Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Screw You, Google Earth!

There is always one in the crowd.  Not the leader, but an enabler.  The inconspicuous rabble-rouser who goads you into action, whispering in your ear, "Go, on.  Do it!  It's easy.  How could such a little thing cause any problems?"  Then there are those like me who succumb to the siren song and routinely bite off more than we can chew.  At some point in every adventure I pause, take stock of my discomfort, and wonder, "How did I convince myself to do this?"  I usually end up briefly cursing the enabler before buckling down and getting on with the task at hand. This explains why recently I could be found battering my kidneys as I coaxed my trusty X-Terra up the last hundred meters of cobbled hell that passes for a road over Qafe Shtame muttering, "Screw you, Google Earth!" 

In the air-conditioned comfort of my apartment in Tirana it looked so easy.  Gliding effortlessly through the virtual canyons and forests of the wilderness behind Skanderbeg mountain piqued my interest.  A quick day-trip to the National Park of Qafe Shtame seemed just the ticket to shake off the winter lethargy and kick off another summer of exploring the nooks and crannies of Albania.  Some quick internet research, a perfunctory virtual overflight of the route, and loading up the backpack with survival supplies (water and GORP*) saw me out the door with kids in tow. 

Of course, nothing in Albania goes that smoothly.  As news of the trip leaked out, the number of travellers increased and I got requests to bring back some 5-liter jugs of water from the famous Qafe Shtame springs.  Political rallies had the center of Tirana plugged up tighter than a Japanese subway at rush hour so I had to take the back road around the lake to avoid the congestion.  There is a 400-meter unpaved, bumpy section which I felt was a good warm-up for the conditions we might face later.  Forty-five minutes and a lot of well-paved kilometers later, we left the asphalt on the outskirts of Kruje and entered the "Gorge of Death."  OK, I don't really know if  that's its official name, but I have to call it something. 

One feature of Albanian geography results from the African tectonic plate snuggling under the Eurasian plate, rumpling it like a frisky puppy looking for his chew toy under the hallway carpet.  The carpet, in this case Albania, gets messily folded up in a series of parallel ridges.  The mountain ranges of Albania run roughly north-south and get progressively higher as you get farther from the coast. As the ridges were lifted up, the rivers coming off the mountains to the east carved canyons that deepened as the ridge rose.  The mountain range behind Tirana is cut by several of these impressive gorges on the Erzen and Tirana rivers and the streams which feed the Ishem river including the Perroit i Zallit te Brrares, the Perroit i Zezes, and the one we followed which has no name on my map.  Hence, Gorge of Death.

As the road drove deeper into the chasm, it was carved into the cliffside with a drop of hundreds of meters in places.  There were several memorial plaques erected on the spots where unlucky travellers had met their end. These are a common sight along mountain routes throughout the country.  At one particularly impressive dropoff there was a large, concrete marker detailing an even more gruesome event. 

The spot is known as the "Shkembi i Vajes" (Stone of Mourning) and the inscription reads (I'm paraphrasing here):

Here ninety women from Kruje bravely threw themselves to their deaths to avoid capture by the invading Turkish forces.  They preferred to remain clean, untouched, and free.  Their heroism is passed on through their daughters and grand-daughters to the glory of xxxxxxx and the motherland.

I was informed the word which had been chiseled off the of this marker was "socialism."  Evidently no legendary act of bravery was exempt from Enver Hoxha's desire to tie the communist party to every aspect of Albanian history.  Neither is any area of natural beauty is immune to the Albanian desire to get rid of household trash without too much effort. Just a hundred meters from Stone of Mourning was the "Gully of Burning Garbage" whose smoke reduced visibility to zero, making the hazardous road even more thrilling! 

Once through the Gorge, the road climbed south to the saddle above the village of Noje where the landscape spread out in all directions.  You could actually see over Bovilla reservoir, past Mount Dajti, to Tirana.  The road twisted upwards as we wound our way around the flanks of the 1300-meter peak of  Maja i Liqenit to reach the national park of Qafe Shtame.  It was about now that I began to wonder if I had been fooled by the deceptive visual display of Google's excellent mapping tool.  The road twisted and doubled back on itself turning a 10 kilometer virtual flight into 40 minutes off butt-numbing punishment. 

When we reached the modern water-bottling plant of the Qafe Shtame Company I had two simultaneous thoughts: "We must be almost to the park." and "How do they get truckloads of bottled water down that road?"  I was left to ponder the second question as the road got exponentially worse, disproving my first statement. Narrower, steeper, and more rutted by heavily-laden logging trucks, the road continued up through a dense forest of pine and birch.  The richer, softer soil was great for the flora, but made for a muddy road when wet.  The solution?  Cobblestones.  More precisely, a bunch of rocks heaved onto the roadbed to provide traction and prevent you getting stuck.  Just when I was certain I was about to spit out a filling, we arrived at the fabled spring of Qafe Shtame.  The water gushed crystal clear from the pipes set in the wall below the spring.  I filled the bottles, drank deep of the clean, cold stream, and started to get hungry.

The hotel a few meters down the road provided the answer.  The owner was cleaning the place up and getting ready for the tourist season when we drove up looking for food.  He prepared a basic lunch of grilled beef, fried potatoes, and salad with local feta cheese.  Washed down with the local water, it did the trick.  Fully fed, we had to decide on a course of action.  According to the hotelier, it was equal distance back to Kruje or onward to Burrel and paved roads.  His description of "a few hundred meters of really bad road and then it gets better" convinced us to continue on instead of backtracking over roads we knew were pretty brutal. Plus, my time on Google Earth made it clear that it couldn't be that bad. 

Screw you, Google Earth.

Suffice it to say the road did get worse.  And worse.  The better part didn't come until we hit pavement 25 kilometers later outside of Burrel, shortly after passing the derelict chrome processing factory.  The trip down the east side of the pass was notable only for its duration and level of suffering.  Snaking down the side of the mountains denuded of trees, the road gave a ride quality which gives new meaning to the word "juddering."  There was only one notable sight to relieve the incessant pounding the road dished out to our vital organs and suspension -  and it involved death.  Another roadside monument, known as lapidari, carried the inscription:

Sul A. Sula

Ketu pushoi Sula dhe u bej legende
jo se e lodhi rruga
por nje aksident

Here Sula stopped and he became legend
not because the road tired him
but an accident

In America, you die in a traffic accident and you become a statistic.  Here you become a legend.  I love it!

Now that we reached paved road, things were more comfortable. The Mati river valley stretched for miles and the road wound through the scenes of pastoral beauty.  We moved along at a good clip to make up for the time we spent on the pass and because we had a new goal: the dam at Ulza. 

This dam was the next on my list of hydro-electric facilities to "bag."  I may have mentioned earlier that visiting Hoover Dam in my youth left me with a weird fixation with dams and water diversion systems.  Anyway, a part of my wanderlust is geared to checking out these facilities in Albania, which has the second greatest hydroelectric potential in Europe behind Norway.  Damn those fjords! We had coffee at a roadside locale just below the dam complete with some delicious revani provided compliments of the owner who regaled us with stories of German campers who had recently stayed on the lakeside just below his establishment.  Wait.  Lake below his place?  But we were downstream of the dam....

Turns out we were in for a double play.  Below Ulza, the Mati river enters a narrow gorge and, sure enough, it was dammed.  The structure at Shkopet was even cooler than Ulza.  A concrete plug in a very narrow gorge produced a long lake that stretched upriver for kilometers. Green forests reached down to the lakeside and several promising fish restaurants advertised their prowess at cooking up the bounty of the lake.

After Shkopet, we quickly reached the new road and were as good as home.  I settled into the nearly automatic mode of driving, knowing that reality would be much closer to Google's version than it had previously. I reconsidered my harsh judgement of the enabler.  If I hadn't fallen prey to its simplified view of this crinkled country, I may have missed out on a beautiful part of the country and two magnificient engineering feats.  Plus, while we were transiting Burrel, I could see to the east the jagged mountains that marked the western boundary of the Lura Lakes National Park.  That could be the next adventure.  Just let me check it out on Google Earth....!

(*Good old raisins and peanuts)


Beyond Belief said...

I can practically hear the water suffling as it gushes.

Valerie said...

Wow, sounds like an amazing trip. I don't think you ever met an adventure you didn't like, Steve.

becca said...

Always an optimist, I was thinking as I read this: It could have been worse, you could have been in a furgon with no shocks- I took the road from Peshkopi to Kukes two years ago and I think my kidneys are still bruised . . .

Everywhere Virtually said...

Reading this makes me want to return to Albania and do some more exploring. Thanks Steve!