West Highland Way, Part 2: Drymen–Balmaha–Rowardennan–Inversnaid

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The further north we proceeded the better the views became, and the number of photos I snapped appears to have increased in direct correlation with the growing altitudes. Therefore the remaining posts are going to be quite picture-heavy, since culling the selection any further would take me forever.

Day 3: Drymen–Balmaha

The third dawn arrived cloudy but dry, and it was nice to get back on the trail after a refreshing shower at the Drymen campsite. Instead of waxing poetic about this day, here’s a bunch of photos to highlight the wonderfully varied landscapes along the way.

IMG_20190721_105112Through pasturesIMG_20190721_110221…to the light at the end of the bush tunnel…

IMG_20190721_111036…along overgrown paths…

IMG_20190721_114901 …onto wide open roads with panoramic views…

IMG_20190721_115745 …stopping for snacks and to smell the flowers…IMG_20190721_125509…onto hillier and hillier terrain…

IMG_20190721_140919_01     …until we finally got a taste of what we came here for!

IMG_20190721_140020 Conic Hill

The trail took us past Conic Hill and onto Balmaha. It was definitely worth it to ditch the backpacks for a while and climb to the top of the hill to fully take in these impressive views over Loch Lomond. Oh, and if you’re planning to do this, better hold onto your hat or the wind will claim it immediately. Up until this point, there had been no crowding on the trails, but the closer we got to Conic Hill the more day trippers we saw. No wonder, though, since the views are magnificent.

IMG_20190721_142155 View from Conic Hill over Loch Lomond

Down in Balmaha it started to drizzle again, so we thought we’d have a second lunch break at the Oakwood Inn. The restaurant seemed to be operating at full capacity, not even the rainy patio had any free tables left. Fortunately, a friendly Danish couple noticed our plight and asked us to join them at their table. We happily squeezed ourselves onto the narrow benches and somehow managed to all stay under the small sunbrella, mostly covered from the rain. What’s not to like: good food and great company! However, after lunch they continued in the opposite direction (crazy Danes embarking on a tiring ascend that late in the afternoon and in that weather – I was surprised to learn they eventually made it out alive). Chef and I, in turn, once again tried to hitchhike to our next campsite with no luck. At least we only had to walk a few more kilometres in the drizzle.

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Cashel Camping seemed quite alright for a one-night stay. Since the drizzle didn’t stop all night, we really weren’t feeling like swimming but opted for a warm shower, instead. While Chef was cooking dinner, I did a bit of laundry and for once my timing was perfect: the large campsite only seemed to have one working tumble dryer for all its guests, and while our clothes were drying, a frustrated queue started to form in front of the machine. Sorry about that, guys, better come earlier next time.

Note: After Drymen, the trail winds through the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park for a good bit, and there are camping restrictions in many places along the way. For example, you often need to pay for a permit or book in advance if you’d like to pitch your tent on the shores of Loch Lomond, and in some places wild camping is completely banned. This is something to take into consideration when planning your hike. We had no problems with showing up at campsites without a booking, there was always enough space for one more tent.

 IMG_20190722_105851Got a little chuckle out of these haggis “facts”

Day 4: Balmaha–Rowardennan–Inversnaid

On the fourth morning, we opted for a lazy breakfast and bought readymade sandwiches and hot drinks at the campsite shop. We had noticed ads for a bag-carrying service at all stops along the way, and even that started to seem tempting. Our guidebook had mentioned the possibility, but at the time the mere thought had seemed absurd – can you even claim to be a hiker if someone else lugs your stuff from point A to point B in a van and you’re just skipping along with a daypack? Spoiled brats’ shenanigans, psht.

But then, it was dawning on us that the walk would be so much faster and more enjoyable if we didn’t need to drag all of our earthly possessions on our backs, so we asked the reception clerk if he could try to book the service for us for the same day. However, at ten in the morning we were too late, as the driver had already passed by the campsite. Then we tried to book it for the next day, but soon learned that none of these services apply to Inversnaid, which was our next destination. Apparently, Inversnaid is easy to reach on foot but by car the detour would take much too long to be worthwhile. Our only remaining option was to carry on carrying on like we had so far.

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Soon after leaving Cashel we walked past the Sallochy camping area, which would have been even nicer for spending the night. They have numbered spots for tents along the shore, but between March and September those must be booked in advance. Balmaha Visitor Centre or the website for the national park should be able to help with the details. I think I recall the price being £7 per person per night.

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Once again, the weather was cloudy but fortunately not very rainy. The trail was lovely: it followed the shoreline of Loch Lomond, we got to dip our toes in the water on breaks and there were waterfalls and other interesting bits along the way. Somewhere around the halfway mark, we spotted Rowardennan Hotel and its restaurant lured us in for lunch. Even though there were brief moments of drizzle, it was really nice to be seated outside on the patio overlooking the loch while sipping a cold one.

IMG_20190722_130647Rowardennan Hotel
IMG_20190722_132025Lunchtime views from the patio. Kayaks for rent, too, if you’re into that.

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If only all hikers and campers, be it in Scotland, Finland or anywhere else, took it upon themselves to abide by this simple guideline. The most pea-brained of us could even go for a nice arm tattoo reminder, if picking up after oneself is too challenging otherwise.

Let no one say, and say it to your shame, that all was beauty here until you came.

IMG_20190722_163209A piece of history covered with moss

IMG_20190722_180655Inversnaid Falls

The best moment of the rest of the day was when the forest trail suddenly ended and the Inversnaid Falls were roaring in front of us. You can’t tell the scale from my pictures, but the main waterfall was truly massive and very impressive! Right next to the falls, there’s the old-school Inversnaid Hotel, which mainly appears to target the elderly. Or at least a tour bus dropped off a bunch of them at the doorstep while were passing by. Later in the evening, after pitching our tent, we also visited the downstairs restaurant for a pint, and there were only a handful of pensioners and a mediocre live band. It kind of reminded me of the weekday ferries between Finland and Sweden. Nothing wrong with that.

IMG_20190722_181931Inversnaid Hotel: Riff-Raff Wing

Even if your budget won’t allow you to get a room at the hotel, it has a lot to offer to campers. First, you can fill up your water bottles for free from the tap outside the hotel. Secondly, campers are allowed to use the toilets when the hotel is open. Thirdly, the hotel has a dedicated space for muddy and ruddy hikers. You must take your dirty boots off at the separate entrance and don’t expect any table service, ether. Instead, you can sneak around in your socks and order food and drinks at the counter by the clean-people restaurant. This riff-raff space is very clean and stylish and, as a huge bonus, there are many sockets for charging your various gadgets.

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In addition to all the great things mentioned above, wild camping is free in the dedicated area, which is about a 5–10-minute walk from the hotel, and you get to wake up to excellent loch views. There’s also a nice little beach for swimming, or, in my case at least, for lightning-fast dipping just to rinse off some of the dust and sweat before crawling into a comfy sleeping bag. It wasn’t secluded, but it was quiet: there were only two or three tents in addition to ours that night. Quite a bargain, warmly recommended!

Prices (July 2019):

  • Oakwood Inn, Balmaha: cider+beer+shared pizza+chips&cheese+coffee+hot chocolate=£31
  • Cashel Camping: tent spot for two £13 per night, dryer £2, breakfast sandwiches and hot drinks for two £7
  • Rowardennan Hotel: lunch and drinks for two £22
  • Inversnaid Hotel: 2 pints £7

To read all posts on this trip in English, use the tag WHW19EN.

 

West Highland Way, Pt. I: Glasgow–Milngavie–Drymen

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Apparently, all it takes for me to update this blog is a brief year-long break and a tiny pandemic, but better at sloth pace than never. In a way, it’s nice to reminisce about the good old days when travelling was still a thing people did.

After last summer’s SlovinIt tour, it was time for a couple’s holiday. In late July, Chef and I started off towards Scotland. I had been dreaming of seeing the Scottish highlands ever since as a child I first read Don Rosa’s comics about Scrooge McDuck’s early years. Our main goal was to complete the legendary West Highland Way hike, which would add another 150km to our hiking meter.

Before the first day of walking, we spent the night in a shabby neighbourhood near the centre of Glasgow. We went budget first with picking the hotel, and apart from the cheap price, there aren’t many other positive things to say about it. The McLays Guest House was a run-down maze, and we also heard someone get stuck its claustrophobia-inducing lift. We managed to avoid falling victim to the lift trap, but my luck took a turn for the worse at the nearby Vietnamese, where I noticed the avocado in my meal a bit too late. Such a fresh start to our week-long hike when my good night’s sleep was replaced by hugging the porcelain throughout the night. Typical.

Day 1: Glasgow–Milngavie

The official starting point of the West Highland Way is in the town of Milngavie, a twenty-minute train ride from Glasgow. However, our guidebook recommended starting the hike from Glasgow for a softer start to the challenge ahead, so we did exactly that. It was a nice and leisurely way to begin our journey, watching the city slowly turn into countryside, strolling through a park and by a river in the sunshine, through fields and past cows on pastures.IMG_20190719_163213

We had almost made it to Milngavie when dark clouds started gathering above us and the first droplets fell on our forehead. That was our cue to take a little break at the highly recommended Tickled Trout pub for a cold pint and a plate of delicious fried food. We had been meaning to stay the night at a campsite in Milngavie that our guide book mentioned, but then Google revealed it no longer existed. Surprise! Someone smarter than us might have checked that in advance instead of in the pub late on the same day. We didn’t have any gas for our camping stove, either, because they had been sold out at the camping shop we visited back in Glasgow, and the shop in Milngavie would be closing early and there was no way we could have made it in time. The pub’s friendly staff then suggested we try the garden centre next door, and fortunately they had some in stock. Otherwise, no dinner and no fun since you’re not you when you’re hungry, right?

IMG_20190719_181936_01__01Stylish as ever

The light drizzle turned into downpour and showed no sign of stopping, so at some point we just had to get back on the road and wade through the puddles. Luckily, we had packed just the pro gear the situation called for: disposable two-euro rain ponchos. However, since our spirits weren’t too high, we first tried to hitchhike straight to Drymen. Surprisingly enough, nobody wanted to pick up two soaked backpackers. Once we made it on foot to the centre of Milngavie, we asked around if camping by the nearby park was allowed, but nobody knew the answer. We did know that wild camping is allowed along the hiking route, but at that point we were still in town. With our options limited, we decided to just go for it – besides, who was going to leave the comfort of their dry and warm home just to scold us for pitching our tent in the rain? We did, however, get scolded by a middle-aged couple who saw us walking out of the supermarket holding a plastic water bottle and thought we were idiots for paying for water when you could get free water from the blue taps downtown. A valid point, yes, but what if you not only need the water but also something to carry it in?

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Soon after the official starting point of the trail, we spotted a nice place for our tent, hidden behind the bushes, right next to a stream. On the other side of the stream was a golf course, but obviously there was nobody around in that weather. We took a quick dip in the refreshing water and retreated to our chambers to prepare some dinner and listen to the rain lashing against the tent fabric. As you can probably tell from the poor quality, the rain was not kind to my electronics and the picture above is one of the last I was able to take on my phone before its camera went kaput. I also forgot to take my separate compact camera out of my backpack and it got damp and broke down during the night. Oops. Next time, we might want to invest in some better rain gear (or at least upgrade the diposables from the two-euro ponchos to fancier five-euro jackets) and try not to use Google Maps in the rain quite as much, and our belongings might even survive the trip.

Day 2: Milngavie–Drymen

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The rain had stopped while we slept, and in the morning we woke up to another hiker’s excited dog running loose and sniffing around in our camp. We actually met a lot of doggos on the trail, which is always a nice bonus! Even though it was still cloudy, the weather conditions no longer seemed like a threat to the success of our hike. Most of the puddles had even dried up overnight.

IMG_20190720_131107Through the foggy lens – pretty easy to guess which pictures are taken with my phone and which ones with Chef’s

IMG_20190720_131750Savanna or Scotland?

IMG_20190720_134948Good stuff

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We had just had our lunch break before we ran into this sign advertising The Beech Tree, and tempting as it was, we didn’t feel like stopping again. However, this is a nice reminder that the West Highland Way is not by any means a traditional hike in the wilderness, instead it goes from one village to another. Pleasant gravel paths in great scenery make up most of the trail and there are only a few short sections where you need to walk on the side of the road. With a little advance planning, you probably wouldn’t even need to carry much camping gear or food if you went from inn to inn and ate in the many pubs along the way.

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We made it to Drymen late in the afternoon and left our things at the quaint Drymen Camping. The centre of Drymen is only a few kilometres from the campsite, so we decided to do a little evening stroll to visit a pub after dinner. Clachan Inn, the oldest licensed pub in Scotland, was so crowded that we didn’t even try to squeeze ourselves in but went straight next door to the Winnock Hotel pub for a pint and a little dessert. We also got the chance to top up our snack supply at a Spar before rolling back to the campsite.

 IMG_20190720_211822Drymen

Prices (July 2019):

  • The Tickled Trout: 2 x pint, 2 x onion rings, 1 x squid = £19
  • Gas for camping stove: £9
  • Winnock Hotel: 2 x pint, 2 x dessert = £17
  • Drymen Camping: £7/person/night

To read all posts on this trip in English, use the tag WHW19EN.

Budget Holiday in Montenegro, Part III: Bobotov Kuk & the Black Lake

Day 5: Bobotov Kuk, Durmitor National Park

Bobotov Kuk (2523 m) is at least officially the highest peak of Montenegro, and therefore an especially tempting destination for an overly optimistic amateur mountaineer like me. On a good day, the roof of Montenegro offers views of the entire country and beyond, all the way to Serbia and Albania. I hadn’t originally planned to attempt to summit Bobo at all, but after the spectacular failure at Planinica I was keen to try my luck. Quick googling revealed that Bobo is usually only recommended for experienced hikers due to the difficult-ish climb near the peak. However, I also found a blog post by a girl who did the hike in regular sneakers. If Sneaker Girl could do it, why not Hiking Boot Sloth, too?

 IMG_20180620_063847Once again, I set off from the foggy Black Lake early in the morningIMG_20180620_065645Some kind of a Predator crab straight from my nightmares. Can’t tell its head from its arse.

Unbelievably, that morning I was up and hiking even earlier than the previous day. At six in the morning, the corrupt moustache man hadn’t yet made it to his post to raise my blood pressure, so that was a nice bonus. I spent the first couple of hours like I had done the previous day: climbing up a steep forest path, swatting off mosquitoes. Then, all of a sudden, the trees and the bugs just disappeared and majestic mountain tops came to view in the horizon. Even better, I could also spy bits of clear, blue sky! I was so happy about this sudden change of scenery I started to laugh – and immediately a kamikaze fly set its course straight toward my open mouth and dove deep into my windpipe. I carried on coughing and cackling as elegantly as I could.

IMG_20180620_080927Fly ambush spotIMG_20180620_082330Yes, the sign on the house says “beer”. Yes, you could buy beer in the middle of nowhere.IMG_20180620_082548 Now we’re talking! The trail toward Bobo twisting up on the right

The bleating of the sheep and the ringing of their bells together formed a beautiful symphony that echoed off the walls of the surrounding mountains. As I kept pushing forward and upward, I was briefly joined by a curious mountain goat. The goat gave me a pitying look and then airily bounced off into the horizon, as if to show me how it’s really done.

IMG_20180620_082729Buddy picture: me, myself and the mountainsIMG_20180620_083117Try not to stumble, it’s a long slide downIMG_20180620_085606No need to worry about how to stay warm while climbing theseIMG_20180620_092743Find the partly visible trail marks in the photo. Would be nice to have hawk’s eyes, but luckily it’s possible to cheat with contact lenses.

IMG_20180620_093910This is where my soul singsIMG_20180620_094028_01I mean, it’s pretty impressive, no?!IMG_20180620_094037Happiness awaits on a lonely mountain pathIMG_20180620_102353Oh my fogging shit, you’ve got to be kidding me! Not this, not now!

The scenery was absolutely breathtaking, and the warm feeling of happiness was tingling in my chest… Until the snow stopped me in my tracks. This gigantic snow field had swallowed up the entire trail. Bobotov Kuk was straight ahead, so near yet so far. The final ascend is already very steep, but now I was going to have to climb a smooth wall of snow? Of course without any proper equipment. I slipped my way forward, trying to follow the handful of trail marks peeking out from behind the snow. I did that as far as I could, but then there were no more markings. Feelings of desperation and surrender started to bubble up, and I seriously and thoroughly considered giving up and turning back. I thought attempting this ascend would have been way too dangerous – straight up stupid, in fact.

IMG_20180620_103236It doesn’t look nearly as steep as it really is.

I threw a little pity party for myself and started to look for an easier way back down. Then I noticed movement in the valley. Normally, the best hiking day for me is one where I don’t have to see any other people, but this time was a happy exception to the rule. Two ant-like creatures were swiftly nearing my location!

IMG_20180620_105231_2Can you spot the wayfarers?IMG_20180620_105231_circleHow about now?

The ant-like creatures turned out to be Nick and Ann, a lovely couple from Colorado. I thought they would soon reach my waiting spot, but instead they started scaling the wall straight toward the saddle. If these people are gonna be dumb enough to try this, so will I! ‘MURICA! I hastily traversed my way to them like a proper spiderwoman, before they would get too far out of sight. After quick introductions, we continued the journey together with Nick leading the way. I must admit the ascend was truly, madly, deeply scary: we had to scale a near-vertical-feeling wall of loose rocks. You really had to be careful where to put your hands and feet – a single slip-up could mean starting a small stonefall and sliding all the way down along with the stones. I guess it wouldn’t have been enough to kill us, but we surely would have taken more than enough damage, anyway. However, as someone who’s been climbing trees and walls all my life, I wasn’t smart enough to fear as much as I probably should have. Despite the loose rocks under me, I felt confident and steady on my feet. Perhaps it was just the adrenaline. There’s no way I would have braved this alone, though.

IMG_20180620_115517A fun tunnel part between the mountain and the snow

After a scary half-hour scramble, and another slightly less scary half-hour scramble, we finally reached the summit. Oh boy, does Bobo deliver! Even though the weather was partly cloudy, the views from up top were incredible, a complete opposite to the foggy misery of the previous day. This Bobotov Kuk hike in its entirety must be the most beautiful one in all of Montenegro. I’m so glad I didn’t give up.

IMG_20180620_122936Livin’ on the edge, you can’t help yourself from fallin’IMG_20180620_122859The trail we took up is partly visible thereIMG_20180620_123355Guestbook / proof it happenedIMG_20180620_123839Livin’ on the edge, you can’t help yourself at all

Nick and Ann headed back down almost immediately after signing the guestbook. People die in Colorado every year when they are caught in the mountains during thunderstorms, so these brief summit visits have become an understandable habit for them. Me, however, I wasn’t too worried about the scattered little clouds teaming up against me. I stayed behind to enjoy my lunch with a view.

There was not a snowball’s chance in hell I was going to take the same suicide route back down. Sure, on our way up we had toyed with the idea of using the raincovers of our backpacks as sledges, so we could just slide back down toward Žabljak. Wheee! Then I remembered my trusty Haglöfs pack doesn’t even have such a high tech accessory. Fortunately, there is another way. On the other side of Bobo, a shorter, faster but also steeper route takes you back down toward Sedlo. My strained knee was already cracking in excitement at the mere thought of it, but there was no better option. The important thing was that most of the snow had already melted on the Sedlo side. I knew this because we asked this from a couple of Germans we met at the summit. Nick, Ann and I turned out to be the only dumb-dumbs to reach Bobo from the Žabljak side on that fine day in June. Oh, well.

IMG_20180620_124057The cables bolted to the rocks help hikers ascend to and descend from the peak. This part wasn’t nearly as terrifying as it looks.

IMG_20180620_133838More cables, even when you no longer need them

IMG_20180620_135013Now this here swimming hole looks very tempting – until you remember its turquoise waters come from the melting snow all around the pond. Brrrrr!
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If I had to choose one thing to stare at for the rest of my life, this would be my choiceIMG_20180620_140844Oh my god, look at those curves!IMG_20180620_150346Sedlo viewpoint and mountain road right behind the corner

The bad thing about this return route is that Sedlo lies 17 kilometres from Žabljak, which obviously creates some logistical issues for any hiker without a car. I wasn’t too worried – you could always call a taxi if hitchhiking didn’t work out. There was no reason to worry: the two people clad in red you see in the photo above were a friendly Slovak couple who kindly gave me a ride back to the village. It was comfortable, fast and easy. I was happy to hitchhike; even if I’d had a car, I wouldn’t have dared to drive on these narrow serpentine roads. Just glad somebody else dared. This amazing day was a total success, and it’s all thanks to some international teamwork: thank you Montenegro for providing the views, thank you USA for providing the guidance, and thank you Slovakia for the safe return!

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Day 6: Crno jezero, Durmitor National Park

My time in Durmitor was coming to an end. On the last day, I decided to really give my knee some rest. I was only going to walk to the Black Lake and chill out there. So far, I had only seen the lake in its misty morning suit and rainy afternoon suit. However, it is truly at its best in sunny weather. I was unable to capture the true beauty of the bright turquoise water and the surrounding forests and mountains, but here is a small collection of my best attempts at it.

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I may have accidentally forgotten about the whole “give knee some rest” plan when I took off on the 1.5-hour circle route around the lake. It is not to be missed, if you ever find yourself in that corner of the world! Dozens of benches are scattered along the path, so you can take as many snack breaks as you want in amazing scenery.

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IMG_20180621_131707My llama bag fits just enough snacks for an afternoon excursionIMG_20180621_133858

My knee finally had to give up its last glimmer of hope when I decided to do another 1.5-hour walk to the Savin Kuk ski lift, which would (painlessly!) take me once more to the top of yet another mountain.  As soon as I got to the lower station of the lift, dark clouds appeared out of nowhere and gathered around the peak. Then the thunder started to rumble. Loud. I half walked, half ran back to the lake.

IMG_20180621_144818Total gains of the extra 3-hour walk: I saw a cow, the cow saw me.

From the lake, there was still a 45-minute walk to my guesthouse. Fortunately, I had had the common sense to pack a pocket-sized raincoat in my llama bag, because I really got to put it to good use when the skies opened up and torrential rain poured down on me. I hurried toward the village by the side of the road when I heard heavy footsteps behind me. That’s when I met a fellow soaked traveler, Ana-Marija, who had gotten lost in the woods on her way to the lake, and now had to follow the road back to her campsite. She had tried to get a ride from the tour buses, but their drivers are not allowed to pick up hitchhikers. Soon, though, a small car with three older Montenegrin gentlemen stopped next to us and told us to get in. The car was tiny and the backseat even tinier, but the men really saved our day. They dropped me off at the pizzeria of my choosing, and had even driven Ana-Marija all the way to the campsite located in the next village. Quite hospitable, if you ask me.

To read all my posts on this Montenegro trip in English, click here: Montenegro18EN

Budget Holiday in Montenegro, Part II: Planinica Fail Trail in Durmitor National Park

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Day 3: Žabljak 

On the third morning, I caught a minibus to the small mountain village of Žabljak. A student ticket cost only 6€, and the 2.5-hour trip doubled as another sightseeing tour – I’d never tire of admiring the Montenegrin landscapes. Žabljak in itself wasn’t all that impressive: like your average hikers’ resort, the village is built around the road leading to Durmitor National Park and consists of houses and hotels, many of which have already been abandoned mid-construction. There is a grocery store, a post office and an outdoor gear shop, as well as a handful of middling restaurants. The food is well-suited for enthusiastic carnivores looking to stretch their stomachs, but don’t expect any unforgettable gourmet experiences. I had the best 4.50€ pizza at the pizzeria next to the post office, but every other restaurant I tested was a bit of a disappointment in one way or another. The village is not the main attraction here, anyway.

IMG_20180618_161440Durmitor National Park: the best (and perhaps the only) reason to travel to Žabljak

I arrived after noon, and the weather was not looking optimal for any outdoor activities anymore. I spent the rest of the rainy day by the huge picture windows at the Hotel Soa restaurant, sampling some local wines. Not bad for a Monday.

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IMG_20180618_162003In addition to mountain views, you can also spy the abandoned hotel next doorIMG_20180618_170634Yes, that’s a live damn horse lurking on the porch of the ghost hotelIMG_20180618_172316Same guy
IMG_20180619_071040Forecast for the next day: no rain!

Day 4: Durmitor National Park, Planinica Fail Trail

This is the tale of a failed hike.

Contrary to my usual habits, I was already at the national park gate right after seven o’clock in the morning, bursting of energy and excitement. I had been told to visit Planinica, a spectacular viewpoint five hours away, so I wanted to reserve the whole day for the long trek. I asked the stern-looking ranger in the ticket booth for a three-day ticket, and offered to pay by Visa. The card payment terminal seemed to be functioning normally with all its lights on, but the man demanded I pay cash. He dug up the change from his own pocket, and it seemed like a bad idea to even try to ask for a receipt. Even though I usually try to travel on a budget, I’d be more than happy to pay any and every entrance fee to national parks, provided that the money actually goes toward the upkeep of said parks and not in the pockets of chunky, mustachioed men. Annoyed by this Great Injustice, I stormed off into the park – and immediately stepped into a steaming pile of fresh dog shit. So the day began just as well as it would continue.

IMG_20180619_074027Foggy Black Lake before the arrival of tourist buses

The most popular tourist attraction within the park must be Crno jezero, the Black Lake of the Black Mountain, which despite its name glimmers in different shades of turquoise. There is no shortage of visitors to the lake, since dozens of tour buses trundle daily to the park entrance, and from the entrance it’s only a short and easy walk to the lake along a paved road. At seven in the morning, however, there was not a soul in sight, so I got to enjoy my breakfast snacks in full peace and silence. After this brief moment of solitary luxury, everything started to go wrong again.

IMG_20180619_153809Ignore both markers pointing to the right and carry on straight ahead

They say the trails in Durmitor are very well marked. Maybe so, but they’re also all marked with the same red-and-white symbol. The signs are sometimes slightly confusing and/or placed in imaginative, semi-hidden spots. Once you are on the trail, it’s fairly easy to stay on the trail, but it’s imperative to pay extra attention whenever there are crossing paths. Or at least pay more attention than I did. I started the trek by wasting an hour walking in a circle, just because I turned right too early at the crossroads in the picture above.

IMG_20180619_085854 This was not the right trailIMG_20180619_091634

When I had finally found my way onto the correct trail, I was immediately hit by the next plague: after the rainy night, the forest was buzzing with millions of mosquitoes, every single one of which attacked the sweaty sloth buffet I were with full force. I couldn’t stop even for a second if I wanted to avoid fainting from loss of blood. I was so busy cussing and swatting off the bloodsuckers that I accidentally missed another turn and ended up in a cul-de-sac, where even more mosquitoes were waiting to feast on my feeble body. I had to retrace my own steps again.

IMG_20180619_093454No, you’re not meant to keep going straight here. Can you spot the minuscule trail marker on the left? (The signpost was hidden away behind the bend and some bushes.)

IMG_20180619_100202Another great spot for another mosquito ambush

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I couldn’t stop swatting the mosquitoes until a couple hours later, when I finally made it out of the cursed forest and onto the plains dotted with snowbanks. At this point, the sky was forecast to start clearing, which obviously didn’t happen in reality.

IMG_20180619_105002That’s one way to mark a trailIMG_20180619_105656Back when I was young and foolish and still had faith in everything good and in clear skiesIMG_20180619_105348Back when I still had the optimism to stop and smell the flowersIMG_20180619_110517Massive snow craters on the wayIMG_20180619_112304 Looks like everything but clearing skiesIMG_20180619_112940Just some light fog, it will surely lift soon, yupIMG_20180619_120215Crawl-through trailIMG_20180619_120129Crawling through

Planinica was only about twenty minutes away when the wind picked up. Then it started to rain. Visibility kept getting worse, and I really didn’t want to get lost again by veering off the marked trail. The trail went through some brushwood, and I had no option but to crawl through. Muddy, soggy and cold, I finally made it to my destination…

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…Only to find a stick in the mud and fog as far as the eye could see (which really wasn’t far at all). On a clear day, the miraculous views might be there or they might not, who knows? All I know is this hike of mine was a complete and utter failure. Why must the Gods of Fog adore me so? All I could do at that point was return to the forest to get eaten alive by the damn mosquitoes again.

IMG_20180619_121644SIGH.
IMG_20180619_121304GuestbookIMG_20180619_123225Views behind the fog curtain. Maybe.

IMG_20180619_123440The start of a long journey back downIMG_20180619_125940Still on the way backIMG_20180619_150244More mud, yay!

As a recap, the day consisted of: corruption, shit, getting lost, pain, fog, rain, wind, cold, mud, sweat, blood, and no views whatsoever. As a cherry on top, the old RSI in my knee made a glorious comeback all thanks to the sweaty eleven-hour hike with plenty of elevation. It would be a great idea to start slow with these sport vacations of mine, but I never remember to unstupidify myself before I strain myself. Too ambitious for my own good when it comes to mountains, I guess.

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The best part of the whole day was this view of the Black Lake on my way back to the village. I could have just hopped on one of those tour buses with everyone else to see it, no pain and a lot of gain. Maybe next time.

To read all my posts on this Montenegro trip in English, click here: Montenegro18EN

Kungsleden, Part 4: Alesjaure-Abiskojaure-Abisko

Day 6: Alesjaure – Abiskojaure – Almost Abisko

Chef really had the perfect timing to splurge on indoor accommodation. On the fifth night, the temperature dropped well below zero, and by the sixth morning, the nearby mountain tops were covered in a fresh layer of snow. Many campers complained they hadn’t slept much due to the freezing temperature. The only people who seemed happy and well-rested were the few who had been smart enough to pack a fleece liner for their sleeping bag. And of course us, the fat cats from the moneybags section indoors.
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After breakfast, we continued on the tried-and-tested splurge track and paid 350 SEK (~35 EUR) each for a boat ride across Lake Alisjávri, which shaved about 5 km off the next leg. The Alesjaure-Abiskojaure leg would have been 21 km of hiking in total – 16 km sounded much better, so we were more than happy to cheat this way. I think I’ve already mentioned how we rejected a similar boat ride offer on the first hiking day at Lake Láddjujávri because it “seemed like a rip-off”. Curiously, we began to appreciate comfort more and more the closer we got to the end of the hike… Of course, our official excuse for being lazy like that was protecting my hurt knee from any extra strain. The dashing Mister D. did not join us on our lazeathon and chose to walk the whole way, so we wished each other good luck and went our separate ways.
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At the wheel, there was a delightful reindeer herder who told us these boat rides usually form his main income in the summer season. No wonder business is booming: who wouldn’t enjoy the luxury of admiring the scenery from the comfort of a soft seat on a boat speeding across the turquoise lake? We passed by a small village only inhabited in the summer; in late August it was already deserted. We also caught a glimpse of a giant waterfall – I already forgot its name, but I remember the man telling us it’s possible to walk behind it! The waterfall would make a nice day trip destination from Alesjaure. Technically, it would be also possible to pass the waterfall on the way from Alesjaure to Abiskojaure by hiking the eastern side of Alisjávri (Kungsleden follows the western shore). However, that would require some seriously difficult wading where Alisjávri meets Rádujávri. Noobs need not apply, only recommended for experts.
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Although the frost had subsided, the weather was still super chilly before noon. Regardless of the cold, I couldn’t stop smiling like a crazy person, all thanks to the amazing hiking poles. My knees were beginning to feel normal, the trail was fairly easy to hike, and we were making fast progress (at least compared to the past few days). This Alesjaure – Abiskojaure leg was my favourite in terms of the scenery, as well.
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The closer we got to Abiskojaure the more the nature started resembling our own ‘hoods in Finland. The climate in the valley between Abiskojaure and Abisko is unusually warm considering the latitude – there are birch trees growing there! In the picture below, you can see Lake Ábeskojávri looming in the distance. The Abiskojaure huts are located right by the lake.
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The valley belongs to the protected Abisko Nature Reserve. Camping is only allowed at three marked locations: the first spot is at the Abiskojaure huts, the second spot by the trail approximately 5 km before Abisko, and the last at the Abisko camping site. The reserve begins approximately 1 km before the Abiskojaure huts. Our guide book recommended setting up camp by a large bridge a few kilometres before the Abiskojaure huts, and sure enough, there were several beautiful spots in a small forest by the river. Chef and I had originally planned to spend the night there, but we got there quite early and weren’t ready to call it a day yet. We decided to continue past the huts and on to the second camping spot, which meant an additional 10 km of hiking.
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But first, we had a proper lunch break at the huts. I would have very much liked to buy a can of coke to go with my sandwiches, but the tiny shop had already been conquered by a nightmarish group of indecisive Brits. The ladies sure took their sweet time shopping: Gore-Tex trousers rustling, they kept shuffling between the cash register and the shelves, switching out the products in their grubby hands, and calculating out loud whether the budget of eight people would allow for the purchase of both a chocolate bar and a can of pop, or only one of those. Or maybe neither, or possibly a double amount of each…?  Hrrrnnnnnggghhhh! All this kerfuffle over euro prices in the single digits. It became abundantly clear that I would not be advancing to the cash register until long after my spirit had already left my mummified body. My patience wearing as thin as my body from hunger, I left the queue and pretended water was as good a drink as any. We feasted on our lunch at the yard while mosquitoes feasted on us.

Upon leaving the huts, we ran into Mister D. again. Talk about perfect timing! He was just arriving and going to camp by the huts, but we just wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. So we bid farewell for the second time that day.
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Now, I have nothing against roaming birch forests, but after hiking for 24 kilometres we did begin to feel a wee bit tired. According to my calculations, we were nearing the next allowed camping spot – and then got ambushed by the sign pictured below. Huh, two more kilometres? And in the wrong direction? And also uphill?
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At this point, a smart hiker would have consulted the guide book and the map once more. However, I had memorised the fact that there were only three possible camping spots within the entire nature reserve, so obviously this had to be one of them. So we dragged ourselves in the direction the sign was pointing at. The path kept getting narrower and ran through a muddy forest in steep uphill, and the promised camping spots were nowhere to be seen. Our slight annoyance quickly turned into sheer rage, but we had already gone too far to turn back. So we kept trudging on while scaring off any living thing within a five-kilometre radius with our loud cussing.
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The “two kilometres” suggested by the sign was in reality at least three (hundred). We finally made it out of the cursed forest and into the scenery pictured above. This obviously wasn’t the original camping spot we had been looking for, but it was the camping spot we deserved. It was an old, abandoned campsite! We had accidentally hiked outside of the reserve.
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The mood lightened substantially after Chef had managed to feed us both. We realised that making this wrong turn had in fact been a real stroke of luck – the most majestic camping spot of our entire hike was right there, high up, surrounded by mountains, next to a waterfall, with magnificent views over the lake below. I’m so thankful we were too stubborn to give up as soon as we realised our mistake.
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Day 7: Almost Abisko – Abisko
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Last hiking day! I taped up both of my knees just in case the impending downhill would wreak havoc with them. Then we were off to follow in our own footsteps back to the actual Kungsleden. Back down on the right trail, one of the rivers had dried up but the forest was flooded. Pictured below are the outhouses close to our planned camping spot – camping higher up really hadn’t been a bad thing at all.
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The rest or the trail was wide and extremely easy to hike – so easy that it became boring. Could we just finish already! Now I understand why so many people recommend starting the hike in Abisko: this birch forest highway would make for a nice, soft landing to the gruesome hike ahead. Finishing in Abisko means the hike ends in a bit of an anticlimax, at least terrain-wise.
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There are several “meditation spots” along Dag Hammarskjöldsleden. These spots always feature some kind of an aphorism carved in stone. The last meditation spot is pictured above. Carved in stone or not, this one I have to disagree with: den längsta resan är faktiskt Kungsleden.
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Never mind my complaints about the anticlimactic finish line – we really felt on top of the world upon finally reaching the Abisko mountain station! It was simply exhilarating. 108 km of physical and mental challenges and we made it! We also scored high on the relationship-testing aspect of this all: we did not fight once during the entire week (which is unheard of).
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The enormous mountain station, located by Lake Torne, seemed almost like a hotel, but the decoration still made it feel cosy. Our arrival could have been timed better, though: at two in the afternoon, lunch had just ended and the restaurant would not be open again until six in the evening. We didn’t end up staying for long: only for the time it took us to prepare a quick snack and reply to all the accumulated messages from the past week. Then we were off again, this time aiming to hitch-hike to Tromsø, Norway.

 

Kungsleden, Part 3: Sälka-Tjäktja-Alesjaure

Day 4: Sälka-Tjäktja

On the third night, the skies opened up and rain came pouring down on us. Fortunately, our loan tent managed to shield us from the flooding quite well: by morning light, only a small puddle had formed inside the tent in a bumpy spot. Since we didn’t want to start hiking again before the rain had stopped, we gladly took the opportunity to chill out in the comfort of our sleeping bags until late in the morning.

When we eventually got our backpacks packed, we stopped by the huts for some last-minute shopping. The hot-and-cold treatment in the sauna and the river had somewhat subdued the pain in my knee, but I still winced at the thought of putting pressure on my right leg despite all the sports tape. Chef had the stroke of genius to ask the hosts if someone had left behind a spare pair of trekking poles. To me, such a possibility felt highly unlikely and I wouldn’t have even bothered to ask. But lo and behold, they did in fact have a spare pair – how lucky could I possibly get! The hosts refused payment for the poles, and I’m finding it hard to describe the feelings of relief and gratitude that swept over me at that very moment. A couple of popped painkillers later, we were right back on the trail.

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The trekking poles soon became unexpectedly useful, when we had to wade several streams that the heavy rain had made extra challenging to cross. I always loaned one of the poles to Chef so we both could keep our balance while stumbling on slippery rocks. One of the crossings, however, seemed a bit scary: we would have to get knee-deep in the water, and the flow was strong. We were convinced that one pole each would not be enough to keep us from losing balance while also carrying our backpacks. At first, we considered the possibility that Chef would do the crossing first, then throw the poles back to me. However, the stream was wide and we couldn’t risk losing the poles. We walked around for a good while looking for a narrower crossing spot but saw none.

Once again, luck was with us when one of the hikers having a lunch break nearby came over and offered to help us. He told us he enjoyed crossings like that and had already gone back and forth thrice that day to help others cross. We got to borrow his friend’s trekking poles, which he then collected from us on the other side. After the half-hour hassle, we finally made it across without falling in the water. Wading such freezing streams without shoes on does wonderful things to your feet, by the way!

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Then begun our uphill battle toward the highest point on Kungsleden, Tjäktjapasset (1150 m): first a gentle rise and eventually a steep climb up a muddy slope. It’s amazing how far a person can go without really bending one of her knees at all – I pushed myself up with the poles and my left leg while my right leg just sort of stiffly dragged behind like dead weight. We were moving slowly again, but we didn’t let that ruin our mood. The views kept getting better the higher we got. Pictured below is the perfect camping spot we saw on our way to the top. A level, grassy spot next to a little stream for drinking water, with amazing views far down the valley – what more could you ask for? We were not ready to call it a day yet, but we shared this tip with a couple of really tired-looking passers-by a bit later.
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Right after Tjäktjapasset, the scenery changed dramatically from idyllic greenery to barren rocklands. So. Many. Rocks. The Sälka-Tjäktja leg is only 12 km long, but felt like twice as much due to the never-ending rocks. We passed by a couple of camps and snorted at the thought of putting up our own tent there; we didn’t even want to see another rock again, let alone wake up in the middle of the bastards the next morning.
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We also passed straight by the Tjäktja huts, because there was no sauna there. Besides, any otherwise potential camping spot would have been ruined by the rockpocalypse surrounding us. Our perseverance was rewarded when we found a comfortable, grassy spot next to a thundering river. The only downside were the millions of mosquitoes attacking us, but Chef’s campfire kept them away long enough for us to enjoy our dinner without needing a blood transfusion afterward. This time, a dip in the freezing water didn’t seem appealing, so we opted to crawl straight into our sleeping bags and marinate in our own filth overnight.

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Day 5: Tjäktja-Alesjaure

At least from the point of view of an antisocial Finn such as myself, Central European hiking tourists seem to have a strong need for undesirable social interaction and handing out advice nobody asked for. On the fifth morning, we were harassed by the French instead of the Germans. Variety is the spice of life! A group of French people passed by our camp at the crack of dawn (or at least before 9 am) and took it upon themselves to wake us up by incessant yelling. “Hello! HELLOOOO THERE! Time to wake up! Hehehehehehehe! Lol!”

How about time to bugger off?IMG_4174

Oh well, at least we got the day going. For some reason, my memories of this 13-km leg to Alesjaure are hazy at best. Despite the bunch of photos I took, the details still escape me. I do remember the trail becoming easier and going pleasantly downhill for a good part of the day. Kungsleden occasionally passes through fenced areas the locals use to pen their reindeer, and we managed to catch a glimpse of a herd of these handsome fellas, who barely paid any attention to us. Based on my photos, there were some river crossings as well.
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Right by the Alesjaure huts, there is a meandering, turquoise river that many might recognise from popular Instagram photos. The best photos of the river could be taken by climbing a nearby mountain, but we couldn’t be arsed to strain our bodies to take the same photos hundreds have taken before us and better than us. Instead, we continued on to the huts.

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The huts are built on top of a small, steep hill with a view over the aforementioned Instagram river, as well as the Alisjávri lake gleaming on the other side. There are several buildings for accommodation, as well as a large main building with a shop and a huge dining area. Next to the outhouses, there is a sign pointing to probably the world’s most majestic pissing-in-the-wind spot for the gentlemen.
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We got to the huts right in time for the ladies’ sauna, so I left Chef to set up camp for us and headed straight to the delicious warmth. In the meanwhile, Chef had arranged a surprise for me: that night, we wouldn’t be sleeping outside in a tent, but in a real bed in the warm indoors! It cost Chef 500 SEK (~50€) per bed, which at that point of the hike seemed worth the price. We ran into Mister D. from the Sälka sauna again and happily shared a room with him.

While Chef and D. took their turn in the sauna, I was unsuspectingly wandering in the yard and accidentally got in the middle of another hiker couple engaged in a breakup of epic proportions – by the end of the spectacle, one of them got on a helicopter and just flew away. I tried to cook myself dinner, but all the gas stoves were occupied by a Massive Group of Brits. Soon the other party of the breakup rushed in with a few friends, sat at the same table with me and began a deep and thorough analysis of what had happened earlier, trying to justify their own assholeish behaviour. I was too hungry to stay and listen to the drama, so I decided to go wash some laundry instead.

This time I didn’t want to go to the mixed sauna. Instead, I was watching like a hawk for a chance to heat up my food. Chef and D. joined me later, and eventually there were only the three of us left, sharing our snacks. D. ate our smoked cod roe paste and gave us a big chunk of Cadbury’s chocolate in exchange – trade makes the world go round, amirite? We had to sit in the corner of the kitchen, because the Massive Group of Brits had spread their snacks all over the biggest dinner table, thus “reserving” it for their own use in the morning. Where were those world famous manners then, I ask?