The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon

Border life in Montenegro



I ONCE described a journey on foot over one of the most villainous paths that can be found in the world. Now I propose to take my readers a similar tour, with the difference that horses are with the party. Mark me, I say horses with the party, and I will add that they are saddled and in a fit state to be ridden; furthermore, that they are steeds born and bred to such paths and considered absolutely reliable even with a precipice of several hundred feet at our side. Montenegrins ride these animals at such ticklish places, disdaining to dismount, that fatal accidents are not at all infrequent. Strangers from far lands invariably walk, and leave their horses to tumble over by themselves - at least, they will adopt this less showy method after their horse has slipped once on one of these afore-mentioned shelving paths. It is an odd thing though, that a riderless pony - there are few horses in Montenegro, the majority being of the small mountain breed-never stumbles, be he ever so heavily laden, and he has an unconquerable desire to walk on the extreme edge of the path farthest away from the "safe side." In addition to this he has a dislike to being guided by the bridle, having accustomed himself to independence of movement while forming one of a string of pack-horses traversing the mountain tracks where roads are not. Also he prefers to go in single file, even where the path broadens out very occasionally, and his rider, tired of con-


versing with a crooked neck, would urge him alongside his companions. All these little peculiarities the stranger will learn in the first hour.

It is five a.m., in a town on the north-eastern borders, and we are going back to comparative civilization, by which is understood a town possessing a good road communication with the rest of the world. Between us and Podgorica lies a mountainous country, with some of the finest scenery in Europe, and we have asked to be taken the shortest way. It is a foolish request, but we are human, when to err, we are told, is excusable. Also, we are in a hurry, and a difference of six hours or so has to be reckoned with. Now this is utter foolishness, for nowhere can the truth of the time-worn axiom that more haste means less speed be more effectively rubbed in than in the land of the Black Mountain.

Consequently, we have arranged to leave at five, have got up at four, and shall eventually start about six. Montenegrins are not abnormally lazy, it is simply that they have no sense of time beyond sunrise and sunset, also from the position of the sun they can calculate roughly that it is about noon. As for the intervening hours, they are a mere detail, though they cheerfully acquiesce, as was the case last night, that we should start at five sharp.

Thus we stand at five a.m., booted and spurred (the latter expression is merely used metaphorically), with revolver on thigh, an objectionable bandolier of fifty cartridges round our waist, and a carbine slung on our back. This formidable armament is necessary for many reasons, partly out of deference to the customs of the country, partly because one never knows quite what may happen, be it a strolling band of Albanians, or a stray bear or wolf in the gloomy primeval forests, and lastly, we shall certainly be challenged to an



impromptu shooting match on the way, by sporting shepherds.

We have secured a glass or two of hot milk for breakfast as a special favour, because there is only one cow in the neighbottrhood, the rest being in the mountain grazing grounds. This, and a couple of hard-boiled eggs constitute a meal preparatory to a journey where a couple of good steaks would be more serviceable.

Then we start, and dismount again almost immediately, for there is a hill to be climbed, which brings us thoroughly limp and exhausted to a grand plateau. There is the awe-inspiring Kom before us, over whose spurs our path will lead. Steadily we climb ever nearer to that imposing pile of snow-capped grandeur, and our spirits rise in company. It is gloriously exhilarating, and our guides troll forth martial songs in their deep and powerful voices.

The base of the mountain is clothed in great beech forests, and very soon we are in their midst. We recognize old landmarks, for last year we shot all through these woods, and this was the spot where Stefan hit a deer with a snap shot from his revolver. The path narrows and ever deeper grow the ravines on our side. Here is a very nasty bit, with a shelving precipice several hundred feet deep. We are debating in our minds if it were not better to walk, but a false shame holds us back. Are not the others riding as carelessly as ever, with loose reins and light talk? It is kind of our servant Stefan to remind us that here one of our companions last year nearly fell over, horse and all. Bah! no matter, let us trust to luck. Half way across, the expected happens: we are on our knees, fortunately on the high bank, and our horse is half over the precipice and slipping fast. Mechanically we grasp his headstall, and still half-


sitting, give him just that help which brings him up, all trembling and sweating, to the path once more. That is luck, and if our nerves are good enough, we light a cigarette. The Montenegrins will then murmur their approval, for they love carelessness. All the same, we walk for the next half hour.

When the forest ceases we find ourselves on a shoulder of the Kom and in the midst of a shepherds' summer village. A hail brings a shy maiden, and she trips nimbly away to fulfil our wishes. When she returns she carries a mighty bowl of milk, and wooden ladles, and, seated on the rich sward, we make short work of its contents.

Tempting as it is we cannot stay long, and, crossing the ridge, we plunge once more into the depths of a forest. Down we go, on foot - it is far too steep and rocky to ride - into, it would seem, the very bowels of the earth. It is heart-breaking work, for we know that the height which we have just so painfully attained is being lost, and is all to be done over again. Up the second spur we go, riding now from fatigue, but it is very nearly as tiring as walking, for we must clutch firmly the mane of our horse, and even then our saddle slips ever farther on to the rump, and we picture ourselves sliding off backwards down that terrible path.

Another hour and we are on the second spur, looking across the ravine we have just crossed, and with the snow-fields of the Kom stretching down to our feet. The short grass is so slippery that again we are compelled to walk, and here it is that our tempers wear to shreds, for we ourselves can hardly stand, let alone climb, on that accursed grass.

There is no path and no track, and we are assailed with wild thoughts that our guides are fooling us. But no, they


declare with many oaths that this is indeed the shortest way and that "soon the path (!) will be better." That they always say. No matter, the ridge is climbed, and we slide down the other side with many prayers, bringing with us avalanches of loose stones.

At a tiny rivulet we halt, for our watches tell us that it is noon, a fact our appetites have proclaimed for some time previously so strongly that we have doubted even our most trusted chronometer.

We rend a tough chicken in twain, munch some stale bread, and drink water at some trouble, for we have but one very small wineglass with us. The post-prandial repose we allow ourselves for digestive reasons, or, to be more correct, to rest our horses, is agreeably disposed of in rifle competition with some strolling shepherds, and at judging distance by firing at the snow patches before us. The scenery is also all-engrossing, and we enjoy it to the full, because it is only at such moments that it can be appreciated. No one can take in the beauties of nature properly if he is riding at the risk of his neck, or gasping up an angle usually given to the roof of a house.

The midday hour passed, we saddle up and enjoy an hour's riding, during which we can occasionally throw a hasty glance at the surrounding Alpine panorama. We ride along the top of the ridge; below us on either side are valleys thickly wooded, and all around us rises chain after chain of rugged peaks. We pass several little graveyards, some of the mounds quite fresh, for here there are no churches, and the shepherd whom sickness or a bullet lays low is buried in the holiest of all God's churchyards, in the solitude of those glorious mountains. Filled with such thoughts we have approached a spot where the path has narrowed once more, and Stefan,


our servant, who is leading, has paused irresolutely. Even he hesitates to ride farther, and he suggests that we too had better dismount. We do so without argument, though we have but a spare foot between us and a precipice of at least 2,000 feet, while the mountain rises sheer above us. We even break into a cold sweat as we cautiously swing out of the saddle lest the stirrup leather should give or the horse not hold still. Then we walk along that path with an absurd desire to lean inwards, though we are by no means unused to mountaineering.

But even this beautiful horror comes to an end, and we are in the forest which, our guide tells us, leads to the valley of the Tara. Once below, the way is good and easy to travel. With smiling faces, ignoring painful toes, we stride downwards; but it is the curse of Montenegrin paths that they never can be consistent. They are as perverse as human nature. The wood is so dense that we cannot see even the heavens, but we are calculating that the bottom cannot be far away, when we catch a glimpse of our path suddenly soaring upwards as it were to the very sky. It is exasperating. It is also four o'clock, by which hour we should be comfortably seated in the han in the valley, enjoying coffee, with the satisfying knowledge that the worst of our journey is over. Luckily we can ride, for the ponies climb better than they can descend, and now we come to the most striking feature of the whole day's tour. Suddenly, without any warning, we emerge on the hill-top, clear of the trees, and find ourselves gasping with sheer giddiness. It is literally the summit, about two square yards in size, and the sensation is as if we were standing on an inverted egg, with yawning abysses on all sides. We cannot see the bottom, only empty giddiness, and far away a sea of tree tops. We


waste no time, but dive into the merciful forest screen and for the next hour walk almost in silence. The little that is said is monosyllabic, and takes the nature of ejaculations. So steep is the descent that the saddles slip over the horses' necks, and Stefan is in a state bordering on mania as he for the fiftieth time adjusts them.

We will not recall this picture. It is forgotten as soon as the welcome han is reached.

The remaining four hours of level riding are a recreation, tired as we are, as in bright moonshine and at nine o'clock we draw rein before the comfortable inn at Lijeva Rijeka.

The only disturbing thought which assails us as we quaff our still warm sheep's milk is the ten hours' journey to-morrow, which must be done on foot, over a mountain path paved with sharp stones. An examination of the soles of our boots intimates that this will not prove a pleasurable experience, and - how that beggar Stefan snores!

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