Macedonia – Mountain rescue

Macedonia is known for its mountains.  It is covered with them (80% roughly) and hiking is therefore a very popular pastime.  One of my goals for my visit was to climb Magaro Peak in the beautiful Galicica NP and so it was that I set out one beautiful clear morning to do just that.  Unfortunately there are no buses to the trailhead so I got as far as I could by bus then waited by the side of the road to thumb a ride – and was very grateful to be picked up by a Dutch couple only about 5 or 10 minutes later – grateful as I was experiencing some significant hassle with the police at the intersection.  Where is your passport? Where are you from? Where are you staying? Who with? Name? Address? So a friendly Dutch couple were a welcome sight!

It was a pretty hike, initially through some forest… and then you hit the snow.  It was hard work and I was really glad I had my brand new hiking poles with me.  This was their first proper outing and they certainly got a good test.  Even though they cost me 2 or 3 days budget they have proved to be well worth the price.  Up above the tree line it was so beautiful I that I couldn’t stop taking photos of the absolutely gorgeous mountains, pastures, wildflowers, snow patches and rocks with colourful lichen. Finally, after one particularly long stretch of snow up a very steep gully, I got my first view of the two lakes – both Lake Ohrid (from where I had just come) and Lake Prespa which lies further to the east.  After a quick bite of lunch I pushed for the top and was delighted to find a group of 4 guys who merrily called out in English “would you like a coffee?!”  They were a Mountain Rescue team doing a training hike.  I had planned to just take a couple of photos and then keep going but …mmm…. that coffee sounded good.  As was what followed – homemade croissants, raisins and cheese and all sorts of other stuff (even though I was full from lunch I did somehow manage to relieve them of some of their supplies. Well it seemed rude not to really.  I will be the size of a house by the end of this trip!)  We headed off down the trail together and I am pleased to tell you that we pioneered a brand new sport which I hope is going to take off all around the world.  Ladies and gentlemen – I give you: BUTT SKIING.  Enjoy the short video presentation (click here) of this new and exciting sport which I do hope will be featured in the next winter olympics.

Very, very cold on the bum and hands, and I have bruises on me like you wouldn’t believe.  One on my backside where I hit a rock (see video) and handprints on both biceps where the guys grabbed me as I was about to go out of control.  I was laughing so hard I was almost crying and, even though I started out a little nervous, by the end I was looking for extra bits of snow and going down the crazy steep bits (and had worked out how to use my feet for direction and braking by then).  All that could have made it better was if we had seen a bear on the way back through the forest, which did surprise the guys as apparently they spend most of their hikes hoping they don’t see a bear.  When we reached their car a) I was presented with a bunch of wildflowers they had collected and b) they told me they would drive me all the way home (24km out of their way!!!).  So kind and such a fun day – a real highlight of my trip.

Next destination was the rather artsy town of Ohrid where within the space of an hour I had seen at least a dozen artists at work painting various scenes around the town, a group of young people practicing a play al fresco, and, speaking of fresco, watched a ‘concert’ of sorts in the fresco-filled church of St Sofia.  Upon entering I could hear a piece by one of the Russian composers, and whoever I was expecting to see seated at the ivories and belting out this impassioned performance, it certainly wasn’t this person…a little girl of no more than 8 years old!! It was a really intricate piece and I am sure I was sitting with my mouth gaping open for the whole 10 minutes.  Although the man (who I am assuming was her teacher) was clearly unimpressed by her performance I said ‘good” and “thank you” in the local language and gave her a clap as she walked past and she looked quietly pleased.  The man, on the other hand, glared at me – presumably for praising such a substandard performance!!

Another surprise awaited me shortly thereafter when I was lured by the smell of roasting peppers to a restaurant with a deck on the lake.  What a great choice!  I had a half a “Macedonian plate” (and if that was a half then I would hate to try and eat a whole) which had roast peppers, courgettes and eggplant, meats, cheese, salad, fresh bread and dips – the best of which being the Avjar which – as total luck would have it – is the preserve that I sat making with a Romanian family during the 4 days I stayed with them in Sigisoara back in 1994.  I have always wanted to know what it was and to try it again so it was a wonderful surprise to come across it again so unexpectedly.  And I have since been stuffing myself with it at every opportunity.  Thank goodness for all the hiking!

Next hike on the agenda was from the nearby village of Velestovo to Vrv Elen.  The village itself is not so special now as, even though some of the original lovely old farm houses still exist in various states of dilapidation, apparently now it is all rich folk living up there and building gaudy big houses and lording over those who slum it down on the flats.  Early in the hike I came across a farm with a cute yellow car and a nice view behind it which was just crying out to be photographed….when from behind the car walked an enormous mountain dog.  Given I had just been reading about how dangerous and savage these dogs can be when guarding their flocks I was a little nervous…then suddenly from the house came running towards me the most gorgeous ball of fluff!!  It was a puppy of the same type and I am guessing that big dog was daddy.  Anyway he was super-friendly and as no one was around to tell me not to I cuddled him for about 20 minutes and took pictures of him and just generally gushed with happiness!  He was like a tiny cuddly bear with eyes you could drown in.  Eventually big dog let me pat him too and it was very hard to tear myself away… but the puppy was still there on the way down and amused me by chewing up the handles on my brand-new-super-expensive-much-loved hiking poles.  Well, that’s ok.  He looked so cute doing it and now every time I hike with them and I see his razor sharp little teeth marks permanently embedded therein I think of him (click here for cute video evidence).

From Ohrid my next stop was Vevchani where I scored an absolutely beautiful room with a balcony overlooking the cute little moutain village – It was so nice that I kept wondering if I had somehow misunderstood the price…until they had a function downstairs with 60 noisy Croatians and a live band.  Still, at least it didn’t happen the night before my big hike – a circuit of a bit over 20k from Vevchani through Gorna Belica and on to Crn Kamen (Black Stone) peak .  And it was a tough hike – way steeper than I was expecting and because of the snow melt the paths were often small streams. In the tiny (and seemingly abandoned) village of Gorna Belica I only saw one person and two doggies, one of whom came racing up and flipped on her back begging for belly rubs.

I passed the mosque, a church, some rather fancy looking houses and a hotel that was all completely locked up and then headed out the other side of town to continue the walk.  I was just walking up the wide valley which follows the river’s course and has a magnificent granite wall along one side, when I turned around and saw the small dog following me.  Well of course it is nice to have a little doggy pal to walk with but as I was going on a circuit I didn’t think it was such a good idea as I wouldn’t be able to bring her home.  It never occurred to me she may not have a home and may be trialling me as a prospective mummy.  She followed along at a distance for quite some way before I felt sorry for her being scared so I called her over for a pat to show her I wasn’t going to hurt her.  And I will admit it was nice having her trotting along with me.  But then the river crossings started to get deeper and at one I gave her a pat goodbye as I wasn’t going to carry her over and I figured it was a good natural end to our hiking.  Boy was I wrong.  Absolutely nothing fazed this dog and she stuck with me through thick and thin.  ANd she was SOOOOO happy!!!  Running ahead and sniffing stuff and then looking for me to catch up then being right on my heels (so much so that I accidentally whacked her with my hiking pole at one point and then I had to cuddle her to make up for it).  I tried hiding from her at one point in the vain hope she would run off home but she sniffed me out and thought it was a great game!  The valley widened to become a huge area of pasture carpeted in an amazing variety of wildflowers- including an s-shaped river of purple crocuses, and as we climbed out of the valley distant snow capped peaks were forming a dramatic backdrop. Here I made the mistake of stopping for lunch.  I was aware that the weather report said possible storm at 1pm and I could see cloud starting to build, but I was hungry and had a very steep climb ahead and it was sunny and that view was just too good to pass up.  So I had lunch and fed Maisy (for I had named her by this point) then walked away in the hope that maybe she had only followed me for food and would turn around and go home.  Yes, I know, I am an idiot.

We were just under the peak and I couldn’t for the life of me find the next marker (the GPS trail I had been following had gone cold as it were – it followed an old path up which was significantly off to the right of where I was).  Suddenly misty rain started to fall and low cloud was coming in at the rate of knots.  I was reluctant to climb higher, knowing the cloud situation could only be worse and wanting to descend as quickly as possible to get out of it, but not having a marker to follow and in rapidly decreasing visibility, I decided to take a punt on a middle way between the GPS trail to my right and the peak to my left.  I figured that by following the contour towards a saddle I had spied in the distance before the cloud obliterated it,  I would have to hit either the GPS trail or the marked trail at some point…but would I be able to see the marker?  I noted the position of a small overhang which would serve as shelter should it be required, and was happy to have a warm, if very, very wet by now, doggy to augment the warm clothing I always pack in case of such an emergency.  I had food and water and wasn’t worried about my survival prospects in case I got stuck up there.  But all the same I didn’t fancy it.  I could barely see 10m in front of me now and without a path to follow the rocky and sloping ground was no fun at all to contend with.  Finally I reached the saddle and to my horror found it snowed over.  It was really starting to bucket down now and trying to look at my tablet through rain misted glasses and prevent it from becoming completely waterlogged was an almost impossible task.  I still had no better idea where the real path lay but had caught a glimpse of the lake the track runs by at least 500m below, and between me and it was a sheer slope down via either some really treacherous looking rocks or a gully full of slippery snow.  Neither option looked appealing and I was starting to suspect that the the path lay right underneath that snow, making the route actually impassable.  Then it started to hail.  I had to make a decision and make it quickly as I was getting really wet (even with my rain jacket) and very very cold.  I hate havign to go back the way I have come which is why I had jumped at the chance to do this circuit even though I knew it would be tough.  But the thought of continuing through unchartered terrain with no markers, even assuming I could find a way to get down the other side, just seemed like a really bad idea.  What really decided me in the end was Maisy.  If I went back the way I came, at least I could drop her home and not have to worry about what to do with her when I got back to Vevchani.  I figured at least I could follow down a faint path I could see below me back to the valley floor rather than come back the exact same way.  Before decent I managed to get a fabulous video of Maisy in the snow.  I don’t know if she had ever experienced snow before (another reason to suspect she may not belong to this village) but she raced around like a crazy thing up there!!  I was worried about her falling and slipping over the edge as I don’t think she really had much idea of how far down it went and I don’t know how I could ever have rescued her.

So we traipsed back down the valley and back to the village where I decided to try to lose Maisy by means of sausage.  She is such a clever little girl though and outwitted me at every turn managing to claim the sausage and stay on my heels.  And then she disappeared.  I admit I was ever so slightly disappointed…but happy for her that she had had a lovely day out and hopefully would be snuggled up with someone in front of the fire this evening.  I headed out of town and had gone about 1 or 2 km when I happened to turn around…to see Maisy!!  Aghhh!  At this point I told her to go home and even tried half-heartedly throwing a stone in her general direction hoping she would get the idea.  But I didn’t have the heart to send her away and I just felt bad.  What is the likelihood that a dog would abandon a home for someone who took her on a walk to play in the snow, gave her some cuddles and a bit of sausage??  WIth a sinking feeling I gradually accepted that she had been abandoned here by some cruel bastard.  She has obviously been owned at some stage and fairly recently because she is in good shape and only young and very friendly, not like a wild dog.  She was so funny because she pretended she wasn’t following me and when I turned around suddenly she would freeze like in a game of grandma’s footsteps and pretend to be looking at something at the side of the road!!!  Eventually she gave up all pretence and was walking an inch behind me again as we got close to town.  I gave her a cuddle to let her know all was ok and in the course of the walk had decided to effect my own ‘mountain rescue’ and would take her to Skopje with me and find the animal rescue place where Sasha from Mountain Rescue had got his dog.  I figured after following me for about 17km and through some really foul weather and a stupid ‘shortcut’ I decided to take which saw us sliding down a ridiculously steep hill then bush-bashing the last couple of hundred metres of the walk, that she deserved to find a really good home.  We finally emerged onto the track that led into town and I relaxed figuring we had made it….then disaster struck.  A hound dog suddenly appeared out of nowhere and raced warily past me…I figured he was just going to sniff Maisy and say hello (Sydney dog park innocent that I am) but she was scared and took off and he chased her.  I called and called and yelled at the other dog but they just kept running.  I was terrified the hound would come back with his mouth dripping with blood but he finally turned up 10 minutes later looking very pleased with himself but with no sign of carnage about his jaws.  I called and called and Maisy didn’t come and eventually I gave up as I was really cold, soaked through, very tired and I just didn’t have it in me to walk out of town again.  I am so sorry I didn’t though and sorry I didn’t think to pick her up when the other dog appeared…it just never occurred to me.  Next day I walked out of town for a few km calling and calling but never found her.  I had kind of expected to find her curled up outside the hotel to be honest and I had felt bad all night thinking how cold and wet she was because of me and how she could have been sitting curled up by the heater with me instead.

I never found her and am now in contact with the dog rescue place trying to convince them to go and look for her…but sadly till now without success.

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3 thoughts on “Macedonia – Mountain rescue

  1. What a fantastic adventure! It certainly had its ups and downs. That puppy is just soooo cute. Hope they find Maisy and give her a good home. Last year at Easter, we were at Lake Prespa but on the Greek side. It is an amazingly beautiful place.

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