better. We soaked up some of the most spectacular views in Europe, and dissolved happily into the grandeur and tranquility of God’s amazing creation. We got fit, had fun, and achieved! Our bodies were invigorated, minds calmed and spirits refreshed.
Most importantly, our sponsors donated over £ 10,000 towards a much-needed project that will benefit many very needy people in Bulgaria, which made our adventure doubly worthwhile.
We offer a very big THANK YOU to every one of you who sponsored us. Every penny will go towards the new Social, Medical and Training Centre under construction in Sofia.
Are you a walker? Why not experience Mount Moussala for yourself in July 2011 ?
For a few hundred pounds you will have the experience of a lifetime and have the great satisfaction of helping some very disadvantaged people.
Geoff Wallis July 2010