Drum bun: A meandering walk in the Carpathians
In July 2008, I met my friend Matt off the Bucharest-Sibiu train to embark on the 35th leg of his round the world walk. The retelling of Matt’s walk would make for a book in its own right, but just for now I’ll supply the bare bones. Matt first set out from his house in Finsbury Park in November 1989, shortly before the edifice of East European Communism tumbled dustily down. Accompanied by his cousin Guy, who has subsequently walked some 20 stages, and a couple of other friends, they got as far as Sevenoaks in Kent. Subsequent stages took them to Dover, through northern France, across the southwestern tip of Germany, through Austria, Slovenia, and Hungary and then into Romania. A cast of twenty or so friends have accompanied Matt on various stages and I myself am a veteran of ten. I usually try to cherry-pick the mountain stages and avoid those long slogs over the plains.
Stages of the walk have varied in length from a day to two weeks or so with one or two stages walked each year. The aim of the walk is not to circumnavigate the globe by the most practicably direct route (or at all, in truth!), but rather to steer an easily distracted course through the most interesting and agreeable landscapes on offer. So, it’s nearly twenty years since Matt first set off and the joke is that he’ll be 376 years old by the time he crosses the Seven Sisters Road again.
The last stage of the walk saw Matt and I largely thwarted after attempting to traverse a 2000 metre-plus ridge in the Romanian Carpathians in the depths of Winter. We had our snowshoes, but above 1900 metres or so we really needed crampons and ice axes, which we’d not brought.
So, six months later we found ourselves speeding by taxi to the small Transylvanian village of Dejani, scene of our earlier capitulation. The road was so pot-holed it looked like a tarmac emmental, but our driver hurtled along unperturbed with some rather lachrymose Romanian folk music issuing from the car stereo. Heavy rain had been a theme of recent days and the inundated switch-backed mountain track would have thwarted most 4-wheel drives, but our driver heroically bludgeoned his way onwards surely destroying his means of income in the process. The downpour continued as we left our taxi at the Dejani Monastery, having extravagantly tipped our proud driver. We took shelter in an alcove in the monastery walls and brewed tea on the trangia stove as a couple of bearded, ascetic-looking monks tinkered with a tractor nearby.
By and by, the rain pretended to stop for ten minutes, luring us into the open so it could soak us with renewed vigour. We squelched our way upwards into forest and wriggled around looking for the main path that followed the ridge ever upwards to the spine of the Munţii Făgăraş (pronounced fuh-guh-rash). On the moist and murky tree-cloaked hillside, a number of viable-looking tracks solicited for custom, although none of them seemed to do quite what we wanted; so we beat a path directly uphill and picked up the ridge path amidst the storm-shattered remnants of trees that had still stood when we passed this way some months before.
The rain continued, only varying in its intensity, as we followed the path that we’d previously traversed in snowshoes. We were both pretty wet and decided that we’d aim for a shepherds’ bivouac site that we’d passed on the Winter walk. Having agreed on an objective, we set about trying to enjoy the rest of the walk. Soon enough we arrived at the bivouac, at about 1600 metres, which featured a lean-to shelter constructed from a few slim pine tree trunks and roofed with pine-needled fronds. Unexpectedly, the rain stopped and we set about collecting water and drying out our no-longer-entirely-effective waterproofs.
There was all manner of plastic rubbish, including a lot of bottles, left scattered around the site by shepherds and foresters and we cleared it up as best we could – for our own benefit really. Much of rural Romania gets by without any form of refuse collection, so people compost, burn or reuse most of their waste, but plastic is just dumped and this makes for some ecologically unfriendly rubbish dumps on the outskirts of villages. Sadly, in the mountains also there seems to be little consciousness about protecting the environment from litter and this is very visible on the popular Făgăraş ridge route where several bivouac sites have their own tawdry rubbish dumps.
Superhumanly, given how wet it had been, Matt managed to get a fire going and I cooked the first of the week’s tuna fandangos – a tasty amalgam of basmati rice, tinned tuna, sun dried tomatoes and dried wild mushrooms. After dinner we discussed the following day’s itinerary before turning in for the night.
In the morning, the weather looked very uncertain with fast moving cloud billowing high above the treetops, but by the time we’d breakfasted and struck camp sizeable chunks of blue sky were making regular appearances. We set off optimistically and by the time we’d climbed the couple of hundred metres to clear the tree line, the weather looked distinctly promising. Furthermore, from our lofty viewpoint above the cloud-filled Făgăraş Depression to the north we were able to enjoy a spectacular cloud inversion.
The view of the mountain landscape opening out ahead of us was also spectacular and not a little daunting. We continued on and upwards, zigzagging up to 2200 metres and then contouring just beneath the peaks of Varful Izvorului and Varful Langa. Given that we were each carrying well in excess of 20 kilos, it was great to not be climbing for once, which also made it easier to enjoy the breathtaking views of the main ridge of the Făgăraş to the south and west.
We trundled along contentedly in this fashion for a while and then made the short sharp climb to the saddle just east of Varful Zarnei, briefly joining the main Făgăraş ridge path. We perched on the saddle and had some lunch while watching a shepherd with his flock below us to the south. We would encounter shepherds with flocks of several hundred sheep at regular intervals over the following days. It seems that in the summer months sheep are grazed at high altitude and kept on the move all day, if this is designed to produce top quality meat – it works; I’d recommend Romanian lamb to anyone.
After our lunch stop we continued on our way, skirting the summit of Varful Ludişoru before dropping a couple of hundred metres to the Curmătura Ludisor saddle, where we left the main Făgăraş ridge path behind. The remarkable view south from the saddle, down the Brătila river valley to the grey-green interleaved mountain ridges beyond, was enhanced by the afternoon light and a slight haze in the distance.
Our route took us along the ridge to the east of the valley. We climbed a little and then contoured along on the fine, meadow-blanketed ridge. Ahead, to our right, we spotted a ramshackle looking shepherds’ hut and could see its occupant milling around outside it. He appeared to have spotted us also and began to make his way up to the path to meet us.
The shepherd arrived at the path ahead of us and squatted in attendance. As I drew near to him I removed my sunglasses and greeted him with a ‘bună ziua’. A great, weathered, bear of a man in extremely worn and dirty old clothes, his mouth full of catastrophic gold dentistry, he was probably younger than me though he gave the impression of being more ancient than the rock on which we stood. He took my shamefully soft, feminine little hand in his huge, calloused, labour-hardened paw and blasted me with a cochlea-shattering ‘BUNĂ ZIUA’ in response. One of two things was happening here. Either the man was stone-deaf, having been injured in some form of industrial accident involving a large quantity of dynamite, or he was doing what most Brits do when attempting to communicate to non-English speaking foreigners.
Matt speaks a creditable amount of Romanian and once he arrived on the scene we were able to exchange a few pleasantries. All the while, two of his lethally proportioned dogs had circled us and taken up positions from which they would be able to rip out our throats in a matter of seconds, should we raise our hands against their master. At this point, the shepherd produced from his pocket a lighter so ancient and decrepit that were it not for the fact it was largely made of plastic it could have passed as a relic from the 19th century. He ostentatiously demonstrated to us the lighter’s failure to work and clearly intimated that I should hand over a replacement, which I must surely possess, that very minute. The dogs also wore an air of expectancy. Happily I had a couple of spare lighters and rather selfishly handed over the least efficient. The tremulous and malnourished flame ignited a smile that revealed the true magnitude of his dental malaise. He was clearly delighted, kissing his prize passionately. After aurally assaulting us with a suggested itinerary – ‘Varful Roşu, Refugiul Iezer, Păpuşa, Voina’ – he thanked us and scampered off to his hut with the hounds in tow.
Continuing on our way we crossed to the eastern side of the ridge and gained a view south towards Varful Roşu and its sister peak, Varful Iezerul Mare, on the Iezerul-Păpuşa ridge, which we planned to climb on our route the following day. Just now, however, some serious-looking weather was gathering along that particular ridge and thunder cracked and rolled out towards us. With the sky darkening, we made haste for an area of lower-lying, level ground and pitched the tent. Shortly after, the weather arrived. Aside from a failed foray in search of water when the rain briefly paused, we were stuck in the tent all evening. Still, we were relatively dry and had enough water for tea and food, so all was well.
The following morning it was still raining, but it eased off and finally stopped before the morning was very old. We continued along the ridge, losing a little height then gradually climbing for a few hundred metres. Again we looked down on a cloud inversion shrouding the plain to the north and to our northeast the imposing limestone wall of the Piatra Craiului mountains stood out prow-like above the submerged world.
The ridge had become sharper and the narrow path was fringed by long grass, which had our legs and feet soaked in no time. Ragged billows of cloud vapour rolled up the mountainside like slow motion surf and we kept a weather eye on the ever closer bulk of Varful Roşu. After checking our bearings, we zigzagged 100 metres down a rock-lined track. Below us two shepherds marshalled their flock and as soon as their dogs got wind of us, they let off a barrage of recriminations from atop their rocky vantage points. We exchanged waves with the shepherds and the dogs were still barking after we were long gone.
Arriving on the Curmătura Oticu saddle we stopped for a lunch break and cast anxious glances at the long, exposed ridge of Varful Roşu, which began to climb southeast from where we sat. Armadas of cloud were moving in every direction across the heavens and it was difficult to know whether they bore malign intent or not. Neither of us fancied being up on an exposed ridge should the previous afternoon’s thunder and lightning be repeated. After much umming and ahhing, we bottled it, reasoning that the option of continuing south from the saddle on a contouring path above the valley would make for a very lovely walk indeed. And it really did, especially as the weather stayed good, which made our trepidation seem a bit pathetic.
We coasted around the valley just inside the tree line, crossing a few rather swollen streams, before dropping steeply into a large area of coniferous forest. From a distance we could see denuded, tree stump-studded patches of ground reminiscent of Paul Nash’s paintings of Flanders circa 1917. The two-stroke buzz of chainsaws announced work in progress as we descended a mangled track of glutinous mud and shattered wood. A huge and very shiny red forestry tractor/bulldozer combo stood in the path ahead and we sidled around it offering greetings to the big and tough looking foresters working around it. They were a taciturn bunch, but their unfriendliness was made up for ten minutes later by two chaps who pointed us in the right direction with imprecations of ‘drum bun’ , literally meaning ‘good road’.
Our route climbed on a faint path up to an amphitheatre beneath the Curmătura Groapelor saddle to the southeast of Varful Iezerul Mare. We found a fine bivouacking site on a small plateau at about 1900 metres and set up camp forthwith. From our vantage point we had commanding views of the mountains to the north and west – including some of the 2400 metre-plus peaks of the Făgăraş chain – and the constantly ebbing and flowing cloudscapes.
To one side of our little plateau stood a boulder the size of a brick outhouse; the relatively un-weathered surface on one side of the rock suggested that it had recently arrived here from above, having detached itself from the mountain looming over us. A series of large gouges indicated the route by which this monster had bounced down the mountainside in a Barnes-Wallis-esque fashion. If it had cleared this little plateau it may well have continued all the way down to the valley floor.
Matt gathered firewood and I climbed 300 metres to the nearest top in an abortive attempt to send and receive text messages on my phone. On my return, Matt had got a fine blaze going and we had our tuna fandango while gazing at the endlessly compelling view. Before turning in, we decided that if the weather was reasonable the following morning we would climb to the saddle then up along the ridge of Varful Iezerul Mic (2409 metres) before descending to Refugiul Iezer from where we could launch an assault on Varful Iezerul Mare and Varful Roşu.
After an excellent night’s sleep we awoke to unsettled weather conditions once again. Our prevaricating tendencies of the previous day returned to haunt us; should we wait to see what the weather would do? Should we take an alternative route? Or should we just go for it? We settled for a few more hours of prevarication in extremely agreeable surroundings, before striking camp and launching ourselves up the mountainside. After a couple of hours of splendid walking with some fine if intermittent views, we had traversed the Iezerul Mic spur and had arrived at the Crucea Ateneului – the confluence of several ridges. Refugiul Iezer was below to our west and we were directly south of Iezerul Mare and Roşu.
Buoyed by our rapid ascent of the ridge, Matt was all for heading off across these twin 2460 metre peaks and bivouacking somewhere along the Iezerul-Păpuşa ridge. I felt inclined to head for the refuge as it was already mid-afternoon and dark clouds were drawing in, furthermore, we had made good time on the walk thus far and we could think about tackling the Iezerul-Păpuşa ridge the following day. Weather permitting. Matt eventually deferred to my rank cowardice and we descended to the refuge, which sat in a large corrie near a rather lovely alpine lake.
As we approached the refuge we noticed the remains of a few campfires dotted around with rubbish – mostly old tins and bottles. It was the same inside and outside the refuge. We had a good clean up, which helped us feel virtuous and when it started to rain quite heavily I was able to compound my righteousness by adopting a smug posture at having insisted on the refuge option. The refuge itself wasn’t the finest example of the form, but it was dry, had some bunks and was now clean-ish. I set my alarm for 5.45am and we settled down early for the night, hoping for good weather to tackle the ridge in the morning.
Dawn arrived with uncertain tidings. The sky was clear above us, but cloud poured over the Iezerul-Păpuşa ridge to the northwest – exactly where we would be headed. Perhaps detecting a degree of hesitancy on my part, Matt set off at a canter before I could refuse any more fences. We were soon up on the ridge, skirting just below and west of Iezerul Mare peak. The early morning air was still cool and the valleys beneath us were submerged in monochrome shadow. We gained the summit of Varful Roşu within an hour, though the signpost by the refuge had suggested that it would take an hour and a half. If our progress continued in this fashion then what had seemed a daunting prospect the day before would be much more manageable. From the summit we looked down the mountain’s sharp northwestern spur to the Curmătura Oticu saddle where we’d had our collective crisis of confidence two days before. The ridge certainly looked well ventilated from our present vantage point.
We enjoyed the 360° views awhile before descending a little and continuing on our way. Beyond the summit of Varful Roşu we stayed south of the ridge, which dropped precipitously amid sheer rock faces to the north, but which opened out into a broad, meadow-cloaked crest that merely sloped steeply away to the south. This landscape reminded me of the ‘hump-backed, bow-headed’ South Downs of Kipling’s description, only on a considerably larger scale.
Rough hanks of cloud billowed fitfully over the ridge, but the sun had made an appearance and seemed to be gaining the upper hand. We strode out purposefully, taking in Varful Piscanu (2323 metres), with Varful Bătrâna in the middle distance and the dome-shaped bulk of Păpuşa looming beyond. To the west of Bătrâna we could see a large flock of sheep moving across the hillside like a woolly constellation orbiting in slow motion. As we drew closer, we could pick out the shepherd and his dogs on the fringes of the flock, at which point the dogs also became aware of us and six or seven of them came bounding towards us – all raised hackles, bared fangs and ferocious barking. I swiftly rendered myself invisible and the hounds loped straight past me and surrounded Matt. Before they could rip him limb from limb, however, the shepherd gave them pause with a high-pitched whistle and they seemed content to trot along beside Matt, haranguing him all the while.
The shepherd was of a similar age to us – mid-forties – but his weathered countenance made him appear older. In contrast, his blue eyes were as clear as mountain lakes. Like all the shepherds we’ve encountered when walking in Romania in recent years, he was entirely robust and looked as strong as the proverbial ox. A few greetings exchanged, we continued on our way, up the western flank of Bătrâna and then contouring on a path across the south face of the mountain, which curved round to a spur heading south of the main ridge. Emerging from the lee of the mountain, we corrected our course and strode on westward. We were making very good time and this ridge was an absolute joy to walk: there was very little in the way of up-and-down, the weather had held and the views were sublime.
The only cloud on the horizon was the cloud on the horizon, specifically that which was hovering around the flanks of Păpuşa; would we get up and over the mountain before the weather? Păpuşa is only a hundred metres or so higher than the other tops on the ridge, but it just has the look of a weather magnet.
We took in the slight incline to the top of Varful Tamburu (2294 metres) and marvelled at one of the most splendid rock cairns I’ve ever seen – it was two metres tall and constructed in such a way that it had a number of sizeable gaps letting daylight through. Contouring around the top of Tamburu, we could see a heroic shepherd with his flock perched atop Păpuşa seemingly impervious to the clouds menacing the mountain’s flanks. Suddenly, we were confronted by a phenomenon we hadn’t been expecting – other walkers! Two Romanian chaps in walking gear were coming the other way and were at least as surprised as us to encounter a couple of English blokes out in these hills, which are a bit off the radar of international tourism. We swapped notes, wished each other a good walk and continued in our opposite directions.
The path dropped us 100 metres into a narrow pass before climbing around to the south face of Păpuşa in a steep but evenly gradiented curve. Some 50 metres beneath the summit our path dropped away to the south, initially in steep zigzags and then following a direct line down the ridge. We descended into cloud cover and rain seemed imminent. At a point where the gradient eased into a gentle slope at about 2000 metres, we stopped for some food and tea, quickly pitching the tent should we need shelter in a hurry – we did, but it was just a shower and we were soon on our way again.
We picked up a cart track and coasted gently downhill along the side of a beautiful u-shaped valley where sheep and cattle were grazing. A gap in the green rolling hills on the opposite side of the valley gave a contrasting view over to the vertical limestone wall of the Piatra Craiului. We left the track to continue on the under-used path that cleaved to the side of the valley. Arriving at a grassy knoll, we descended onto the forested ridge that would take us all the way to Câmpulung – our destination for this leg of the walk. Initially, the path through the forest was very pleasant, even when it started raining; after a while, however, we came to a section of the ridge that was being deforested, which was much less enjoyable – and there was also a dearth of camping opportunities. The rain had become quite heavy and we arrived at an area of devastated woodland that looked like it had been napalmed. Looking at the terraced hillsides across the valley, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a squadron of U.S. ‘Huey’ helicopters flying past to the strains of Ride of the Valkyries.
This was no place to camp either and, as we’d been walking for about ten hours, we were both feeling a bit knackered by now. Continuing on, we soon came to a corral where a large number of sheep and cattle were penned; several men were sheltering under a plastic sheet covered lean-to and when we asked them, they told us there was no water until much further down the ridge. We looked at the map and saw that there were several streams indicated running off the ridge; continuing on a few hundred yards, we found a spot tucked into the tree line above a gully where we should be able to find a stream. I pitched the tent and Matt went in search of water. A whole hour later, at the point where I was convinced Matt had fallen to his death, he returned triumphant. We put a brew on.
The morning turned out lovely, after a slightly fitful start, and we had a very pleasant walk down into Câmpulung, with great views of the town once we were out of the forest.
On our way down, we came to a small hill-station where there were a number of horses tethered and a numerous dogs scampering around. Two men appeared and called us over. We were sat down on a bench at a rustic table in the yard and served sheep’s cheese and mămăligă, which is made from maize and is like rough polenta. It was wonderful. After we’d eaten, the two men showed us around the wooden huts where they made the cheese employing methods soon to be banned by the EU.
The final stretch down to Câmpulung. You can make out the huge industrial plant, which was once one of Eastern Europe’s biggest car manufacturing plants.