Balkans Trek Part 2 – Albanian Adventures: A Pass and Two Peaks

My travel journal starts off: I am sitting in the warm sunshine on a picnic bench at the Guesthouse Lepushe, in Albania, surrounded by the Accursed Mountains. Several of our group are playing cards, and another is sharing wine made by the nuns at the monastery we visited the previous day – straight from the plastic screw top bottle – with a pasted on label over the original brand. I’m in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Two days ago our first full day of trekking began with a classic Kosovo breakfast on the porch -tomatoes, egg, puffy fried bread, cheese and olives. Somehow all the trekkers at the home stay each got a turn at the one bathroom before setting off. Lunch food was set out so everyone could make their own sandwiches for what was billed as the most difficult of the trekking days.

We took jeeps to the start of the trail, which started with a straight up trajectory. They don’t believe in switchbacks here. We later learned that a lot of the trails were old smugglers’ paths. We hiked through long-grassed meadows where the wildflowers became even more exotic – now shocking blue periwinkles interrupted the yellows, pinks, and purples. Our first stop was a glacial lake – not blue but green glass. A second glacial lake came soon after, this one very low and banded by rock.

We continued onward and upward, finally reaching the Jalanek Pass, with limestone cliffs all about. Walking along the border of Kosovo and Montenegro, ultimately we started to follow the “signs” down, bringing us into Montenegro. It was a very long descent with some rocky spots – we had gained a lot of elevation.

Yoga just before the pass

After 7 hours or so, we could finally see the vans that were to deliver us to that night’s accommodationway below us across some meadows. However, it turned out those fields were the property of an ancient farmer who staggered over to us with a walking stick in each hand while we had stopped for a very brief rest. He was seemingly unable to speak in words but eventually pulled out a piece of paper that made clear he expected tribute for crossing. Our guide quickly rallied us all and we ascended back up the meadows and found a way down through some fields being harvested by a much more congenial farmer who apologized for the behavior of his neighbor.

The next controversy involved deep unhappiness among the drivers of the three vans – too many had been ordered and our guide had had no cell service so he couldn’t let anyone know. Eventually, after a flurry of extremely loud communication – with great umbrage and angst on all sides – we ended up with all three vans, although J was the only passenger in one of them.

Our “tiny houses” in Montenegro

Following our 7-8 hour trek, we had an hour or so drive to some cottages in a national park where we were staying the night. We drove through several small towns, a number with Florida style McMansions planted right next to traditional small concrete dwellings. Nothing is really “quaint” here – the utilitarian architecture of post WW2 USSR left a strong mark. According to our guide, Montenegro is now a good place to house money, and Montenegrans who reside in the west frequently maintain large residences in the Montenegran countryside.

By then, somehow we had assuaged the van drivers and we all loaded into two vans for the final stretch. There were 4 of us in a three person row in the smaller van. The steep uphill on the way to the national park simply proved too much for its engine, and despite several valient attempts (I kept thinking of the little engine that could), it kept stalling half way up the mountain. Eventually four of us got out and finished the day the way we started – trekking up the last hill.

The cottages that night felt quite luxurious. Each couple had their own, with a private bathroom and a little porch. I felt like I was in the tiny house show. There was also a great restaurant, filled with families, many in Islamic dress but an equal number in western garb.

The next day it was time to venture into Albania. As a child of the ’70s, I still found it unbelievable that you were permitted into that country, which was historically one of the most closed off places in the world. The first part was uphill through a dark and gloomy forest. It was overcast and quite humid. Finally the sun started to break out, and we reached the tree line, through more meadows and to the top of the first peak of the day. From that peak we descended along a saddle and back up along a very exposed ridge that connected the peaks. We could see Albania. But there was another peak yet to be climbed!

Sheer drops were on either side of the ridge trail but that didn’t seem to bother the flocks of goats that were cavorting along the hillsides. The Accursed Mountains loomed over the trail, steep sharp crags etched against the sky. The wind finally died down and we were able to stop and take a lunch break on the top of the second peak.

We took our time on the long meandering descent, finally walking into the little village of Lepushe, Albania for another home stay.  There, J, me, A and N shared what must have originally been the kitchen.  It was quite convenient to have our own sink in the room.

We arrived about mid-afternoon on an absolutely lovely day. One other small group was staying but it was clear we were in the middle of nowhere. Boys were racing a donkey and a horse in the dirt street; the owners gave us a tour of the restaurant they were building out of stone next to the house. I’m also pretty sure we say our dinner being butchered on a stone slab.

We watched the sun sink over the Accursed Mountain, suddenly turning the steel grey into a soft pink. I guess that’s sort of how I felt about Albania.

Balkans Trek Part 1 – In and Around Kosovo

My last post started with things brought on the trek. Things We Brought to the Balkans – We’re On Our Way  But things were acquired also; among them a large antique plate that daughter A’s boyfriend N presented me with from his three day stay in Istanbul.  This plate became my companion for the remainder of the trip, wrapped in Turkish newspapers, bounced between packing cubes in my duffel, up mountains and down hills; by the time it arrived back in Orlando safe and sound it felt like an old friend.

And from that you can tell all of the travelers did in fact arrive in Pristina, Kosovo on time.  The next day, we were due at the airport by 11 to meet up with our guide, B from Croatia, and the two other members of our group, who turned out to be L from Glasgow and another J from Newcastle. Experienced travelers, they were quite tolerant of the group of Americans they found themselves stuck with.

We piled into one large van to make the trip to Peja, Kosovo, home of a beer of the same name, which featured prominently for the rest of the trip.  The flowery meadows soon turned into low mountains as we reached Peja.  Many low buildings, lots with the top floors incomplete while people lived in the lower ones.  The Accursed Mountains loom over the town in the distance.

The Skanderbeg

We checked into our small hotel and walked down to the town center. Three small child menaces on bikes terrorized groups of pedestrians (something that seems common in small towns throughout the world!). A river runs through the center of the pedestrian streets that comprise the main part of the city.  We found a café for lunch, where some of the braver (and hungrier) members of our crew ordered the local specialty of “Skanderbeg,” a breaded and fried meat roll stuffed with cheese and covered in a white dressing.  It’s named after an Albanian military leader who led a rebellion against the Ottoman empire. Appropriately enough, if you didn’t eat it, you could definitely use it as a billy club.

We then walked another mile of so through town to the 13th century monastery, a UNESCO site under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Patriarch. You had to show your passport to enter, but when the guard saw a U.S. passport he just waved us all in. I’m not used to such treatment! The monastery consists of 4 churches built to honor various saints and patriarchs, all of which are connected to form a whole. Frescos adorn the walls and ceilings, some quite beautiful, and others, as the voice on the audio tour said, by “artists of modest talent.” Besides a smattering of tourists, there were numerous nuns, visitors in military uniforms genuflecting and kissing relics – a fragment of arm bone encased in a silver sleeve, a bit of finger housed in a gold glove. I was struck by how the Byzantine ornamentation resembled Celtic knot designs.

The hotel had a large patio area and was near a playground and concert area as we soon found out. Our otherwise quiet evening started with the sounds of an Albanian wedding.  It then transitioned to what turned out to be part of a six day animation and music festival, which featured pulsing Turkish and Eastern Euopean traditional and house music played at a volume that literally shook the windows of our room.  I could see the light show well enough to make out the name, Kocani Orchestra, during one of the rowdiest pieces. Look it up. There’s a YouTube video. I know because I found it about 3 a.m.

Light show outside my window in the wee hours of the morning

After a disrupted night, we had a formal visit to the monastery with our guide. From there, it was into two “off road jeeps” for a drive through the Rugova Valley to start the trek.  Steep granite (?) walls rose up on each side of the canyon. After a series of hairpin turns, we stopped at a hut and began.  The trail started off at a very steep uphill grade (not made easier when we lost the trail and had about an extra half hour of bushwhacking through the woods). Meadows alternated with evergreen forests, and the variety and quantity of wildflowers was spectacular. I wish I knew the names (a quick Google search didn’t help), but here’s as close as I can come to equivalents – yellow and purple daisies, white and purple clover, tall thistles, blue bells, pink and white Queen Ann’s lace, periwinkles, yellow buttercups. Ridge upon ridge of purple mountains provided a backdrop.

It was hot and sunny and we ate lunch by someone’s empty log home, isolated atop a peak. Hard to see how it was built, much less how it was of any practical use. The last few hours were all downhill to the village of Liquenat. We started the descent in ever increasing rain and thunder; once it let up we had a half mile of sheer mud to slog through.  Amazing how much weight mud can add to your hiking boots! But the vistas made up for all of it.

We finally reached our first “home stay” –  which turns out to mean someone who has turned their home into a hostel. This one had several bedrooms, housing 6-8 people each and an extreme shortage of bathrooms. After downing some Peja beer, our group and the other few hikers staying had a great dinner – salad and fresh cheese, spinach and cheese phyllo dough pies, a small bit of lamb, potatoes, peppers and a date cake.

Playing cards in LIquenat

A map was posted on the property showing that what we are really trekking is sections of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail.  Tomorrow we will walk the border of Montenegro and a high pass.

Things We Brought to the Balkans – We’re On Our Way

Flying over Istanbul

What does one bring on an eight day trekking trip to the Balkans, followed by a several day sojourn in Dubrovnik, you ask? Well, here’s some of what our merry band of hikers thought appropriate:

a deflated basketball (because one of us has a theory that former Yugoslavian countries will be rife with basketball courts and eager players), a pin to inflate said basketball, massive amounts of immodium (I had to convince that one that 48 tablets really would be sufficient and he didn’t need the 96-pack), reading materials to include Rue Morgue (I leave it to your imagination) balanced out by an astronomy magazine and Foreign Affairs, and a laser helmet (whose purpose I also leave to your imagination).

And here are the destinations from whence we are all coming (some of us took some pre-vacations, as you can tell) – with the hope that we will all converge within a 12 hour window in the town of Pristina, located either in Kosovo or Serbia, depending on what map you are looking at: Orlando, Austin, Boston, Athens Greece, and Istanbul.

This is a live and happening blog post as I write from the patio at The Golden Hotel in Pristina, likely one of the least touristy cities there is. And correspondingly cheap. Lunch for six was under 20 euros. The first wave of arrivals has all made it successfully, even though two mistook the sign for the prayer room at the Istanbul airport for the rest room sign. Oops. We are all going on over 24 hours with nothing but airplane sleep, but still managed to stagger down through the neighborhood we are in to the main drag.

The Pristina Airport is a far cry from Istanbul’s

It’s a pedestrian area, low rise buildings in various states of renovation and dilapidation. Kosovans seem happy to see us. Note the 4th of July banner!

But it’s an absolutely beautiful day and I believe it to be Saturday. The main activity in Pristina seems to be hanging out at cafes drinking coffee or beer or wine. So, we are appropriately entering into the spirit of it all as we recover from what can only be described as a grueling day of travel.

Tomorrow- Peja and the trek begins!

The Lost Series – Palm Bluff Conservation Area, Florida

This post was supposed to be the tale of my 20 mile solo hike last Saturday on the West Orange Trail. But it’s July 4 and instead I thought I’d celebrate by a quick addition to the “lost” series. It’s timely because this hike literally only finished about three hours ago!

Fellow hiker and friend S has apparently developed a new hobby – finding the most unknown hiking trails in Central Florida. Today he thought we should all recognize Independence Day by asserting ours and venturing off into the wilds of Volusia County. He and M and their daughter B, all of whom will be leaving with us in two weeks for our Balkan adventure, insisted we get to their house at the ungodly hour of 8:15 am, to drive to the trailhead as heat was a concern. Boy, was it.

When we arrived at the trail head there were only two other cars in the wide flat meadow. One must have belonged to the two mountain bikers we saw early in the hike – they were the only other humans we saw on the trail. Two people were standing by the other car, neither of whom looked as though they had ability or desire to set off on an 8 mile hike. When we finally finished, ours was the only car in that meadow. The fact the grass was long and hadn’t been mashed down should have given us a clue we weren’t exactly on an Everest like climb. (Note – rather remarkable that Everest has become synonymous with crowded trails.)

Anyway, the first part was fine. Flat, grassy, and a number of stiles to go through with stringent warnings to shut gates as “cattle were in pasture.” We were basically circumnavigating a broad swath of power lines – I was hoping walking under them might give us a jolt of energy but it didn’t.

Anyway, as we chatted and walked, we found ourselves walking by a farmhouse, together with quite a few cows. We’d been making fun of how many trail blazes there were on what was really a well-marked fire road when we realized we hadn’t seen any of said red blazes for quite a while. M, pointing out she once had been a professional map reader in her brief career as a fire watch, was sure we’d missed a turn. S, equally confident in his navigation skills, felt sure we were going in the right direction. J and I, aware of our directional challenges, mostly stayed quiet. And B pointed out that there was now absolutely no shade, the sun had come out, the heat index was over 100, and it was so humid we were all leaving puddles of sweat behind us.

It turned out all of the above were true. After slogging on another half mile or so we finally re-encountered the trail, apparently having wandered off through someone’s cow pastures and added an extra mile or so to the trek. The universe had not taken kindly to our jokes at the expense of those who had marked the trail so well (but really – every 100 yards or so? And sometimes with poles that looked like flashers?)!

The remainder of the trail was truly brutal. Yes, it was flat, and pines lined each side, but the Florida sun was beating down with its most Florida like intensity.

After close to 4 hours, we reached our car, which was looking very lonely as it sat isolated in the meadow.

Beers and burgers were up next. Fortunately we were seated far away from anyone else in the restaurant which certainly was a blessing to those around us, given our rather fragrant condition. But, the Balkans approach, and I figure if we can get through this swamp we ought to be ready for those summits!

Slow and Steady – Turtlehead Peak, Red Rock

Three bruises, a blister, and a pair of ripped hiking pants.  But they were all worth it for the views at the top of Turtlehead Peak.  After an amazing dinner at what must be the only calm casino environment in Las Vegas (if not the world) — Sage at Aria — we were up at literally the crack of dawn to start our adventure in Red Rock Canyon.

I had my share of trepidation about this one.  I knew it was 2000 feet of altitude gain in 2 miles, 800 of which were in .4 miles.  Sounded steep, and it has been a full year since I’ve  managed to climb anything other than stairs.  And this was compounded by the fact that I managed to do quite a number on my feet on my last ten-miler and am paying the price of some badly treated blisters.  I was triply concerned when I exited our one-day rental car to start the hike  and realized I was limping!

But the adrenaline of being in the mountains kicked in and soon we were trotting along at a pretty decent pace.  The trail starts at an old stone quarry with monster chunks of limestone on either side.  From there, it gradually rises up.  Well, gradual for a while.

I was expecting a brown, dry, barren landscape.  But that’s not what we found.  A surprising number of low growing green shrubs flanked the trail, but even more remarkably, a ton of flowers – pinks, lavender, some bright yellows, and every now and then a brilliant red, sprouted up all around.  And interesting shapes, too.  Some dripping like crystals in chandeliers, others swollen seed pods, some wispy and feathery.

Turtlehead Peak is famous for its vanishing trail on the way up.  In fact, calling it a trail may be an exaggeration.  Once we got beyond the initial wash, the few trail markers seemed to disappear and we were confronted with a rocky, scree scramble heading toward the ridge. We’d encountered two other intrepid hikers (needless to say, a lot younger than J and me) and they were having an equally difficult time figuring out how to journey from the to the ridge.

I knew we were in trouble when J convinced me to go up and over a bluff – while I was certain the easier route lay below. After all, the lower route is exactly where the other hikers were. Nonetheless, up and over we went, only to be faced with another even steeper section. J, apparently believing left and up was always the right way, pushed on; I, certain a better way lay below, kept going along my own personal trail.  But after a bit – and seeing J well above me and the ridge towering above that – I realized I needed to get onto some semblance of a trail that would carry me on up.

So, with Ossy’s words (Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit) echoing in my ears, I started thinking to myself – right, left, right – just find your next step – and wend your way up the side.  I found myself on a couple of ledges and unstable spots – but shaky legs and all, eventually wound up next to J, with trail markers in sight. I’m pretty sure that little scramble is the source of the arm bruises.

From there, it was simply a steep slog to the summit.  The foliage changed to small scarred trees (sort of like what I remember from the North Carolina coast).  Once we got to the top, and with the elation that even a 6300 foot peak can bring, I totally lost my concentration and managed to stumble on a relatively flat surface. Bruise #3, the leg bruise.

We spent about thirty minutes at the summit, ate our power bars, and took photos of the sculpted peaks surrounding us. A little yoga, of course.

What goes up must come down. Miraculously, we were able to see trail blazes the entire descent – which simply confirmed how far off the trial we (I) was on the way up.  The descent went much faster, but there was the one moment where I realized sitting down and then stepping onto the next rock was the best way down one section – resulting in that unique, not to be replicated – R -I-P – of your hiking pants. I knew it was a risk when I decided on that strategy. Those pants have been with me since Kilimanjaro in 2011, though, so what better way for them to meet their maker.

We hiked back to the parking lot by the sandstone quarry, watching the people who’d decided to try to climb the sandstone cliffs as opposed to hiking on up to Turtlehead Peak. It looked hot and miserable.  In fact, the way down was cooler than the way up, even though it was then close to noon, as the sun had retreated behind the clouds.

After finishing the 13 mile scenic drive through Red Rock Canyon (you have to, because the loop is one way only), we were back in Las Vegas in 40 minutes.  Back to the land of casinos and cards.  A red eye flight to Florida awaited us.  As well as a wedding of the son of dear friends M and S back in the swamp.

 

To the Balkans via Red Rock, Nevada

Turtlehead Peak, photo by Bob Wick

Last Sunday I spent a wonderful 35 minutes running up St. Charles and winding around the Irish channel neighborhood of New Orleans.

The Irish Channel

Yes, after almost a year long break I’ve decided I’m back into the running world. Not sure I’m ever going to make it back to seven milers, but it felt wholly liberating to run up one of the most beautiful boulevards in one of my favorite cities in the world.

But I’ve been having a motivation set back. J and I looked up the difficulty level of this summer’s adventure to the Balkans and it was a whopping 5 on a 10 point scale. Everest Base Camp was a 7. Stok Kangri a 9 (and I think that’s an underestimate). Without some sort of “you might die if you don’t train properly” incentive out there it is very difficult for me to put on the backpack and hike those extra flights of stairs in the office building, much less brave a run in the mid 90 degree weather we are already experiencing.

So, what better than to try to combine work trip number 3 to Las Vegas with a hike.

The mountains in the distance call…

I started off by googling “hardest hikes around Las Vegas.” Uniformly, Turtlehead Peak kept showing up in the search results.

It is a high desert hike with 2000 feet of elevation gain in 2 miles. There’s no shade and “bring lots of water” seems to be the main advice. Start early before it is even hotter seems to be another one.

We haven’t hiked in that environment since Sedona, during the year of the Grand Canyon (see Journey through Time -Out of the Grand Canyon and on to Sedona – Part 3 ), so our desert boots may need some shining.

Frankly, from what I’ve read this hike promises to be more difficult than any we are doing in the Balkans (famous last words; I could be totally wrong). Any difficulty will be compounded by the fact we plan to take a red eye back to Orlando that night to make it to a Saturday wedding.

The upcoming combination of heat and dry desert air, extreme steepness, and lack of sleep should be enough to get me out there. We’re going to hike in the Black Bear Wilderness today. Despite the mid 90 degree heat.

Yes, that is an alligator.

The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness

The swamp has featured heavily in this blog recently. House flood and storms. But at a particularly low point, intrepid hiking friend S found a 30,000 acre wilderness – the Tosohatchee Wilderness Preserve – where we could try to escape the urban grind we’d all found ourselves in.

I was in a particularly sour mood. When you can’t even find your hiking poles you know you are at difficult point. Things started to look up when, after 45 minutes of driving through what can only be described as redneck Florida (I mean that as charitably as possible) we reached the entrance to the wilderness area. There was an ominous sign stating a hunt was in process, but we never heard any gunshot and presumably the hunters were carrying out their activities elsewhere. After all, it is 30,000 acres.

We picked up a map at the entrance but didn’t look at it until much later, relying instead on the black and white map S had printed off the internet. Turns out that made a difference, as you’ll see later.

We’d chosen a route that was part of the Florida Trail, a 1,000 mile path that runs from Miami to Pensacola almost continuously (well, except for 300 miles). Somehow it doesn’t have the cachet of the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails. Nonetheless, we’re from Florida and it’s ours, damn it.

The trail was quite well marked, in stark contrast to the Rock Springs Preserve where we spent hours tromping around the wilderness in no apparent direction. See Lost in the Woods – A Florida Hike. And, where it was dry, it was a nice, well maintained path.

You hear the key words – where it was dry. After meandering through a spectacular shaded forest of palm hammocks and live oaks, interspersed with open sections of slash pines, we ended up in a literal swamp. The trail simply went right through it. We could only assume that it was the remnant of a huge storm earlier in the week, because surely no one would route a trail through a swamp, would they? The water varied from a few inches to quite a bit deeper – and was remarkably clear. We soon discovered that if we aimed toward the clumps of grass there was a good chance it would be shallower – although you did risk the possibility of a suction like effect from the mud and muck. I simply chose not to think about snakes.

We alternated between swamp and patches of dry trail, and eventually emerged into what truly looked like a fairy glen. An open, almost circular area with wildflowers poking through coarse green grass. A spot where you could easily imagine the little folk engaging in their fairy festivities. And a good spot for some yoga. It’s also the spot where I realized the reason my pack was sloshing around and seemed so heavy was that I had forgotten I was carrying around about 10 pounds of water from my last training hike!

And, lest I forget – the flowers! Spring has sprung in Central Florida, and wildflowers were running amok. Wild iris (that sure look a lot like the Apostle Iris we paid good money for!), periwinkles, daisies, Florida style blue bells, thistles.

After a brief respite in the fairy glen, we were back at it. But by then we’d looked at the color map. As we studied the next section, we realized that the trail we’d just walked along didn’t run through the green part- it went straight through a whole lot of blue! In other words, this was no left over from a storm – the trail simply went straight through the swamp. S said he thought he’d sensed a current. I almost titled this post “Fording the Florida Trail” (M’s suggestion).

Armed with that information and having learned trails really do go through swamps, we selected what looked like a more reasonable – or at least drier – way back. But after walking for a while down a dirt road and arriving at Second Cut Trail – we saw it went straight into and along a canal, with no end in sight. Back to the road.

We turned off onto the next possible path back through the woods and went about ten minutes. At that point it became clear that even though well-marked we were basically bushwhacking through overgrowth and stomping through a mixture of mud and pond – and we hadn’t even reached the blue area on the map. Back to the road again.

Ultimately we reached a horse trail that was relatively above water. While longer, I’m sure we made better time.

After 9 miles and about 5 hours – this was slow going – we were back at the car. Someone had stopped us just before we reached the parking area to ask for directions, and S, Good Samaritan that he is, gave them the color map, assuming there would be more back at the entrance. There weren’t.

Guess that means we’ll have more unexpected trips through the blue areas. We definitely plan to go back. After all, where else do you start for a summit but in the swamp?

The Economics of Adventure Travel

Trekking in Nepal

When people ask about our next adventure, I know the real question they have is…how much does all this cost? I’ve been thinking about answering it for a long time, but perhaps it’s less awkward to do so in a blog post.

The internet is filled with blogs from twenty-somethings who grab their backpacks, buy rail passes, stay at youth hostels, and make their way around the world before embarking on a more sedate life to come, all apparently on the proverbial shoestring.

Backpacks are required – on the Speyside Way

But suppose that you’re well beyond your twenty-somethings, are well established on that more sedate life to come, and are now ready to do all the things that you didn’t do way back then. And while you may have more resources than you did years ago, you don’t want to spend every last bit of your savings on the possibility of making it up a 20,000 foot mountain somewhere — that is, unless you’re planning to retire on top of one.

So here are a few hints as to how we’ve managed over the last eight years to climb Kilimanjaro and go on a safari in Tanzania, climb Mt. Elbrus and visit Moscow, hike the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands, trek the Inca Trail in Peru and the Everest Base Camp Trail in Nepal, climb the Ecuadorian and Mexican Volcanoes (ok, we didn’t summit the Mexican one!), and make it to the top of Stok Kangri in India. And how we’re planning to trek through Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo, and Albania with family and friends this summer.

  • Consider using a U.K. based company. While we have had fantastic experiences with some well-known U.S. companies, the reality is they are more expensive. You’re typically paying for a U.S. guide to be with you at all times, and I’m sure they would argue that there are higher standards of accommodation, safety, etc etc. And while on our beginning climbs we certainly wanted that, as we became marginally more experienced, we felt a lot more confident.
  • Our last few trips have been with three different U.K. companies that utilize English-speaking guides local to the area. They have been great. In Nepal our guide was the son of a gurkha. And in India our guide was a native of Ladakh, the site of Stok Kangri. Nothing could beat making a special trip to Upper Pangboche to celebrate Buddha’s birthday at an ancient monastery with our Nepalese guide.
Monasteries on Buddha Day in Nepal
  • Be flexible about accommodations. You really don’t need a five star hotel everywhere you stay. With the less expensive companies, we’ve typically had a very nice hotel in whatever major city we’ve been in, followed by a mixture of small guesthouses, tea houses (well, that’s all there is on the Everest Base Camp Trail), and this summer’s trip to the Balkans promises whatever are called “home stays.” I think one’s on a farm.
Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu
Our accommodations in Ladakh
  • Don’t worry about the food. It’s fine. Quite frankly, I haven’t noticed any difference between the food on the more expensive trips than the less expensive. It’s really more a function of what the food is like in that location to begin with. On Mt. Elbrus, you’re stuck with whatever the cook decides to serve to the barrel dwellers that day regardless of who you’re traveling with. Some of the best food we ever had was in India, provided by a head cook and his two sons.
Barrel dining
  • Be willing to fly economy! I’ve travelled for 24 plus straight hours in economy class. On international flights there are free drinks. There are plenty of movies. It’s going to be miserable anyway, so you might as well wallow in misery in economy rather than spend thousands of extra dollars. (Ok, for those of you who are adept at frequent flyer points I do acknowledge there’s probably a better way, but I’ve never been able to make it work.
  • Gear is a one time cost. Admittedly, there’s a certain outlay to begin with, but the more you use it, the cheaper it is! HOWEVER, do not skimp on the cost of 1. hiking boots, 2. backpacks, and 3. hiking poles. You will be sorry if you do.

So how much money are we really talking about? Let’s get down to dollars and cents. Exclusive of international airfare, we paid less than $2500 each for a 12 day trip to India, inclusive of three nights at a hotel in Delhi, four plus nights at a hotel in Leh, domestic flights to and from Delhi, and trekking/camping with a team of 20 horses to lug our stuff around, not to mention a host of guides and cooks. As for Nepal, we paid less than $2500 per person for two weeks, inclusive of all lodging, food, and domestic flights (the famous flight into Lukla on the world’s shortest runway at 11,000 or so feet) for a private trip with J, M, and S, one main guide and two porters, arranged at dates of our convenience. And this summer? Eight days in the Balkans for $1,240 each.

It’s doable, both financially and practically. Don’t let the idea you can’t take two straight weeks off daunt you. I’m a lawyer and I connect via email for all but a few days on these trips, as I find that determining the world hasn’t ended without me actually reduces my stress. In the immortal words of Nike, just do it.

Lost in the Woods – A Florida Hike

Cue the spooky music.

Our adventure at Rock Springs Run Preserve started off benignly. Theoretically, the trail ran along the side of a major river, which, again theoretically, seemed fairly straightforward. Credit the location to our hiking partner in crime, S. But before we finished (and made our way to Celery City Brewing in Sanford), it wasn’t clear if we were playing Hansel and Gretal or the Blair Witch.

Rock Springs Run Preserve is a well-known canoeing and kayaking spot. Apparently not so much for those who want to hike.

We set off in good time, armed with directions that I’d downloaded from a Florida Hiking site to my phone. I should have been suspicious there wasn’t a map. Our first clue that things might not go smoothly was when the parking area was on the opposite of the road than what the directions specified. Come to think of it, is it possible we hiked the entire thing backwards?

Despite our trepidation that the written directions were already inconsistent with what we were seeing (this little hiking team consisted of three lawyers and a college professor, and dammit, we like things to be clear), we nonetheless plunged forward into a sea of saw palmettos, dutifully following the white blazes that were supposed to mark the trail. According to our trusty directions, a bench on top of a “hill” should have marked the start of the trail – not sure what was intended by the hill reference as everything looked pretty flat. But there was definitely no bench. Cue the spooky music again.

Undeterred, we kept on going and reached an oak hammock where the white blazes simply petered out. After a couple of false starts down rabbit trails, the only other people we saw on the trail that day located a faint white blaze a few hundred yards away, and we all took off in that general direction. We lost them pretty soon – I think they were doing the 3 mile “pond hike.” We had the 12 mile “challenge hike” in our sights – except the few signs we actually saw on the trail indicated it was only 9. Whatever.

The trail continued on through classic Florida wilderness, with just enough similarity to the directions we thought we must be going the right way. That said, the entire trail was totally overgrown (we thought this was the part where the directions said you’d be walking on a narrow path like the Seminoles did). For a couple of hours we hiked through fields of saw palmettos, on six inch trails that looked as thought they’d been designed for rabbits, and across Florida prairies – low waving golden grasses, thick as a carpet, with occasional long leaf pines looking serenely down. We thought we were in good shape, despite some decisions we’d had to make at a couple of forks where the trail merged with fire roads. Oops. In retrospect, not sure those were the right choices.

After a quick lunch, it was time to find the white blazes again. Once again we took off through the saw palmettos – but now what we thought was the trail took us into a heavily forested boggy area. The directions referred to a “dank and earthy smell emanating up from the earth.” That seemed consistent, right? This is the point where M realized she should have worn her high top hiking boots.

After fording a couple of streams and fighting with some very thick over and undergrowth we finally found what we believed to be some white blazes. But these led us back to a white sand road. We walked along it and then saw blazes on a tree way across another field of saw palmettos. But as the trail, according to the directions, was going to rejoin the sandy road we thought were on, we decided not to bother with that particular scenic overlook and to stay on the road for a bit. Turned out the road wasn’t any easier walking as you sank several inches into the sand with each step.

By now we were starting to feel a bit uncomfortable about where we were going and I was thinking we should have left a trail of bread crumbs as we certainly could have been headed to a witch’s house somewhere in the depths of the Florida woods.

Problems compounded as we faced a series of intersecting sand roads, none of which, by now, bore any resemblance to anything in the directions. At that point we suddenly heard a truck, and a ranger pulled up, clearly wondering what our small band was doing in the middle of nowhere. Alas, while I’m sure well-intentioned, he had not a clue about any of the hiking trails and instead suggested we walk down one of the roads to the “horse barn.” Needless to say, we rejected out of hand his offer of a ride back to civilization.

Our meager sense of direction told us we should also reject his directions. And it was a good thing we did, as we later realized that would have added about another six miles to our journey and it was already mid afternoon with. 5:30 pm sunset.

We took off down one of the sand roads that we thought would lead back from whence we’d come. We did run into some “no vehicles allowed” signs, mentioned in the directions; the problem was, there were multiple such signs! By now the thoughts of a Blair Witch scenario were kicking in; time was passing; we were getting nowhere; and the sun was a couple of hours from setting. Those are the moments when you contemplate how much food is left (count: half a sandwich, apple. hard candies) and wish you’d actually bought one of those foil blankets that are supposed to keep you from hypothermia. Yes, it was in the sixties, but we are from Florida.

Finally, in a stroke of what I will modestly describe as genius, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps I could type the general trailhead location into Maps on my phone and get walking directions. Lesson learned – why didn’t I drop a pin when we’d parked? In any event, a blue line miraculously appeared and we seemed to be going in the right direction, this time along a horse trail.

After another 45 minutes or so, we realized we were near a road and a parking lot area labeled number 3. A trail runner was just starting what I presume was to be a quick run given the time of day. He assured us if we walked down the road – we were now on asphalt – we’d get to the our parking lot. Mysteriously, parking lot 3 was on the side of the road specified in the directions….but there still was no bench and certainly no hill.

The car was sitting just where we’d left it, oblivious to the travails of its occupants. We piled in, realizing we were caked in dust, mud, and general Florida grime. Deciding we deserved some reward, off we went for beers at Celery City Brewing. I’m just hoping there wasn’t too much of a dank and earthy smell emanating from us.

Here’s a map I photographed from a bulletin board at the last parking lot. Don’t think it would have helped.

A Ribbon of Wild – Black Bear Wilderness Loop Trail

I’m going back a couple of months now, to a post I promised some time ago where I hinted snakes might be a feature of the next one. But one thing led to another and while I’ve published cogitations on this and that since then, the poor old Black Bear Preserve was left in the lurch.

No longer. Here’s a quick little primer on a strip of wilderness surprisingly close to downtown Orlando.

Friends M and S of Everest Base Camp, Iceland, and soon to be Balkans fame had hiked a portion of this trail previously. They were of the impression the trail ran through a beautiful wooded area but then cut across shadeless power easements – you know, those big, semi-mowed, grassy swaths that house power towers and high voltage electrical lines just when you think you are actually in the countryside. But in reality the trail crosses just one of those areas and then guides you right back along side the St. John’s River.

The expedition to find the trailhead started with a few wrong turns, thanks to moi. I have to learn not to read maps so literally. But we eventually found the beginning of the trail, only to encounter various other hikers warning of snakes along the way.

The trail is surprisingly shady, and would make a great choice even in the dead of summer (contrast this to the death march around shade free Lake Apopka). See Lake Apopka Loop Trail, Florida – Amid the Alligators

We saw one quite large snake – I think poisonous – but S turned his hiking pole into a quite effective snake pusher to encourage it off the trail. We paid the favor back and warned the next hikers we saw about the friends they might encounter along the way.

Snakes weren’t all the wildlife. Aside from turtles (see photo above) there was lots of evidence of what we believed to be turtle eggs.

Not to mention the flora and fungi.

And because it’s Florida you have to have an alligator.

All in all about a 7 mile or so hike. Some rocky terrain and a nice change from the urban hiking that is our easy go to. We spent a lot of time puzzling about cypress knees. Based on a quick Google search their function still seems to be a source of some mystery. See photo below.

Gotta go back. Next trek is only seven months away! Time to train!