The trail was well-marked: a blue vertical stripe between two white ones.
We had a map which indicated clearly where the trail would take us: up to the top of a mountain ridge, along the ridge for a way, and then down to a sealed road. The plan was to follow the trail until we reached the road, then hitch hike back to our guest house (hitch-hiking in commonplace in Romania; often the driver and the passenger agree on a price for the lift).
So the plan was clear – and so was the weather. It was a beautiful, though cold day; autumn had arrived suddenly and the temperature had plummeted from the low 20’s a couple days before to 10 degrees during the day and -5 at nights. We were wearing thin jumpers and jackets, but we had no decent cold weather clothing with us – thick jumpers, coats and gloves, for example. Experience had taught us that for a day trip like this, one soon gets warm from the exercise.
And after all, it was a day trip: around 5 hours we calculated.
The blue stripe markers took us past village houses and then for a few hours, steeply upwards through dense forest and over streams. Most of the trees were elms, maples and oaks and their leaves were turning colour. We were surrounded by rich reds and yellows illuminated by bright sun. We kept a sharp eye out for bears, several of which we had already seen near the old railway station (they came into town looking for food in the bins). They were amazing to see and essentially inoffensive creatures; it was only if you scared them that they could get aggressive. So we talked loudly and whistled as we walked along to give any bears lurking in the forest due notice of our approach.
I was whistling a Mozart piano trio in G.
A wind blew up and even though the sun was out, it was cold and we had to keep moving.
Our map had been issued by a different company than the maps ones we normally used, and so the last thing that occurred to us was that this map might be completely wrong. We were used to our maps not giving enough information or, more likely, the trail markers being hard to find, but we had no experience of a map being so wrong that it was dangerous.
Yes, there was a trail with blue stripes. This much was correct.
No, it did not descend from the mountain ridge and connect with the road.
It continued deep into the mountains.
It went nowhere near the road.
The blue stripe trail was only used in summer by trekkers staying in high altitude huts. These were now closed.
It was no coincidence that we didn’t see another person on the trail.
We kept following the blue stripes, never suspecting that we were heading deeper and deeper into an abyss.
During the previous weeks of trekking, we had experienced a couple of close calls; missed the markers, got lost, had to retrace our steps and then find our way back. In a forest, it gets dark quickly this time of the year; by 5pm it’s hard to see much. Outside the forest, the sun sets at 6pm, but the twilight lasts until 7.30pm. A couple of times we found ourselves having to really set a pace to get out of the forest before darkness fell. But we had the security of knowing that if we found the markers, we were ok. In the markers lay security.
But in this case, there was no security in the markers because the map was criminally wrong.
It was something which simply didn’t occur to us.
We thought that as long as we found the blue markers and followed them, we’d be fine.
At 3 pm we began to wonder what the hell was going on.
We had started at 9am and we’d been walking for 6 hours – with two short stops to eat and drink – and we were obviously nowhere near a road.
There was snow on the ground and everywhere around us a view of peaks and forests.
We thought: ‘the map is wrong because it doesn’t indicate the distance correctly. This trail is hence a lot longer than we were led to believe. We’ve just got to stick to following the blue stripe and sooner or later, the trail will descend.’
But by 3pm, we knew that we really had to make distance. We were still at a high altitude and obviously had a long way to go. Clouds were appearing, obscuring the sun.
We had 3 hours, at the most 4, to descend and get to the road.
In situations like this, we could draw on our reserves. We had done plenty of waking in mountains during the previous weeks and we were used to having to set a pace and keep it up for hours on end if necessary. It was not as if we’d been walking slowly before then – the cold wind had kept us moving – but now it was different.
We cogged down a gear and hit the accelerator.
Little did we realise that we were accelerating in the wrong direction.
By 5 pm, we finally realised that something was seriously wrong.
We had not descended.
We were surrounded by forests and peaks.
It was getting dark.
Pulling out the map and studying it for the umpteenth time, a terrible realisation dawned on us: we were lost.
The map was worse than useless.
The only thing we could do at this point was to descend, by whatever means.
At 6pm, after scrabbling down through trees and over endless stones and rocks, we found ourselves on a rough, rocky road at a lower altitude.
In that road there was hope, precious hope.
The forests, now dark, came up to the edge of the road. It was an ideal time for the bears to appear.
We were in survival mode, moving as quickly as we could, knowing that time was working inexorably against us.
At one point, Anya thought she heard voices and the sound of a car.
But it vanished, consumed by the sound of the nearby river and the forests.
At 6.30, we were reconciled, if that be the word, to having to walk at night.
We knew that it would get very cold. We didn’t have enough clothing to survive that kind of cold. We also knew that rain was forecast for that night. To survive, we had to keep walking, never mind that we’d already been walking for over 9 hours.
Sooner or later, we reasoned, we would reach the sealed road, probably later in the night.
Then we heard a noise from behind us.
We looked around.
A car appeared. An old blue Opel.
It is hard to describe our feelings at seeing that car. It was more than just exhilaration.
We immediately flagged it down.
It drew up.
Two big young Romanian men got out.
They had very short hair, military style; the sides of their heads were shaved, with a small crop of hair on top. One was dark and the other blond. They had knives hanging from their belts.
The driver, the dark one, looked like he was doing some heavy-duty body building.
He got out and without saying a word, opened the back door and moved a pile of stuff to one side: fishing rods, rubber boots.
We got in and the car moved off.
They didn’t speak much English; a few words.
They’d been fishing they said, mountain streams, trout.
I was surprised that they’d been able to drive that old banger so high up into the mountains over the rough, stony roads.
German car, I guess.
‘You lucky we came’ the driver said.
‘Get dark…soon…then come bears and wolves. Also dogs…wild ones. Dangerous at night here.’
As the car rumbled down the road, our incredulity increased.
That damned road was much longer than we’d thought. There seemed to be no end to it. It wound back and forth through the forest.
I summoned up various scenarios of what would have happened to us if we had not got the lift with the trout fishermen. We would have walked and walked and one thing was for sure, never got anywhere near a sealed road that night.
The bears, the wolves, the wild dogs, the cold, the exhaustion – it would have been a tough call alright.
The blond man next to the driver turned around and asked:
‘How you come to …this place in mountains?’
A logical question from the two fishermen who had gone out into the farthest reaches of the mountains and on the way back, to their great surprise, encountered two westerners with small back packs. For them, it was definitely a one-off.
Anya told the story (people who do not speak much English understand her far better than me, probably because for her English is a second language too). She kept it simple. We had followed the wrong trail and got lost.
Next question: ‘Where …you …start walk?
Instead of trying to pronounce the name of the small town where our guest house was, she grabbed the map, opened it up and pointed at the name.
There was a rapid-fire flow of chatter between the two men.
The driver said: Baile Tusnad?
I’ve got no idea how he pronounced that name – certainly not like we did.
What I can remember, all too vividly, was how surprised the two men were.
‘You long way from Baile Tusnad.’
The events that followed that night underlined his point all too graphically.
We were a hell of long way from where we had started and we had a long way to go.
One long journey had ended and another one was about to begin.
See also Serious Travel Images:
Autumn Paths – part 2 (Romania)