High Scardus Trail – Trail scouting, impressions and memories for a life-time
Der High Scardus Trail – Soul of the Balkan Mountains: breathtakingly beautiful long distance hiking in the Western Balkans © Matthew Nelson
I was thrilled when I received word that I would be joining Trail Angel Stefan Lieb-Lind as the photographer on a ten-day scouting trek on the northern part of the High Scardus Trail, Europe’s newest long-distance, transnational hiking trail. I had just recently learned of the trail’s existence, and awash with anticipation of the unknown, I prepared to return to the mountains; longing for the promise of untouched wilderness, remote villages unversed in tourism, and the appeal of crossing international boundaries on foot. To gain local insights, we would be joined by regional guides and experts, including two of the individuals most involved in the High Scardus Trail project. Boundless excitement spurred my imagination, but my imagination couldn’t come close to preparing me for what was in store for us.
Stage 2 Ljuboten Hut to Brezovice © Matthew Nelson
Over 10 days of walking between North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania, we would find a trail full of surprises: mountainsides exploding in vibrant hues of red, yellow, and orange; hours of unbroken trekking through wild raspberries, junipers, and the most delicious blueberries I’ve ever tasted; and we soon became familiar with the ringing bells and barking dogs alerting us of nearby shepherd’s flocks. While breaking for lunch one Friday high up in a mountain pass, the enchanting voice of a distant muezzin’s call to prayer rose up on the wind from an invisible village far below us. Along with a palpable immersion into Balkan culture and landscape, the path itself is of high quality and consistency. Very rarely do you find yourself on asphalt or macadam, and when you do, it’s a sight for sore feet, meaning you’re not far from your destination. Each stage has its own unique character, with a well-curated balance of attainable peaks, rugged highlands, quiet birch forests, clear alpine lakes, and pastures abounding with life.
Endless expanses and colors of autumn © Matthew Nelson
Colorful Trekking. The High Scardus Trail delights with its diversity and unspoiledness © Matthew Nelson
Perhaps as remarkable as the staggering beauty and sheer wildness of the path and surrounding landscapes is the striking diversity in both atmosphere and ethnicity of the stage destinations – and this is only taking into account half of the route. The second stage took us to Brezovice, a communist-era ski resort in Eastern Kosovo, which Deni Hameli (Kosovar mountain search and rescue specialist, and a key contributor to the High Scardus Project) gave us a walking tour of: “And that hotel over there, it’s called ‘The Partisan!’” Deni pointed out with a smile. Two nights later, outside a Muslim Gorani village, Trail Angel Stefan and I stayed at a guesthouse that sustains itself with hydroelectric power from a mountain stream, as well as with food from a fish farm on premises. From here, we crossed into North Macedonia and stayed in an Albanian village in the home of Mohammed, an avid gardener and beekeeper. From there, we crossed through thunderstorms back into Kosovo to the Muslim Serb town of Brod, marking four days between three different ethnic groups as well as languages.
From peaks, rock faces and pastures… © Matthew Nelson
… to beautiful forests © Matthew Nelson
Given all of the above, what made this experience truly unforgettable was the novelty of getting to experience this virgin, unknown hiking path alongside the very people who have poured their time and energy into it. Both Deni, and Jovan Bozinovski, a Macedonian, and founder of the High Scardus Trail, had established and marked considerable stretches of the trail with their own hands. Deni often recounted to us stories from the many ski tours or peak ascents he had guided in these cherished mountains of his homeland. And over a dinner by headlamp under starlight on Mt. Korab, Jovan displayed on his phone old promotional videos made by the Ljuboten mountain club in the ’50s and ’60s – relics from the golden days of Yugoslavia, a compelling reminder that he is carrying forward a tradition, not just a trail. Between them and our other companions from the region, we always had a translator through which to communicate with the shepherds or with our hosts along the way. This was invaluable to Stevie and I as outsiders in our attempts to understand the people whose homes and lives we were entering, as so few of the locals speak English.
Grateful for every local expert who accompanied and supported us in trail scouting, from left Bekim Bytyqi, Trail Angel Stefan, Deni Hameli, Yengi Sisko and Guesthouse Papradina owner © Matthew Nelson
Participating in this scouting trek of High Scardus meant I got to observe the Trail Angels doing what they do best. Every step of the way, Trail Angels Stefan closely scrutinized every detail (the blueberry bushes especially) from marker and pillar placement up to stage duration and difficulty; and occasionally insisting on re-walking some sections alone where the path had been unclear to us, so as to preserve the integrity of the GPS route he was recording. When discussions about potential changes arose, he repeatedly shared his conviction that “to be successful, a trail must always prioritize first the needs of the guests.” At Lake Ohrid after the trek, I sat in on the Trail Angels’ debriefing meeting with Anica Palazzo, a key project stakeholder from the GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit). Here I witnessed Trail Angel Gunter Mussnig’s masterful awareness and articulation of the project vision, as well as his passion for it. Having delivered his evaluation of the current state of the trail, and concluding that among the myriad of trails he has walked in his life, that High Scardus is truly “among the best,” I could see from across the table the goosebumps on his forearm, and the gleam in his eyes.
Trail Angel Stefan and local expert Deni Hameli © Matthew Nelson
After parting ways with the Trail Angels in Ohrid, I stayed several days and walked segments of the stages of the Southern half of High Scardus. From the summit of Magaro Peak, looking out across two lakes and three countries, I reflected that even after such a unique and memorable week and a half on High Scardus, I still have so much of it left to see, as the Southern route crosses through multiple national parks and protected areas of North Macedonia and Albania. My travels are taking me elsewhere for now, but I look forward to the day that I will return to High Scardus and take another unforgettable sojourn into the unexpected.
Matthew Nelson is an American photographer and travel writer from Des Moines, Iowa. Follow along with his travels in the Western Balkans, Morocco, and more on his personal website www.mearcstapa.me or on Instagram @mattnelly.jpg.
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