Apart from volunteering last September in Thailand and Cambodia, my last challenge was the big one last year trekking in Peru to raise money for ForCrohns. In July I will be taking on another challenge raising money for the charity, climbing three peaks in Transylvania in three days. As I need to be as fit as possible for this I decided to take a holiday in Albania last week walking in the mountains in the north of the country. This is also part of my “mission” to travel to more places off the beaten track to see how easy (or difficult) it is to travel with Crohns Disease.
Albania has only really opened up to tourism in the last five years. I imagine that the south and the beach areas are more geared up for tourists than the area I was visiting in the north.
Flying via Vienna on aeroplanes with only two toilets at the rear of the plane was the first challenge. I always ask for an aisle seat but when the hostesses bring the refreshments tray down the aisle it is pretty difficult to access them without climbing over it, which they don’t allow! Arriving at the airport, I was picked up and joined a group of fifteen people I didn’t know for a drive of two hours in a minibus to the town of Shkodra, known as the capital of northern Albania. Straight away I explained to the guide that I may ask to stop on the way and of course, he had never heard of Crohns Disease and looked blank. I also took this opportunity to tell him what I could and couldn’t eat and what may happen if I ate something I shouldn’t.
The next morning we drove through stunning mountain scenery to the docks at Lake Koman where we took a ferry ride for two hours. This is described in the Bradt guide as “one of the world’s classic boat trips” and it did not disappoint. The journey took us through glassy emerald green waters through twists and turns of narrow waterways beneath stunning mountain peaks. There was a toilet on the ferry, which was a relief and although not the best, it was better than some that I have encountered around the world.
After another minibus journey we stopped for lunch and then commenced our first walk to break us in gently. We followed the path of the river, occasionally ascending and descending. Due to the excessive rain of the winter the river was full and we came to a bridge, which had been damaged by the weather. We needed to cross it so our intrepid guides found a tree trunk, which had fallen across the river and suggested that we walk across in single file. Some of us looked a bit dubious at the idea of this feat of balancing with a torrent of water below but with a makeshift branch “handrail” held by the two guides we all made it safely across the to the other side. No risk assessments in Albania!
I had been feeling quite well recently but my three monthly B12 injection was due in two weeks so my energy levels were not at their best for a trip of this kind and it was physically tougher than I had imagined. I also realised as we moved further northwards that we had left a hospital far behind us and the infrastructure suggested that it would not be easy to access one if needed. It made me remember my trip in Madagascar when I became ill and ended up on a drip attached to a coat hanger and my bed in a hotel room.
Over the next few days we trekked in the Valbona National Park in the north of the country. The temperature was slightly cooler in the mountains but still hot for walking and climbing. The scenery was spectacular and there was still a lot of snow on the peaks. On the third day we were to undertake our longest climb and needed horses and mules to carry our luggage. A few of us decided that we would like to ride over the pass so we hired some extra mules. This gave me an opportunity to enjoy the scenery without constantly looking down at my feet. The mule was sure footed but as we got higher we came to the snow and had to dismount. It was also too steep to continue on horseback and being on a mule on some of those edges was frankly terrifying. We reached a stretch of snow, which was being cleared by one of the horseman so that we had a six-inch path to traverse with a sheer drop below it. (See the photo!) The animals went first to make a track for us to follow. My heart was in my mouth as I went across, as the thought of any of us slipping down the mountain was not one to contemplate. How would we be rescued? No mountain rescue here! The view was amazing though when we finally reached the top.
We arrived at our destination after getting soaked by a downpour of rain, which always seemed to happen at the same time in the afternoon. This accommodation was fairly basic and I shared a room with three others. Twelve of us were sharing two toilets with showers so I felt a little anxious about this but asked the family who owned the accommodation if there was another toilet I could use in an emergency. They may have thought this request was a bit odd, but it was too difficult to explain, as my Albanian is limited to saying thank you.
The last day‘s half-day trek proved to be the hardest for me as we made an ascent in the direction of the Thore Pass and it was estimated that this would take us three hours. Three of the group opted to travel in the bus with the luggage and I have to admit to being tempted but I didn’t succumb! It was so hard and I found myself usually at the back of the group, as I was so slow. At one point I lost the rest of the party as I was somewhere in the middle and the people ahead of me had gone so far ahead that I couldn’t see them through the forest. I used my whistle on the rucksack and the guide came running through the trees as he thought it was an emergency. (Note to self, only use whistle when really necessary.) Half way up I really felt like giving up and had gripping pains in my stomach, which meant that I had to drop behind the group to use the “outdoor toilet”, something that I am well, practised at! One of the members of the group held my poles and waited for me. The fastest in the group did it in three hours and the remaining six of us managed it in three hours and fifteen minutes. The view, at the memorial of Edith Durham (known as “the Queen of the highlands” in respect of her support of the Albanian cause after World War One), was worth it as was the feeling of accomplishment.
As this was the last day we were then transported by minibus back to the city of Tirana where we were to end our journey with a walking tour of the city and a final meal together. This involved a four -hour minibus drive. The city of Tirana is the cultural, entertainment and political centre of Albania and home to a rapidly growing population of one million. (The total population stands at around just three million.) There are brightly painted apartment blocks, some remaining communist buildings, theatres, restaurants and bars in abundance. As a tourist it felt very safe and there was no hassle from anyone trying to sell you anything. In fact I don’t think we came across any other English people during the week.
What will stick in my mind about this trip is the hospitality and generosity of the Albanian people, the absolutely stunning scenery and the help and support from some members of the group who were all complete strangers at the beginning of the trip. There are now fifteen more people and two Explore guides who perhaps know more about Crohns Disease than they did a week ago (apart from the doctor who was a member of the group and on holiday). There were other people in the group dealing with their own physical and emotional challenges who did not manage to complete all of the climbs for one reason or another. Most of the group were supportive of each other and understanding of individual circumstances and I have found this to be the case when I travel, which gives me the confidence to do this. As always, I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t need hospital treatment and my emergency medical kit has returned with me intact this time! Fingers crossed for Transylvania.
I now have six weeks to increase my level of fitness before tackling the three peaks in Transylvania. I have so far raised almost £2000 and hope to exceed this amount before I go. Wish me luck!
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