Mountains, Biker Gangs and Capsizing: Slovenia

Written by Jono Hawkins on 02 Sep 2016

Four hours in Innsbruck train station’s ‘McDonalds’ passed very slowly but our train soon arrived and we tried to find our carriage. Walking past several near-empty and unreserved coaches, the guard pointed us in the direction of the compartment where our seats were. Claire beat me to looking at the scene inside our compartment, but despite her startled look I swung the door open to overpowering fumes of beer and whiskey: inside were four half asleep, leather-clad bikers. With a can of beer thrust into our hands we knew we were in for a long night.

We arrived at Bled a little worse for wear at 7am the next morning and stumbled up the road to the supermarket for some provisions. The bus from the station took us directly to the campsite by Lake Bohinj and the two of us passed out underneath the tarpaulin. Returning from the water fountain later in the afternoon, I came across a group of 6 people creeping up to our make-shift camp only to find it was the UBES team ambushing Claire. It was lovely to catch up with everyone, and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking, kayaking and cooking. It had been several years since I had last kayaked and I was eager to demonstrate this by capsizing at least three times…

The objective for the next four days was to summit Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain. Leaving the campsite, we made our way to the first of the two huts we would stay in. The day started by traversing Lake Bohinj in beautiful sunshine, then slowly making our way uphill and into the foothills of the Triglav massif. The hut was run by an elderly couple, who were lovely to deal with despite the language barrier. Fortunately, the guardian spoke German and Sophie’s language skills came in very useful. The menu was limited to a choice of Jota (a watery cabbage, bacon and bean broth) or ‘Sausage with Bread and Mustard’, but still appreciated!

After waking up, a quick breakfast and discussion of the route for the day we left the hut for the Vodnikov Dom hut at the base of Triglav. The walk was enjoyable and took us through a variety of terrain from hillside forests, to hanging valleys and isolated peaks. We arrived at the hut in good time, following a beautiful traverse underneath sheer cliffs, and checked in.

Most hut guardians take on the role for a few months over summer, and this was the case for the all-female guardians of the Vodnikov Dom hut. While we settled in, they began to play the guitar and sing from the kitchen area - the sound of which filled the ground floor and seating area outside. We had a fantastic time playing cards and occasionally joining in with the songs that we knew and was one of the highlights of the trip.

Spaghetti Bolognese was on the menu for the evening: while the others cooked outside on their stoves, Claire and I couldn’t resist the urge to indulge. After a seemingly endless wait for the food to arrive we were presented with a heap of meat sauce, pasta and Parmesan – it was the filling meal we had been waiting for since we had arrived in Venice! Unfortunately dinner also meant that the music had stopped but a stunning sunset over the mountains took its place. We packed our day bags ready for Triglav and went to sleep (not forgoing a bed-time story from Alasdair).

After an early start, we began the slog from the Vodnikov Dom to the Triglavski Dom. Walking through clean, crisp air we were blasted with the morning sun as we rounded Vernar and struck up conversation with passer-by. It was an odd conversation and the man insisted on asking for directions but had seemingly no idea where he wanted to go… As we carried on and the day grew warmer it seemed like we would be in for a treat of a view at the summit and several scree slopes later we arrived at the Triglavski Dom hut. Following a quick water stop and a check of the map, we made our way to the beginning of the ‘equipped trail’ that winds its way up the side of Triglav. Immediately I regretted leaving the Via Ferrata equipment at the campsite. It stuck out that we were foreigners as we were the only party on the mountain without harnesses, helmets and lanyards. I retraced our steps with Claire, who wasn’t comfortable with the exposure, then raced my way back up towards the summit to catch up with the others.

I loved the freedom of bounding along the ridge to the summit, not too dissimilar to Crib Goch, and met the others in time to complete the last few meters of the ascent together. Following the obligatory summit selfies and collecting the Triglav summit stamp, the cloud began to fold around us and the magnificent view all the way down to the Vodnikov Dom hut disappeared. Taking this as a sign to begin our descent, we slowly followed the cables downwards. Unfortunately Emily tripped and twisted her ankle and then while on one of the steeper sections the rain begin to come in – then it started to hail. All too similar to an experience with my family in the Dolomites several years before, I caught up with John, Sophie and Rhodri and moved as quickly as we could towards the Triglavski Dom hut while Emily and Alasdair followed.

We regrouped with Claire at the hut and ate lunch. Following the depressing realisation my trail mix had run out on the summit, I decided to buy a bar of chocolate only to realise that it was a hazelnut bar. Too awkward and British to say I no longer wanted to buy it, Claire and I deconstructed the chocolate bar and with a couple of antihistamine down the hatch and a healthy dose of stupidity everything was fine. As the rain cleared up, we returned to the Dom for supper and another beautiful sunset – the Bolognese had been calling to us for the duration of the afternoon.

Rhodri set off earlier than us the next day to meet up with Helen at the campsite (although a poor night’s sleep induced by some heavy snoring probably had a large part to play in this). The valley that we descended was beautiful and it was nice to enter the tree line again. Entertainment on the route varied from anecdotal stories to school songs, as well as Slap Mostnice and a stunning gorge that had carved an almost subterranean passage down the valley. We finally reached Ribcev Laz and headed straight for the supermarket to find Rhodri and Helen dozing outside. A quick resupply and dip in the lake later it was time to jump on the bus and return to Bled.

Upon arriving in Bled, with everyone less than excited to walk the now pitiful distance of 2.5km to the campsite from the bus station we jumped in a taxi with an excitable – if somewhat overzealous – saleswoman of a driver. Now all beginning to feel the expense of the holiday racking up, her costly canyoning pursuits and guided tours weren’t our cup of tea. Camping Bled is a campsite that evidently sees a majority of its use from motorhomes, for which the hard stony gravel was perfect. Unfortunately it wasn’t so great for setting up a tarpaulin – with a bit of moving people around into different tents (sorry!) we managed to get everyone undercover and then sat down to cook dinner. We headed to the on-site bar and restaurant for a drink to unwind – just one glass of Merlot was enough to unleash Emily’s alter-ego ‘Merlout’.

It was a beautiful morning as we woke up and walked back into Bled, via the famous castle, however we were all largely deterred by the price of entry. We ate lunch by the lake and caught the bus to the hostel in Ljubljana. Alasdair was presented with his thank-you gifts (which he swiftly proceeded to destroy) and walked into the town centre to find somewhere for dinner. Eventually we found a pizza restaurant with friendly staff who set up a table outside for us in view of Ljubljana’s green-illuminated castle. With some pizza and late- night ice cream we walked back to the hostel, the next day was going to be a long one. We visited the castle in the morning, which had been renovated into a bizarre combination of museum-come-wedding venue. After lunch, Claire and I said our goodbyes and walked to the hostel to collect our banks and catch our bus to Venice. We drove through a huge storm as we were along the Mediterranean coast and the clouds were stunning. Arriving in Trieste we were all to glad to be off the FlixBus and in the Soul Kitchen Café: Claire ate Spaghetti al Vongole while I had something with fish which was much less memorable… We made it in time for the last bus to the airport and set up camp in the familiar spot of the airport foyer. While Claire managed to catch a few hours’ sleep I was awake until our plane took off the next morning, after paying for what felt like the most expensive croissant in the world!

Finally we landed in Gatwick and met my mum who had offered us a lift back to London – home! It had been a fantastically varied holiday from setting off to Venice, the night in the Tre Cime, stunning mountains, Swiss biker gangs, more stunning mountains and stunning company. Left very much in the mood for more adventures, it wasn’t long until heading back to Bristol to resume ‘normal’ university life. This year was going to be different, with additional pressures from UBES, work and life that I wasn’t yet aware of, but after 10 days of living life a bit more freely – bring it on.