Monday, July 26, 2010

A walk in the Tatra Mountains

"One person on a chain at a time, three points of contact and just don't look down!". The zig zagging path up the scree slope had stopped. Above us towered 500 feet of cliff and as I ascended, I thought of the song 'A Stairway to Heaven', only our heaven was a saddle where we would stop for a well deserved picnic lunch. And just as our guide, Jacek, had said, it was easy; just take a step at a time, move your hand up the chain and, of course, don't look down. The adrenalin was pumping and the excitement rising. I was too busy concentrating and enjoying the challenge to worry about any fear I had. Twelve people snaking their way slowly upwards.

Climbing up the cliff face became easier as we found our rhythm. When one person stopped, we all stopped, just like cars in peak hour traffic. Eventually our group of six Britons, one Irishman, one American girl, myself and our three Polish guides arrived at the saddle. A sheltered spot was found and as we hungrily ate our picnic lunch, I couldn't help take in the beauty and the peace of the surrounding peaks. They reminded me of a misspent youth climbing and walking in the haunting Cuillin mountains on the Scottish island of Skye.

This was our fourth day of a two week walking holiday in the Tatra mountains. These rocky limestone and granite mountains straddle the border of Poland and The Republic of Slovakia with the highest peak, Gerlachovsky Stit, 2655m above sea level.

A few days earlier we had arrived into Warsaw during a heat wave. It was 36 C with the mercury still climbing. Immigration and customs were unbelievably easy and once the group was gathered together by Jacek, we were on the express train to Cracow.

What a wonderful city Cracow is! Ancient castles, world-class museums, beautiful art galleries and towering churches were all within walking distance of our hotel in the heart of the old town. Well this was a walking holiday and what better a way to begin than by walking around town although we must have seemed an odd sight wearing our heavy boots in the 38 degrees.

The huge equestrian statue of Count Tadeusz Kosciuszko, above the ramp into Wawel Castle, reminded me of Australia's highest mountain, which was named by Count Strzelecki because it resembled the large earth mound over the tomb of Kosciuszko.

En route to Zakopane, our base for exploring the Polish Tatras, we stopped at the small industrial town of Wieliczka. Here we explored a 1000 year old underground salt mine where many of Poland's art treasures were hidden during the war. We investigated the many theme chambers including the St. Kinga Chapel, which took 30 years to carve, measures 54 by 17 metres and is 12 metres high. A change of pace from the usual museums and art galleries one normally visits when travelling.

Our lodge in Zakopane was very reminiscent of a Swiss Chalet. All bedding was supplied throughout the trek and most meals, including pack lunches on all trek days, were included. The meals were plentiful, high in carbohydrates, typically Polish and even the hungriest of us couldn't eat everything put in front of us.

Every day we explored a different valley, climbed onto the rocky ridges and descended into another valley for the walk back to the chalet. As in many other parts of Europe all paths are colour coded and are very easy to follow even during inclement weather. It was forbidden to walk off the trail and signs in Polish warned of the consequences. None of us argued with this and it seemed the locals didn't either.

Like all mountain ranges throughout the world the weather in the Tatras can change at any time and did just that on a number of occasions. We experienced blue sky, sunshine, rain, hail and blizzards all in one day. From shorts and t-shirts to woollens and waterproofs within the hour.

One special night was spent away from Zakopane in a beautiful mountain chalet nestled amongst tall pine trees next to a little glacial lake. This mountain chalet, like the many we were to stay at in the Tatras, had dormitory accommodation, served hot meals and drinks, was well heated and even had hot showers!

Our single 'rest' day came from a rafting trip down the Dunajec river. Not exciting thrills and spills usually associated with rafting but a very pleasant journey in traditional rafts through narrow limestone gorges. The river wound its tortuous way along the border with Slovakia and on several occasions our captain explained we had illegally crossed the border. He also talked about the old days when people were shot while trying to escape from one country to another. We were all quite thankful times had changed and that the Iron Curtain no longer existed.

The official border crossing into Slovakia was easy. Three years ago this would have taken many frustrating hours but 'Glasnost' had stopped the bureaucracy and red tape. 'Plan maximum', as Jacek explained in his endearing English, was for a very long walk up a valley and then over a high pass to Szielsky Dom Chalet. However due to the incessant rain and very low cloud cover we had to revert to 'plan minimum'. This involved taking a bus around to the southern side followed by a short walk up to the chalet.

As we ascended, the rain turned to sleet, the sleet to snow and before long the path had disappeared under a pure white blanket. As we all donned our Goretex waterproofs, Jacek and the two other guides pulled out their umbrellas! I have this great photo of Jacek huddled under his umbrella protecting himself from the elements with only a pair of sandals protecting his feet. It was a little hard to accept that we all had the modern high tech gear which they just could not afford.

I was breaking the trail with visibility down to about twenty feet when suddenly the chalet just loomed out of the blizzard. As we walked through the door covered in snow it was a tremendous relief to see our baggage waiting for us. The brochure description was reading well!

Once allocated to our heated rooms we indulged in wonderfully hot showers followed by hot tea and coffee in the restaurant. Walking in the mountains wasn't meant to be this easy but then again what's wrong with a little luxury now and then.

Gerlachovsky Stit was our objective the next day but the mountains were still shrouded in mist and snow was still falling. As the ascent involved the use of chains and ladders on the more difficult sections, Jacek deemed it too dangerous an expedition. 'Plan minimum' again came into operation and we spent the extra time building snowmen, or should I say snowpersons, with the odd snowball fight thrown in.

The last five or so days were spent in the mountains walking from chalet to chalet. However there were two overnight stays at more rustic chalets where we didn't have access to our main baggage. Even though our daypacks were heavier, this was more than compensated for by the charm of the beautiful mountain settings.

The mist still clung to the high peaks and we all enjoyed the fun and stimulation of breaking trail on the lower level paths. Rather than going up and over to the next chalet we contoured around the mountains. Plan minimum was operating again but we had no complaints as we were all experienced walkers and were used to the vagrancies of the weather.

As we descended out of the High Tatra the mist lifted, blue sky appeared and the peaks shone in their new winter coating. I have spent most of my life walking in the mountains of the world and it is amazing how often this phenomenon happens as you turn your back to go home. However there wasn't one of us who would have wound the clock back to start again. The feeling of camaraderie amongst the group was greater than what could have been at a different time.

Our penultimate day was spent enjoying a relaxing walk in the beautiful Slovensky Raj, a National Park located a few kilometres away. The weather was just perfect and the path followed the meandering river across footbridges, up and down ladders and along catwalks clinging to the cliffside above the river. The different shades of green contrasted so much to the white landscape we had just left.

After a shower and a meal it was time to board the overnight train to the magical city of Prague. This city is pure history and survived both wars almost unscathed. History is everywhere as you walk along well worn cobbled streets looking at the wealth of Gothic and Baroc architecture. Remove the cars and it would be easy to imagine you were living 200 years ago!

All good things come to an end and as the group took off for London I was boarding the night train south to Vienna for the next stage of my holiday. Walking is a wonderful way of staying fit and combined with a holiday it cannot be bettered. However, add to it the novelty of a new culture and you have an experience you will treasure forever.

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