Montenegro – Sacrifice to the Ice Gods

The Bay of Kotor

Montenegro was a flying visit and a very dramatic one as it turns out.

Haydn and I had climbed high up into the Bosnian mountains to reach the border crossing. Soon after we had crossed into Montenegro, our seventh country, we started descending from 1000m all the way down to the Bay of Kotor.

By 4pm we had just reached the bottom of all the very steep, endless switchbacks down the mountainside and found a little bar by the roadside to stop and have a drink and a rest for a minute. I had just sent a message to Pablo to say that we would love to see him again if we happened to cross over and at that exact moment, there he was! Cycling down the road towards us! I jumped up from where I was sitting and shouted out to him.

He came over to sit with us and said he had a Warmshowers booked for that night. He asked if we wanted to come with him. We had already had a big day’s cycle, climbing into the mountains and coming all the way down again. We were both very tired and had thought of just finding a nearby campsite and taking it easy for the rest of the day. Haydn and I looked at each other. It seemed so lucky that we had just bumped into Pablo and the profile of the Warmshowers host was an English ex-pat, a young teacher called Rebecca, who had moved to Kotor Bay. We thought perhaps all of those things were good omens and felt encouraged to join Pablo seeing as he was here and the offer of a free bed and a possible new English friend was on the table.

So I sent a message to ask if we could stay with Rebecca too and we decided to join him until we heard an answer from her. We could find a campsite along the way as a backup option if she said no.

We cycled around the bay as the sky grew dimmer and dimmer and the lights of shops and bars and restaurant illuminated around us. We jumped on a ferry just in time to cross the bay and stood for a moment panting on board the slow moving boat. The water had turned into gently waving two-tone silk. Undulating steely grey sheets lapping over tones of sunset peach and lilac. High arching mountains, encasing the bay, lay behind the water. I didn’t know if it was my exhaustion or the light but none of it looked real. It was so refreshing to suddenly be on a different form of transport. But I only had a few moments to admire the beautiful sight and then it was over.

We cycled on – another 13 km to go. Even the dusk light was fading now. We saw a campsite, if you can call it a campsite. Some scrubby grass underneath low grape vines. We paused and looked at the handwritten sign. We had heard nothing from Rebecca so felt unsure what to do. We debated whether Haydn and I should just stay here as we were putting too much pressure on the host saying yes. A man shouted down to us from a balcony, while extending all his fingers, ‘10 euros each!’ He pointed at us individually. He made me feel like I was 10 euros. To be honest I felt like less that 10 euros in that moment. I felt like about 5 cents. 5 cents of energy left to give to the day. 20 euros for me and Haydn to camp there on that man’s front lawn with what looked like no facilities. I wasn’t convinced and I didn’t like that man’s approach. I shook my head. We kept cycling.

By now we also had no signal so I couldn’t use my internet. Pablo managed to find some free wifi by the road and I checked the message, still no reply from Rebecca. It was all getting a bit tense now. It was dark. The road was narrow, the driving and overtaking was death defying. We put on all out lights. At that moment I had wished I had more than my front and rear light and reflective strips on my bike and bags. I would have happily dressed up as a Christmas tree. I could feel my body, all my muscles telling me to stop now. But we hadn’t seen any more campsites.

It was getting completely dark now and we were not used to cycling at night on busy, unknown roads. I kept smashing my front wheel into huge potholes and nearly crumpling off my bike with exhaustion. Each knock, bashing more energy out of me. We didn’t pass another campsite. We were running out of options fast. We got the corner where we had to turn off the road around the bay and head up into the hills to get to Rebecca’s house. That’s when I started praying. I just repeated, ‘Please let us stay, please let us stay, please let us stay’ over and over again in my head, or outloud, I can’t remember which. I didn’t know what we would do if she said no. Would we beg her? Would I cry? Would we just search for a patch of ground in the dark or start knocking on doors at this time. My old friends exhaustion and anxiety were beginning to grow wonderfully together again. Like flour and yeast making an expanding dough ball in my stomach.

We started the uphill climbing through poorly lit lanes that snaked up the mountain. Then the dogs began their onslaught. There were so many of them here! All barking at us and running out at us from the darkness into the road. The day was quickly dissolving into a nightmare now. I tried to keep my mind focused on pushing my body on. But sometimes my thoughts would slip away from me, it felt like I was slipping outside my own body to watch what was happening from above myself. Watching this strange, awful farce play out. I was so tired now I didn’t know if I would ever get to the hosts house and I didn’t know how my body was still moving a working under my command.

A bend in the uphill road came where lots of houses where crunched together and a huge snarling dog ran out at me. Baring its white teeth and leaping forwards. In a few seconds in would be on me. I grabbed my trusty can of Old Spice and sprayed towards its face. It immediately retreated but the plume of spray lifted in the wind and carried straight back to Pablo just behind me who started coughing and spluttering.

We finally got to a completely unlit lane. It was so steep I could pretty much press my nose up against the gravel while standing. Following Pablo’s instructions we looked for a painted red rock that signified the 72 steps up to Rebecca’s house. Yes you read right. 72 steps. When Pablo had mentioned these steps earlier I think I had adopted my Grandpa’s wonderful habit for selective hearing. 72 steps – I didn’t want to imagine what that was going to look like.

It was pitch black. We couldn’t see this damn red rock anywhere. We pushed our bikes halfway up the almost verticle hill. Then I asked Haydn to put a head torch on and look from the bottom of the hill up to where we were for this said red rock. I had seen the beginning of some very narrow, jagged steps that dissapeard sharply into blackness near the bottom of the hill. But overtaken by tiredness and wishing with all my might that they were not the steps up to her house, I only thought to mention them now.

Haydn went to the bottom of the hill and shouted up to us that he had found a very slightly tinged red rock. And yep, those were the stairs we had to now negotiate with our three incredibly laden bicycles. Atleast then to my absolute ecstasy I received a message from Rebecca saying it was fine for us to stay. Praise Zeus. Just as we had arrived. So atleast I could shed the anxiety about where we could sleep that night and it was just these steps from hell barring the way between me and a wonderfully comfortable imaginary sofa! We took everything off the bicycles and we carried them up the 72 homemade, jagged, unlit steps to her house. I carried as many bags as I could with my wobbly, exhausted limbs, making a few trips up and down. When all the bags were finally up, Haydn did the heroic act of carrying both of our bikes up one after the other. I think if I had tried the bike lifting stunt by that point I would have tumbled down the hill, bike and jelly body, and just resolved to sleep there for the night.

We walked into her house and were greated by a friendly smiling face, a tiny puppy and a gorgeously comforting English accent! Very happy, I slumped onto the sofa. I was completely spent.

We somehow had a fun evening where Pablo, Haydn and I cooked Rebecca a dinner of fresh gnocchi and sauce and drank too much of her cheap Montenegrin wine over interesting conversations. I don’t know where we found the energy.

The next morning we got up slowly and delighted in cups of real Yorkshire Tea that she had brought back from England! Mmmmm. A proper brew. We all felt reluctant to leave as we had such bad exhaustion hangovers and we knew the next section of cycling was going to be very tough. The road we were going to take looked like someone had sribbled on the map. But unfortunately it wasn’t a scribble, it was a road. A road with 25 neat switchbacks, one after the other, zigzagging up the mountainside. So with the scribble road in our minds we sipped our tea and read the imported Sunday Times with a savouring slowness.

Rebecca’s house was comfy and warm and there was a tiny puppy to look after. How could we leave?! It was very tempting to ask her if we could stay longer. But at the same time we had really pushed our luck asking to stay so late the night before and we really didn’t want to push it any more by asking to stay another night. So we packed up slowly and by midday we were carrying all our bags and bicycles back down the 72 steps.

Switchbacks and Snow

We began accending the switchbacks. The road slowly zig-zagged up the mountain in long, almost horizontal lines before the sharp bends and continued incline. The gradient was gentle enough so if you kept a steady, slow pace going it was managable. We climbed and climbed and the views got better and better with every turn. We stopped to eat lunch after only an hour of climbing but the view was already spectacular. We could now see the huge mountains encircling and forcing up out of the flat turquoise water of the bay. It really was one of the most beautiful views I had ever seen.

When we had reached 800m we could see the sea in the distance over the mountain tops that we had climbed higher than. The ocean in the distance was lit up dazzlingly by the sun and disfigured by cloud shadows. It looked like an impressionist painting. Waving shapes of coloured light and darkness. It felt almost impossible looking down to where we had been that morning, that we had climbed so high. A delicious, swelling sense of pride was growing in me for what my legs could do. It was exciting. Looking back at our days work made me feel strong and powerful. This was a new feeling. High on endurance.

We got to the top as the sun was soon to set. Finding the only building up there was a small hotel and cafe we stopped to take a picture and make a plan.

We decided on a two pronged approach to finding somewhere to set up camp that night. Haydn and Pablo went to explore up a small lane to see if there was somewhere for us up there. And I tried to ask in the hotel if there was somewhere nearby we could camp or how expensive the hotel was as a last resort. My ulterior motive for staying near the cafe being that I was desperate for a cuppa. It was already getting very cold up so high and the dusk light was setting in. But when I gleefully slid inside the warm, softly lit room, the waiter came over to say they had just closed and briskly shoved me out the door. So I sat and watched the cloudy sunset. It was spectacular from up so high but it soon began to cloud over more heavily and then the rain began.

Haydn and Pablo had been gone quite some time now and I was beginning to worry about where they were and what had happened. I tried to ring Pablo but it kept cutting off. I waited and waited. I was starting to spin stories in my head and just while I was imagining a whole gang of Montenegran shepard bandits mugging them I heard Haydn’s voice shouting from the lane. ‘Molly! Molly!’ He came running down the lane. ‘We found a great place to camp and we met this lovely family who have invited us in!’

We were welcomed in by a kind Serbian family, a young father, mother and son, who had spotted Haydn and Pablo setting up camp in the rain. We had finished sorting our gear and then went up to their small house above the field where our tents were. It was a very small but cosy space that they were renovating into a holiday home. The little boy of about eight was dancing shyly in front of the TV set in his pyjamas. The new Dirty Dancing film was playing with the sound low. I really wanted to just veg out and watch it with him. It’d been ages since I’d watched a film. But it’s important to talk to kind people who let you into their houses when they are offering you shelter and you probably stink like hell. They offered us their own produce of olives, bread, tomato, fried vegetables and fried chicken. Then out came the homemade Rakia. It tasted like gasoline. I had to mix mine with fruit juice as I couldn’t stop pulling a terrible face while drinking it.

The father asked if any of us played instruments. Pablo went to get his ukulele and started playing some music that we could all sing along with. I tried to keep very quiet and just enjoy Pablo playing but Hayd’s chirped up that I played uke and then everyone insisted that I played something. I said no for a while until it became quite evident that they were not going to stop asking. Everyone filmed me. It was very intimidating but the Rakia helped numb my nerves. We drank and played and talked some more.

When we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer we said our thank you’s and goodnights and stumbled down the little, slippery path to our tents. I think we were all slightly oblivious to the weather due to our Rakia consumption but I did notice it was very cold. We somehow cobbled together a more substantial dinner, shivering from the doorways of our tents. All three of us squeezed into our bigger tent to eat. Then we said goodnight with a hiccup and a shiver and Pablo jumped back into his tent and we were all asleep in seconds.

I woke up in the pitch black to Haydn shouting at me with a head torch on. I was confused, it was like his mouth was moving and the tent was caving in but the sound was on mute. I sat up and put my hand down into a puddle of freezing cold water. I looked around, eyes squinting. There was water everywhere. The tent floor had turned into one big, ice-cold puddle. The tent was swaying about like we were flying. The wind was so strong it was pushing half of the tent down onto Haydn, who was trying to push it back with one hand. Water was spitting in through the billowing window even though it had been shut when we had gone to sleep. I felt like I was still in a dream. Then I remembered I had earplugs in. I took one out. The world came rushing into reality on one side. The wind was deafening. I wanted to put the earplug back in again. God. What was going on. I pulled the other earplug out and heard Pablo’s voice from a few meters away, Hey guys! Guys! How you doing? You guys wet too? I think I go up to the abandoned building ‘cus I’m very wet now.

I pulled on my rain coat and head torch and got out of the tent to try to work out what was happening. I came out into a freezing, whirling, storm. It was pissing down ice rain or snow or sleet I couldn’t tell what. The wind was battering our tents so much they looked like they were about to take off. They were leaning and dancing under the pressure of the winds strange contortions. I looked at Pablo. He was completely drenched from head-to-toe, stood there in his shorts and t-shirt, shiverring. He had a big smile on his face for a second and it made me feel like everything would be OK. He had been on the road for ten months, through all extreme weathers, I trusted his judgement implicitly. He shouted over the wind that he was going to go up the hill to a building he had seen. He said he was going to take all of his stuff with him so it didn’t get damaged by the storm. Really?! I said. You’re going to take all your stuff up the hill in this?! But he’d already disappeared back into his small one man tent. I was amazed it was still in one piece, doors flapping madly.

I told Haydn we had to move. We grabbed our wet sleeping stuff and the stove to make tea. We struggled to walk up the path towards the abandoned building as the wind was so strong and then we realised we were now in a snow blizzard. Deep slushy snow was forming on the ground. This was crazy. Earlier that day, lower down, it had been warm sunshine. We had been cycling in shorts and t-shirts. Now it was sleeting! I was drenched in seconds and very cold.

The abandoned building was right next door to the house of the kind Serbian family. Haydn knocked on their door, it was late but we thought it would be better to let them know what was going on. I stood in the doorway of the abandoned building just praying he would say we could stay in their house but I remembered how tiny the house was and there were three of us. Big, wet, strange people. The door opened, I saw Haydn explaining that we would have to shelter in the building next door and that it was snowing. There was a short conversation and the door was closed again. He came back over, I looked up into his cold, wet face for some good news. He lowered his eyes and walked past me. He mumbled that he couldn’t ask, their house was too small, we wouldn’t fit in there and the man hadn’t offered.

We cleared the rubble from the floor and moved some breeze blocks, wooden planks and oil drums out of the way so we could lay the tarpaulin down as a ground mat. We immediately lit our two burners. We were all soaked and freezing cold. We could see our breath in front of us. The abandoned building had no doors or windows and the wind was whistling in. But atleast we could get dry in there.

Pablo went back out into the storm several times to get the rest of his stuff. Neither Haydn or I could face going back out into the dark snow blizzard and decided to hope our very technical MSR tent was going to live up to its price tag and survive the storm. We made some hot tea and tried to get warm and dry. But this was easier said than done when we had left our clothes bags back down where the tent was and were both too tired and delirious to really consider going back all the way to get them. But I did. I trudged all the way back to the tent and grappled with the swaying tent and the bags. Finally we managed to get into warmer clothes. Stupidly I only changed the clothes on the top half of my body, I felt it was better to keep my damp leggings on as they were the warmest thing I had and I thought my body would dry them out overnight. I woke up when there was light behind the open windows of the building, feeling like the cold had seeped into my bones while I was sleeping. I looked down at the tent from the window, it was still being battered by the wind. I said to Haydn I thought we should go and take it down as it had already had such a thrashing. He woke up to find his inflatable roll mat had a puncture and he had been sleeping on the concrete floor. I couldn’t help laughing. This was a true disaster.

Hypothermia

When it was finally a reasonable hour we went over to knock on the door of the Serbian family. I sat practically on top of their electric heater but couldn’t get properly warm. I thought I would warm up soon with cycling. We packed up and left, all quiet and cold. We were aiming for Podgorica. Pablo had a friend to meet there at 4pm.

It was a long, tough morning cycle. I had thought we were near the top of this section of climbing but it was still 15km to the top of mountain. Which isn’t much on flat but the roads were ruined by thick mud and gravel. We slid and slipped and fell off and swore. The unpaved roads had all been churned up by huge trucks that were shifting earth, making a new road that cut through the hillside. To add to the frustration of the road, every few minutes a huge tourist coach would pass, squelching through the mud and flicking big clumps at us. People inside the coaches with cameras would film us or wave furiously or laugh and point. I tried to keep my head down and stay calm, to avoid loosing my temper which was already fraying at the edges. It was very tiring and it seemed to go on forever.

We finally reached the top. I wish in that moment I had had the energy to appreciate the view and my thighs but all I could think about was that I was cold. I felt numb to the beauty and the achievement. I felt quite numb all over actually.

Coming back down the other side of the mountain I was just getting colder and colder. I couldn’t stop shivering. But it was worse than that. I could feel this stange other feeling seeping in. A dull slowness was spreading through my body and a confusion was clouding my mind. I knew that these were bad signs. I hadn’t properly dried out since the night before and was sweating to get up the construction site hills, now I was free-wheeling downhill and loosing heat very fast. It felt like my core flame was slowly being extinguished and everything was starting to get very strange. I pulled over and shouted for Hayds to stop. I started to cry uncontrollably and all I could mumble was that I didn’t feel right, I didn’t know if I could cycle and I was very cold.

Haydn looked at me with a furrowed brow. He pulled the buff down from over my nose and mouth. I could see something change in his eyes. He looked scared. He went over to Pablo and I thought I overheard him say, Her lips have gone blue, really blue. It started to dawn on me what was happening.

I was already wearing all my warm clothes. Haydn gave me his insulated jacket to put ontop and Pablo gave me his insulated jacket too and his shell-trousers. I couldn’t stop shiverring and I felt like I was slowing down more every minute. Hayds told me to do some star jumps so I tried to. My body felt heavy and unresponsive. It was a horrible feeling. I was telling it to do star jumpsuit but it wasn’t really doing what I was asking it to. I knelt down and cried. I didn’t know if I could keep cycling. A terrible weakness was taking over my body. I tried to explain this to Haydn but I couldn’t think of the right words to explain what was happening.

The road was just a sweeping downhill mountain road. There was nothing around us. Just the road and us. He shoved half a Snickers in my mouth and then I realised I couldn’t chew it. My jaw had turned into a soft plaything like a puppy’s, it had no tension or strength. It seemed to take an age to chew a small bit and swallow.

We had to try to cycle to the next town to get me warmer. But it was downhill. Haydn told me to pedal even going downhill to keep myself warmer but I could feel it was making me loose my balance. I was starting to find it very difficult to keep myself steady on the bike. It was a horrible feeling, going down hill a bit faster than I could manage with my unresponsive hands on the breaks and using all my concentration just to stay upright on the bike. It felt like time had slowed down just when I wanted it to speed up. Down and down we went. Bend after bend.

Some buildings finally emerged around us and we pulled over near a shop. It took all my concentration to get off my bike and not fall over. I lent it up against a wall and then knelt down next to it, trying to support myself with my hands on the ground. Everything was very slow now. I could feel I was crying again. My face was wet. Hayds came over and said something but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Words were not holding the same currency. They were just dull noise. He pulled me up and tried to get me to stand but my legs went from beneath me as if they were no longer part of my body. Instructions from my brain weren’t working anymore. It felt like my body was shutting down in slow motion. I could hear voices and shouting around me but I couldn’t react, I couldn’t process the situation. I was just crying. I was in control of nothing. My body whole body had gone dead now and I couldn’t move my limbs. I could feel Haydn pick me up and carry me somewhere. I felt like a child again. I felt like I was a dying child. A sacrifice to the ice gods.

Haydn carried my limp body into a nearby restaurant. Luckily it had lots of radiators. He slumped me on a chair next to one and held me up. I don’t remember the next little while.

I came round to a steaming cup being pressed into my chin and the smell of berries. Someone was trying to feed me hot tea. I tried the normal movement of lifting my arm to hold the mug for myself but it didn’t respond. I tried to open my mouth and swallow small sips. Swallowing wasn’t really working either.

It took me around two hours to come back to life. After lots of hot berry teas and taking some of the layers off, which I had been very reluctant to apparently.

I became slowly aware of what had happened and looked at the kind faces of a man and his daughter who had helped me. It was his restaurant. Luckily the restaurant was empty apart from the family. I looked down at my feet and there was a pair of worn, thick woollen socks on them. They were not a pair I had seen before. The man pointed to the socks and then to his chest. He sat smoking looking anxiously at me. He kept bringing more tea and saying to his daughter that he wanted to move me to by a fire somewhere else. His daughter was asking Haydn questions in very good English. Haydn asked if there was somewhere we might be able to stay near by. She thought for a moment and said no there wasn’t. My heart sank.

When I could finally work my legs again, the man took me into where him and some friends were making Rakia from grapes. Big copper spheres with roaring fires at the bottom. He sat me right next to one of them. And gave me a shot of Rakia. I soon realised all the old men making the Rakia were completely sloshed on the stuff. They had a shot every few minutes and kept offering Pablo, Haydn and I more and more. I took a tiny sip of mine and recoiled. I was still blurry all round the edges and I felt very fragile. I definitely didn’t need that exaggerated by serious booze.

Podgorica

In my post-hypothermic daze I agreed to continue the cycle to the city of Podgorica. Haydn said we couldn’t stay anywhere nearby, Pablo had to meet a friend at 4pm and we had already organised a Warmshowers host in the capital for that night. There were so many reasons to leave and I didn’t have the brain or will power to argue. I just thanked the kind people profusely and we left. The man didn’t even let me give his socks back.

That 35km to the city was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life so far. There were so many hills. It was a really busy, horribly narrow duel carriageway. Cars came dangerously close to us and at a terrifying speed. We witnessed some of the worst driving we had seen yet.

I felt like a cooked cabbage. Limp and anaemic and lacking everything.

Hayd’s lost his shit at one point when a big black shiny jeep rushed past him within arms reach at breakneck speed. He stood screaming and swearing, red faced, the car long gone.

We finally got to the outskirts of the city at dusk and said goodbye to Pablo who was staying in a hostel with his friend. My mind reeled at the thought that somehow now we had to find wifi, look up where the host was in this new city, get directions, follow them without getting lost and then be in a state to meet the people who were kind enough to have us to stay.

After another 2 hours we finally made it to the host’s house. And that was only because we were approached by a woman in the road who said she was our host, gave us complex directions and told us where the keys would be.

We arrived to a dark, empty, semi-detached house in a strange, half-built neighbourhood.
By now we were both totally shattered.
We let ourselves in and brought our bikes and baggage inside.

I slumped on the sofa in the unlit living room of someone else’s space. A swilling mix of triumph and sadness at being destroyed by the day but making it here to this sofa alive.

Just about.

I had the hilarious thought in that moment that I had fallen unconscious from hypothermia earlier that day and here I was, I had made it. Made it to a stranger’s lightless, quiet house on the outskirts of a city I knew nothing about and had no connection to. Maybe it was perfect. Maybe it was just the right end to that day. But where were the trumpets and the party poppers?

In my head I suppose.

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Post for Albania coming soon …

 

 

 

 

2 Replies to “Montenegro – Sacrifice to the Ice Gods”

  1. I had my hart in my mouth reading this passage, we studied the effects of hyperthermia on our sailing course. What a trial of a journey, you are certainly made of stern stuff. Miss thou both. xxx

  2. Phew! Blimey O‘Riley ! Had my heart in my mouth reading that ! Thank heavens you found sanctuary when you needed it most. I want to send you socks and hot water bottles and thermal blankets but I guess they’d weigh you down! So admire your courage to keep going in the face of all that. Love you xx

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