The inviolate wild places I used to read about in old adventure novels and guidebooks have always attracted me. To set off to an adventure where the presence of mankind is barely noticeable and you can’t feel the confidence backed up by the vicinity of any civilization. But in the meantime, the world got smaller… Despite this you can still find such places not even that far, in Transylvania. Where the pine forests are thick and dark on the untamed mountains. There are legends about elves and dwarves, real wild bears, and wolves. One of these places is the highest ridge in the Eastern-Carpathians, called Mountain Rodnei.
The 50-kilometer ridge that stretches east-west is a true wilderness: barely any phone signal, the presence of tourists is very rare, above 800 meters basically you can only meet the local shepherds. And bears. Because there are some here… There is no paved road going up the mountain. This place truly is an undiscovered part of Transylvania one that may be familiar only from old, faded black and white pictures.
CHAPTER ONE – PUSH, PUSH, FIND THE WAY
We were standing in the pass early morning with an excited smile on our faces, since we woke up the only time we frowned when we lifted our backpacks. The total weight of our equipment was 14 Kgs for each of us (two days of food, water, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mats, kitchen stuff, minimal clothing, cameras, batteries) that is everything but comfortable when sitting on a bike. We did a last fine-tune on the bikes before we jumped in the saddle and set off on the adventure only to realize we were going to have an uninvited companion in the form of a small errant dog. That sat well with us because at least he was going to spot the bears before we do - so we thought.
We were riding level or slightly descending in an otherwise wonderful picturesque scene with the sun shining but that started to be suspicious after an hour of riding. As hadn't seen a red sign for quite a while by this time, however this isn’t really a surprise as they aren’t really well maintained in this region. As soon as we hit a 5-way intersection that wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near us according to the map, the doubt that was buried somewhere in the back of my head suddenly jumped forth, we got off course right away.
My suspicion was further strengthened by the fact that we were some 60 meters below the starting point when we should be ascending. My instincts told me that we should be heading right, where there is a dirt road starting at about 40 degrees elevation. What could possibly go up this road other than a tank?? Anyway we started to drag ourselves upwards. On the top we found ourselves in a small saddle where we found even more unmarked dirt roads. I started to have a new suspicion that the correlation between the newest map and the reality is next to nothing. Following my instincts, we kept on climbing by pushing the bikes ever higher up the hill…
1 pm. Suddenly we spotted a quite worn but still visible red sign on one of the trees! We burst out in a loud cheering and celebrated the moment with a shot of Palinka… Our joy kept on growing as finally had a bit of a descent after such a long uphill struggle. Our happiness soon turned into ashes and changed into a primeval fear as we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a pack of shepherd dogs - known from horrible stories - snarling and barking at us fiercely. As if we hadn’t got wet enough already, now we surely did… Thankfully the shepherd himself showed up shortly thereafter who eventually 'convinced' his dogs to leave us.
Although we followed the trail, we still had to keep pushing the bikes in the following hour or so while the surrounding pines woods started to grow ever thinner. Suddenly we noticed a rather recently erected rain shelter in the middle of nowhere which we use to have some food. Storm coming... None of us wanted to enjoy another mountain storm catching us at an almost completely exposed area so trusting our luck we set off again hoping to find some kind of shelter. We barely made 200 meters when we spotted a herd rushing right down towards a bigger barn. We turned our head suspiciously at what could possibly scare them into running. Two seconds after we followed them with the same pace…
The menacing black cloud wasted no time, and quickly caught up engulfing everything in its path right towards us with loud rumbling! Just as we realized our situation its wind already hit our faces with raindrops tearing into our skin. The billowing cloud between the trees evoked some horror movie scene. So we pushed as fast as we could not even caring about the flock of shepherd dogs protecting the herd. I guess even they were surprised how much we didn’t care about them or the brave barking of our little companion held them back, but anyway eventually we got to the relative safety of the shed. Inside, the floor was covered with a mixture of a thick layer of excrement and mud resulting in a very strong ammonium smell. The smell was accompanied by the sight of glass splinters and broken boards. Not exactly an alpine hut but it was still better in there then out in the raging storm.
We left our shelter after about an hour. The sun shone like nothing happened. It even scorched our skin. Thick vapor filled the air in minutes in which we slowly continued our ascent – believe it or not, the terrain was finally suitable for riding. While another rain cloud floated above us, we arrived at a three-way intersection. We realized that even though we followed the right path, we cannot see the sign continuing in any direction. After searching for a good while in vain we set off again following our noses in a light rain shower only to take 3-400 meters and spot the red sign again… I hoped the guys who are supposed to maintain the signs shit a hedgehog, but most of all I hope for my luck to hold on a bit longer.
We arrived at a muddy and steep section of the road littered with slippery rocks and full of small ravines. We let our Rosies hit the terrain at full speed so at least we get used to our huge backpacks during rapid descents too. We were hoping to stumble upon a saddle marked on our map that seemed like a suitable campsite for the night. Although it was 6 kilometers away from the initially planned campsite but we had a fair share of struggle for the day. We should have dealt with about 700 meters altitude difference and the sun started to disappear behind the peaks, therefore I started to think about spending the night there. Meanwhile the road took us to a huge field where we noticed a large barn at the far right corner – we immediately started to make plans to spend the night there if it’s suitable so we can skip erecting the tent.
Despite the rain we managed to light a campfire that raised our spirit a lot. We cooked our supper on our camping gas that recharged our depleted batteries. Additionally, we even took some shots of grape Palinka to help us relax and soothe our muscles and nerves. We sat on the bench watching the last rays of sunlight on the 2000 meter peaks around us. The landscape enveloped in a deep silence that was soon followed by the darkness of the night. The only exception was the remnants of our campfire. A pale orange pile of light and its direct surroundings. We were tired but we sat there for quite a while watching the fading fire, drinking our booze and repeating the next day’s plan. Even our dog settled down for the night at the foot of a huge tree.
CHAPTER TWO – FINALLY WE ARE ROCK’N’ROLLING
We woke up early morning with the first rays of sunlight beaming over the peaks. It was only 4 AM at home. The sky was clear of clouds so that was promising. We quickly prepared the coffee and instant soups. An hour later we set off only to return to the barn to pick up the trail again. We eventually spotted the sign only a few meters from the rain shelter – the farthest point of the field from the barn. We weren’t even surprised by now.
We started probably the most difficult part of our journey: 700 meters of elevation under about 3-3.5 kilometers. According to the map, still on dirt road. But we were experienced enough already that we would have dared to make really high bets in cash money about the state of this so called dirt road. And we would have won. The road was about 30-40 degrees steep again littered with rocks at a size of a head all that covered with slippery mud. So again we had to resort pushing our bikes. We hoped that one day the locals learn about the concept of serpentine.
Suddenly the woods opened up and we found ourselves on an alpine field partially covered with snow! A huge rush of euphoria hit us…We knew we reached the top and won’t have to push our bikes anymore because the terrain was again suitable for riding with a stunning sight all around. Serrated ridges and peaks surrounded us in every direction.
Our way was been blocked by a huge snow wall after about an hour of riding. At the arrival side it was level with the road, but on the other side, there was a steep, almost vertical snow face roughly 3 meters tall towards the valley. Not exactly the easiest thing to descend on with huge backpacks and a bike, but we made it eventually. A few kilometers later we hit the next snow patch slightly sloping towards the valley again. It wasn’t really safe to walk across the melting snow… I believe my bottom part tensed up because I was balancing like never before.
At the other side we jumped back in the saddle and went on. Some time later I broke our momentum with a huge braking sound and with the usual question: where’s the bloody sign? Of course, we couldn’t see it anywhere. We saw it not long ago on a steel pole. Our instincts told us that we should keep right towards another mountain. There was even a small path leading that way so we started to search for signs on foot. All in vain. But we noticed that the road would take us towards the edge of a cauldron then keeps on going down. At the other side of the cauldron roughly a kilometer away in the air, we noticed a saddle and a road on it. But how could we get there? It was a difficult decision to make: if we keep on searching we might lose precious time and we might not make it down the road in time. There was no guarantee that we’ll keep finding the sign in the future. Finally we decided to stop following the ridge, and we started to descend on this road to the cauldron and we hoped it will lead us to a bigger valley and finally to some inhabited areas.
CHAPTER THREE – ESCAPE FROM THE WILD
Water surged everywhere on the roads from the white blankets left behind by the winter’s cold. But we just kept on rolling down full steam ahead with a huge smile on our faces… The next time we looked up from our joy we were already at the bottom of the cauldron heading towards a large wooden barn. The road ends here. As if the air got colder as we realized our situation. As we analyzed the map it turned out that we couldn’t get down to the main valley even if we went completely off-road through the undergrowth and ravines and all that because we would ultimately hit a huge rock face and obviously we weren't prepared to tackle such an obstacle. However it hurt, we needed a new plan: we had to climb back up again to the snow patch where we left the ridge, then carry on downwards again on the other road… That one seemed much more frequently used, and in line with the main valley and the nearest village. If trucks could climb it, we can surely get down.
After such a hard struggle upwards we stopped to catch our breath at the top before continuing on the downhill section. The speed and the thrilling trail littered with rocks and ravines totally made us forget about our mistake. After about a quarter of an hour riding, the road took a right turn and led us to the start of a serpentine. Roughly 100 meters below us we saw another barn and what seemed like the end of the road. We stood in silence trying to figure out what now. It seemed like we used all our fortunes and yet again we arrived at a dead end. Finally we decided to go down since we saw signs of a herd near the barn. Where there’s a herd, there’s a shepherd. Where there’s a shepherd, there’s info. Even though we would have to communicate using all sorts of gestures and signs. So we jumped back in the saddle and carried on.
We got to the barn quite nervous now because there were only a few grey logs. Did we really think this was the herd? We collapsed in disappointment. But we had to stay calm as it was 3PM already and we needed to make a good decision. So we took a shot of Palinka of course and some energy bars then broke out the map.
I could clearly identify the steel pole before the snow patch on the ridge on the map. So our option A was to climb back there and even further back a bit where there is a small path leading down towards the main valley. But this meant pushing the bikes back up about 300 meters, crossing the snow patch again then taking on another path that god knows how long and where exactly would take us. We abandoned this concept. Option B was to have an extra night at this barn and continue next day. We could have stayed dry and warm in the barn as well as we had wood and a small creek near us. But no! We didn't want to give up. So option C was to try and project the landscape on the map and locate ourselves using the surrounding landmarks. I felt I know where we were. If we followed the creek for about 3 kilometers we should cross a dirt road. On the dirt road, we can get to a paved road that leads us to the nearest village. Since we saw animal tracks next to the creek, we took our chances and set off.
We jumped across the creek and started to roll down. It was very technical, but equally thrilling. The creek just kept on growing into a rumbling stream with waterfalls here and there.
The trail ended only after a few hundred meters leaving only the dense pine forest ahead of us. We’d been battling with nature for about half an hour by this time trying to inch forward by pushing and lifting the bikes and our backpacks when our once small stream already grew about 4-5 meters wide and another stream like this just joined in from our right. So we got stuck in between the two. Hard to describe the feeling when you stand there knowing you have to make it somehow to the other side of the raging torrent.
After a few minutes of searching, we found the best place to ford the stream. Unfortunately we could move on only about another half an hour before the steep mountain hills closed our stream tightly from both sides, so we had no more place to move forward on the right side. Again we had to cross the stream to be able to continue our way. We were searching for another place to cross it, but the current was dangerously strong by this time as well as its depth, so the challenge seemed to be impossible.
But we were relentless. The will to get out of this situation fueled us. I went back to the first spot that seemed a bit calmer. I made it half way through the water by balancing on rocks barely sinking below ankle depth when I got into a deeper pool, but I carried on with my momentum thinking “all in” to myself. I went down over knee-deep. I felt the ice-cold water biting right to my bones like millions of pins but I didn’t stop for a moment. Thankfully the water only pushed my 105+15+15 kilograms only a few centimeters away from where I planned my steps. As I reached the bank, I dropped my bike and my backpack and started to climb up the 6-7 meters tall almost vertical face of the river bank. The dirt road we’ve been looking for! I shouted with full lungs in ecstasy that obviously couldn’t be heard by the others thanks to the roaring river.
Some 15 minutes later we were all standing on the road and after catching our breath we started to roll towards the safety of the nearest village… finally, we rode again!
A few hundred meters later the road took a right turn and faced to the river. Again. With no bridge leading across. We started to get a bit frustrated but then we spotted two pine trees laid across the 5-6 meters wide river next to each other. It felt a bit like asking the convicted: electric chair, or wolf pit? Anyway, we grabbed our bikes in one hand and slowly started to balance over the river on the wobbly logs. I bet I sweated out about a litre due to the excitement…
I regained my courage on the other side to look at the map once more hoping to find something that was in correlation with the reality. We were hoping to find at least this kind of passage at all upcoming crossings but the best would have been proper bridges. We had to make it with the logs at the next three cases as it turned out. At the fifth time when the road crossed the river again we finally saw a bridge built from proper wooden logs. The only problem was that since it was built the river grew double the size, so it only covered roughly the half of it. The situation worsened by the fact that we could see tractor tracks crossing the river. But what’s suitable for such machine could be potentially deadly for us. We were facing maybe the most dangerous crossing so far. The water was almost hip deep with a rapid and ice-cold current. We had to keep the bikes above water level because if not, we couldn’t have withstood against the increased drag. Despite the yeti-like body the heavy backpacks and the bikes, the water still pushed me away twice. Fortunately, I managed to make it to the other side. I dropped down my stuff and went back to help my friend Matyi, who is 30 kilograms lighter than me. Eventually, he also made it through with a face turned pale white. We took about ten minutes to get back to a normal mental state after such ordeal.
After a right turn we saw a house. Then another one! My god! Paved road and houses one after another finally! We stopped when we finally got into the safety of civilization… We saw a lady cycling towards us so we immediately started to question her: “Borsa? Is it Borsa? Borsa?” She just nodded with a “poor idiots” look on her face then cycled away. So we sat down on the railings of the bridge in a tired but relieving ecstasy. Oh my god, we made it! Without encountering any bears, in one piece, with intact bikes and all. Although not the entire ridge, but that doesn’t matter anymore. From here there was only a relaxing 15 kilometers ride to the overnight spot but, we couldn’t care less about the distance, we were back in the civilization!