Wow. What an experience.
The Acre team successfully completed the Accursed Mountains of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro... but it was no mean feat, and a number of us have been dealing with various injuries and sickness since!
If you’ve been following our blog entries prior to the challenge, you’ll have some context. It’s hard to summarise just how unforgettable and spectacular the last few days have been, but we’ll try;
Upon arrival in Skopje, North Macedonia on Thursday 4th October we met our guides, Nol and Kuta, two inspiring, empathetic, motivating and generous individuals whom we’re grateful to have met and hope to keep in touch with. To begin we endured a 6 hour drive to our first guest house amongst the mountains and were greeted by the friendly owners, they made us feel incredibly welcome, serving local delights to give us energy for the day ahead. At this point we felt comfortable and itching to get started!
Day 1 – Valbone to Zla Kolata to Cerem
Our first day was very tough, the rain held back but the mist, dew and low clouds restricted our views. The Accursed Mountains at this point remained a mystery, but it would shortly start to reveal its beauty. At the top of our first ascent (1000m), in the most remote of mountain areas we were greeted by two local shepherds who served us a much-needed coffee to fuel our further 500m to reach Mt Zla Kolata, the highest peak of the Albanian/Montenegran border. The summit treated us to our first exposure to the scenery as we rose above the cloud line and saw the surrounding peaks.
After a gruelling descent, we arrived in our guest house in Cerem, here we were greeted by a another very kind local family with enchanting stories spanning 3 generations where they cooked us more local food and presented us with a hard earned, cold local beer. Thanks to increased PR around the area in the last year, the three families in this small area have received an incredible surge in guests, from 30 a year to 1000 - generating much valued revenue which families of Cerem have been utilising to have access to electricity and other amenities.
Day 2 – Cerem to Doberdol
Our stay was short-lived and day 2 kicked off early, however this time the prospect looked a little different; with clear skies we were to be fully exposed to the scenery the accursed mountains had to offer. Though a slightly 'easier' day, it still proved hard work on the legs after a tough Friday. Early into the second day, we picked up two more local guides in the form of rather adorable stray dogs, subsequently named Jez and Suze (Peep Show fans will appreciate!). These two steely animals led us through gorgeous forests, experiencing seasonal transition to autumnal oranges and browns. Doberdol hosted us for our 3rd night, in the remotest of villages of the accursed mountains, we stayed in guest houses and enjoyed more great local food and drink (Raki on this occasion). At this stop we were without any form of heating in our rooms, and it was a bitter and chilly sleep (-2 degrees) even with the many blankets we were provided with. Much to our joy and surprise, our guides Jez and Suze waited for us outside our huts for the next day of hiking.
Day 3 – Doberol to Mt Gjerevica to Gropa Erenikut
The final day was here - it proved to be the most spectacular, and challenging. A further 25km of hiking saw us take on an extra peak in the form of Mt Gjeravica, the highest point in Kosovo and proved to be the first and only time throughout the whole trek where saw other hikers (though these were local!). Ahead of summitting Mt Gjeravica, we reached the three-border peak where we stood atop Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. Needless to say the views were spectacular. At this point everyone was suffering from some form of injury and handicap, ibuprofen and team spirit carried us through, and at 5pm on Sunday, after a 60km and 4000m ascent hike (30hrs total), we had completed our expedition of the Balkan alps. To help understand just how challenging it was, among the group there were 8 injured knees, 5 ankles, 2 shins, 2 swollen wrists and a lot of blisters. Elated, very tired, and high off endorphins, we headed to a hotel in Peja where a hot shower and more local cuisine awaited.
This particular evening was not only significant for our achievement, but for Kosovo as a country. It was Election Day. As we returned to the hotel following dinner, the results were announced, and Kosovo took one more stride to becoming the democratic country that it’s people have embodied and had long desired it to be. Needless to say, celebrations continued late into the evening and sore heads accompanied our achy bodies in the morning!
What happened to Jez and Suze? After following us the entire two days, and still having the energy to play and chase one another whilst leading and checking in on us, Kuta decided we couldn’t leave them behind. They now have a home where they’ll be looked after, but where they won’t lose their footloose spirit, living on Kuta’s father’s farm. Acre have offered to sponsor the veterinary bill to help these lovely animals become more domesticated and to live long healthy lives.
Collectively the team not only experienced the beauty that these Balkan countries had to offer, but the culture and spirit which has sometimes been lost in misleading press and negative propaganda. When we set out to take on this challenge, we not only wanted to raise money for Plastic Oceans UK, challenge ourselves, bond further, but crucially we wanted to change perceptions and contribute to communities with which spirit and incredible stories are in abundance. We hope that if you’ve been following our precious blogs, and are reading this follow up, that we have to a degree achieved this.
From all 12 of us who took on this challenge, if you are an avid hiker, want a city break, or something more relaxed, these beautiful countries have all you could ask for.
To those who have donated, and who are to do so shortly, thank you. We have so far raised £8,000, surpassing our £7,000 target and we hope to raise more as we are committed to supporting Plastic Oceans UK, their work, and the important agenda of solving the ocean plastics epidemic. If you've yet to donate, you can do so here: https://www.justgiving.com/teams/acrefoundation2019
Lastly, we’d like to thank Gareth Davies and Tony Wallington, OBE at Bacchus, for proposing such an unforgettable and life altering experience. The entire trip was seamless and far exceeded our previous excursions with other companies. Please check them out if you are a corporate or have a group of friends and wish to do something similar, you won’t be disappointed!
Liam and Gavin, Acre Foundation