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Monthly Archives: December 2016

Outdoor adventures in Kosovo

In spite of the growing variety of ways to experience Kosovo’s natural beauty, the promotion efforts of its adventure industry have been largely of the word-of-mouth variety until recently. While those in the know might be happy to keep the unspoiled magic of Kosovo’s countryside a secret, we just had to share. Consider this your guide to thrill-seeking in Europe’s youngest country.

Hiking

For most of the people who have walked Kosovo’s craggy perimeter over the centuries, climbing mountains has been an essential way of life, whether that was to reach new plains of grass for animal feed or to trade with a neighbouring village. Thanks to its location along increasingly prominent mega-hiking trails – like the seven-country, 2000km Via Dinarica and the German-backed Peaks of the Balkanstrail – a growing number of visitors to Kosovo have also started to claim its multitude of 2500m-plus peaks.

There are plenty of in-country resources about how to best approach Kosovo’s top treks. Local tour operator Rugova Experience has been guiding the Peaks of the Balkans trail since 2013. Creative upstart Balkan Outdoor Experience (boexperience.com) also offers some outside-the-box packages, such as a hiking and yoga trip to the top of the 2403m Hajla peak on the Montenegrin border. The trip includes hearty homemade meals and an overnight stay in a mountain lodge maintained by local mountain expert and environmental protection advocate Fatos Lajçi (+386 49 204 421).

Biking

What comes up must come down. What better way to descend from your rocky heights than at the helm of a bike? While you can get your mountain biking fix on a visit to the capital Pristina and its 62km Germia Park, you must go further afield to western Kosovo to experience the country’s most heart-pounding routes. Although it’s becoming easier to find marked biking trails, you will likely need the guidance of local experts like Outdoor Kosovo or Catun (catun.net) to find your way as a short-term visitor.

Launched in 2014 by an architect with a passion for cultural preservation, Catun – a variation on the word ‘village’ in Albanian – also offers road biking tours that take visitors through the heart of the Kosovo countryside, past several newly restored 18th-century stone houses known as kullas. To experience true Albanian kulla hospitality, make sure to stop by the home of Isuf Mazrekaj in the small village of Drenoc. Here you can refuel on the layered crepe-like local delicacy known as flija, prepared in the traditional way over an outdoor fire.

Other mountain adventures

Italian for ‘iron road’, the via ferrata mountaineering technique is best known for its use by soldiers crossing the Alps during WWI. Today, it is an increasingly popular way to reach some of Kosovo’s most splendid views from the top of Rugova Canyon outside the western city ofPeja (Peć). The municipality brought in Italian experts to help design the country’s first via ferrata, which built demand for a second in the canyon – as well as its newest attraction: a zipline. Balkan Natural Adventure (bnadventure.com) is the best local resource to book your via ferrata, zipline, caving or rock climbing adventure in the Rugova region. Another local operator, Outdoor In (ibarski-kolasin.org) offers an even more extreme via ferrata in the northern Serb-majority municipality of Zubin Potok.

Horseback riding

Not all of Kosovo’s best outdoor attractions are out west. For those drawn to adventures of the equestrian variety, the eastern municipality of Gjilan (Gnjilane) is home to a fully fledged dude ranch: the aptly named Vali Ranch (vali-ranch.com). Catering to various levels of ability, the ranch offers lessons in its arena, as well as longer rides out through the neighbouring wooded hills. With three restaurants, a petting zoo, a spa and a (fairly kitsch) hotel on site, Vali Ranch is a family-friendly escape for all ages.

For a more rustic experience, one must head south – nearly to the Macedonian border – to the mountain town of Brod. Although there have been concerns about animal care in the past, tour operator Traveks (traveks.com) is working with local horse owners to up their standard of care. With more horses than cars in this quiet town (known for producing fresh white cheese), you will fit right in on its winding rocky paths.

Snow sports

With its ring of mountains, Kosovo enjoys fairly regular snowfall in the winter. Though a €400 million deal to renovate the aging ski resort of Brezovica (brezovica-ski.com) seems to have stalled for the time being, it is still the country’s best option for carving fresh powder when the temperatures drop. The resort usually only has one operational lift, but – for the more adventurous – ski touring opens up endless possibilities to explore the exceptional untouched terrain in this part of the Sharr (Šar) Mountains.

Back in Rugova, Nol Krasniqi and the team at Balkan Natural Adventure also offer snowshoeing tours that will definitely keep you warm during the chillier months. After a full day making tracks through the peaceful forest, reward yourself with a glass (or two) of the local fruit brandy rakija and a warm meal in the home of the Shala family in the nearby village of Drelaj.

Make it happen

Kosovo is easily accessible by plane, with daily direct flights connecting Pristina to Istanbul and several major Western European cities. Buses are the best option both for getting around Kosovo and for reaching it from neighbouring Balkan capitals like Skopje and Tirana. For lodging in western Kosovo, consider any of the guesthouses listed above or the centrally located Hotel Dukagjini in Peja (Peć). Arxhena Hotel is a well-appointed option in Brod, while the ski-in, ski-out Woodland Hotel (facebook.com/pages/Woodland-Hotel-Brezovicë) offers the best stay in Brezovica.

Stavanger adventures

Here you’ll find the big wilderness that southwestern Norway does so well – jewel-coloured fjords, cliffhanger trails, dune-fringed beaches and moon-rock landscapes with a beauty that borders on the surreal. Here are just some of the adventures to be had on Stavanger’s doorstep.

On the edge: Pulpit Rock

The anticipation will mount on the cruise from Stavanger across Lysefjord, as day-trippers brave the top deck for close-ups of sheer cliffs and the rainbow-arced waterfalls that spill down their vertical faces. These mighty granite rocks razor many hundreds of metres above opalescent waters of cyan, azure and turquoise. It’s a sight that inspires towards the poetic and the profound, and one that distills the ethereal beauty of Norway’s southern fjords.

Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, is the iconic fist of rock which thrusts 604m above the fjord. To reach it, you can take a 4km-long path – partly hacked out by Nepalese Sherpas – which wriggles up through a dense forest of gnarled pine and birch, before shimmying across granite slabs and exposed cliffs to the plateau.

Pulpit Rock is spectacular whatever the Nordic weather gods throw at it; not even fog can detract from its heart-stopping proportions. While most hikers sensibly stand well back from the precipice, some caution-free visitors dangle limbs precariously over the edge or pose for selfies, even though it seems they might blow off the edge with the gentlest puff of wind.

Near the trailhead is a 350m-long zipline (preikestolenfjellstue.no/zip-line), which ups the vertigo further still and offers fleeting glances of the Lysefjord scything its way through a ripple of grey mountains.

Head for heights: Kjerag and Flørli

Stavanger is also the jumping off point for a number of other staggering day hikes, including a more challenging 28km version of the Preikestolen trek (seven to eight hours). Every bit as arresting is the region’s other rock star – the 1100m-high Kjerag. This mighty rock with a five-cubic-metre boulder wedged into a crevice in the cliffs is such a freak of nature it looks superimposed. Hikers rave about the stiff 10km hike to the top, while the vertical drop makes it a prime launch pad for BASE-jumping.     

Slightly to the west of Kjerag is Flørli (florli.no), a long wooden stairway – the longest in the world, in fact – which leads to heavenly views. Puffing up the 4,444 steps brings you to a viewpoint 740m up that commands an outlook deep into Lysefjord and the Preikestolen massif.

Fjord thrills

Hitting the fjords near Stavanger reveals the region in a whole new light. The scenery switches the instant you leave the harbour, with rugged, seabird-dotted islets and bays coyly tucked into the pleats and folds of the cliffs.

To up the adventure a notch, take a RIB ride (fjordevents.no) that bounces and swerves across the inky waters at speeds of up to 50mph, leaving you windswept, wave splashed and crying out loud for more.

Should you prefer to paddle the fjord at your own pace, gazing up to the cliffs and rock formations in quiet exhilaration, there are plenty of opportunities to slip into a canoe or kayak, for instance with Rogaland Activ (rogalandaktiv.no). Porpoises, sea eagles, seals and wild goats are often sighted. A night in the wilderness can be combined with kayaking, stand-up-paddle-boarding or canoeing at the foot of Pulpit Rock at Preikestolen Mountain Lodge (preikestolenfjellstue.no).

These can easily be tied in with a trip to Flor & Fjære (florogfjare.no), a little Eden near Stavanger, which bears the imprint of landscape gardener Olav Brin and his wife Siri. Once barren, the island of Sør-Hidle is now a riot of colour, plumed with palms and cacti, bamboo and olive, figs and banana trees, plus seemingly every flower under the sun.

Paths wend past a meditatively calm bonsai garden, where neatly clipped trees reflect in a koi-filled lake, and through gardens stippled with slender cypresses and fragrant with lavender – all of which flourish in the local microclimate.

Mighty waves and moon rock

Heading south of Stavanger, the Jæren region has the kind of big skies, open horizons, lush farmland and ocean views that can instantly lift a mood. On a clear day, the pure, sharp light is dazzling, and surfers, windsurfers and kite-surfers harness North Sea waves on the broad, dune-backed beaches of Borestranden and sublime Solastranden. One of Norway’s 18 national tourist routes wends its way through the region; this 41km coastal road (nasjonaleturistveger.no/en/routes/jæren) strings these beaches together with cultural highlights like Kvassheim Lighthouse (friluftsfyret-kvassheim.no), which dates to 1912, and Sverd I Fjell, a trio of mighty Viking swords embedded in rock that marks where King Harald Fairhair fought a battle to unite Norway in 872 AD.

Further south still, the scenery shifts and gives way to the massive boulders, deep valleys and pockmarked, cave-pitted hillsides of the Magma Geopark (magmageopark.no). This unique, 2320-sq-km protected area is scarred by the erosive forces of the last Ice Age and if the landscape seems lunar, that’s because it is – the dominant rock here is anorthosite, a rare igneous rock that is more common on the moon than on earth.

A terrific base for exploring the park and its fjords is Sogndalstrand, a dinky harbour village crammed with listed 19th-century wooden buildings. From here, it’s possible to take a boat across the gorgeous Jøssingfjord to Helleren. While settlements have been here since the Stone Age, the big draw today is the two houses that huddle below a rock overhang. A nearby marked trail makes a 300m scramble up the rocks to Hellersheia where soul-stirring views across Jøssingfjord await.

Top billing for hikes in the Geopark, however, goes to the Brufjell, a three-hour circular walk involving a challenging descent to the coast and some truly impressive caves and potholes carved out by glacial erosion at the height of the last Ice Age. Like much of this region, the route looks freshly minted for a film set and somehow not quite of this world.

Trekking in the Simien Mountains Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a land of legends and mystery – the Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant to name but two. The landscape is also mesmerising. In the far north are the Simien Mountains – a mystical world of primeval forests, misty peaks, bizarre plants and exotic creatures. Trekking these stunning highlands is like stepping into an otherworldly paradise.

Dramatic landscapes

Violent volcanic eruptions 40 million years ago created the Simien Mountains massif, which rises to over 4500m in northern Ethiopia. Over millennia, erosive forces have sculpted its jagged pinnacles, deep ravines and volcanic plugs. Treks of between five and ten days along high-altitude escarpments, across alpine meadows and through the fertile lowlands are the best way to fully appreciate the amazing diversity of the Simiens, much of what today is protected as part ofSimien Mountains National Park.

Steep ascents lead to lush plateaus populated with giant lobelias – freaky fleshy-leaved plants growing to 3m in height, evoking images of dinosaurs and ancient days. Escarpment vistas are filled with sheer cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and rocky turrets spiking out from the forested valleys below. Ribbons of mist drift over the ground. Vultures and ravens cruise the skies. It is a strangely beautiful yet primal world.

Dropping off the escarpment, the landscape undergoes a dramatic transformation as it descends some 2000m into the lowlands – lowlands being a misnomer given these valleys are still over 2000m in altitude. Vibrantly coloured red hot poker plants cover the mountain slopes, and desert-style cactus trees and groves of aloe vera line the trail. Cultivated fields of yellow canola flowers and feathery green tef are peppered with tropical-style giant ficus and palm trees.

Endemic wildlife

Living in the highlands of Ethiopia is a rare and exotic cache of wildlife – the gelada (aka ‘bleeding heart baboon’), the elusive Ethiopian wolf, the majestic Walia ibex and the giant Lammergeir (a bearded vulture with a 3m wingspan). There’s a good chance of spotting all of these creatures, and more, on a trek through the Simien Mountains.

With their expressive faces, playful antics and magnificent silver manes, the geladas are simply delightful. Once almost hunted to extinction, these monkeys (babaoons is a historical misnomer) are now a protected species. The gelada is found only in the Simiens. They live in groups of one hundred or more, and favour the escarpment where they clamber over and under the cliff edge like agile acrobats. Unlike most primates that advertise sexual receptivity with swollen red buttocks, the gelada has a scarlet patch of skin on its chest, which led to its ‘bleeding heart’ moniker. It is easy to approach within a few metres of these wild animals, especially those found around Sankabar (3600m) and Chenek (3620m).

The Ethiopian wolf, or Simien fox, is extremely rare. In fact it is the planet’s rarest canid, with an estimated population of less than 50 in the Simien Mountains, and no more than 400 in the entire country (the majority reside in Bale Mountains National Park in southern Ethiopia). The main threat to the wolf’s survival stems from habitat destruction due to agricultural expansion into the afro-alpine zone. Habitat depletion has also impacted the endangered Walia ibex, another species endemic to this region. Looking like a large deer with impressively long, ridged horns, it is actually a member of the goat family. Liking steep, rocky places, they might be found at Chenek grazing the vertical cliffs below the escarpment.

The roof of Africa

Due to its scope and size, the mighty mountain massif of the Simien Mountains is poetically called the ‘roof of Africa’. Ras Dashen, at 4543m, is Ethiopia’s highest peak and its crowning glory.

Trekking to the summit is challenging but not technical. Summit attempts generally launch from the local village of Ambiko (3170m) on the Meshehe River. And in true summit day fashion, hiking starts well before dawn. The first few hours are cold and dark and wrapped in silence. Headlamps highlight a trail leading steadily upwards for 10km through farmland, giant lobelia forests and alpine meadows. Finally, after six hours of continuous climbing, a short scramble up a rocky wall leads to the summit. The view is outstanding – a rich panorama of peaks and gullies, farmlands and forests stretching into the distant haze of Eritrea. Standing on top of Ethiopia’s highest peak is…well, like standing on the roof of Africa.

Make it happen

The driest time of year for hiking is from December to March but at the end of the rainy season, in October, the land is a riot of green. Wildflowers bloom in August and last well into October.

Organised trekking tours take care of the hassles – equipment, permits and supplies – but independent trekking is not too difficult to arrange. Everything can be organised at the Simien Mountains National Park headquarters in Debark: paying entrance fees, arranging drop-offs and pick-ups at trail access points, hiring camping equipment, guides, scouts, cooks and mules.

Park regulations require scouts (armed park rangers) to accompany trekkers even though the greatest danger is altitude sickness. The scouts are fit and wiry, often war veterans from past battles. With AK-47s slung across their shoulders, they saunter up steep hillsides in their ill-fitting plastic sandals, and willingly brandish their rifles for happy snaps.

Adventures in Perak

Shaped like a crescent moon, Perak sweeps across the northwestern corner of Peninsular Malaysia. Limestone cliffs are the state’s most unmistakable landmarks, but Perak is a tapestry of mangrove swamps, jungles and beaches, too – terrain so varied that exhilaration (and exhaustion) are practically guaranteed. Here are four adventures to get your pulse racing…

Get off the grid in Royal Belum State Park

The only sound is a rhythmic swish, swish, as our boat glides across Lake Temenggor. We’re heading deep into Royal Belum State Park (royalbelum.my), a 117,500-hectare wilderness made even more impassable by its water levels. This jungly swathe of northern Perak, right against the Malaysia-Thailand border, was flooded in 1972 when Temenggor Dam was built. And in this remote nature park, the chances of getting phone signal are roughly the same as spotting the elusive sun bear.

The boat thumps noisily against the wooden gangplank at Belum Eco Resort (belumecoresort.com.my), my island home for the next few nights. While resort staff busy themselves securing the boat, my fellow travellers are already wriggling out of their T-shirts and dive-bombing into the lake.  As we bob around in the water, the jungle chorus of whistling blue-rumped parrots and chattering crickets surrounds us.

At daybreak, we gather in walking boots and liberal coatings of mosquito repellent. Boat transportation and a hiking guide are essential in this dense, swampy wilderness. Ours is leading us into the 130-million-year-old rainforest, one of the world’s most ancient. It’s home to tapir, seldom-seen tigers, and rafflesia, one of the largest flowers on the planet. Along slippery trails we spot tiny orchids that cower amid tree roots, while grasshoppers whir past our heads like toy helicopters. Hornbills swoop between branches, their orange beaks easy to spot in the gloom.

Make it happen: Royal Belum is a 170km drive north of Ipoh, Perak’s main city (or 150km east of Penang). Daily buses from Ipoh reach gateway town Gerik from where you can get a taxi towards the park. Stays at Belum Eco Resort include boat transfer from Pulau Banting jetty, a 42km drive east of Gerik.

Board a Jeep safari to Kinta Nature Park

‘No other place in the world can claim to have 10 species of hornbills in one location,’ declares Jek Yap with pride. For Jek, a fanatical local birdwatcher, Perak’s wildlife is hard to beat. And in contrast to remote Royal Belum, some reserves lie in easy reach of Perak’s cities, likeKinta Nature Park.

Around 20km south of state capital Ipoh, this former tin-mining land is a tangle of low-hanging trees and teeming fish ponds. The park is home to around 130 species of bird, and it’s the region’s largest gathering place for herons and egrets.

‘Birds usually show up at dusk and dawn,’ counsels Jek. Despite Jek’s advice, dawn has long broken by the time I trundle into the park by 4WD. But hitting the ‘snooze’ button on my alarm hasn’t caused me to miss out: wildlife is abundant here, and much of it is barely troubled by the sounds of the car engine.

I can see grey herons alighting on fence posts, and plump little herons looking improbably weightless as they perch on fine tree branches. Huge monitor lizards dawdle on pathways. I’m poised to photograph a blue-tailed bee eater, but its flash of jade feathers is faster than my camera’s click. Still, it’s a good excuse to lay down my camera and admire the flourishing reserve, distraction-free.

Make it happen: book knowledgeable Ipoh-based guide Mr Raja for a guided 4WD excursion into Kinta Nature Park for RM400 per head (minimum two people). It’s also possible to cycle parts of the park.

Experience Gopeng’s caves and river rapids

The ceiling of Gua Tempurung yawns above my head. As I hike deeper into the cave, one of the largest in Peninsular Malaysia, every footstep sends echoes bouncing off the walls. Long spindles of limestone reach up from the slippery ground, and stalactites drip from above. Squinting, I can make out other walkers further along the dimly lit trails. They seem microscopic in size, dwarfed by vast folds of limestone.

Hikers with flashing headlamps aren’t the only ones to venture into the 4.5km-long cave. In the 1950s, Gua Tempurung was a communist hideout, and soon after served as a Japanese-run prison. But these are mere blips on its geological timeline: the cave is estimated to be up to 400 million years old.

Exploring this dank grotto on foot allows plenty of time to take stock of Gua Tempurung’s scale: at its tallest point, it towers 72m high. There are also more claustrophobic challenges to be had, such as wading through chilly chest-height water between cave chambers.

There are waterbound adventures above ground, too. The thrashing Kampar River has turned the town of Gopeng, 7km from the cave, into a miniature watersports hub. Just east of Gopeng’s dusty colonial buildings, Nomad Adventure Earth Camp (nomadadventure.com) leads excursions along 22 river rapids. And after a humid hike through the cave, there’s no more invigorating way to cool off.

Make it happen: guided forays into Gua Tempurung range from 40 minutes to four hours long; book well ahead for spelunking. Stay in or near Gopeng for easy access to the river. Nomad Adventure Earth Camp can arrange rafting and waterfall abseiling.

Ascend to Ipoh’s sacred grottoes

Spelunkers weren’t the first to enjoy the tranquility of Perak’s caves. In the late 19th and early 20th century, hermit monks sought refuge in Perak’s cliffs, meditating atop limestone crags and living in caves. From these spartan beginnings, a few ballooned into large temple complexes.

A notable trio are in easy reach of Ipoh. Gua Kok Look Tong, with ornamental gardens and Buddha statues in its central cave, is the most peaceful, while Sam Poh Tong is much visited for its lucky tortoise pond. But the most interesting ramble is up to Perak Tong, a frescoed cave temple 6km north of Ipoh.

The highest point of this cave complex, reached by steep stone stairs and seemingly endless spiral pathways, overlooks a muddled vista of wild greenery and urban sprawl. I stare into the distance at Ipoh’s uniform lines of houses, framed by surrounding trees. Tower blocks strain for attention against the silhouette of Perak’s cliffs, while forested hills roll into the distance.

My calves are stinging from the climb, but somehow the view makes me want to plunge straight into my next adventure.

Make it happen: on request, buses from Ipoh to Kuala Kangsar will stop near Gunung Lang, a 3km walk from Perak Tong. Better yet, rent a car from Ipoh (there’s plenty of parking within reach of the temple pathway).