Written by Nikola Kolarić, participant
One fine day in May 2021, going through social networks, I run into a post by my friend Kiki about an event called HIGHLANDER Stara Planina. I glance at it, seems like an interesting story. I visit their website immediately drawn to the idea. I’ve never participated in a similar event before. I put the dates down in my calendar, I think I won’t be able to go for the various obligations, but I secretly hope I will have free time right then.
Friday, 11 June comes, the day before the start. My things are packed, minimally, too minimally as it will turn out. I arrive in Pirot early, around 1 PM. I come to the flags and tents reading HIGHLANDER at the main square outside the Pirot Tourist Organisation. Other participants keep coming, we register, we get the topographic maps, instructions on how to reach the start the next morning and other formalities. It’s clear this is not a race, there are no winners, there is no reward for however comes first. But I still have this strong competitive spirit, I want to see how fast I can cross the 100 km. I want to make my own record. I assess what I need two days, but I underestimate the Old Mountain. The old mighty mountain.
I spend the evening staring at maps, marking paths, I download a map to use it offline on my Rangefinder app that I use for navigation, and I also mark paths, alternative routes, dangers. In the morning I should reach the village Temska, the arrangement is that I and Gigi (my small dog, faithful companion, Border Collie pup) are picked up by a bus and taken to the Babin Zub peak, where the start is. Temska is also the finish, so the plan is to leave the car there so I can change and leave my things as soon as I’m finished.
After being late for the first bus, I get a call from the organisation about being picked up by a van. Again, I am more lucky than smart. The van is driven by Peko from the organisation, picking me and another bloke with a dog, and we are finally moving towards the start.
We get up there around 8 in the morning, the start is announced for 9. Just enough time for coffee and getting to know other participants. We take the food packages, we put it all in our backpacks, the straps are tightened and we’re all waiting for the start! At 08:55 one can hear something I think are cow bells. Kiki is going around ringing the bells, and everyone is ready to move.
We are surrounded by clouds, somewhere fog even, but on other sides even gorgeous views. We move downhill, drones are flying, everyone is taking pictures, the atmosphere is great. Gigi and I make our way up front and together with a small group from Croatia leave the majority of participants far behind us, already after twenty or so minutes. I look at the group from Croatia, they are carrying small bags and trail running shoes. Did I overdo it with my equipment? I’m wearing hiking boots and carrying a backpack that weighs a little under 20 kg.
I am slowed down by stopping near each water. I keep taking photos, naming them on the list, and marking both on the map and the phone, so I can put them in the chart more easily later. I am doing this because the sponsor is GoPro and they give a prize to the person that marks the most water s on their way. I am resolved to get the camera, but the second prize is not so bad either – GoPro backpack. I can hear only s, waterfalls, the sounds of the forest, birds and the wind around me.
On my right are huge, beautiful birds, who I make a promise to I will come back and mount them. On my left is a large slope, covered in dense woods, and far behind are thick clouds, with more cliffs protruding through them. It starts raining heavily, and this is where I take my first longer break.
I put on my jacket and trousers, I put the cover on my backpack. I take my shoes off for the first time to see what is going on with my feet. The first blisters and calluses are forming. I put on band aids and go on. The rest of the way is rather monotonous. The only event is that we are overtaken by the vehicle of the Mountain Rescue Service. This is a good sign – to know they can reach the participants that need assistance anywhere along the way.
Around 6 and a half hours of walking and around 1,300 m down and 1,300m up, I get to the checkpoint Beleđe. I am greeted by smiling faces, congratulations, applause, they bring me a cold Nikšićko beer and a chair.
I find out from the conversation that I am actually the second person to reach the checkpoint. I am surprised and I ask how is this possible? This is when I meet the founder of the HIGHLANDER event, Igor Mlinarević - Mlinka who got there first, even though he’d left at 11 o’clock. He tells me he took a shorted way by 6km over Midžor. I find out that one doesn’t need to follow the recommended track marked on the map. There was no reason for me to think I had to, but I had just assumed this.
We get up on Sunday with the rising sun, around 5 AM. I pack up quickly, make oatmeal and coffee. I can see that quite a few groups have started already. I follow the most logical dirt path going down the hill. This is, as I see on the map and in the app, the fastest way. I also come across the first piles of snow! It’s June, I’m in my shorts and a light shell jacket. The idea was that I’d warm up and the temperature would rise as the day progresses. Mistakes, mistakes. As if I don’t know that the mountain should not be underestimated. I still keep a strong pace; the path becomes more and more difficult.
I also rely on following red and white markings, as they coincide with the map I have on my phone and the path on the map. Only ten minutes later I come across two blokes. They seem lost. They tell me that the red and white stripes go one way and the GPS coordinates on the app the other. I look at the device they’re using – Garmin GPS. It’s showing the same route as the app. They tell me they’ve followed the red and white stripes and that they soon stop, and the path on the GPS does not exist.
Because of the cold, wind and rain, I suggest we follow the GPS and then come what may, but to keep moving so we don’t freeze. We start following the GPS. We come across never-ending juniper fields. My feet are completely wet, everything on me is completely wet. We are not losing our spirit; my hands are shaking with cold. We come across some old hiking markings on a lonely tree here and there, it’s obvious that there used to be a path there.
For a painful hour and 45 minutes through the junipers, we finally reach 5-6 large pine trees, making cover tall enough so we can get under and see what to do next. We spread the tent between the branches. We huddle underneath, frozen, taking off our boots and pouring water out of them. We wring water out of our socks. I take everything out of the backpack to try and find something dry to wear, but in vain. Everything is completely wet. At the beginning I mentioned not having packed enough.
I thought Gore-Tex jacket and trousers would be enough. I know full well that this material has its limits, but I didn’t expect they would be reached that easily.
We conclude that we have 3 options ahead of us. One to go back, we discard that one immediately. Another is to keep going and find the path, maybe it’s just there, but maybe it doesn't not exist after all. The third is the most realistic. We decide to go for option 3.
On my app I see it’s very steep, there are high cliffs. We agree it’s worth the risk and we set on our way.
The forest is relatively passable, with large trees. We are walking towards a huge stone slide, which has broken many trees that we must skip over. The stones are largely covered in moss, which is slippery and hides the holes in between the stones.
We need a whole hour and a half to reach the road. We meet a small group under a wooden cover with little benches. They offer us pelinkovac(Jägermeister) and hot soup. I refuse nothing!
They give me bags for my feet. Since I’ve wringed as much water from my socks as I could, this means a lot, so they don’t get soaked again. I use the cover to wring everything else in the bag, pack it back again and continue on my way. I’ve lost half a day because of my mistakes and bad judgements.
The road follows the Dojkinačka river. All around me is a beautiful forest, cascades, waterfalls, brown cliffs, gorgeous. I think to myself I must go back here fresh to enjoy it all.
The two blokes I went down with catch up with me, and the bloke from the van from the beginning, and many other people I’ve met thus far. We all slowly arrive to checkpoint 2 – DOJKINCI.
I take my things to dry and go under the hot shower in the mountain house. I put up my tent. I take a long hot shower. While I wait for my things to dry, I listen to a lecture about the Himalaya, given by Dragan Jaćimović, who has arrived in the meantime. They are serving Nikšićko beer, a small band is playing music on a wooden stage outside the house. The atmosphere is really great.
I get up early, before 5 AM. The plan is to go through the three last checkpoints today. I decide to follow the path through the village and follow the river at the same time. It’s neither big nor deep, I could step over it. Now there are only tractor tracks through the deep grass ahead of me. I try to follow in them as much as I can, as I don’t want the dew to go through my boots and my feet to get wet again I see here and there some hiking marks on trees and rocks. At some point the forest becomes a little sparse and my little path shows. This is actually a mountain stream, where villagers have taken out stone slabs for roofs and fences. There is a nice little path along this entire section. It’s very steep and wet. We’re fresh, in the shade of the beech forest, so we complete this climb in an hour. We get to the path on the map after 2-3 kilometres. We’ve made it shorter by at least 10 km.
I don’t see another person at any moment. I’m completely alone and I’m enjoying it. The only thing I can see are the tracks of off-road vehicles. I use these tracks where the mud has dried a little, and where it hasn’t, I walk on the grass. I make oatmeal and coffee. Breakfast in paradise. I keep following the path, lost in thought and landscapes ahead, and at some point, I decide to check the map. I’ve moved far away from the marked route, but directly towards the next checkpoint. From a small hill I see large herds of cattle. On my right I see a path several hundreds of meters ahead. The marked path actually goes around those few hills and a basin ahead.I decide to cut across straight towards the finish. Behind the next hill I should see the checkpoint Arbanaški kladenac. And soon I can make out HIGHLANDER flags and a few tents.
I reach the checkpoint around 9 in the morning. Again, everyone from the organisation is greeting me thrilled, they take my bag, they pull up a chair for me to sit on. They offer Nikšićko beer, coffee, REVITA, apples and anything else they can get their hands on. I was the most pleased to have fresh milk from the cow, cooked. Both Gigi and I got a mug each. Tastes like warm ice-cream. Husband and wife, local farmers, who brought the milk, give me advice on which way to go. I ask them if there’s a possibility to go from the Gostuša village close to the lake and follow the length of the lake. There are no roads marked on the map. They tell me that there was a road built to the village, a long time ago, maybe in the 70ies even, but the project was abandoned. I’ll have to follow my instincts.
We keep going and after the next half an hour we start on a long descent towards the lake. The path is already curved. At some point I come across abandoned houses, completely covered in trees and nettles, about a meter and a half tall. We get through and find windy paths heading in my desired direction. Here and there traces of humans give me confidence. After an hour’s walk, we go back to the path on the map, I cut the way well short. We are moving along a dry riverbed downward. As the riverbed is full of big flat stone slabs, I decide to take a break, for Gigi’s sake, but also make myself the electrolyte drink that I take every few hours.
I can see the first stone roofs of the village in the distance. I’m arriving in Gostuša. The village is not abandoned. I think I hear a human voice once or twice, but I don’t see anyone. I wish I met someone after all so I could ask about the way I was looking for. Still, it remains only a wish. The only thing that the woman that sent me towards this path said was that I had to cross the river somewhere in the village and that was it. I come across the HIGHLANDER sign, leading over a tiny bridge alongside some very pretty waterfalls. I come to a cemetery, and go in to rest a little, because it’s beautiful and old. I keep along the road looking for where I could go down to the river. Usually, my instinct and my nose guide me well in nature, as the case was now too. We follow the river through thick vegetation, until I find a place I can cross it, but I have to take my clothes off and stay in my underwear. It is what it is. I even think there used to be a bridge there, as traces of a path can be discerned. Encouraged to have found a road in the middle of nowhere, I start marching in full. The road becomes easier to walk along and one can see that a vehicle went on it. I come across signs for hunting grounds and conclude that hunters must go there in cars.
I stubbornly decide to go through the forest straight between the two ways and across the gorge at the end of the bay. I see no water on the map, but there’s still a small river down there, as it was raining for the past two days. I come across a small forest path, leading me to the small river.
I would describe the landscape around me as a bog. I can hardly find a stone or a branch that is dry and manage to get across. The vegetation is so thick, I can hardly turn. Everywhere is muddy. I try to climb up and get out of the hole, as the marked paths are now only a few hundred meters away. Ten meters later I slip, my leg gets caught in creepers and lilies. The heavy bag pulls me back and I fall on my back. Since it’s very steep, I start slipping and rolling towards the stream.
I hope something of all those plants will stop me. My hope is in vain because everything is breaking under my weight and speed. I fall into a well, several meters deep, cut by the stream in the hill! I go in backpack first and luckily this eases my fall on the rocks under the surface. I’m lying in water, I need a few seconds to pull myself together and realise I’m not hurt.
Somehow, I collect sticks and throw them back from where I fell into the stream, I throw the backpack out too. I grab the broken branches and roots, and with quite a bit of struggle with the muddy and slippery ground everywhere, I manage to get out. I strip naked and hang everything on the branches around me. I take everything out of my backpack to see if there’s anything that’s dry. If only I’d been smart enough to pack everything in bags.
I’m happy to see I have dirty socks that are only a little moist. I wring out the rest as much as I can and put back in the bag.
We somehow manage to get ourselves out and onto a path. Through the forest, I again see some old stone ruins but also a newer house with roof tiles. This is a good sign, I’m certain there is a road to the lake from here.
The way on is getting better and our pace is stronger. We come across the first person since the checkpoint that morning. An older gentleman with a hat, round glasses, leather backpack with a raven on, and two Hungarian greyhounds. The dogs have large leather collars with unusual little bells. We exchange a few words, and we each go our own way. Soon I have checkpoint 4 in sight.
I reach the asphalt road, cross the dam and move towards the scuba diving club. Two people from the organisation are coming towards me.
I’m there! I take off my boots and my backpack I feel as if I’m flying. I get the one before last stamp on my card. They bring me food and coffee. Soon Igor comes, the organiser, and a group of older hikers from Croatia. We congratulate each other, but I still decide to continue to the finish today.
There are only a few hours uphill from the lake and then it’s all downhill to the finish. The path is clear and well-marked. The weather is perfect. The sun has eased a little and a nice breeze is blowing. When we start down the hill, my knees start to ache hard. Each step is painful. I try to move backward, sideways and apply any technique I can think of, but without success. I will have to endure a few more hours.
With the last light of day, we reach the asphalt road and under us I can see tents on the riverbank, flags… and the finish!