As we stood here on the doorsteps of mountains and stared knee-deep in snow at the awe-inspiring landscape below us we were faced with a simple question: drive on, deeper into the mountains and face whatever they held in store, or turn back?
Words & Photography by Ben and Lucy | @fromrusttoroadtrip
Of course, this was never really a question at all. Despite the rising altitude and deteriorating road conditions there was only one direction we could take: onwards, in search of adventure, fuelled by a burning desire for isolation and adrenaline that was near impossible to vocalise.
There was a chill and a rising sense of excitement in the December air that had ridden the trees of all their leaves and left a shimmer of ice on the ground. While our friends at home were wrapping presents and attending Christmas parties we were out here in the wild, frozen heart of the Balkans, the promise of an adventure swelling tangibly in the atmosphere before us and animating our very beings.
We’d left North Macedonia’s smog-ridden capital and its bustling bazaars behind us in pursuit of clean air and a corner of the country that held potential to be its most wild: Mavrovo National Park. The whole of North Macedonia was a landscape made up of nameless, towering peaks with little pockets of life strewn throughout its valleys, a lesser-visited country that was often overlooked in favour of its coastal Balkan neighbours, however Mavrovo was home to the most impressive peak of them all, and held within this mysterious micro-region some of its most beautiful treasures.
After spending the night camped on the chilly shores of Mavrovo Lake, awakening to find a view so ephemerally beautiful it was reminiscent of the Alaskan wilds, we packed up and pressed on toward our goal.
Unlike Western European countries in which van camping was almost exclusively banned in National Parks here we were free to roam, and unlike the West where road access to mountain peaks was strictly controlled, we were free to take whichever trails piqued our interest and climb as close to the peaks as we dared. Travel in the Balkans was never a case of where you were allowed; it was only a case of how adventurous you were.
Unafraid to push our rusty old English van to its limits our tyres began to ascend, wounding their way between the last few timber-framed houses until they eventually hit snow.
“Why are you here in the winter? It’s cold, no?”
We’d stopped to fuel up at the last remaining station on our route the day before, and the attendant who was filling up our van posed us the same question that a dozen others had also: why travel to the Balkans in winter?
Our reasons were many and complex to explain. There was our long-standing love affair with the Balkan culture and way of life. There was a warmth and hospitality amongst its people that couldn’t be replicated elsewhere. But perhaps most appealingly of all there was its wilderness: total, unbounded, all-encompassing wilderness that stretched endlessly across the entire peninsula.
The wild called to us both like a sweet siren song; we felt a shared burning desire for complete and utter solitude, a respite from the fog of civilisation that clouded our heads. The subzero temperatures and challenging conditions were enough to put most off, leaving us free to explore the furthest reaches of these landscapes as we pleased in total, blissful isolation. Once you’ve felt that lifting of fog that comes when you can no longer feel the presence of another soul around you, when there’s nothing but nature surrounding you and a stillness in the air, the feeling becomes quite addictive.
Up here, at 1700m, the snow had wiped clean all traces of life, leaving behind a pure white canvas with only the faintest etchings of rockfaces and frozen shrub.
With each hundred metres we ascended the snow grew deeper, the views more spectacular, and the tarmacked road disappeared under a shroud of white that left it indistinguishable from its surroundings. It was at this point that our common sense reared its head and began trying to reason with us. You’re out here all alone, it said. There’s no one to help if you get stuck. Best turn around and head back to where it’s safe.
We bit our lips and smirked at each other, the same adventurous twinkle mirrored in each of our eyes. We tried to talk ourselves out of driving onwards but our words sounded empty and hollow. How often would we get an opportunity like this, a chance to explore and test our limits, an adventure like no other?
We pressed on and didn’t glance back. Our van’s wheels slipped and sloshed through grooves in the snow as the road departed from the land and began to climb higher above the swooping valleys below. There was no safety barrier and no room for error here. We were in the wildest corner of North Macedonia, left to our own devices, embracing isolation and all of the perils that came with it.
By sundown we had set up camp atop the plateau, huddled against the wind, the peaks on one side of us and the misty valley below. Fresh moonlit air came pouring in through our van’s windows, casting silvery outlines across the mounds of snow outside.
The distant howling of wolves sent a thrill down our spines, and reminded us of where we were: out here, alone, in the most remote corner of North Macedonia, tucked amongst the snow drifts high above the valley mist. We settled down for the night with rosy cheeks, icy fingers and big grins across our faces.
The next morning we rose before the sun did, pulled on our boots and stuffed our blankets and camera gear into our Smith The Roll Pack 15L and Bowden The Camera Messenger Bag ready for a sunrise mission. The snow had erased all traces of a path or track, so the only way to walk was up, across this unmarked landscape that gave away no more clues than a blank map. We settled on a spot just before the sun could break past those impenetrable mountain peaks, set up our camera and lay a blanket across the ground to sit on and enjoy the most perfect display nature had to offer. Rays of golden light shone in an unbroken halo across the open space before us, turning the alabaster snow into soft shades of ochre and copper as the glare reflected from a billion microscopic ice crystals.
We were struck all at once by the mountain’s unfathomable size and their ability to make us feel as small and insignificant as those ice crystals. We found ourselves absorbed right into the landscape, all-encompassed by it, and finally our busy minds could breathe a sigh of quiet relief in the open air. This was our refuge from civilisation, high up amongst the peaks and plateaus that towered over villages below. The fresh air smelled like freedom; the sunlight burst through the fog in our heads and the ice that nipped at our fingers and toes reminded us of what it felt to be alive.
Our hunger for adventure was satiated for another day; we crunched our way through the snow back to our van to prepare Turkish coffee on the stove as the Macedonians did. We drank it with lokum as tradition dictated, sat in the doorway of our van gazing across the infinite shroud of white before us, lost in deep admiration for this incredible little country.