Hiking in Prokletije National Park
Volušnica peak is at the end of a steep, 2 to 3 hour ascent from the bottom of Grebaja valley. To get to the valley, we drove through an absolutely stunning rural landscape which was, unfortunately, dotted with many houses that were in bad taste. However, the further out we went, the wilder it got. The tacky homes eventually petered out, and it was just us and nature.
The valley was a half hour drive from the ethno village Kula Damjanova, where we were staying. It is a narrow strip of land that leads to a dead end, surrounded by massive peaks. There is a small parking area at the entrance and a guesthouse with a few rooms and a restaurant. Near the guesthouse is a tap, dispensing water from a mountain spring, and we recommend filling your water bottles up before tackling the ascent.
To get to the start of the trail, we walked through a small field and scrambled up a rocky slope with lots of loose rocks. This was the trickiest part. After half an hour, the rocky trail gave way to the soft, moist ground of the mountain forest and we began our ascent in earnest towards the peak. Vanja, our guide, told us that by the time we got to the top, we would have ascended 700 meters.
It was a foggy day, and the air was heavy with moisture. The forest we climbed was shrouded in thick mist, adding greatly to the atmosphere. At times, we could barely see beyond the first row of trees that lined our trail, and the ascent seemed to continue on forever, with the end literally nowhere in sight. Although the climb was steep, it was fairly easy going as the ground was soft but not slippery and there were very few rocks that threatened to trip you up.
Eventually, after an hour and a half, we reached the end of the forest. The trees opened up to a beautiful bowl of rolling grass and low shrubs. A path cut through the bowl and climbed up its side, parting low plants of blueberries, strawberries and juniper berries. It was late summer and the fruits were ripe, colouring the field in shades of red and violet. We couldn’t resist stopping to pick handfuls of them to snack on as we walked past.
The final ascent, up the side of the bowl, was challenging. There were many passing storms that rained upon us and gusts of wind that blew strongly as we scrambled the final slope to Volušnica peak. We even came quite close to giving up, as the weather kept on getting worse with every minute. However, breaks in the clouds kept our spirits up, and we continued scrambling upwards, hoping for the sun to come out.
We were glad we did not give up, for the view from the summit was absolutely breathtaking. We felt right on top of the roof of the world, surrounded with other incredibly high peaks that were covered in thick tufts of clouds that billowed around them. Danijel set up the tripod to make a time lapse; it turned out to be pretty epic because of the insane and temperamental weather – however, the very thing that made it also caused us to cut it short. With every minute, the wind blew harder and the rain fell in larger and larger drops – eventually, we had to call it a day, pack up shop and head back down.
Ironically, only ten minutes on our way down, the weather turned. The sun finally burst through the clouds for good, and basked on our backs the entire way back into the bowl. That’s the weather in the mountains of Montenegro for most of the year – beautiful, but temperamental. Vanja told us that, had the weather been better, we would have made the one hour hike around the bowl which was well worth doing for its far-reaching views of the area.
With the sun out, the descent was a lot easier and quicker, and we made it back to bottom of the valley in slightly over an hour. It’s odd, but being able to see what’s in front of us, now that the forest was no long covered in fog, made the downward journey seem shorter as well.
When we got to the bottom of the valley, we decided to walk its entire length, which didn’t go too far before it hit a dead end – the base of a group of formidable mountain peaks. Along the way Vanja, who is an experienced rock climber, told us of the popular rock faces in this small valley that climbers from all over the world tried to conquer. There was one particular peak, one of the most difficult in the world, that had only been scaled in recent times. We speculated on why that was – better, lighter equipment was one, but also that climbers today had more opportunities to acquire knowledge, training and experience than those in the preceding decades.
One of the peaks along the valley is particularly charming, as it looks like two bears kissing, If you look up at it at the right angle, there is no mistaking it. It’s only a trick of the eye and the imagination, but nevertheless, a heart-warming sight indeed.
It was well after three in the afternoon when we finally sat down at the restaurant at the foot of the mountains for some food and drink. We had some lovely grilled fish, the traditional Montenegrin dish kačamak (in this case it was melted cheese with polenta), and a delicious shopska salad. It was off season and the restaurant hadn’t seen many customers for a while, so there was no fixed menu – they offered us what they would eat themselves, and it was really fantastic.
The best thing about that meal though was the excellent company. I couldn’t speak any Montenegrin myself, but Danijel and Vanja had a long and illuminating chat with a former mountain ranger who was at the restaurant, and its owner.
From where we were sitting, we had a clear view of a cave high up on a steep grassy slope facing us. He told us that there was a female bear in that cave who mated frequently with males in the area. Every two years, she would give birth to new cubs. Only a few weeks ago, she was spotted playing with her cubs on the very grassy slope we now had such a clear view of. To monitor the brown bear population, hidden cameras were installed all over the mountains. As an unintended side effect, they captured the existence of all sorts of other creatures, including the endangered and elusive European lynx.
Unfortunately, not all the stories he told were positive. The Grebaja valley was once home to the alpine ibex, another endangered creature. Before the war, there were many of them, so many that the cliffs around the valley seemed to be covered in the creatures. Sadly, in the 1990s, when the war broke out in the Balkans, some jerk brought an anti-aircraft gun into the valley and shot them all as target practice. The alpine ibex is low on the threatened species list now due to reintroduction programs in Europe, especially in Switzerland, and the numbers in Montenegro are slowly coming up. As the former ranger said, if people would just leave them alone for a few years, they would rebuild their numbers…
By the time we departed the valley, the sun had started to set. It had been a long and eventful day. We left, marvelling at the wildlife that lived in the mountains around Grebaja valley, most of them unseen. I was glad that there were good people like the mountain ranger and the restaurant owner who believed in the intrinsic wealth of the place they lived in, having dedicated their lives to taking care of it and promoting it to the tourists that visited.