I dug my left foot in the thick snow, sweat dripping down my back. Slowly, I brought my other leg forward. I heard a twig break under my weight, then skidded half a metre down the steep slope. Every time I felt my body giving in to gravity, my first instinct was to grab my camera, which was worn around my neck, and make sure it wouldn’t land in the snow with me. Yes, I know – depositing my camera in a dry bag would have been the most sensible thing to do in that situation, but I just wanted to have it ready just in case a bear popped out from the trees to say hello.
By the time I got to the end of the clearing and back into the forest, the snow on the path that lay before me had turned into slush. My heart raged against my ribs. This was going to be a nightmare.
Sliding down the hill
A few years ago, I went on a geo-caching hike in the north of Malta. While walking down a steep hill, trudging through grass that came up to my knees and which was damp with morning dew, I suddenly lost my footing and landed flat on my back against a big rock. I got the wind knocked out of me and I was barely able to speak. It took me over a month to fully recover from the back injury, but things could have gone worse. Three years later, I still break out in a cold sweat when I have to walk down a rocky hill.
If I hadn’t spent the last hour stopping for photos every 2 minutes, I wouldn’t have had to plod through deep, slippery sludge. We were a group of thirty and I was bringing up the rear, trying to catch up with the others. When possible, I tried to step on fresh snow to avoid the mud and slush on the only path leading down the hill. Everything was going well, until my mind momentarily diverted to thoughts of food.
I clutched my camera in both hands and braced myself for the fall. My shriek was loud enough to wake up any bears that might have been hibernating on the other side of the mountain. Thankfully, the ground was softer than I thought, and my obese rucksack protected my back against the impact. I slid down the path, trees flashing past me.
As I approached the next bend, I stretched my arm towards the closest tree I could find and brought myself to a halt. I sat there for a few moments, trying to catch my breath. My trousers were completely soaked and my toes had gone numb. When I looked at the tree again, I spotted tufts of hair snagged in the rough bark. Bear fur.
Claw marks, footprints… and bear dung
Romania has the largest brown bear population in Europe. There are around 6,000 bears, some 3,000 wolves and 2,000 lynx living in the Carpathian Mountains, making Transylvania a leading European destination for wildlife watching. While the majority of these animals live in remote areas of the Carpathians, bears and wolves have been known to approach human settlements in the mountains when searching for food.
“You can see that a bear has been on this path,” our guide, Dan, told us, pointing at claw marks on the trees, “That’s one way of marking its territory.”
Another way for bears to lay claim to a tree is by rubbing their back against it, leaving traces of their body odor and fur. Seeing the large scratch marks in the bark set my heart pounding, but as Dan walked past me to get to the front of the group, I spotted what looked like bear spray tucked into the side pocket of his backpack. I let out a sigh of relief, then followed him up the steep mountain slope.
Dan stopped short in his tracks. We followed suit, our gaze shifting to one side of the path, where we could make out two different types of paw prints in the snow. Long, flat tracks ran for a good three metres along the path, before disappearing down the side of the hill. The edge of the path was dotted with cat-like paw prints.
“A hare and a lynx,” Dan said, scanning the forest, “I think we’ve just missed them.”
Further up the hill, we chanced upon some bear droppings on the path. We gathered around it, trying to guess what the bear had for dinner.
“This is probably two weeks old,” Dan told us, without going into detail.
After all, we were about to have lunch.
Spanning across Central and Eastern Europe, the Carpathian Mountains are famous for their rich biodiversity. Besides boasting 400 unique species of mammals, including the Carpathian chamois, the mountains are also home to large swaths of undisturbed forests, sweeping meadows and a 3,500-year-old underground glacier. The highest concentration of wildlife and plant species is found in Romania, where the Carpathians cover a third of the country’s territory, forming a semi-circle around the historical region of Transylvania.
There are six main national parks in Transylvania, but the best one for wildlife watching is Piatra Craiului – a 15,000-hectare park in the southern mountain range. Also referred to as King’s Stone, Piatra Craiului is characterized by a jagged limestone ridge that stretches for 15 miles and reaches a height of 6,560 feet. There are over 120 species of bird in the park, which include pygmy, Ural, and eagle owls, and the rare golden eagle. More than a thousand species of plant grow in Piatra Craiului, attracting some 270 butterfly species.
Thanks to the efforts of the wildlife experts who set up the WWF-supported Carpathian Large Carnivore Project in the late nineties, Piatra Craiului National Park is nowadays an excellent example of successful ecotourism development in a poor economic climate.
We huddled under some trees, munching heartily on homemade sandwiches prepared by our wonderful host and cook, Mimi, while watching the snow falling thick and fast around us. The mountains slowly disappeared into the clouds. It was the perfect setting for one of those survival reality shows. The only thing needed to complete the formula was a big, angry bear.
“This is normally a good spot for spotting bears,” Dan told us, before answering the question on everyone’s mind, “But I’m afraid we won’t be seeing any bears in such unfavourable weather conditions.”
Dan Marin grew up in Zarnesti and has been leading wildlife tours in Piatra Craiului for over 15 years. He was also one of the main researchers in the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project, which sought to establish a fund to support the conservation of large carnivores in the Southern Carpathian Mountains and bring sustainable development to the region. Dan’s passion for his country’s rich wildlife and culture shines through every aspect of his work. In 2007, he won the coveted Paul Morrison Guide of the Year Award.
After lunch, Dan led us up towards a large clearing, where we soaked up magnificent views of the Barsa Valley. It was also our last attempt at spotting a bear before heading back down. Dan informed us that he had a camera trap attached to one of the trees on the other side of the clearing, and that he would need to go away for ten minutes to check for any signs of bear activity in the last couple of hours. I was fine with that, until he uttered that classical cliché from horror movies.
“I’ll be right back.”
And so we waited. After fifteen minutes there was still no sign of Dan. I started to get slightly worried. No, I got extremely worried. The sky had turned unnervingly dark. I was quite sure that we were about to get hit by a vicious storm. Even the birds of prey hovering over us seemed to sense our doomed fate. Just when I thought we were about to see a bear emerging from the trees, coming for the rest of his dinner, Dan appeared trudging up the hill.
“No bears have walked this way in the last 24 hours.”
I sighed, although whether with relief or disappointment, I still can’t decide.
From ammunition to ecotourism
When we got back to our guesthouse in Zarnesti, Mimi was busy flattening pasta dough into thin sheets. A strong smell of cabbages filled the dining area. Since I enjoyed being surprised at dinnertime, I left the room and headed to the terrace. I wrapped my jacket closer to me and stood there for a few minutes, watching the snow-streaked peaks waning in the subdued evening light. House lights had started to come on, and smoke billowed from the chimneys. The same dogs that woke me up at 6am that day were barking excessively again. I scanned the streets, but there was no one in sight.
For the first time since we arrived in Zarnesti, I noticed the small crosses perched on both ends of the roofs. As Dan had explained to us earlier, superstitions are still prevalent in Transylvanian towns and Carpathian villages, and Zarnesti is no exception. But for a town that is still reeling from the economic crisis that engulfed Romania after the fall of Communism, vampires and evil spirits should be the last thing to worry about.
Before opening their guesthouse and tour company, Dan and his wife, Luminita, had spent sixteen years working in an ammunition factory in Zarnesti. Built during Romania’s communist years, the munitions factory, which was the largest in the country, employed over 10,000 people. Following the execution of Nicolai Ceausescu in 1989, the Communist regime in Romania collapsed, leading to the closure of the ammunition factory (which had been disguised as a bicycle manufacturer) and other big industries in Zarnesti, including a chemical plant.
Zarnesti experienced a shocking rise in unemployment during the 1990s. By 2006, the town’s unemployment rate was still over 50%. Although Zarnesti is the gateway to Piatra Craiului National Park, tourism in the area was still scarce until the late nineties. The researchers and experts involved in the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project, which concluded in 2003, worked hard to bring eco-tourism to Zarnesti, and the industry has finally taken root. The town now has over 20 guesthouses and some 10 licensed wildlife guides.
Walking in a winter wonderland
The next day, we started our trek in the Zarnesti Gorges, where jagged limestone walls rise up to 100 feet on each side. In warmer seasons, a rushing, clear-water stream runs along the gorge. The series of caves dotting the cliffs make an ideal sleeping place for bears and other carnivores. We were still hoping to chance upon a bear (at a safe distance, of course) but the mountains were once again sheathed in a thick layer of snow.
The gorges are also a popular area for spotting the Wallcreeper (no, not Dracula). True to its name, this small grey bird, with splashes of vivid red on its breast and wings, climbs up steep rock faces looking for insects. We spotted neither bear nor Wallcreeper, but the air was filled with a raucous cacophony of birds.
A steep, narrow path snaking up the mountainside took us to an ancient piece of forest and along one of the shepherd’s trails. We spent the next hour or so walking through towering pine trees, occasionally getting showered with snow falling off the branches. There was no sign of life here. Silence enveloped the forest like a vacuum, broken only by the echo of twigs snapping under our feet.
As we approached the top of the slope, the snow started to get deeper. I was completely dazzled by the otherworldly beauty of the forest, but what came next overshadowed all that we had seen and experienced so far into our trip.
Lunch with a view
We emerged onto a massive alpine meadow, surrounded by mountains that were cut by plunging valleys. Pine forests stretched high to distant peaks, where looming grey mountains dominated the skyline. In summer, shepherds lead their flock to meadows and pastures high up in the mountains for fresh grazing. Very often, shepherds spend the night in a meadow before moving on to the next one. A fence is set up for the sheep, while the shepherds take shelter in a hut which they carry with them into the mountains.
I plodded through knee-deep snow further up the slope until I could get a better view of the dramatic scenery in front of us. Then, flattening out my dry bag onto the snow, I took out Mimi’s sandwiches from my rucksack and plonked myself on the ground. Despite the cold that seeped into my bones and turned my toes numb, I felt like I was in paradise.
We spent at least an hour zigzagging down the side of a mountain, skidding on sludge and tripping on tree roots along the way. By the time we made it back onto the road, my whole body was covered in sweat and my shoes were caked with mud. It felt so good walking on dry, solid ground, made even better by the unexpected sighting of some chamois teetered on the ridge to our left.
Dan lent me his binoculars. After spending a good two minutes trying to get the focus right, I spotted the horned goat-like creatures, their reddish-brown coat camouflaged against the dry patch of soil on the mountain. When I blinked again, they were gone.
Back at the guesthouse, Mimi had been waiting for us at the door, wearing an enthusiastic smile. Dinner was ready. I rushed upstairs to remove my dirty shoes and change into clean clothes. As I blasted myself with hot water in the shower, I replayed the day’s events in my head. I felt a twinge of disappointed at not having been lucky enough to spot at least one brown bear, but at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We had a warm meal waiting for us, and jugs of homemade plum brandy. What else could I have asked for?
This wildlife trip was led by Danut Marin from Transylvanian Wolf
, with the help of his daughter, Dana. We stayed at Pensiunea Mosorel, a family-run guesthouse in Zarnesti overlooking the Carpathian Mountains.
This wildlife trip was led by Danut Marin from Transylvanian Wolf, with the help of his daughter, Dana. We stayed at Pensiunea Mosorel
, a family-run guesthouse in Zarnesti overlooking the Carpathian Mountains.
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