Are you in the mood for a really off-the-beaten-path adventure? Good, because today’s guest contributor, Vanessa A Nirode, is taking us on a hiking trip to Macedonia’s Jasen Nature Reserve. With wild goats, wolves and stunning scenery, this park, located deep in the heart of the Balkans, has been called “the best-kept secret among Europe’s national parks” by Lonely Planet for a reason. Let Vanessa tell you why.
I was in the midst of planning my great wander across Eastern Europe when a random Google search brought me to Jasen Nature Reserve. Jasen is a nature reserve about 20 kilometers outside of Skopje, Macedonia. It is home to the chamois, wild boar, deer, wolf, and fox, among others. The reserve has a diverse mountainous terrain and people come to paraglide, hike, and mountain bike and climb. On special organized expeditions, people may also hunt, but only under the direction of one of the reserve’s hunting guides.
A couple days before I planned to arrive in Skopje via bus from Ohrid, I sent an email to the address listed on the Jasen website asking if there was some way I could visit the reserve. To my surprise, I received an answer later that same day from Oliver, requesting details of what I would like to do during my visit: did I want to climb the mountain or just have a ride in a vehicle to enjoy the view?
I wrote back to say that I absolutely wanted to climb the mountain. Oliver said he would meet me at the central bus station in Skopje, drive me out to the mountain for a hike, some lunch, then bring me back to Skopje later in the day.
“How much?” I asked.
“No charge,” he said, “except for the lunch.”
I arrived on time in Skopje. I made a quick clothing change in the restroom of the bus station, adding a few more layers as it was a cold November morning and I was, after all, headed to the mountain. I checked my bag into the left luggage office, which is a room next to the ticket sellers’ counter. The woman that I spoke to at the counter was very friendly and spoke English perfectly, though I did attempt to use my limited Croatian with her.
I can’t say why, but I recognized Oliver immediately when he entered the station. He had short dark hair and glasses and was holding a manila folder.
“So nice to meet you,” he said. I followed him out to his jeep and got in on the passenger side.
“We’re going to make a quick stop at the grocery store to get some sandwiches,” Oliver said, “The restaurant out on the mountain isn’t really up and running today.”
“Sure,” I said.
Whenever I relate this story to friends, this is the point where they start to question why I would get into a jeep with a man I just met in Skopje, Macedonia to go climb some mountain way outside the city. I don’t have a real answer except that it never once occurred to me to be scared or worried. I’ve traveled a lot by myself and have learned to rely on, and trust, my gut intuition. All I can say is nothing told me to run and so I didn’t.
Oliver and I spent the jeep ride talking about Jasen, why I wanted to come to Macedonia, and how Macedonia wanted to join the European Union but was having trouble because of their name. Macedonia’s official name is The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM, but they just want to be The Republic of Macedonia. Greece is opposed to this name as they feel it implies territorial claims to Greece’s northern province. This name dispute has been going on for 25 years. At the time of this writing, however, there does seem to be hope that perhaps a compromise will be met.
Oliver pulled the jeep over to the side of the road as we neared the reserve.
“I just have to make a phone call,” he said. After a few short exchanges in Macedonian, he hung up. “Ok. All set. I just needed to call ahead and make sure no one was coming this way down the mountain road: its only wide enough for one car at a time.”
“Wait. What if someone doesn’t know to call?” I asked.
“Oh, anyone driving on this road would know.” Oliver answered and we took off with a spew of gravel.
About twenty minutes later, we pulled up next to a mountain cabin. Two large dogs lounged outside. The cabin was one of about a dozen halfway up the mountain. Oliver explained that this was where people stayed when they came to hunt or spend a weekend hiking. Normally, the cabins were full but since it was November no one was around except, Jebda, one of the hunting guides. During the off-season, only one hunting guide at a time lived up in the mountain. The guide spent two weeks at work, then one week at home with his family.
Jebda emerged from the cabin dressed in camouflage, a rifle slung over his shoulder.
“Jebda will drive us to the trailhead,” Oliver said as he got out of the jeep. He climbed into the backseat and we were on our way. Shortly after, Jebda pulled the jeep over and we all got out. Jebda lead the way up the mountain.
The trail we followed was pretty steep with switchbacks and snow on the ground. Jebda walked at a steady measured pace, stopping now and then to make sure we were right behind him or to point out some mountain goats or chamois in the distance. We paused once to look at fresh wolf tracks in the snow. The only sounds were our feet on the snow and the wind. As we climbed, the air grew colder and the snow deeper.
After about an hour, we came to a clearing.
“We’ll stop here for a bit here then go back down,” Oliver said. A tiny shack was in the clearing. “Sometimes the hunters stay here,” Oliver explained. Inside the shack were two sets of bunk beds and a small green wood cupboard with broken plates and cups. Jebda motioned us behind the shack. We were on a cliff overlooking a deep valley. Everything was quiet and beautiful, shrouded in a wintery mist.
“When there isn’t any fog you can see way across the valley,” Oliver said. I didn’t mind. I was happy to be standing on a cliff in Macedonia over looking a mist-covered valley. Some places make you feel small and large at the same time: small because the world is so vast and you are nothing but a tiny little speck meandering around on it and big because you are a part of that vast immense world. This was one of those places for me. The three of us were silent, listening to nothing but the mountain for a good fifteen to twenty minutes.
“We should get going,” Oliver said softly. The descent, as they most often do, took much less time and we were soon back at the jeep, then at the cabin to say goodbye to Jebda.
“You know,” Oliver said, “You were our first American tourist.”
“What?” I said, “That can’t be.”
“No. It’s true. We’ve had some Americans come to hunt but never one who just wanted to come and see the mountain.”
The sun was starting to set as Oliver and I drove back to Skopje. Neither of us said much until we were back in the city. I, for one, was just trying to hold onto the spell of the mountain for as long as I could.
“Thank you for coming to visit,” Oliver said as we pulled into the bus station.
“No, thank you,” I said, “I want to come back and spend more time at Jasen.”
“Yes, please. And tell people about Jasen. It is such a beautiful place. Tell them to come,” Oliver said.
Have you ever been on an unusual hiking trip or are you planning a trip? Join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook or send us an email to ask a question or share your experience.