Trip Reports: The Cursed Mountains - A Trek Through The Prokletije, Montenegro And Albania - July 2015
Forming a natural border between Montenegro and Albania is a jagged spine of mountains called the Prokletije in Montenegran and the Bjeshkët e Namuna in Albanian. Both names translate to “cursed mountains”, likely due to their foreboding vertical spires, deep winter snows, and inhospitable ruggedness. These are the some of the biggest and burliest mountains in the Balkans, but despite their grandeur remain relatively unknown and surprisingly undeveloped. In late July we spent 5 days trekking a loop route through the heart of the range, mostly camping and sometimes staying in Albanian villages along the route.
After jumping through a series of bureaucratic hoops at the police station in the nearby town of Plav in order to document our proposed border crossing into Albania, we started hiking from the village of Vusanje, near the town of Gusinje in a far southern corner of Montenegro.
The “cursed mountains” lived up to their name in one respect, which was the oftentimes oppressive heat during the day. This big cave entrance provided a brief respite, with a chilly breeze blowing out from its depths. During the hike up here we met a Serbian caver who has explored this cave numerous times in the past and was back again with a group of friends to explore and chart even further.
For our first night we camped up on Qafa e Prosllopit, a high pass right at the border between Montenegro and Albania. After an evening spent huddling in the tent with lightning and thunder booming around, my inner masochist convinced us to wake up in the middle of the night to hike up Zla Kolata before sunrise.
At 2534 m, Zla Kolata (aka Kollata e Keqe) is technically the tallest mountain in Montenegro; 12 meters taller than Bobotov Kuk, which is generally considered to be Montenegro’s tallest peak. Why does Bobotov get all the love, when it’s not even the highest? First of all, Bobotov Kuk is indeed the tallest Montenegrin peak that is completely within Montenegro territory; Zla Kolata is right on the border so shares its summit with Albania. But once we hiked up Zla Kolata, I realized perhaps the real unspoken reason why Zla Kolata gets no fame: while Bobotov Kuk is a beautiful, striking peak and the crown jewel of the beloved Durmitor National Park, Zla Kolata is actually just a fairly nondescript summit overshadowed by a plethora taller and more spectacular neighboring mountains just over the border in Albania. So it just wouldn’t be fitting for Montenegrins to pride themselves on such an unremarkable “bump” surrounded by taller giants!
Despite the obscurity of Zla Kolata itself, it’s part of a high plateau that offers incredible views of the surrounding mountains as well as a jaw-dropping overlook into the 1600+ meter (5,000+ feet) deep Valbona valley, where we would be hiking down to later this day.
A long walk down from our pass took us into the valley of Valbona in Albania. Here we pitched our tent in the grass at an idyllic campground that even had its own spring-fed creek complete with stocked fish for dinner! We kicked off our boots and enjoyed a tasty feast and a delicious bottle of Vranac! We earned it that day.
A recently paved access road and a push for tourism is quickly transforming this traditional shepherds’ valley into a more popular destination. The direction of development seems unclear, which became apparent even as we descended into the valley and could hear the thumping of techno music blasting from a party thrown by the Albanian Mountain Club of all people. The party bumped long into the night, including even a set of enormous spotlights spinning around illuminating the mountain walls. At 1:30 in the morning once the band finished playing, a gang of motorbikers felt obliged to rev their motors for half an hour, no doubt scaring the crap out of every animal in the valley. Quite an odd way for a mountain club to celebrate their love of nature if you ask me. But you didn’t ask me, I’m just another tourist after all. But I do hope that the people of Valbona can find a balance of increasing tourist traffic while still retaining the traditional atmosphere of the valley.
In the morning we walked out of Valbona, up the valley, and over the Qafa e Valbones mountain pass towards the next village of Thethi.
As we neared the pass, the clouds got thicker and darker, and sure enough the rain started falling and thunder started booming. We ducked down and did our best speed-walking to get over the pass before all hell broke loose!
In the Prokletije (and most mountains along the Dinaric Alps for that matter) water can be scarce. The karstic limestone and dolomite rock of these ranges is full of cracks and caves that drain all the surface water, so permanent lakes and streams are a rarity. Most water must be collected at natural springs. In Albania sometimes at these spring locations you’d find little remote cafes that chill sodas and beers in the buckets of spring water to quench the thirst of weary hikers. After our hurried crossing of the mountain pass in a thunderstorm, we were quite relieved to take a load off here!
Thethi is another traditional Albanian village in a deep, remote valley. There’s no paved road here (yet) and although more trekking lodges are popping up, the village still retains an almost completely traditional atmosphere. We stayed in a woman’s home in the village; she grew all her own crops, milked her own cows, made her own cheese, even made her own rakji spirits with grapes strung along her terrace.
Our fourth day of hiking took us from Thethi over another big pass, across the border, and back into Montenegro.
On this last day of hiking the heat was especially oppressive. We missed a few springs on our way down into Montenegro and were facing another extra few hours of hiking in the dark to the next spring when we miraculously came upon a friendly Austrian couple who were camping out in their camper truck; they graciously offered us a big 6-liter bottle of water, a plate of freshly cooked veggies and cheese, and entertained us with anecdotes from their extensive world travels over the years. Our saviors! The next day they even gave us a ride back down the dirt road of the Ropojana valley back to our car in Gusinje, saving us many more hours of hiking in the heat. Perhaps these mountains aren’t so cursed after all…