Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

A slow race through the heart of Europe

Last year Jamie Lafferty took part in the first ever Balkan Ride, a manic trip in a second-hand car. Over a week, he drove from Bosnia to Montenegro to Kosovo then spent two days in Albania's Accursed Mountains before cutting over into Greece and finishing in Thessaloniki. It was loads of fun with breakdowns, rescues, and some amazing food

A river crossing on the Balkan Ride. Jamie Lafferty
A river crossing on the Balkan Ride. Jamie Lafferty

Of all the things we have to worry about during the inaugural Balkan Ride, our car being stolen is not one. That’s not to say that there is no crime in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania (especially Albania) or Greece, the countries through which we’ll drive, but the undesirability of our 21-year-old Nissan Terrano II is such that no one in those countries – in any country – would make the effort to pinch it.

Dubbed “Ursula” by the Travel Scientists, the demented organisers of this rally, the Terrano has had an extraordinarily difficult life. This will be her first time on this particular route, but she’s taken part in many of the Scientists’ other adventures, including repeated trips on the epic Central Asia Rally, in which participants drive east as far as Kyrgyzstan. The Balkan Ride won’t be quite so arduous, but Ursula looks and sounds like her next and only journey should be to the scrapheap.

My co-driver Iain Keith Ross and I have been given charge of this doomed zombie car as part of our “deluxe package” on the rally. This includes the route, accommodation at each of the stops during the week-long trip, and the vehicle itself. Perhaps we could have had a newer car, one with a fuel gauge, odometer, or speedometer that worked, but that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun. The other teams, which have gathered from around Europe, have all brought their own vehicles, ranging from muscular SUVs to rattling estate cars.

Descending from the Montenegrin Highlands towards the border with Kosovo. Jamie Lafferty
Descending from the Montenegrin Highlands towards the border with Kosovo. Jamie Lafferty

To bring anything too efficient, too comfortable, wouldn’t be in keeping with the “minimal assistance” ethos at the heart of the Travel Scientists’ adventures. Things are expected to go wrong on these trips – that’s where the challenge is, the reward, too. If you have a complete mechanical breakdown the organisers will come to your aid, but the rest of the time it’s up to you to find your way to the checkpoints each evening.

We’re one of six teams to take part in the first running of this caper, and while we all set off from Sarajevo at roughly the same time, there’s no hint that we’ll run in convoy. It’s certainly not a race and very soon we’re separated as we push east towards Montenegro at our own pace. In other words: slowly. Or probably slowly – with no speedometer, we guess how fast we’re going by the number of cars that overtake us.

Sarajevo, Bosnia, is the trip's starting point. Pixabay
Sarajevo, Bosnia, is the trip's starting point. Pixabay

If that sounds like a major inconvenience, it’s nothing compared to coping with the heat. Unfortunately for us, a monstrous heatwave lingers over eastern Europe in August 2017 for almost exactly the length of the Balkan Ride. In Bosnia, when we stop in the scenic town of Foca our ice-creams melt faster than we can eat them. From a high bridge we watch three shirtless men bob along the Drina River in a canoe, their ripened skin contrasting against the emerald water below them.

Mercifully, in Montenegro, the crushing heat is eased as we climb into the mountains. The coast of this tiny country gets a lot of attention from the cruise crowds, but the interior draws comparatively little traffic. That’s probably good news for the skinny, serpentine roads which creep up from valley floors like strangling vines, through dark, rough-hewn tunnels, for all the world appearing as though they were just hand-carved by a team of busy dwarves.

Driving through the mountains of Montenegro. Pixabay
Driving through the mountains of Montenegro. Pixabay

As we pop back out into the brilliant sunshine, old ladies with well-weathered faces wait expectantly on the side of the road, trying to wave us down to buy some of their fresh raspberries and homemade jams. Below, terracotta-roofed houses cling like limpets to the cliff faces.

After climbing for over an hour, we finally reach a mighty plateau, a largely treeless plain populated by rolling hills and startled sheep. These are the Montenegrin Highlands, where horsepower for many locals is measured in the number of actual horses yoked to the front of their karts.

Much of the rally is to places like this: Kosovo, Albania, western Greece – they might be in the heart of Eur­ope, but they’re generally unknown and unvisited by many foreigners. The following day, when we drive to the high border in the east of Montenegro, then cross into Kosovo, tumbling down out of the cool highlands air and towards the city of Pec, the temperature seems to rise by the kilometre. It’s an unforgettable drive but few foreigners would have ever heard of Pec, let alone seen it from this vantage.

Albania comes next, and by most measurements it is a strange country. Sandwiched between the historic and culinary giants of Italy and Greece, it’s famous for comparatively little. It won independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 and has since had three capitals (the rally organisers make a point of avoiding the dreadful traffic of the incumbent, Tirana), but aside from whispers of its active mafia, no one on the rally knows much before arriving. The oddness of the place is perhaps best exhibited with its cuisine – this Mediterranean nation, with its expansive coastline and idyllic climate, seems to have forgone the idea of trying to compete with its neighbouring nations when it comes to food.

Thankfully, what it lacks in culinary treats, it makes up for in extraordinary landscapes. Of the Balkan Rally’s week, Albania makes up almost four days, two of which are spent in the wonderfully named Accursed Mountains. Rally members are given a choice on how to reach the centre of this incredible national park – either drive on highways, and then briefly along an unsealed road to our lodge; or to attempt the madness of an off-road section.

After reaching the plateau the number of trees is swapped for the number of sheep. Jamie Lafferty
After reaching the plateau the number of trees is swapped for the number of sheep. Jamie Lafferty

Four teams (three British and one Danish) sign up for this masochism. The first, with their powerful 4x4, disappears quickly and essentially goes it alone. The rest of us ride in a shambolic convoy, edging slowly up the mountains, leaving a deepening gorge far below us.

There’s a path to follow, but it’s often a mess of boulders and rivulets, potholes and sheer drops. Being banged around inside Ursula is an exhausting business – physically, yes, but mentally too. Ursula copes with it a lot worse than we do. Her creaking 4x4 mode causes the engine to badly overheat – of the few working gauges in her cockpit, we can at least see that. This means we cannot have the air conditioner running at the same time. Worse, another rally member informs us that the only way we can rapidly get the temperature back to a safe level is to turn the heating on.

Bumping up a mountain on a 40°C day, with heating on maximum, windows down, and no idea how far we have to go… This admittedly sounds like a pretty terrible way to spend a holiday, but with the Travel Scientists, this is where the magic is: victory comes through endurance. The stories you tell afterwards aren’t of the meals you ate or the hotels in which you stayed, but of the challenges you overcame.

“Yes, it is about adventure: driving through fascinating, exotic, sometimes off-road, off-the-beaten-track countries and regions,” rally veteran Tony Thorndike tells me afterwards. Along with wife Beryl (they’re both in their 70s), the Englishman is as enthusiastic and durable as participants a third of his age. “You also have to face challenges both physical and mental, [cope] with mechanical problems as they arise. It takes a special kind of person who wants to meet those challenges and, as is often the case, find something more about themselves in the process.”

The Balkan Ride concludes by leaving eastern Albania via the spectacular Blue Eye lagoon, a natural spring that pumps impossibly clear water out of the ground at almost 20,000 litres per second. The coldness of the water, especially on such a ferociously hot day, is literally breathtaking but tourists queue to jump in all the same. Iain and I move down river a little, away from the crowd, and dutifully take a turn and dive in.

The remarkably cold, clear waters of the Blue Eye Lagoon in eastern Albania. Jamie Lafferty
The remarkably cold, clear waters of the Blue Eye Lagoon in eastern Albania. Jamie Lafferty

The only real problem with the rally, if there’s one at all, is that there’s no chance to relax – no time to be idle. No sooner have we got dry from the river than we’re back on the road, heading east again through another landscape that opens into a large, desiccated valley with an eerily smooth highway that lances straight through the Greek border.

When we stop in the beautiful historic city of Ioannina we’re grateful for the vast improvement in food, the functioning phone reception and the widespread English. However, after we’ve had the first of what will be many Greek salads, then started towards Thessaloniki and the rally’s finishing line, something doesn’t feel quite right. Sure the EU-funded motorway is smooth, and the petrol stations plentiful. The chances of getting a puncture are virtually zero. But as we pull into Greece’s second city, both of us can’t help wonder: is this actually better? Wouldn’t it be fun, just once more, to be rallying up a dusty mountain instead?

if you go

The flights
Flydubai offers three daily direct flights to Sarajevo and, from June, a daily flight from Thessaloniki from Dubai. A return flight costs from Dhs1,905 including taxes.
The trip 
The Travel Scientists are the organisers of the Balkan Ride and several other rallies around the world. The 2018 running of this particular adventure will take place from August 3-11, once again starting in Sarajevo and ending a week later in Thessaloniki. If you’re driving your own vehicle, then entry start from €880 (Dhs 3,900) per person including all accommodation along the route. Contact the Travel Scientists if you wish to hire one of their vehicles.