Tag Archives: DofE

Albania the Accursed Mountains

It’s July and I am leading a group of Gold DofE students who chose to come on an expedition to Albania from a number of alternative European options. We have passports, tickets, insurance and a credit card, what could go wrong?!!
0400 in London Heathrow airport (our flight was changed from a much more respectable 11am departure) and  despite actually having a plane e-ticket one of the students wasn’t on the flight passenger list so wasn’t allowed on the plane! After a few phone calls we sorted the situation out. Hurrah for backup plans! 

Three flights (London to Munich; Munich to Ljubljana- Slovenia and then Ljubljana to Tirana) later we were in the beautiful country of Albania in the early afternoon. A 2 hour bus ride took us from Tirana to Shkodër on the Montenegro/ Albanian border. What a magnificent camp site, beautiful lake, super food and amazing place to have as a base camp.

Acclimatisation for a day as the temperatures were in the mid 30s degree Celsius and only just dipping below 25 for the night. We spent two nights on our camp site, before we headed into the Albanian Alps further North. The best way to get there is by boat. Having made contact with Mario Molla using WhatsApp he was expecting us and a 2 hour ferry journey along Lake Komoni led us towards Fierza. Stunning scenery as we chugged our way up the Lake through twists and turns with huge Limestone cliffs either side. The only problem was that it was freezing cold! A storm had rolled in and we were all wearing just about all the clothes we had. The concept of a quick swim would have been perfect if the weather had been good but with the rain (the last time was 3 months ago) no one was keen for a dip.

We were met by another bus in Fierza and taken up to Valbone, the end of the road- literally by late afternoon.

Valbona 960m

We found a good camp site with WiFi (unusual) and electricity that ran off a generator- and it was warm inside. The camp site owners managed to cook up for us a selection of meats and vegetables for a very reasonable price.  Despite it being mid summer the temperatures outside were cold- probably about 8 or 9 degrees, with a strong wind and rain.  It felt little different from other alpine villages in summer when a storm rolls in.

Through the night the rain cleared and we were met with beautiful blue sky as we headed off on our trek.

Day 1 Valbona to Çeremi 1200m 4 hours +500m height gain

A bright blue skied morning saw us leave the camp site, head down the valley towards our left hand turn up another valley . Despite having a chat with the group at the junction, they decided to walk even further down the road and added a couple of Kms to their trek. We took the direct route and headed up the valley following the reasonably well marked trail. The main excitement of the morning was when we stumbled on the tunnelling operation. I was met by an Albanian running towards me waving his hands around clearly not keen on us continuing towards the works- a few moments later the loudest “booom” and then a second “boom” like a bomb going off and I could see why he didn’t want me to walk across the mining works.

Day 2 Çeremi to Plav (in theory) 10 hours + 600m height gain

The day started well with more blue skies and because of the altitude it was decidedly nippy first thing in the morning. We tagged behind the group watching their movements. About 15 minutes from the campsite we saw a Y shaped junction and instead of taking the right hand branch we headed left! The upshot of this was that the path led us to the boarder with Montenegro, however, it wasn’t our planned border crossing and we were on the wrong path heading in the wrong direction!

Having crossed the border and relocated ourselves we had to adjust the route for the next 1 1/2 days to bring us back into line. We followed a path heading towards Plav. Amazing views down towards the valley below we decided to camp on top next to some shepherds and their sheep. The advantage of this was that they had guns to shoot bears and wolves (which the locals proudly showed us and fired off a couple of shots). There was (to me) safety in numbers and the view from our camp site was incredible, the sun setting on the mountains nearby.
With tales of bears and wolves from the Shepherds the rest of the group were a little bit jittery that night but we were able to look out through the night onto amazing star constellations and the band of the Milky way streaming across the sky.

Day 3 Hillside outside Plav to Liqenet e-Gjeshtarjes (dry lake) via Gusinje 8 hours 450m height gain

Having met up with the group again at lunchtime we started trekking back up hill towards Albania and the border crossing, our planned campsite around a lake which should have been about 6-700m in length. Sitting at 1300m it would have been comfortably cool at night and made for a good plan. However, on arriving at the lake it was completely dry and devoid of water. It was about 5pm and we were very low on water. What made matters worse was that we met another group of girls coming towards us  saying that they had not found water at all. We hunted around for a possible dribble of water but nothing was found and we set up camp that night eating any food that didn’t need to be re-hydrated.

Day 4 Liqenet e-Gjeshtarjes to Thethi 7 hours + 550m height gain

As we had nothing to drink by the morning I was up super early as the sun rose and headed off in search of water up the valley. Fortunately after about 1/2 hour came across a shepherds house with water, a series of baths and somewhere comfortable to sit. Communication with the locals was always possible and we managed to connect using my Italian (just add ‘io’ to the end of most French words) which was understood by the Shepherds. What we were able to offer them was battery power, one of them had a Samsung mobile that needed charging and we had spare power so were able to charge up their phone in exchange for fresh milk- delicious addition to my morning coffee.

Having seen the group through the border all that remained was the steep descent into Thethi and the end of our trek. We passed numbers of people coming up the valley towards us and I was very glad to be descending this path. We arrived in Thethi (also with free phone calls and WiFi!) and stayed at a lovely little camp site just behind the visitor centre. The chance to have a shower and clean up was superb and even though a dribble came out of the tap it was great to freshen up again.

Thethi to Shkodër

A 3 hour bus journey along a very bumpy road out of Thethi took us back to our base camp and the Shkodra resort. We were back by lunch time and were able to swim in the lake all afternoon and watch the sun set that night. A great way to end the trip.

 

Finally some useful (?) information for trekking in Albania

  • The Lek is the official old currency for the country but you can just use Euros instead. You can get Leks from Banks in Tirana and if you buy items with Leks you will probably get change from Leks. Most people will quote you prices in Euros. You cannot get hold of Leks until you get into Albania and then if you don’t change them before you leave they are useless to exchange.
  • The Euros work everywhere and there are quite a few ATMs where you can get Euros out. But be warned, there are no ATMs in the mountains!
  • You can use your phone for free in Albania as it is part of the European network, if you use your phone in Montenegro it will cost considerably more as they do not seem (at the time of writing) to be part of the same European Roaming Network
  • People are very friendly and my experience is that they will try to help you rather than rip you off
  • Agree a price for camping before you pitch your tent, it may well work out very expensive if you don’t
  • The trails are well marked, you just need to know what you are looking for along the way

Have fun in this amazing country, have a browse of a few images from this trek.

Links

http://www.journeytovalbona.com/ if you want to find out more detail about Valbona

https://www.lakeshkodraresort.com/ for possibly the best base camp campsite ever on Lake Shkodra

My Diamond DofE Challenge

In May 2016 I was lucky enough to be invited to Buckingham Palace (along with quite a few other people) to a celebration of 60 years of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. During the afternoon celebrations I was fortunate enough to meet Prince Edward and he asked whether I was doing a Diamond Challenge this year. I felt slightly awkward because I thought I ought to do one but hadn’t really thought about what I would like to do and so said “yes” when asked. He then asked what I was going to do and I said “Walk to the coast” which was met with a chortle because he didn’t know how far it was to the coast from my house and he possibly presumed that I live by the sea. In fact I need a challenge that is going to push me, and also in my mind it needs to be a challenge considerably beyond the Gold level expedition in length.

Fast forward several DofE meetings when the Diamond Anniversary Challenge is mentioned and I know that I have until the end of 2016 to complete the challenge.

December 30

I have obtained the magic “pass” ticket from my family this Christmas time and need to start my walk tonight, I wanted to complete it after my school term finished but before the main Christmas celebrations started, however, that wasn’t possible. The weather is poor (thick fog) I don’t actually know whether my body will cope with the length of the walk or whether I will get very lost en route. Actually I reckon that I could easily walk to the coast from my house so am adding a few rules to make it more challenging these are-:

  • To do the walk at night
  • To walk as much as possible off road
  • Not to take a map (or use my smartphone for navigational aid)
  • To complete the walk completely unsupported

To appease my family (and Facebook friends) I have arranged that I will check in with them at various stages of the night and I have an android phone so the “find my friends” app won’t work!

I set off some time just after 6:30pm. The visibility is poor and I can only see a few metres ahead. I know the route out of my village to the footpath which can take me over the A3 and heading South into the Mole Valley. There is something slightly strange about heading out passing people putting out the bins as I walk towards Prince’s Covert’s woods. The last street light of Covert’s Road seeming quite symbolic to me as I head into the foggy darkness.

At about 9pm I pass near to Leatherhead and through the Mole Valley. I drop down in height to cross the River Mole and climb up the hill on the North Downs Way past Denbeigh’s Vineyard. Magically I start seeing the stars and I have climbed through the fog to a clear sky, in fact it is bright enough up here to turn my head torch off and try to navigate by the Pole Star… however now I am heading East along the North Downs way and so find it easier with my trusty compass!

The North Downs way takes me to Newlands Corner and I am there just after mid night. This is good because in my head I know that a substantial part of the walk is done. I celebrate by eating a pork pie and announcing my arrival on Facebook. I am genuinely pleased with myself because I know that having arrived here in good form- no blisters or aches or pains- I know that I will probably be able to get to the coast. The next milestone is to get to Cranleigh.

Warning. I don’t actually know where I am going! This section from the North Downs to the Downs Link at Bramley is one that I am unsure about. I don’t have a map but do know that there are sign posts for the Downs Link and provided I head South I am going to be heading in the direction of the coast!

I pick up a narrow lane and try to turn off it as soon as possible, I follow a bridleway sign which spits me out on another path and as if I am being guided by some other force I look up and miraculously see a sign for the Downs Link- I have found it- a little woop woop! and smile crosses me. I am also in good shape for reaching half way.

I enjoy the start of the Downs link path for many reasons. I have never walked it before and I pass through the disused station at Bramley and head south to Cranleigh. The town (actually according to the sign post outside it is the largest village in England) is still quiet and it is about 4am. I stop in the car park I have used in previous DofE expeditions and have a little stretch. It’s fair to say that now I am quite tired, not hugely but I can definitely feel it in my legs and feet.

I keep heading south and it seems very dark. The previous section from Bramley to Cranleigh was the first time I didn’t hear any human machinery on my journey- I have had the steady hum of cars/ trains or planes all the way to here but now it’s quiet, very quiet.

I start taking the journey in sections, counting each half hour stint and celebrating with another gel juice or energy bar.

At 5am I have had enough. I am tired and the floor is moving up and down I need to stop. I curl up on the floor and wrap myself in my tin foil blanket and shut my eyes. At this stage I could easily quit. It hurts.

Something wakes me up half an hour later and as if on auto-pilot I get up, slap myself around the face and tell myself to stop faffing around. I get going… I might not make it and I know that if I don’t get up I will want to call a cab and knock it on the head…. this is a low point.

Something inside of me keeps on pushing on and despite a 15 minute stop under a bridge where I rest from the fog (oh yes the fog has returned) and it is still dark. When will it get light??????

Amazingly I pass through various old stations on the Downs Link and get to Christ’s Hospital School. A brief section on a road around the school grounds and I see a very uplifting sight of a mile marker saying that the South Downs (and almost my finishing point) is only 15 miles… Now I am going to make it. I celebrate with a packet of Haribo and brief text conversation with my daughter who is about to head off to work for the day.

At this stage I am aching all over. My back is sore from my ruck sack. I haven’t slept properly for a long time (I don’t really count curling up on the floor in the foetal position as a proper sleep).

By 11 am I am wishing that I had brought some coffee in my ruck sack with me. I have chatted to an elderly couple who have two golden retriever dogs who politely inform me that there’s a cafe just around the corner. I hadn’t planned on going to a cafe because I am not sure whether I will be able to leave it once I have enjoyed the warmth (I think I may be slightly hypothermic at this stage too) however I take this knowledge about the coffee as a sign that I must visit it.

The rich smell of an Americano Coffee and sugary taste of home made flap jack go to my head and I nearly pass out. The poor lady in the shop asks me whether I am ok… actually I am not but for some strange reason say “I’m fine” gulp my coffee down and take the flap jack in a bag- I fear I might be sick at this stage as my arms start shaking. I need to get going.

By now it is a case of one foot in front of the other. I know I am going to get there but it is painful and I am not going to get there before mid day (the original planned arrival time). I have updated my family about my lack of progress.

Maybe it was because of the injection of coffee or whatever but I manage to cover the next couple of miles and see another sign for Shoreham and it is under 10 miles now. I start converting this into mental ParkRun laps of Bushy park, or sections of my local ParkRun.

I am complacent about reading sign posts and seem to take a wrong turn, I end on a path which leads me to another path and I do a complete circle around a village. Tired and emotional at this stage I almost cry with pain. I have added a section to my walk that I didn’t need to do. There is a bit of path from Bramber to Shoreham which seems to say Shoreham is 3 miles… one sign after another. 3 miles, that’s a park run to go. But I pass one signpost and then 20 minutes later yet another 3 miles to go sign… it’s not fair… wahhhhhhhh!

I follow the River Ardur, on the right hand side is the imposing stature of Lancing College Chapel and on the left is the noise and roar of cars on the A283. I am placing one foot in front of another. Each pace takes so much effort. The pain every time I place my foot down is quite considerable.

By this stage I am willing Shoreham beach to come closer. I can see that the sun is starting to become lower in the sky and I want to get there before it is dark. I have been up for over 30 hours and feeling very irrational.

 

Finally I get to Shoreham and need to find the sea. You would think that this is easy but a glance of a map of the town shows that it has a huge harbour and I want to actually find the sea, not an estuary! Fortunately there is a pedestrian bridge and I can finally see the Sea. It is there in front of me. A few minutes later- the final painful steps and I am walking over the cobbled beach and down to the sea. I dip my hands into the water and taste the salt. Made it. Phew.

I arrived just after 2:30pm nearly 19 hours since I started my walk. There was a strong sense of elation combined with an emotional outpouring. I phone home with the good news and hobble back to the town centre.

Fortunately I find another cafe which is open and buy the remaining cakes and a coke. I explain my walk to the lady serving me and she is suitably impressed. She gives me the directions to the train station and I head back  home on the train.

I am greeted at the train station by my lovely wife who has driven the 0.3 miles to collect me! I am very stiff and can hardly move at all. I hobble into my house just after 6pm nearly 24 hours since I started my walk to the coast.

On reflection these are the things that I have enjoyed about this adventure-:

  • I didn’t know whether I could actually achieve it- there was a lot of unknowns with this trip (including the distance)
  • It was a very low carbon impact expedition- walking from my house and using public transport to return home afterwards
  • I completed the round trip in under 24 hours
  • I had planned many parts of it in my head and it was basically down to me, I didn’t need to rely on anyone else
  • It was unique and a bit mad- I don’t know anyone else who has walked through the night at the end of December from Claygate to the coast!

Now to recover and plan the next adventure. And the vital stats- this walk was 101 Km in length completed in just over 19 hours