Trip report: funny tasting toads, glacial lakes and a hairy travel companion

A travel tale of Retezat National Park
Imagine a land with endless views, reminiscent of Friedrich his famous painting ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’. If you don’t know this particular piece of art from the Romantic Era, then shame on you. To make up for this heresy you can google the painting online and if it appeals to you: travel to Retezat National Park in the Romanian Carpathians and experience the views for yourself.

Accidently, the three-day hike that resulted in this tale also proved to be a trip in which the author was confronted with him being older yet again. Getting up a mountain seems to get harder by every passing year. Reading however – even for those less practised in it’s art - hardly takes any physical effort at all, so rest assured and please read on without shedding a single drop of sweat.

So, there we were. Ready to encounter bear, wolf, wild boar, lynx, badger and wildcat and very sure we wouldn’t see any of them. There is Retezat National Park, the oldest national park in Romania and still harbouring many of Europe’s dwindling natural heritage. Retezat is included in the UNESCO network of biosphere reserves and is designated a Natura 2000 area under the European Union Habitats Directive. If that still does not convince you of its importance then listen to this: it harbors 1190 species of plants, of which 90 are endemic to the park (only occur on this particular part of our planet). It also shelters one of Europe its last intact primeval forest, thousands of invertebrates, nine reptile, eleven amphibian, hundred eighty-five bird and fifty-five mammal species. In 2004 it also became a certified PAN Park. The PAN Parks Foundation is creating a network of European protected areas certified with high quality standards regarding wilderness protection and sustainable tourism. The unique approach of this wilderness benchmark is the close partnership with local businesses in and around certified PAN Parks, ensuring they obtain benefits from the nearby wilderness area and them becoming ambassadors of wilderness along the way.

I travelled to Retezat in July 2011 together with my wife and a good friend of ours, after attending a Romanian wedding and having practised my yearly improving traditional dancing skills. Which is to say… I believe they improve, so if you where at this particular wedding and witnessed me hopping around, please don’t squash my perceived progress. We wanted a full PAN Parks experience and booked accommodation both prior and after our hike with a local PAN Parks certified business. We stayed at the very hospitable Iancu Guesthouse in Salasu de Sus and enjoyed the quiet village life with a well-deserved cold beer.

The next morning our hike was supposed to start in earnest. We decided to use our rental car for a few extra kilometres, because time was of the essence. Ok fine then, we where a bit lazy and did not want to hike for one hour along a dusty road. We went on our way after enjoying a tasty breakfast with local grown products, including coffee milk from their very own water buffalo. The road towards Cârnic took us through a few villages where all points of interest, both cultural and natural where nicely marked. It also passed the Retezat National Park visitor centre, which was still closed at this early hour. We could park our car at Cârnic for a small fee and… encountered a fourth, but very hairy member of our small expedition. We named the dog TomTom, after the Dutch manufacturer of navigation systems. Plus she seemed to know where we where supposed to be going, which was an added bonus. The hiking trails are very well marked though, so don’t despair if you find yourself hiking in Retezat without any canine services. Visitors to Retezat are actually encouraged to leave their own dog at home or at least keep it on a leash at all times. TomTom however seemed to be a local resident and pretty much motivated to accompany us no matter what we where telling her.

Our hike started on an easy trail, lightly increasing in steepness. In mountainous areas one usually always has to pass through seasonal and then evergreen forest, before leaving the three line behind. Scores of flowering plants where crowding to occupy every available spot along the track, including species of orchid. The wildflowers attracted a multitude of butterfly species, including a whole bunch I laid eyes on for the first time in my life. The dirt track, only suitable for 4x4 vehicles or people desperately wanting to need to buy a new car, included semi permanent puddles of water. Usually those puddles prove to be interesting patches of life giving water and here no different. Though triumphant calls where made, this couldn’t persuade my travel companions to have a closer look at what I found. Yellow-bellied toads (Bombina variegata), both adults and larva where enjoying some freestyle swimming. These little gems have very brightly coloured bellies, which are a big contrast with their otherwise well camouflaged grey coloured body parts. They show their bellies in a particular reflex (called the unkenreflex) in which they show the sides of their coloured bellies to let the attacker know they a) taste funny and b) could be potentially poisonous, as that is what brightly orange or yellow usually means in nature. Since I was neither colour-blind or into eating harmless endangered amphibians no harm came to them. “Really?” Yes, really, what do you think I am!

The hiking started proper, after crossing a make shift bridge over a rapidly flowing stream. The trail became increasingly steep and went through pine forests, intersected by a stream with rapids and multiple waterfalls. We passed a few people along our way up, who – unlike most other fellow hikers we met - seemed poorly equipped for such a mountainous area. Any mountain can take lives and this massif didn’t prove any different, with multiple crosses along the trail honouring the fallen. We took a break at Cabana Gentiana at 1670 meters before reaching the tree line.

Along the trail we encountered parts of the Wolf Trail, the park’s thematic trail focused on this wilderness species with the aim to educate visitors about the ecological importance of wolves. We learned that Retezat harbored between 30 and 40 wolves. Knowing you are intruding on the habitat of wolf and bear (some of Europe’s largest carnivores) changes ones perspective. Even though they are very elusive creatures and you are extremely lucky if you spot one from a distance. The park asks you to report any sightings of wolf to them so they can gather more data. Still, in theory their very presence means you are not at the top of the food chain anymore. This fact, combined with the views of impressive and massive mountains is a sobering experience. Especially for someone like me, having grown up in a flat completely urbanised western European country where the largest predator is a fox. People who have been bitten by a rabies-infected fox probably insist they are not to be trifled with, but still.

Unfortunately we didn’t spot any large predators this trip, although we did found some fox faeces and at one point smelled a very strong scent, which might have been wolf. Then again the wish is father to the thought. Most people don’t go about sniffing weird scents and rummaging through someone else its faeces by the way, but biologists tend to be a little weird at times. And weirder so when they are away from home... No wolves and bears for us then, but what did we see? Oh boy, enough to satisfy any sight hungry traveller. After leaving the spruce fir area behind us at around 2000 meter we crossed the dwarf pine area towards the alpine pastures. The dwarf pine (Pinus mugo) isn’t – as can be expected from its name – a very big tree. But seeing it cling to impossible rock surfaces that soar up in the sky is impressive nevertheless. Patches of rose bay (Rhododendron kotschi) occasionally made for beautiful colorful accents in a rocky landscape, otherwise dotted with very colorful wildflowers. We also encountered the first of our glacial lake, of which there are fifty-eight permanent ones.

Finally at the end of the day we had to climb the last ridge in order to reach what would be our base camp: the shore besides Lake Bucura, with 88.612 square meters the largest glacial lake in Romania. TomTom was scouting ahead, resulting in ear piercing alarm calls from the Alpine Marmot (Marmota marmota). According to the website of the park board these marmots are the descendants of twenty alpine marmots from the Austrian Alps, introduced in 1973. In earlier years I have seen these non-native species elsewhere in the Fagaras Mountains, so they seem to have a knack for reproducing. Reaching the ridge overlooking lake Bucura we feasted our eyes on the beautiful landscape. Next to the lake is the refuge operated by the Salvamont rescue team. We noticed a collection of around twenty colourful tents grouped next to the lake at the camp side. The courteous professionals of Salvamont are very well trained as we found out the following day: they could complete a particular hike in only two hours where we took… well… most of the day.

The following morning we woke up in our tent next to the beautiful lake, which surface was only occasionally disturbed by fish leaping at tasty insects. I woke up very early, due to TomTom barking and growling ferociously. We seemed to have adopted her, or more likely the other way around. Even though she was using her feminine skills in persuading the other campers to give her food, she kept returning to us and spent the night curled up as a furry ball in front of our tent. This morning she didn‘t particularly approve of a shepherd who was passing by our tent, handholding an axe to gather some firewood at the Salvamont refuge. There is a good girl!

Along the other side of the lake there were cows grazing on the alpine pastures, their bells alerting the shepherds to their whereabouts. Wait a second... national park & wilderness area + grazing?! Traditional grazing is still practised in parts of the national park, as without it many alpine plants would be displaced with high grass and lower species diversity. Overgrazing however, is also something to take into account and they try to monitor this balance carefully. Freshly boiled milk and yoghurt was a greatly appreciated enhancement of our diet though!

This day we were going to climb the highest peak in Retezat National Park: Peleaga at 2509 meters. Parts of the hike were very steep, but doable since we left most of our baggage and other gear behind at the campsite. Halfway up the peak I spotted a species that I was already hoping to encounter on this trip: chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra). Three of them where gazing back at us with some degree of anxiety, due to TomTom having spotted them as well. Luckily they were far off and they descended gracefully along almost vertical rock slopes.

After around two hours of climbing we reached the peak. Even though during the hike itself we only met a handful of people, the peak on the other hand seemed kind of crowded, with hikers approaching from three different sides and apparently having all started at the same time. I’m proud to enounce we were the first, even though that changes nothing to the spectacular sights and sudden mobile coverage everyone enjoyed. Still, all is relative, especially after you consider the area of Retezat of 38.318 hectares, the 17000 visitors a year and compare this with one of the nature reserves in the Netherlands where I work: 1800 hectares and around one million visitors a year.

Gazing down at the glacial lakes that dotted the valleys between the peaks we all decided we did enough work for the day and descended towards a small glacial lake close to Bucura to relax for the remainder of the afternoon. On the way down we talked about our hike for the next day, which was supposed to involve climbing to another peak before descending into the valley. We all agreed that the prospect of going up, going down, going up again, going down, going up one more time and finally reaching our final descent didn’t appeal to us after all. This was a very welcoming conclusion to our legs and general state of mind. In fact, in hindsight it was actually a life defining moment when we realised we where not there for the peaks, but for the views. Views, that are enjoyed not necessarily on peaks… Why is that life defining, one might ask? Well, I just deleted climbing Mount Everest and Kilimanjaro from my to-do list, meaning I can do lots of other fun stuff instead. Downwards it was then…

The next day we left our camp site at Bucura and enjoyed the third day of hiking on a leisurely pace along the trail we came up at. There was still much old and new to enjoy, including spotted nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes), which kept flying in front of us in the pine forest. Back in Cârnic we were welcomed by the camping owners and by their very hospitable Hungarian guests, which brought along juicy melon from home. Here we reached the end of our hike and you the reader, the end of this tale. This meant saying goodbye to TomTom, although we were greatly tempted to smuggle her passed the grim looking border guards at OTP airport and take her with us back home. Common sense prevailed after all, even though it was a bit heart breaking to see her run along with our car while we were driving off again. In just three days time we really got attached to her and that seemed to be mutual (as you notice, I’m not into the often old fashioned believes of ethology). I’m very sure she is still enjoying the views in Retezat and adopting groups of hikers in return for some food and companionship.

TomTom and the many wonders of Retezat National Park are a good reason to return one day and enjoy some of Europe’s rare wilderness. This truly is one of Europe’s last remaining wildernesses and a very inspirational place on our planet. If you are inspired as well, please check out the websites of Pan Parks or Retezat National Park.

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