© Clive Tully

Paws For Thought: Extreme Wildlife Watching in the Low Tatras Mountains

Adventure travel writer Clive Tully forges off on the trail of wolves, bears and chamois in remotest Slovakia with award-winning volunteering organisation Biosphere Expeditions.

It’s late in the afternoon, and after several hours bush-whacking through dense forest while traversing steep slopes, suddenly an excited shout comes from the front of the group.

“Wolf scat!”

Scat is not a term I’ve found myself using previously, although its more common alternative, another four-letter word beginning and ending with the same letters, may have passed my lips in extremis on the odd occasion. For the purposes of a family publication, what we’re talking here is poo, or droppings. Indeed, it takes a certain kind of person to get worked up about what most would cross the street to avoid – even if the item in question is evidence of the recent passing of a beautiful wild animal – and it is with a group of just such people that I am in the company of for the next few days.

I’m in the Nizké Tatry (Low Tatras) National Park high up in the mountains of Slovakia, taking part in a scientific project run by Biosphere Expeditions. Indeed, as is pointed out on my first day, what I’ve joined is no holiday. It’s not even a trip. It’s an expedition, and the purpose is to assist local scientist Dr Slavomír Findó – Slavo, for short – to document the movements of wild animals including not only wolves but also bears, lynx and chamois.

And so it is that we photograph said wolf poo with a compass lying next to it to provide scale, log its location on a data sheet using a GPS receiver, and bag it up to take back to base for Slavo to analyse. It joins several other bags of poo, including bear and a possible lynx. Today is something of a warm-up, getting expedition members used to logging both scats and tracks of wild animals, using two-way radios and GPS receivers, not to mention an enlightening return to traditional navigation techniques using map and compass.

Animals such as wolf, bear and lynx typically can typically be found in areas within the forest-covered mountain slopes. But it is the region just above the tree line that holds what we’re all particularly excited about: the chance to observe the endangered chamois, a type of mountain goat.

Once upon a time, the closest you might get to a chamois would be when drying off your car after it’s been washed, but while in other mountain areas of Europe they’re quite plentiful, here their numbers are declining – a result of human pressure on their habitats, and climate change. But predators have an impact on their numbers as well, and that’s the purpose of the study – to establish the relationship between chamois and other animals, as well as humans in the form of hikers on the trails that run along the main east/west ridge which they inhabit.

© Clive Tully

Research has illustrated that enthusiastic volunteers are every bit as good as scientists when it comes to making these kind of observations. If anything, they’re better because they’re rather more motivated – but it does all hinge on their being properly trained. The spread of participants in my expedition is certainly pretty wide, both in age and what made them decide to join. In general, the profile tends to be someone in their 30s and older – people who’ve had a chance to live life a little, and decide there’s more to it than just self-gratification. It was having three months available and a wish to do something of a voluntary nature that led business consultant Pierre from Belgium to sign up. By contrast, Lauren, in her early 20s, is studying for an animal science degree, so what we’re doing ties in rather nicely. Others have come to escape their everyday lives, but still with the motivation to do something which will be of real use. The oldest member of the group is John from Israel, whose past hiking experiences include wandering into a minefield while out walking in the Middle East’s Golan Heights.

The hazards of the Tatras mountains aren’t to be underestimated, either, as we discover when expedition leader Melanie Schröder delivers our risk assessment on the first evening. I’m amazed to hear that statistically, going on an expedition is less dangerous than indulging in a spot of home DIY. And while the greatest risk in Slovakia is coming to a sticky end at the hands of lunatic drivers, the wildlife has been a particular problem of late. Here they have the highest density of bears in the world, and some years have seen several attacks on humans by brown bears (seven were recorded in 2007). And what are we advised to do if we suddenly find ourselves face to face with a bear? Keep still, apparently: then slowly and gradually back off, avoiding the natural instinct to run like hell.

“Bears can run much faster,” we’re told, “and they can climb trees. If it comes to it, lie face down on the ground, hands over the back of your head and neck, and elbows out to prevent the bear from rolling you over.”

It’s this advice that races through my mind on our first night, spent near the isolated hamlet of Krpáčvo in the southern part of the national park south of the high point of Chopok. I’ve opted to relieve the pressure on bed space in our base house by sleeping in a tent out in the garden. At night, the surrounding forest is replete with strange sounds, occasionally featuring the noise of breaking branches. It matters not one jot that I’ve been reassured no bear has ever come this far down into the valley. Lying in the tent in a semi-stupor, my only thought is to roll over, elbows spread wide as my over-active imagination pictures marauding bears about to slice their claws through my sleeping bag.

And so I survive the night ready for the next day, which involves some basic training. We have our maps and GPS receivers to plot our positions, and we also have compasses – used to provide a bearing for any animal sightings. We have laser rangefinders to give us distance, and radios to communicate with each other. And when things are going less than swimmingly, we have flares to indicate we have a problem, red for life-threatening, and white for non-critical emergencies.

Our first little foray into the forest above Krpáčvo with Slavo reveals a “bear tree”. This is where the bear has ripped the bark off the trunk to get at insects underneath. It could have been damage caused by a passing forestry vehicle, but the evidence of hairs stuck to the oozing sap provides the confirmation.

RELATED POST: A WONDERFUL NEW WILDLIFE DOCUMENTARY SET IN SLOVAKIA’S WILD FAR EAST

Getting to and from the study areas isn’t all about slogging up and down hills on foot, although there’s plenty of that anyway. Biosphere Expeditions is one of the few organisations, along with the Royal Geographical Society, to be sponsored by Land Rover under their Fragile Earth Policy, so we have a couple of smart Land Rover Discoveries to get us about. As a non-profit organisation, Biosphere values any help it gets, and of course the less money it has to spend on equipment means more of the income from expedition team members goes into the scientific research.

During the fortnight, expedition members pay two visits up onto the main mountain ridge, the Hrebenovka, staying overnight in mountain huts. And while the hikers sharing the huts with them are still happily snoring away, they’re up at 4am to ready for heading to their observation sites. And this is where your typical hill walker might see the difference. Instead of keeping up a BRISK pace, you have to be prepared to sit still for hours at a time with binoculars or a telescope on a tripod, so a good range of clothing is essential.

During the day, the chamois tend to keep out of the sun on north-facing slopes, but then at sunset they come up onto the ridge. Get up early enough in the morning, and that’s where you see them. The training also includes identification – male and female chamois have different shaped horns, and the males tend to wander around on their own, while females and kids will stay in groups.

Unfortunately, my flying visit of just a few days means that while I do get to climb up onto the ridge and sample its spectacular views, I don’t get to stay there overnight, but some of my fellow team members strike gold the following day. One group led by expedition leader Melanie spots two red deer heading for a stream to drink, followed by a group of eight chamois resting on cliffs. Then just as they are about to pack up and go, they see a female bear and her cub ambling up to the same stream. A shame then that the other team led by Slavo, who hiked several kilometres further to stay at Chopok and the mountain hut there were foiled by windy conditions which made observations difficult.

But while my wildlife spotting is confined to a small snake, a few piles of poo – sorry, scats – and the odd clump of fur, I’ve come away with the firm view that if you want to do something for conservation, doing something like this is far better than simply writing out a cheque for your chosen charity. This way you can provide scientists with the manpower to enable them to make a difference – in this case, the outcome will be a scientific paper – and have an unforgettable experience at the same time.

Further information:

Biosphere Expeditions (tel 0870-446-0801) promotes sustainable conservation of the planet’s wildlife by involving the public with scientists across the globe on real hands-on wildlife research and conservation expeditions, with several projects operating in Slovakia.

Outdoors and travel writer/photographer Clive Tully is former equipment editor of four walking magazines, and consultant/contributor to many more. His mainly outdoors-related travel features have been published in the majority of UK national newspapers. In 2017, he’s also going to be part of the team striving to beat the world record for circumnavigation of the world in a powerboat.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: It’s possible to get to any of the places mentioned in this article, but for the experience you will need to sign up for a volunteer expedition with Biosphere Expeditions.

PRICES: Volunteers are asked to contribute towards expeditions around £1300 (for Slovakia expeditions).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From a Low Tatras wildlife sojourn around Krpáčvo it’s only 13km north to Hotel Srdiečko and the route up Chopok (the less-known-about-way).

 

© Clive Tully

© Clive Tully

©Chata Magurka

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

The light was failing, and we were despairing of ever finding our destination: perhaps someone had erected the gutterally-leaning wooden signpost on a barren rise off to to the side of the Hrebenovka, the ridge hike along the Low Tatras mountains that we’d been traipsing for the previous few days, for a joke. For the third night on the trail from Čertovica in the east to Donovaly in the west, we’d elected to descend from the ridge into the forests for our night’s accommodation. Whilst there was a mountain house, Chata Útulná, atop the ridge that would have provided shelter at a similar point on the trail, it only had a huge dormitory with mattresses spread out more or less end-to-end, and we fancied bedding down in a private room to enjoy a tad more comfort. About 1.5 hours further down the trail from Chata Útulná, from amidst the isolated ridge top nature reserve of Latiborská Hol’a, we’d scrambled down a steep path into dense woodland for about 45 minutes, then followed a winding forest trail that seemed to be leading nowhere except to lumberjacks’ log piles. Then, a scattering of chalets appeared like a mirage: we had reached the very end of the road, and what followed certainly felt like a surreal dream.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The view outside ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One minute, forest like this. The next? A minute, hidden hamlet with one of its several traditional chalets devoted to provide accommodation for weary hikers.

The owner and a few of his friends, amicable old timers the lot of them, were celebrating the arrival of the new vegetable juicer. “I tried it for several weeks in England once” slurred the owner, already a few glasses of slivovica to the good (or bad).  “The amount of weight I lost!” He did look quite trim for a middle-aged mountain man, and swears it’s down to embracing a diet of vegetable juice… and, er, presumably his strong homemade alcohol. He commanded us to sit down whilst he blended us one of the juices he’d tried out for the first time that very day. We waited quite a while, desiring nothing more than to check into our room. The wait was due to the fact the owner had, in the process of fetching us drinks, temporarily fallen asleep, but now we smiled: here he was, stumbling back with the promised refreshments. “Get some of this down you” he booms in exuberant but actually not bad English. It tasted like pondwater. “My favourite” he says excitedly. “Nothing in this but grass” (he did not specify exactly what he meant by grass, or indeed where his grass came from). And so saying, off he went to continue the juicer’s welcome party. I had to drink both of the foul-tasting glasses: my hiking companion steadfastly (and in retrospect wisely) refused. Grass? It was pond weed flavour, more like. Still, in true British fashion I managed to stay grinning and enthuse about how nice it all was (the drinks were, at least, on the house) and it seemed to be what was expected before we could commence with checking-in facilities.

But we did, at least, have a room – and actually it was a decent one. Nothing fancy: four- to six- bed pine finished bunk rooms, but the staff were quite prepared to arrange things so that we had one of these to ourselves. They were clean, with wash basins and piles of blankets, and – at this dead end of the road to civilisation – very quiet. Bathrooms with piping hot showers were across the hallway. Did we appreciate more after walking all day through the mountains? Undoubtedly. But by the standards of the scant accommodation options actually up in or near the mountaintop, pretty good – and not lacking in atmosphere.

Ah yes: atmosphere. The bar-restaurant area, open from 9am to 8pm for hearty Slovak food daily, is hung with low wooden rafters, and replete with long, sturdy wooden tables – plus various hunting talismans (deer’s antlers, bear skins): in short, pleasantly cosy Slovak-rustic. As with a lot of the hotels in the Scottish Highlands and other areas which have a similar “hunters’ trophy” decoration, animal-lovers might want to reconcile themselves with the fact that if they want a roof over their heads, a furry bear spread-egaled across a section of it will have to be tolerated. Outside, there is a grill area to use, and a hot tub that can be rented out at 40 Euros for two hours: pricier than the accommodation, but perhaps worth it after a tough tramp to get here!

Next morning, after a tasty breakfast of “hemendex” (ham and eggs) and very nice coffee, served in a cheerful courtyard attracting plenty of sunlight despite being fringed by thick forest, one of the owner’s drinking partners from the previous night offered us a ride into the village with the nearest bus stop.

“Let’s go quickly” he urged. “I’ve got to be back here ready to start drinking by ten.”

Perhaps the toasting of the vegetable juicer’s arrival in tiny, out-of-the-way Magurka was a multi-day affair.

In any case, the majority of places to stay do not inspire even articles, let alone feature-length Twin Peaks-style TV series. Chata Magurka, thanks to the eccentric bunch of characters gathering at this place on a daily (and nightly) basis, has enough material in-between its four walls to manage both.

GETTING THERE: Some customers, of course, will arrive at Chata Magurka by road. Classified as a holiday hamlet, and with a round-the-year population of under twenty, Magurka is not served by public transport. Buses come as close as the larger village of Liptovská Lužna – served by connections from Ružomberok (at 6:20am and then about hourly between 10am and 10pm, running from Ružomberok station on the main line to Bratislava and Košice and taking 32 minutes). From Liptovská Lužna, it’s 10km east to Magurka, up an un-signed road by a logging area just before the village of Želežne…

MAP LINK:

PRICES: From 20 Euros per room (without private bathroom) (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA MAGURKA (Bookable via Booking.com, emailing magurka@magurka.eu or by telephoning 00421-905-649-230/ 00421-905-866-654)

  • You can be up on stage three of the Hrebenovka (Low Tatras multi-day ridge hike) from the doors of Chata Magurka in two hours of walking on some tough-but-beautiful paths through the forest (blue signposts)

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata M.R. Štefánika

Shortly before I arrived at Chata M.R. Štefánika, the heavens opened. What had been a sun-kissed start to my hike along the Hrebenovka, the three-day ridge trail across the Low Tatras mountains, became a downpour. I could barely discern the path in front of me. Then, looming through the rain clouds at precisely the right moment, the place I’d reserved a bed at for the night surreally, mystically came into view, perched on a curving apple-green ridge of its own at 1740m.

This mountain house is still the classic within the Low Tatras range, as evidenced by its name (Štefánik, a Slovak freedom fighter, does not get his name given to just any old spot). The USP of the mountain house, found in lots of Slovakia’s mountains, as well of course as in the Alps and the Pyrenees, is that these are accommodation options actually up in the peaks (no need to hike down to the valley to kip at the end of the day). But even by such high standards Chata M.R. Štefánika, going strong since 1924, commands a sensational view, as well as a key place at the intersection of a couple of major hiking routes. The red trail, the Hrebenovka, climbs up from here to Ďumbier, the high point of these mountains at 2046m (the full title of the chata in English would be the house of Štefánik under Ďumbier), and then on again towards Chopok, the peak above Slovakia’s major ski resort. Meanwhile, a green trail cuts down in well under an hour to the Dead Bat’s Cave and then on to the nearest road access by Chata Trangoška and Hotel Srdiečko. Blue and yellow trails branch off from here too.

Not that I was in any mood for further hiking as I hastened, dripping, into the snug wood-pannelled confines of the Chata’s legendary restaurant. Yes, other mountain houses have wood interiors too but Chata M.R. Štefánika’s is finished with a lot more love and panache (perhaps because it is the granddaddy of all those others, and also because of the current manager, Igor Fabricius, who is so enthused about this mountain house he’s been at the helm here over 25 years) and it’s bursting with activity more or less constantly, too. This makes it a great place to make friends and chat about hikes completed or yet to be embarked upon, and I ordered a piping hot Ďumbier fruit tea and a bowl of soup and settled down to thaw. As well as a comprehensive array of all the classic Slovak mountain food available in the restaurant (dumplings, schnitzel, beer) there is also a small souvenir shop selling really cool merchandise emblazoned with the Chata’s logo, and a map room by the entrance with bundles of information on the surrounding area. Upstairs, the accommodation is in four- to eight-bed dorms with sinks and shared bathrooms. It’s all kept remarkably spick and span despite the muddy overnighting hikers, because there is a no footwear rule observed inside.

ridge-walk-certovica-stefanika

But with such a setting, it’s difficult to stay seated inside for too long. Especially not when the clouds start to retreat again and the chance to take a peek at the surrounding peaks arises. The chata, with a wood pile endearingly stacked all the way up one wall, has a decking area where some superb views down towards Brezno open up. But a couple of short walks (and don’t worry, they really are just leg stretches to counter the seizing-up of muscles that sets in after a long tramp) also await. 100m back down on the path to Čertovica (the start point of the Hrebenovka) is a monument to those who fought for the liberation of Czechoslovakia during the First World War.

Monument near the mountain house ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Monument near the mountain house ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Suddenly, the setting sun streamed out enticingly from under the storm clouds, though, and I wanted a better glimpse of the mountains ahead. Up a grassy rise immediately behind the wood store at the end of the chata, I clambered to the perfect viewpoint. The curved nature of the ridge I was hiking meant the next ten kilometres of mountains on tomorrow’s route were visible, now tinted in a glorious fiery evening light. I took a few necks of the hip flask every good Slovak hiker carries with them, and felt privileged to be here.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

PRICES: 21 Euros per adult and 5 Euros for breakfast (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA M.R ŠTEFÁNIKA

img_2244_999x1777

Low Tatras Mountains: The Dead Bat’s Cave

High in the broccoli-hued forest foothills of the Nizke Tatry (Low Tatras) – Slovakia’s great unsung mountain range – hidden between the lofty pine trees of the lower slopes and the element-stunted trees of the kosodrevina above, there is a small mountain cottage. The residence of some recluse, the unknowing passerby might think, some remote holiday house. But traipse up on the one-hour hike from the nearest road and, as you will see, the cottage marks the entrance to Slovakia’s highest, most extensive cave system – and a definite candidate for one of the strangest.

The nearest access point by road is the parking lot above the ailing Hotel Trangoška, alongside a newer, shinier penzión clearly trying to outdo its older rival, on the long twisting road up from the village of Bystrá. Opposite the car park a wide track (which narrows to a path after passing a couple of mountain cabins) ascends through the woods for 45 minutes before arriving at the signed path to the cave – which now lies a steep 15-minute clamber above you.

Approaching the cave entrance ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Approaching the cave entrance ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sweltering from the ascent on a sticky August day when even temperatures up here at over 1300m are well into the twenties, we fantasised about the possibility of a cafe being incorporated into this remote spot but never really expected the cold beer or piping hot mountain herb tea that the cave guides – who live in the dinky cottage built around the cave entrance for days at a time – offered us on arrival. Descending into a tricky-to-negotiate cave system after a cold Pilsner or two doesn’t seem on paper like the best idea but in the moment it felt right. And chatting to the friendly team of cave guides over a drink is part of the experience: trapped up here with just each other’s company for lengthy periods, they have some colourful stories at the ready which whet your curiosity prior to going underground.

The typical cave tour (8 Euros per person) lasts about an hour. This is not a showcave, with wide paths and neat steps and guide rails. The guides at the Dead Bats’ Cave decided widening the tunnels sufficiently to meet showcave requirements would involve hacking away too much at the rock formations, so they prefer to offer a more adventurous tour, with a couple more heart-in-mouth ledges and slippery ladders thrown in – and simply ask you to sign a form saying that whatever happens to you in “the descent” is entirely at your own risk. Fair enough. Game on.

The tour commences with a descent down to around 20 metres below the surface, and a series of memorial plaques to famous cavers who discovered and charted the passageways here. In common with other high altitude cave systems, formations in this 22km network of tunnels are relatively few, but a striking series of chasms over which you walk, either on creaking bridges or strapped on to iron bars in the tunnel wall, keep you awed. The tour isn’t fleshed out with a lot of over-exaggerated nonsense about likenesses of rocks to various animals, either: this is an hour spent exploring – and “explorer” you really do feel as the tunnel you follow makes a sharp kink down and into a narrow section of bubbled rock passageways with the walls and roof of the cave pressing closely on all sides (Indiana Jones eat your heart out).

It’s around this point that the guide explains the master plan of the Dead Bats Cave – connecting the current system of tunnels up with another still-greater series of canyons – one of which is the size of a football stadium. The connection has almost been made – but the final few metres are proving difficult. Due to the presence of water, digging has to be restricted to when the water is frozen and won’t bust out to flood the cavers: something that happens for perhaps a month each year and even then, only for a few hours daily because it becomes too difficult to breathe. Watch this cold, dark space, therefore, for when the attractions of the Dead Bats’ Cave to visitors multiply after these caverns start featuring in the tour!

And finally, on a rock shelf at the side of the tunnel leading back to the surface, the origins of the cave’s moniker become apparent. Yes, indeed, the minuscule pencil-like bones of an abnormally high quantity of dead bats (some of which have lain here thousands of years). Many more, it appears, than the average for subterranean systems. Why? Well one theory put forward is that the bats – the poor blind things – find their way into the caves come late autumn and then, because their access holes become frozen over, can’t find a way out again. The second theory is just that bats – much of the area’s bat population, no less – has decided on mass that these underground labyrinths are a fitting place to die.

The Dead Bats’ Cave holds many more delights. The standard tour touches upon only one of three levels of caves open to wannabe troglodytes – and more hardcore adrenalin-pulsing squeezes and scrambles await with the more in-depth tours that explore all three (costing around 24 Euros).

Stalagmites - little stumpy ones! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Stalagmites – little stumpy ones! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Walk On! Beyond the cave, and returning back down to the signed entrance on the main green trail from Trangoška, you can carry on 45 minutes up through the forest onto the ridge at the mountain house of Chata MR Štefanika (at which point you join our recommended three-day Low Tatras ridge hike) and from where it is a further 1.5 hour hike to the summit of the highest peak in the Low Tatras, Ďumbier. Doing even a portion of this ridge hike – a truly glorious one – is an astounding “add-on” to a cave visit.

But – and few people, it seems, know this – the hike to the Dead Bats’ Cave does not have to be the out-and-back route it appears from Trangoška. As you come back down on the green trail (that’s turning left on the main path if coming from the cave) you’ll pass piles of wood left for transporting up to Chata MR Štefanika, with a rather touching request to hikers to take a log and receive a free Ďumbier herb tea (a special sweet herb tea just found in these hills!) for their pains if they carry it all the way! And just below a narrow, rarely-used yellow trail which runs up to the Hotel Kosodrevina/cable car – a point half-way up to the ridge between Hotel Srdiečko (another hotel at the end of the road on which Trangoška lies) and Chopok (the second-highest summit in the Low Tatras). This trail initially seems overgrown but it’s not – and rises through wild forest up onto moorland rich in blueberries and raspberries (boy did we have a feast). After about an hour the path – narrow and yet distinct curves up to join the wider blue trail which runs between Chata MR Štefanika and Hotel Kosodrevina. From here you can take the chair lift down to Hotel Srdiečko and walk down the road to where you parked your car – or carry on up to the top of the ridge via cable car to Chopok (where you can take another cable car down the other side into Slovakia’s famous ski area, Jasná, and into other articles soon to feature on this site…)

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 8 Euros per adult for the standard tour.

OPENING: Tours available at 10am, 12midday, 2pm and 4pm – daily July/August, March-June and September-December weekends only. Closed January and February (when work on connecting the adjoining cave system gets underway!!)

CAVE WEBSITE: (Slovak only)

WARNING: Temperatures down in the caves are an average of 3 degrees – bring a warm top even if it’s boiling outside!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Dead Bats’ Cave it’s 90km southwest to Stred Europy (the geographical Centre of Europe!) in Central/South Slovakia.