Why would you go on a cycling holiday to Albania?

Those who know me well would never ask this question, but that’s because the word “holiday” for me is synonymous with “unusual” and “challenging” (and occasionally “terrifying”). For normal human beings, however, it seems like an odd choice of destination. Albania isn’t really renowned for much, other than its proximity to Kosovo, drug trafficking (the “epicentre of the European drugs trade”, if you believe the Daily Mail and Huffington Post, at any rate), gangsters, communism under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (until recently), and its ensuing isolation from Western Europe, the United States, and even China and Russia, not to mention King Zog (though I always thought he was a fictional children’s character – turns out he was real). Sounds like the perfect holiday.

DSCN9432

old Communist bunker

According to wikitravel, “Albanians enjoy long walks in the city streets, drinking coffee and, among the younger generations, participating in nightlife activities such as cafe lounging and dancing.” It’s not even known as a cycling destination – neither for locals nor for tourists – and yet it has everything that a cyclist looking for an interesting trip could possibly need: quiet roads, stunning locations, friendly locals, plenty of fresh spring water, a beautiful coastline, and some challenging mountains for the adventurous. Provided you don’t meet any gangsters, it’s ideal. We never saw any, though there were quite scary looking dogs (more on those later) and the odd sheep with a funny look in its eye.

DSCN9482

Sheep traffic jams are quite common

Albania also has an excellent basic infrastructure, despite its problems. You may not find many 5-star hotels offering champagne and hot tubs (shame, as they’d have been quite welcome after a hard day’s cycling) but basic guesthouses to rest for the night and small cafes to recharge the caffeine and energy levels along the route were plentiful. The food (and coffee) itself is also excellent and abundant, which surprised me so much that I wrote a separate blog post about it. The local (and only) cycling tour company, Cycle Albania, apparently used to run all kinds of different trips including kayaking, trekking and rafting, but found the cycling tours so successful that they decided to specialise, and rightly so. They have honed their tour to perfection over the last few years, and the smooth logistical operation is apparent. I can only see its popularity increasing as more people discover what Albania has to offer (although I should really have kept that quiet, since the beauty is essentially in the isolation).

map

Our route (anticlockwise from Tirana)

The company offers only one route currently, but tailored in difficulty to its various clientele (the Germans, apparently, like to drink a lot and cycle a little; the Norwegians are the kings of the mountains and take on all the hardcore challenges thrown at them; while the British seem to fall somewhere between the two). The Exodus trip I took is classified as grade 4 (moderate to challenging), with a mix of two fairly tough days sandwiched in the middle with several much easier days. With a support van for those who have run out of steam (or are more closely affiliated with the Germans than the Norwegians), the British clientele appears a mixture of those with a decent level of experience and fitness looking for a bit of a challenge, to those who just want a more adventurous kind of holiday and see the option of resting in the van on the hard bits as a natural built-in element of the holiday principle rather than as an option only to be taken after being scraped off the tarmac in a heap of burnt-out muscle or broken limbs. It also, of course, enables friends and couples of different abilities or fitness levels to go on the same trip without either having to compromise.

DSCN9544

Cycling up the 1000m Llogara Pass is not for the faint-hearted

As long as you don’t mind the odd traffic jam caused by a flock of sheep in the road, or the threat of being chased and bitten by recalcitrant sheepdogs, you’ll get on fine. We once waited 10 minutes for reinforcements when a vicious hound stood in the middle of the highway blocking our path and barking at us. My companion had already been chased by one the previous day and was taking no chances on this one, but it showed no signs of moving, and we wondered what to do as we had been warned in no uncertain terms never to try to outcycle a dog (not that the dog was cycling, but you know what I mean). On the other hand, we’d also been told that if we stayed still, the dog would go away and leave us alone, but that didn’t happen either. Luckily our gallant hero Des arrived on his trusty 30-speed metal steed and bravely led the charge, at which point the dog decided it had better things to do and that it was no match for the two-wheeled Irishman. It beat a hasty retreat, allowing rite of passage to the two damsels in distress.

17f6d23d-f202-4f20-af0f-ca50e7f6e6d7

Our unlikely hero of the hour

Anyway, back to Albania. Besides the culinary delights, it has a whole lot more to offer, even if its infrastructure as a luxury holiday destination is a little incomplete. “Come to Albania with an open mind”, advised our guide Junid. Although it was a little late, since he only offered these words of wisdom on our last day. But indeed, as long as you’re prepared to tolerate the odd cold shower, electricity failure (causing me an interesting time in the completely dark restaurant toilets), some dubious plumbing and construction (I thought Albanians were meant to be good at these, but maybe I’m getting confused with the Poles), and the relics of communism lingering, you’ll get on just fine. As a side note, it turns out you might even be able to spend the night in a former Communist bunker these days, though I’m not sure how the quality compares to that of our guesthouses. On our last night, we found ourselves in a comparatively luxurious hotel in Vlore, and I joyfully announced to my room mate that the shower looked like the best one we would have all week: a gleaming cubicle big enough to party in, with shiny glass doors, piping hot water and a showerhead you didn’t even have to hold in your hand. A contrast to the shower we’d had a few days earlier that was not only cold but would have struggled to get a mouse wet – even “dribble” was an exaggeration. Coming out of this superb looking shower, my room mate proudly announced “You won’t be disappointed.” I grinned, before she continued: “Yes, just like all the others, it leaks all over the bathroom floor.” We both dissolved in fits of giggles.

And finally, I turn to that other British obsession, the weather. My trip was over the Easter holiday in mid-April, and we experienced a very typical European weather pattern ranging from brilliant sunshine (and resulting in the ubiquitous comedy cycling tan lines) to freezing rain, high winds and near hypothermia on a couple of occasions. Sometimes all in the same day. We soon learnt to pack suncream, thermals and waterproofs in our panniers in order to deal with all eventualities. A friend had advised me: “pack for the Lake District and you’ll be fine”, and he was spot on. I cannot emphasise enough the usefulness of a pair of cycling “arms” and “legs” that could be removed and stowed in a back pocket or quickly thrown on as necessary, not to mention a waterproof always to hand, and plenty of zips to let air in or keep it out as the terrain demanded. Unless in full summer, when temperatures can get pretty hot, I would recommend packing plenty of layers (whether cycling or not), just like in the UK, and a warm jacket for the chilly evenings (sometimes also needed indoors, depending on the state of the heating in the hotel).

DSCN9449

In summary, a cycling holiday in Albania is far from a relaxing and sunny vacation on the beach (how boring that would have been!), but it provides everything one could possibly wish for in an interesting, challenging and remote experience where one is happy to get away from it all and step back in time. The added benefit is that you won’t spend much money as food and wine are cheap, shops rare, and there’s nothing to buy anyway. Still, you can’t put a price on adventure.

DSCN9452

Posted in Albania, Cycling | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Too much snorer in Albania

Hands up who knew that you can get really great coffee in Albania? After my experiences of awful coffee in most of the Balkan countries, I was perhaps more surprised by that than anything else on my recent trip there. When I told my friends I was going on a cycling holiday in the mountains of Albania, they knew me well enough not to be alarmed, or even particularly surprised, since I typically travel to unusual destinations on my holidays. Instead, the first question that most of them asked was what the food would be like. Like them, I knew next to nothing about Albania at all, let alone its culinary delights (or otherwise). To be honest, while I enjoy good food, it’s the last thing on my mind when I book a trip to a new place, since I’ll pretty much eat anything, including all the weird and wonderful local delicacies.

Once in Albania, I wished I’d done a bit more research first, simply because learning about the food made me understand much more about the geographical, historical and cultural underpinnings of the country. In my mind, I’d lumped Albania happily along with the rest of the Balkan countries, imagining the food, language and countryside all to be very similar, but as with the language, while you can see many different elements of other Balkan countries in there, it takes its roots more from its Italian and Greek neighbours than I was expecting. Both food and language are a melting pot of all sorts of things and yet resembling none of them.

food

A standard meal on our trip

On the culinary side, I’d expected a fairly simple and bland but high quality selection of local meat, potato and vegetables based on the country’s communist roots, but it’s very far from this. On the coast, an abundance of fresh fish, simply baked with salt and lemon; further inland, an emphasis on vegetables and salads, with the meat element focusing largely on young animals such as veal, suckling pig and baby goat.

DSCN9444

Freshly caught trout at a working farm in Germenj

Spinach pie was ubiquitous, but totally different everywhere, reflecting regional influences ranging from the middle Eastern style burek to the Greek spanakopita. One of our favourite dishes in Gjirokastra was the traditional qifqi, which looked and tasted like a savoury scone, but was largely composed of rice, egg and mint.

qifqi.jpeg

qifqi

The highlight for many of us were the desserts (much needed after long days of cycling up hills). In Gjirokastra we discovered the wonderful Albanian delight qumeshtore (or “milk pie”), which quickly became known as “too much snorer” due to our inability to speak Albanian. On enquiring about seconds and finding there were only 2 pieces left in the kitchen, there was almost blood shed in the ensuing battle (a real life bun-fight!).

qumeshtore

Stock picture, since our own qumeshtore was not left on the plate long enough to photograph

On the liquid side, I was also astonished by the quality of the local wine. In most cases, it was surprisingly good, especially since we’d been warned that wine is not really a big thing in Albania, and at only 200 lek (just over £1) for a huge glass, it would have been very easy to drink a lot of it if we hadn’t been up early to cycle up hills.

DSCN9443.JPG

Enjoying a large glass of wine while watching our trout being caught for dinner

My previous experience of coffee in the Balkan regions has generally ranged from the dire (at best) to something undrinkable akin to mud mixed with antiseptic in Montenegro and Slovenia, so my expectations of getting a decent caffeine hit to start the day were pretty low, but what we came across was more akin to its Italian cousin, and made for an exceptional start to the day as well as at the much needed mid-morning coffee stops.

According to our guide, some people have been known to come back on the same cycling tour not so much for the cycling or the scenery, but simply the food, and I don’t blame them. I’d definitely go back for it too. Albania is my new found serendipitous culinary delight.

513e03be-3b4a-4414-97d4-f8d4733f1ba9

Sugar rush

Posted in Albania, Cycling, Misc | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 5: The Finish Line!

The final day was rather a strange one by all accounts. With only a measly 10K to go, we had an easy bimble in store, and we were greeted from dawn with brilliant sunshine. It was still very chilly first thing, however, and I needed all my layers including my down jacket just to cook breakfast. However, being able to cook and eat breakfast outside rather than lying in bed hiding from the rain was an opportunity not to be missed.

dscn8660

Morning view from my tent

We strolled gently in the morning sunshine, surrounded by the stunning scenery of the Abisko National Park, and thought of hot showers, comfortable beds and cold beers. While there was every reason to be cheerful, a small part of me also felt the final stretch to be a bit of an anticlimax. After all, this was supposed to be a tough trek in the Arctic Circle, designed to test our every sinew, and yet here we were strolling to the finish in glorious sunshine with not a care in the world (well, apart from the intense pain in my feet, dulled only marginally by a combination of ibuprofen and paracetamol swallowed religiously at 4-hourly intervals). Actually, I’d become so used to the pain by now that it barely registered. It might sound weird, but a part of me wanted to finish the trek after a really long tough day to make it feel like more of an accomplishment. I felt as if I were somehow cheating.

dscn8668

Lee enjoying the sunshine and stunning scenery

dscn8679

Just 500m to go!

However, as we approached the finish line, we were greeted with cheering and clapping from the trekkers who had already finished and were sitting drinking beer in the sunshine. The organisers presented us with our medals, and I felt a moment of pride at what we’d achieved, despite the easy finish. Looking back now, I have to keep reminding myself that it was by no means an easy challenge. I had only to look at my feet for the next few weeks to remind me (6 black toenails, one of which fell off when I took off my sock, and 3 more of which I had to remove a few days later, plus a number of blisters). I’m sure you’ll be glad that I’m sparing you the photos of that.

dscn8682

Being presented with our medals at the finish

So what now? My next big trip needs to be more challenging in some respect, because otherwise I wouldn’t be pushing myself ever out of my comfort zone, but I’d happily do the Fjallraven Classic another time. The only problem is, there are so many new places to discover.

dscn8680

Posted in Sweden, trekking | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 4: Pancakes!

Since there was a medic available at the checkpoint, and for once we were camping nearby, I decided this morning to get my feet checked out, as they were pretty painful (a couple of black toenails falling off, and a number of blisters on the soles of my feet). I was surprised to be awarded only a 2/10 for foot damage. Given how much they hurt, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much pain some people must have been in. I felt a bit of a heel (ha!) for making a fuss, but the medic put large amounts of tape on my feet, which was the main reason for me going to see her, and I felt reassured that nothing was going to fall off in the next few days. Today I thought a lot about injuries, having heard more stories from the medic about various people who’d already been airlifted out due to heart problems, broken bones, foot problems and all sorts. It struck me that maybe this actually was quite a tough challenge after all. On an exertion scale, I hadn’t found it too bad so far, although that’s not to say I hadn’t suffered an awful lot of pain with my shoulders and feet, and the conditions had made it far from a simple stroll, as you had to concentrate every inch of the way.

DSCN8649.jpg

Some of the bridges demanded careful attention, although at least there are no crocodiles in the Arctic.

Around midday, the rain started again, and although it was never particularly heavy, it was that persistent heavy drizzle that just seems to go on forever and leaves you wet before you really know it. It coincided with a long stretch of boring open moorland perpetuated by bogs, and it felt relentless. It was also cold, and my windproof gloves were soon sodden and about as much use as wearing a teabag on my hands. I’d been looking forward to stopping for lunch at some point along the way, but with the cold and rain there was nothing for it but to push on until Checkpoint Kieron. At one point, a Fjallraven representative (who was also trekking the route) appeared out of the mist and offered us a boiled sweet. Amazing the things that lift your spirit temporarily. The last 3K seemed interminable, and I was getting hungrier and more exhausted by the minute, but eventually the sky ahead started to look a  little brighter, and in my slightly delirious state I chanted to myself “Head for the light! Head for the light!” in an attempt to rally my spirits. It worked, and I soon started giggling to myself, feeling as if I were in a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, it was still a good hour before the rain finally eased and we found the light, so to speak.

We eventually crossed a metal bridge, and thankfully we could see the camp up ahead. But first a wooden hut appeared, comprising a much-needed loo. It was one of the finer varieties of long drop en route, with proper windows and no smell, even if lacking a loo roll and handwashing facilities (both of which I had with me, so no problem). I sat there for quite some time, just enjoying the view of the river through the trees, and the fact that I was finally warm, out of the wind, and sitting down in comfort. It took quite a lot of willpower to actually get up and put my soggy pack on again for the final 100 yards up the hill to the checkpoint.

dscn8656

And what a surprise awaited us at Kieron! A lady cooking pancakes, another brewing coffee, and an open fire around which weary wet travellers were huddled. The pancakes (4 enormous ones each!!) were laden with jam and whipped cream, and having had no lunch and it being mid-afternoon, I devoured them eagerly. Never has a pancake tasted so good, or felt more well deserved. Halfway through eating the pancakes, I suddenly remembered that I’d used the collapsible bowl I was eating them out of to pee in the previous night, having not wanted to venture out of the tent in torrential rain, and I tried to remember if I’d actually washed it out that morning. To be honest, I was past caring anyway at this point, as the pancakes tasted so good.

DSCN8657.JPG

Never have pancakes felt more deserved!

Still feeling cold despite the hot food and coffee, I put on my down jacket under my waterproof (it was still drizzling a little) and went over to the fire to warm up. There I was offered a slug of dubious Hungarian firewater from a stranger’s hip flask, and soon got chatting to a bunch of Belgian men about beards. Right back in that Monty Python sketch again. The day was so surreal that it barely surprised me when, after discussing the relative benefits of facial hair to keep one’s chin warm vs. the extra weight of the hair slowing one down (every gramme counts when trekking!), a Dutchman reached into his backpack, took out an electric shaver, and proceeded to remove his inch-long stubble standing over the fire. I’m not sure whether this was a direct result of me having mentioned that I only considered men with less than half an inch of facial hair as potential life partners, or worry about beard weight. Either way, I never saw him again.

All too soon, it was time to get going, and we pushed on for another couple of hours until we found a suitable campsite by the lake.  For the first time during the trek, we actually arrived with enough time to relax a little after putting up the tents and cooking dinner. We could potentially have gone all the way to the finish that day, but one of our group had an injured knee, and in any case, there would have been nothing to do but hang around for an extra day once we got there. A couple of hardy souls went for a swim in the lake, more I think to prove their manliness than out of enjoyment, judging by the temperature of the water. This turned out to be rather foolhardy, as they then spent the next few hours shivering. Needless to say, I felt no need to prove my manliness, and every need to preserve my core body temperature. The remains of the rum (mine) and whisky (not mine) came out, and were duly finished, as this was our last night camping on the trek. With a beautiful dry evening (for once), we only retreated to our tents when it started getting too chilly and the alcohol had run out around 11pm.

dscn8659

Idyllic camp by the river

Posted in Sweden, trekking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 3: the High Pass

Yet again I woke to pouring rain, something which was a bit of a theme for the trip! Luckily by now I had making breakfast while lying in bed without even opening the tent flap down to a fine art, and by the time I was ready to pack up the tent, the rain had miraculously stopped. On a particularly precarious set of rocks, I managed to slip and fall flat on my face, where I lay like a turtle with my pack on my back weighing me down, until an elderly couple just behind me helped me right myself. Luckily, I suffered minimal damage as I’d managed to twist slightly as I fell, landing on my side so that the rucksack took the brunt of the impact. Although my damaged shoulder didn’t particularly thank me for the assault on it, I escaped with nothing more than a few cuts and bruises to my knee and side. I learned later that I was luckier than many – one girl apparently dislocated her shoulder falling on the rocks (fortunately put back in place by a passing Swiss doctor, who recounted the story to me while we queued for the loo the following day), while another broke her arm in a similar fall and had to be airlifted out. After a couple of hours, I mentioned to Mark that I thought it was about time for a stop and perhaps a brew, and as if by magic, several seconds we rounded a corner to be greeted with the following sign.

dscn8591

Lo and behold, in 100m there was a man in a tent brewing up coffee and handing it out to anyone who proferred a mug. Judging by the faces, some of us clearly needed it!

DSCN8593.JPG

Refuelled by hot coffee, we then had the excitement of traversing the “high pass” (and the only real ascent of the trek), and we entertained ourselves by pretending it was a serious summit and discussing the mental and physical techniques we’d need to use to overcome it. Although the others could see it from far off, of course I couldn’t see it at all, so had no real idea whether they were joking or not when they muttered ominously about the terrible difficulties the ascent would involve! It turned out to be nothing more than any simple ascent in the Peak District would involve, and barely got us out of breath, although the weather on top turned distinctly colder and there was a howling wind, drizzle and fog on the summit.

dscn8599

Followed Alan’s stern advice to me on previous days about looking after number one and taking advantage of warm shelter instead of getting cold, I went into the little hut and waited there in the warm while the others were arriving and generally resting. This meant I missed the group photo of our “summit” since the others had completely forgotten about me and not noticed I wasn’t there! Still, I was warm and dry, and it was a good opportunity to break open a couple of cereal bars and chat with the Koreans who were busy brewing up some lunch.

After the stop, we set off for the next checkpoint, which was supposed to be only a few kms, but which seemed to take an eternity, and involved walking over never-ending “pointy rocks” (technical geological term), guided only by some red blobs of paint.

dscn8604

We also encountered our first snow, which although deep in places, was only very patchy.

dscn8602

Unfortunately Saskia then came a cropper on some rocks, and suffered rather worse than I had done by landing on her face and cutting open her chin. Luckily, several of us were on hand to mop up the blood, and apply steri-strips (something I was suddenly very glad I’d thought to pack in my first-aid kit), which were the next best thing in the absence of actual stitches. I could probably have sewn her up with a needle and thread if we’d really needed to, but I was quite grateful not to have to (not least because it was cold and raining!). Saskia, the least experienced of our group, was fine, but a little shaken and wobbly on her feet after the incident, so we emptied most of her pack and re-distributed it amongst the team, which gave her a bit more balance on the rocks. Tricky enough at the best of times for all except mountain goats, the rocks required a lot of concentration and balance when tired, hungry, and loaded with a 15kg pack.

Finally at 3.30pm we arrived at the checkpoint and were able to cook up some lunch. At 5pm we set off again, and it was a long but very scenic slog to the final checkpoint for the day. The availability of “bushes” was rather limited, and I found myself having to take a rather long offroad detour to avail myself of the facilities en route. My shoulders were now agony after my fall earlier, my toenails were falling off, and my feet were screaming from blisters as well as sore toe joints, but there was nothing for it but to munch painkillers and continue. Pain doesn’t get any less if you walk any slower, so I pushed on hard in order to minimise the amount of time walking, and was the first to arrive at the checkpoint  around 8.30pm. The views leading up to it were stunning, and I had the luxury of another small shop where I bought chocolate, nuts and hot coffee, before relaxing in the warm bar for an hour or so waiting for the others.

dscn8630

DSCN8629.jpg

I timed it well, as it started pouring with rain outside, so I felt a little bit smug and very content other than being in pain. I wasn’t really looking forward to going back outside and putting my tent up in the cold and rain, but around 9.30pm we staggered down the hill to the camping area. It wasn’t quite the wilderness experience of the previous nights, but we were too tired to care, and we managed nevertheless to walk a little bit further and escape the crowds. I was too shattered to do anything except crawl into my tent and eat half a cold dehydrated meal (left over from my lunch) with a couple of wraps.

dscn8638

Posted in Sweden, trekking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 2: Long drops, Jammy Dodgers, and Kebab Stew

The first night wild camping was not exactly conducive to a good night’s rest, despite my tiredness. First, I’d decided to try sleeping the opposite way round in my tent. Given that I’ve had the tent for around 8 years and slept in it dozens of times, and always been quite satisfied with sleeping with my head in the narrow end and my feet in the wide end, for some unknown reason I decided that it would be better to try it the other way round. The fact that it was not a success was partly because I wasn’t used to sleeping with my head sandwiched next to my pack, but also because I hadn’t realised how much of a slope there was on the ground, which meant I was facing downhill. However, even after reversing sleeping direction in the middle of the night (easier said than done in a “coffin” tent), I was still kept awake by the fact that my feet and legs were aching, and then by the fact that I needed to pee and it was pouring with rain. This brings me to one disadvantage of the almost 24-hour daylight in the Arctic – normally you can happily go for a pee in the dark outside your tent, but when it’s broad daylight in the middle of the night, this is a slightly more risky strategy. Still, too bad really as I didn’t fancy wandering far in the middle of the night in the pouring rain! Luckily no one was about, although apparently some reindeer wandered very close to our camp later that night. I did hear noises but never thought to look out of the tent, thinking it was just my imagination. I wish I had, as I could have got some fantastic pictures, as our photojournalist team member Mark managed to do. After the first night, I decided to use my Nalgene bottle for peeing at night, which, although tricky in a confined space when half asleep, meant at least I didn’t have to get out of the tent. I also kept an ear out for reindeer, but sadly never saw any.

So anyway, on to Day 2. This time I managed to work the Piezo lighter and get my stove going unaided for my breakfast, and also finally got the knack of unscrewing the pot of boiling water from the base, both of which had been problematic the previous night. Just as well really, because it was raining so hard there was no way I was getting out of my tent to light the stove and have breakfast! This also made me very glad I’d brought my own tent, as it has a large porch which is easy to cook in while still lying in bed, without risking setting fire to the tent. One of our team was too scared to light her stove inside her tent, having a smaller porch, and consequently went breakfast and coffee-less most mornings due to the rain. Good thing we weren’t in the Arctic in winter, or on a climbing trip, or she’d have been in real trouble! I was also very glad that I’d finally made the decision to bring the heavier thermal mug with a lid, as it meant that every morning I could make extra coffee and carry it hot with me to drink during the day without having to stop and get the stove out.

Luckily, the rain stopped just as it was time to start packing up and leaving. To be fair, I actually waited till the rain stopped, unlike some, but I knew I could break camp very fast since I was well organised, and I was ready to go at the designated hour of 10am. I still really have no idea why the plan was to leave so late, since most of us had been awake for some time, and we had another very long day ahead, but in the words of Tennyson: “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” I refrain from asking if someone had blundered. It turned out that we didn’t die, so maybe not.

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. We didn’t march into the Valley of Death, however, but some rather scenic surroundings, and despite my lack of sleep, I felt on good form. Today for the first time we saw snow on the mountains, and the terrain became more interesting, with a number of rather bouncy suspension bridges, which some of us enjoyed more than others.

DSCN8566

dscn8567

dscn8568

I was the first of our group to arrive at the next checkpoint, Singi, which was bitterly cold, and unfortunately had nowhere to shelter from the wind except behind a few small rocks. I was, however, saved having to get my stove out, as a German man who was sharing my rock had just finished his lunch and had spare boiling water which he donated to me. Since it was already 2pm, I was very hungry, and it also meant I didn’t have to take my gloves off, so I was doubly grateful! The others arrived about 20 minutes later and we had a decent rest and availed ourselves of the (smelly but clean) long drop loos before continuing on. How could the loos be smelly but clean at the same time, you may ask? The answer is simple – they were always spotless, mainly thanks to the array of old men (there may also have been women, but I never saw any) who continually cleaned them and refilled the paper and sanitiser, but the nature of the long drop (a big hole in the ground, covered by a seat) meant that the smell of ammonia was overpowering. It also didn’t help that people kept closing the lid, which only made it worse as no air ever got in. 2000 people passing through in only a few days creates quite a lot of volume, as you can imagine!

dscn8642

dscn8641

The second half of the day was fairly uneventful, other than the fact that my blood sugar level crashed shortly before we reached the next checkpoint at Salka around 7pm, and despite a fistful of jelly beans and a chocolate bar, refused to come up. I pushed on to the checkpoint where a couple of the others had already arrived and had fortunately also just visited the shop, so were able to hand me chocolate and Jammy Dodgers, which soon sorted me out. I have to say that the Jammy Dodgers were much better than the English ones (so they should be, at around £5 a packet!). I visited the shop, which was almost pitch black, and since the writing on everything was in Swedish, I had almost no chance of figuring out what anything was. I managed to acquire some Jammy Dodgers and nuts, however, and (eventually) a cup of coffee. The coffee should have been straightforward, since I’d paid for it at the till, and then just had to ask the nice man sitting outside the shop to pour it for me. However, he had decided for some unknown reason that he was going on strike, and told me there was no more coffee. After telling him I’d already paid for it, he very reluctantly went inside again and retrieved the big thermos and proceeded to pour me a cup, muttering what I presumed to be Swedish swear words at me. I was too tired to care, but such was my need for coffee that I might have hit him over the head with my Jammy Dodgers if he hadn’t delivered! Since we were still waiting for some of the team who were struggling, and it was already late, we decided to cook dinner while waiting for the others, which meant that when they staggered in looking a bit the worse for wear, we had tea and hot water for food all ready for them. Tonight’s delicacy for me was the slightly scary-sounding “kebab stew”, which tasted a lot better than it sounded, with more Jammy Dodgers to follow.

dscn8571

I think we’d planned to go on a little further at this point to find a better campsite, but since there were a few dissenters who didn’t have the energy, we went for a compromise and found a spot just across the river beyond the checkpoint.  A couple of people decided that crossing the river (slightly precariously) was all too much, and camped with the masses below the checkpoint, but it was definitely worth the few extra yards to have a more peaceful spot to ourselves, and away from the midges. Climbing up onto the plateau, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset just as we went to bed, and I realised again how happy I was to be in this magical place.

dscn8576

Posted in Sweden, trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 1

“Going anywhere nice for your summer holidays?” “Well yes actually, I’m off to the Arctic to trek 110km, camping wild and carrying everything I need.” Possibly not the way most people spend a week in August, but then I’ve never been like most people. Some would say I’ve never been normal. I don’t think it seems like an odd thing to do, but apparently others disagree.

Nevertheless, it was with a little bit of trepidation that I spent countless hours packing and repacking my 65 litre rucksack to fit in everything I might need. Admittedly, 90% of that time was spent squashing up my light down jacket, packing it, taking it out again, squashing up my warmer but bulkier and heavier synthetic jacket, comparing the weight and size, packing it, taking it out again, and repeating the process. Not to mention endless hours of discussion (aka mildly disguised panic) on Facebook with my long-suffering teammate in Scotland about packing dilemmas. I only took a slightly shorter time to decide between a heavier but more useful thermal mug with a lid and a lightweight mug without a lid. In the end I packed both mugs, and left the decision till I got to Sweden. I could continue discussing packing ad infinitum, but I’ll save that for a separate post.

We’d been on a pre-trip training weekend about a month previously, where we’d met the other members of the team (or rather, all but one, a journalist who was a last minute addition to the group), so in principle I’d had some practice at walking with around 15kg of equipment, and knew that at least there didn’t appear to be any complete psychopaths in the team (though there’s nothing like spending 5 days trekking in the wilderness in freezing cold, biting rain, slippery mud, with sleep and food deprivation and blisters to bring out the psychopathic tendencies in anyone). If you missed it, I recommend reading my account of the training weekend before you continue with this post.

The day before we were due to fly out, I took the day off work even though I’d pretty much finished packing, in order to unpack and repack my bag another 6 times and do a few last-minute things. In the end Siri (my long-suffering friend from Scotland, not the iPhone voice) told me in no uncertain terms to leave my bag alone and make a cup of tea, as by this time I was driving her nuts (and she was already on the train to Heathrow, so couldn’t make any more changes to her packing if I came up with any last minute words of wisdom). Come to think of it, I could probably have just asked Siri the iPhone voice for help and left the human Siri alone, but I don’t have an iPhone. Being me, as soon as I finally made it onto the train to Heathrow, I pretty much stopped panicking about packing, or at least until the following day when we arrived in Sweden and then had to make a few last-minute decisions about what to take out of my rucksack and leave in my bag to be transported to the finish line. I drove Siri mad yet again deliberating for hours about two different mid-layers, as the ones we had been kindly donated by Fjallraven were thinner than I’d been expecting, and I cursed myself for not having packed an extra lightweight top.  I was banned from ever mentioning hoodies again for the rest of the trip, and to be fair, that shut me up.

After flying to Stockholm and then connecting to the small town of Kiruna (with some trepidation waiting for our bags to arrive – luckily they all made it safely, but there were a couple of unfortunate souls from other teams who didn’t get theirs), it was time to relax and attend a briefing from one of the Fjallraven team about the trek (aka nab as many freebies as we could – not only did we get a very nice hoodie, as mentioned above, but also a hat and buff, and some snacks, just to make our rucksacks a little bit heavier. I can highly recommend the chilli biltong!). There was a popup Fjallraven shop also set up in the school gym, where the unlucky people who hadn’t got their luggage could spend vast sums of money kitting themselves out again. Amazingly, there were even boots for sale. You’d have to be pretty stupid to have not brought any boots with you, but it takes all sorts. I always wear my hiking boots when flying (when going hiking, I mean, not routinely just to fly in), because the worst thing to be without and have to borrow / buy new is a pair of boots, but some people were rather braver (more stupid?) and had packed theirs in their luggage!

13909332_1111910928868171_8102816469882804235_o

Pre-trip briefing

DSCN8499

Our route with checkpoints

Trek Day 1: Nikkaluokta to Kebnekaise

Having debated hotly among our team the previous night the merits of getting up at an ungodly hour to be in the first wave of start times (there were 3 throughout the day – early morning, lunchtime, and mid-afternoon), the majority vote had gone for the lunchtime start. This meant that we had a lie-in in the morning and the chance to repack our bags another 6 times, but had the downside that we had more than 20km to walk and would only start at 1pm, so it would be a late finish. I was happy with either option, but on balance I was happy as there wouldn’t be anything to do other than eat and sleep when we got to our campsite, and it never got properly dark, so arriving late didn’t matter too much, and I’m never a fan of early mornings. After collecting our gas and food and making the final packing decisions, we checked in our spare bag to be sent off to the finish line. It was incredible to see 3 giant containers just for the bags, but then you have to remember that there are over 2000 participants, so that’s quite a lot of luggage! I hoped I’d see my bag again, as it had my passport and house keys in it, amongst other things. But there wasn’t really anywhere it could get lost, so I wasn’t too worried.

DSCN8497

Collecting gas and bread

DSCN8496

Sending off our bags

When you’re getting ready to start 5 days of trekking, what you really want to put you in the right mood is a beautiful view and brilliant sunshine. We had neither. It was on with the waterproofs and rucksack covers, while munching our pre-trek reindeer burgers (our last chance of a non-dehydrated meal for a while, and they were surprisingly good) and trying to keep the rain out of our coffee.

DSCN8504

I’m ready to go!

After an interminable speech from the race organiser that no one actually listened to, but which I imagine was a lyrical waxing about the joys of trekking in the rain and mud and how our spiritual energy would be revitalised by the end of it), the whistle finally blew and we were off! The rain actually stopped very soon, and we were soon walking through the mud and trees in sunshine. Our shoulders were strong as a gymnast’s, our feet were as smooth as a baby’s bottom, our boots were shiny as silverware, our hair could have promoted Timotei, and our Tshirts smelt like flowers. We were invincible. Briefly.

We made good time for the first few hours, fuelled by reindeer meat and powered by limbs that had spent the best part of the last 2 days sitting down, and we were eager for action. After a couple of hours we arrived at a beautiful spot by the river in glorious sunshine, and sat down for a rest, a snack and our first experience of the trail toilets (basically a shed containing a long-drop with a seat). Actually compared with other trails in Africa and Asia, these were in excellent condition despite the enormous number of users (we were encouraged to use these rather than going in the wild, for environmental reasons). You soon got used to holding your breath and putting a buff over your face to disguise the smell of ammonia, but they were always spotlessly clean.

DSCN8512

Alan emphasising the importance of airing your feet at every opportunity

My sense of time had already gone out of the window (after all, you don’t usually start a walk of more than 20k at lunchtime), and it must have been about 4pm that we set off again with what seemed like an enormous mileage (or kilometrage, since everything in Sweden is metric) left to go. I soon learnt to banish all thoughts of time, which was easy considering that it never really got dark and that we would often end up eating lunch at 4pm and dinner at 10pm, although we usually managed breakfast around 7-8am. Some days, we didn’t eat lunch at all, and just snacked throughout the day on cereal bars, dried fruit, biltong, or whatever other squashed delicacies we were carrying in our pockets.

20160829_122752

First checkpoint stamped!

At some point in the evening we reached the first checkpoint, Kebnekaise, after 19lm, and had our passes stamped (important so that the organisers knew we hadn’t been swallowed by a bog monster, broken a leg or suffered any other fatal incident on the trek and were still alive). We still had a few km to go until we reached the point where we’d planned to camp, however. There were a few very tired faces and almost a mutiny when we had to keep pushing on, due to other trekkers having already reached our preferred spot and set up camp there. I was actually feeling pretty good still at this point, so happy to carry on, and it was certainly worthwhile when we finally found a suitable spot to camp, with no one around. I wrote a little bit about this experience in another post on remembering why I love the wilderness experience. I was very glad I had a tried and tested tent with me (unlike the poor person using a tent he’d never even seen before, and which turned out to be incredibly complicated to erect). I was keen to get to my food, but I spent the next hour assisting with the recalcitrant tent, and we finally managed to make it suitable for sleeping in, even if not exactly looking like the photo on the instructions! After all, we were a team, and I’ve have welcomed the help if it had been me. I finally cooked my first of many dehydrated meals on the trek, which turned out to be a delicious and very filling game stew (yes, I did use the word “delicious” and “dehydrated meal” in the same sentence, and not just because I was hungry, it really was good!) and fell into bed just as the sun was starting to set.

DSCN8533

Posted in Sweden, trekking | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment