The Adventure Journals

Romania: A Pretty Austere Dream

I can’t recall a single holiday that hasn’t involved mountains. Whilst I have never been a climber, I am a resolute walker, hiker and trekker and have a slow-burning commitment to seek out new-to-me mountains at every opportunity. I was never interested in ticking off firsts, bagging summits, or achieving anything remarkable in the mountains. My interest has simply been to be there and see. To notice. To embrace quietness and solitude in nature.

I was a nearly a teenager, when I first dreamed of going to Romania. Until that point my only reference point for this large and unknown country were the harrowing images of abandoned children in dark, overfull orphanages that perennially filled the news in the 90s. That changed the day I picked up a copy of National Geographic in a waiting room. Immediately, I fell in love with the wild horses on the Eurasian Steppe, and the mystique of the Carpathians Mountains.

From that moment, Romania never left me, and despite being lucky to travel the world, I never made it there. Romania became a ‘one day’ place that sat towards the very top of my travel wish list. Where other people position Bhutan or Tibet, I placed this large and very reachable south-eastern European country. A pretty austere dream. It was a surreal moment when I stepped from the plane onto the tarmac at Timisoara airport on April 1st 2017, ready for two weeks of exploring the Carpathian Mountains. For once, I had taken the decision to do very little planning - we would keep it simple. Fly in to the west and out of the east two weeks later.  In the time available we would just see what unfolds. I only had one real objective: to visit on foot the huge wilderness, rewilding area in the Tarcu-mic mountains.

It is thought that the southern Carpathian wilderness arc is the largest of its kind south of the Arctic Circle. It covers more than 1 million hectares of now-protected land. The area is home to wolves, brown bear, Eurasian lynx, wild cat, chamois and more besides.

Whilst I might have hoped to catch sight of any of these, my real objective was different. I wanted to see the European Bison. Since 2012, plans were afoot to reintroduce this previously extinct, in the wild species back to its rightful position. The plan was to build a free-roaming and self-sustaining population that would prove to be a keystone to further and deeper habitat restoration and rewilding. In 2014, the first individuals were released into the Tarcu Mountains, and now in 2017 there are approximately 30 of these great animals making a new life in this largely unvisited part of the world.

After a day of gathering supplies we set off for the Tarcu. In Armenis, a guide collected us, took us first to a tiny but colourful bison visitor centre, and then up into the mountains. On the way we stopped in a rustic village, Fenes, to nosy at the bison research station and to pick up a life-saving food package from a local family, that we would somehow stretch out to last a week rather than the two days it was intended.

On Bison Hillock, our guide introduced us to the art and subtlety of tracking. We learnt how to walk differently with a view to seeing, and not to getting anywhere in particular. We discussed what it means to develop situational awareness. We identified different types of scat, searched for tracks and made sense of how broken branches can reveal direction of bison travel. For the first day and a half we didn’t travel much distance at all. My pack was the heaviest I have ever carried, and as we now discovered, tracking requires a different pace. I wasn’t going to see anything at all if I didn’t change my approach.

We finally found rhythm; I was beginning to smell them on the breeze. Their musky odour coming in wafts through the valley. I was gleeful at the discovery of otter tracks and my whole body shivered with excitement when we came across wolf scat. At night, we made fire and talked about the political issues around rewilding. The myths. The problems. The definitions.

It seemed my tracking senses were definitely improving, and yet I had not seen a single bison. And now, left alone by the guide it seemed our chances were slipping away.  With this acceptance, we freed ourselves from expectation and continued our journey of walking, noticing and simply being in this unexplored landscape. We built new fires in new places every night. I toasted local cheese and the sweetest red peppers over the flames; we embraced truly wild living. Every night we diligently hung our food in the trees away from our tent (an adventure I never thought I’d be having outside of North America), sipped the finest local plum schnapps, and lay in silence hoping to hear wolves howl.

The weather was difficult for much of our week in the Tarcu. The rain looked set for days. My situational awareness was now so well-tuned that I could tell by the tone of the rain that fog was closing in. And not just that. I woke Neil “there are wild boar outside! Listen!”. So we listened, and decided to peek outside of the tent door. We might need something to scare them off. I sat with bated breath as he worked out how far they were from us.

“Oh my god, BISON!” came the whispered reply. My heart leapt. Could they really be here on our last day in this area? I was overjoyed, all sadness forgotten. As I scrabbled to free myself from my bag, I made so much noise that the herd of perhaps 8-10 bison, stopped grazing and looked towards our tent. Their matriarch let out warm billows of air from her nostrils. I was terrified but in love. For the longest time we sat watching them, watching us until they moved on. I was desperate for them to stay, and as soon as they had moved from sight we packed up quickly, with a view to tracking them from a distance as they roamed.

But despite only having a 15 minute head start, we lost their track. The rain was obliterating the evidence and the breeze carrying their scent in all directions until there was nothing left. We walked in all possible directions for two hours, but with each minute I could feel them moving away. Were they ghosts? How could they disappear like this?

I never saw them again.

Find out more about Ruth on her website and check out her instagram for more words and images.

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