The last oasis of freedom (part one)

Written by
Aleksandar Veljković

Living in the dream world
Living in the dream world

I’ve always loved to roam the mountains of eastern Serbia, ever since I was a kid. This vast space of mostly uninhabited wilderness is a sanctuary for all the freedom lovers who want to lose all connections with modern civilization and it’s set of rules, to escape absolute surveilance and endless “do’s and dont’s”. Actually, this is one of the few places in Europe where you still have large chunks of land that are completely out of mobile range, so you can really lose the faintest idea what is happening in the outside world. A world war could start, and you might well not realise it before it’s over!

Drowning in the beauty

It’s not only desolate, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful. That beauty actually comes from the diversity, from the richness of different vistas that you experience there. From the, one and only, grand river Danube and it’s Iron Gate gorge, where the first European civilization sprouted, over the dense forests south of it, largest in Europe, that are hiding some amazing natural works of art in the form of natural stone arches in the river valleys, amazing canyons such as Lazar’s or that of Temštica river, to the endless highland ridges of Stara planina, numerous mountain rivers and lakes, you can just get lost in all this beauty and forget everything about time and schedule. Actually, eastern Serbia is a place where time stands still.

Images from the Iron Gate (Danube)

Many people enter eastern Serbia with an ambition to make a “drive through” for a couple of days on their way to “more attractive” destinations, but end up spending their entire vacation there. It is only when you step into it and sense all that freedom and unspoiled beauty, that you really find a reason to be there. Travellers tend to skip Serbia while making their itineraries, mostly because of the lack of information about it, and the sparse information available actually being mostly prejudice and misinformation. And when you accidentally stumble upon Serbia, you suddenly realise what you’ve been missing all your life!

The depopulation curse

But of all parts of Serbia, it’s eastern part, where the southernmost tip of the Carpathian mountain range lies, is the most mysterious and engaging one. One reason is surely the sorcery and legends of the indigenous Vlach people living there, dating all the way back from the pagan times. Another one is surely the fact that population density in eastern Serbia is almost four times lower than in the rest of the country. That brings us large portions of completely uninhabited land to roam through endlessly, but also some now completely abandoned ghost villages, where elderly people have all died, and their ancestors have all migrated to larger cities, or even abroad.

A typical, jungle like forest of eastern Serbia
A typical, jungle like forest of eastern Serbia

Every year there are less animals to graze on the rich pastures, turning them into shrub with grass often over your bonnet, and lots of almost forgotten forest trails, where you really have to drive carefully in order not to break something on your rig with the vegetation that is threatening to completely swallow them. In some places decades have passed since a trail has last been used, so you’re not even sure was there really a road there before, or not. So eastern Serbia is definitly not for the faint hearted, determined to protect the “precious” paint of their newly acquired 4×4 beast.

But if you enjoy exploring endlessly, trying to find out where some forgotten road might be taking you, not hesitant to use your winch, and also (more often) your chainsaw, driving for days without a chance to resupply or refuel and sleeping in some authentic, desolate wild campspots, it’s the place you’re definitely looking for!

In the forgotten world

My “corona” hideout

From the first days of the big pandemic, when all the represive measures were introduced worldwide, turning the lives of urban people into living hell, eastern Serbia was virtually untouched by it. Serbia has had a curfew for almost two months, but the local population in eastern Serbia simply didn’t care about it. Because life there requires very little contact with authorities. You could meet a police patrol from time to time along the tarmac roads between villages, but once you’re off on gravel, you’ve become completely untouchable – either for the virus, or the authorities. And very soon, out of touch with news entirely.

I was fortunate enough to be living in the forests of eastern Serbia for a while now, so that February/March 2020 that turned the lives of Europeans upside down, found me there. Except for not being able to work as an overlanding guide due to the closed borders, nothing really changed in my life, while the people in towns started living like in concentration camps.

I continued exploring the forests at any time of day and night, picking mushrooms and other fruits of nature, practically providing 50% of my menu right from the ecosystem where I live. That made me realize quicky that there’s actually no need to go to towns more often than once in two weeks, maybe even once a month was perfectly enough. I was just horified about meeting that concentration camp regime, and wanted to experience it as seldom as possible. And was really feeling sorry for the people throughout Europe, having to endure that terror on a daily basis.

Venturing deeper into the wild

As soon as the multi day curfews started, I began my deep wilderness sessions. After all, I am a nomad, and my home is where my rooftop tent is. So when the regime orders people to “stay home”, I am at home, wherever in the wild that may be.

From my winter forest base, there’s only one tarmac road to cross before I enter the grand realm of the Kučaj mountains, the biggest uninhabited territory in Serbia – 50×50 km, it’s 2.500 square kilometres of completely uninhabited mountainous wilderness. No towns, no villages, nothing! Just an occasional hunting lodge or shepperd’s hut here and there. And that is a territory large, and diverse enough to survive WW3 there, without feeling that you’re missing out on anything.

The vast vistas of Kučaj

Beljanica is the highest, as well as coldest part of Kučaj. Sub zero temperatures persist there day and night from December to late March, and the snowfall it receives simply doesn’t melt before spring. That means that Beljanica very quickly becomes impassable in winter, and very questionable how soon we’ll be able to break through it’s snowdrifts in spring. This year it turned out to be impossible even in mid April! In most places the snow had already melted, but northern slopes still had spots with significant snowdrifts that were impossible to cross. The damp, heavy snow in one of them turned out to be so hard, that I’ve ripped my winch rope there! So patience was obviously required, until Beljanica lets us through.

Images from Beljanica in an attempt to drive through the April snow

Right through the heart of Kučaj

When you want to travel further south, towards Stara or Suva planina, or even further, to the mountains around Vlasina lake, the “logical” solution is to take the highway. However, for an overlander that’s not the option. Because, driving right through the heart o Kučaj, traversing it diagonally from the far northwest to the southeast, is one of the richer spiritual experiences that a passionate overlander can have.

Images from Kučaj mountains

There are actually a few variations of the theme. You can either keep a bit more to the west, driving by the Prskalo waterfall and over Valkaluci hunting area towards Velika Brezovica, the 3,5 km wide, largest meadow on Kučaj (and taking the tarmac from there), or choose the less known (but not less beautiful) trail following the marvelous Kločanica river valley, and then continuing through the densest forests of Kučaj to end the journey descending down the 25 km long Radovanska river valley.

So I usually take one of these two drive through options, making countless variations when I’ve got plenty of time, and the weather is perfect. On the way meeting wild boar, deer, rabbits and foxes all the time. The wolves and bears are a bit more careful, and they usually hear me before I see them.

Lazar’s canyon

His majesty - Lazar's canyon
His majesty – Lazar’s canyon

It’s really an incredible, 10 km long, magnificent crack in Earth’s crust on the easternmost side of Kučaj mountains, between the Malinik ridge and Dubašnica highland. And it’s one of my favourite goals when I’m roaming around Kučaj mountains. There are many spectacular scenic viewpoints along the edges of the canyon, but one stands out from the pack – Kovej, where the Mustecić family from Zlot village is fortunate to own the most beautiful part of land. So I simply love being their guest, enjoying their cuisine and hospitality, and taking memorable photographs from their scenic viewpoints.

Images from Lazar’s canyon

The canyon is actually more than viewpoints. If you really want to fully experience it, there’s no other option than to plunge into it’s three branches on foot, in a more or less Indiana Jones style – dodging the snakes, spiders and other creatures that survived there from the ancient past. The canyon is also the home of the longest cave system in Serbia, two best known caves being Vernjikica and the Lazar’s cave, featuring an astonishing 12 km of cave channels (and the exploration isn’t complete yet)! The best overview of all the parts of the canyon one can have from Malinik ridge, which gives you a view strikingly like that you can have in Google Earth.

Holy mountain Rtanj

At the Rtanj peak
At the Rtanj peak

Rtanj, a dominant mountain in the Serbian part of the Carpathian range, is a striking sight from whichever side you view it. Due to being surrounded by deep, wide valleys from the north and south, it’s awe inspiring and truly huge, featuring almost a perfect pyramid shape of it’s highest peak, Šiljak. The main star of many sunset photos, this mountain is probably the most controversial place in eastern Serbia, claimed to host supernatural events, even being connected to aliens, and claims that it’s actually the largest pyramid built in ancient times on Earth.

Images from Rtanj

You can’t drive all the way to the top of Rtanj, for at least two reasons:
1) It’s too risky.
2) The central part of Rtanj ridge is a strictly protected area, so you’re not allowed to, even if you’re crazy enough to try.
But driving around in the Rtanj area, whichever side you approach it from, is a really uplifting experience. Great wild campspots with great views exist, or you can discover some well hidden, deep forest camps – the choice is yours. You can visit the charismatic village Vrmdža or the lake bearing the same name, or maybe the Seselac cave, and some of the off-grid, free living communities based around these places.

Slemen mountain

As we drive further southeast with the aim to reach Stara planina, right after Rtanj comes Slemen mountain, a solitary, mild sloped, intensely forested, solid chunk of land, with an attractive main ridge featuring great scenic views, and places to camp with the sun setting behind Rtanj in the west. Or you can turn towareds the east, looking at the impressive wall of Tupižnica mountain, another solitary “island”, with an even more dramatic ridge, featuring a 10 km long rocky wall on it’s western side.

Around Slemen mountain

Slemen is one of the places where I have measured the cleanest air in eastern Serbia, being practically free of any PM particles. It’s rich forests feature all kinds of deciduous or coniferous trees, and if you try to explore the area north of it, between Milušinac and Zubetinac villages, you might be in for more adventure than you can actually take. There is actually a way to connect these two villages over the Visoki Trap pass (connecting Slemen and Krstatac mountains). But be ready for a lot of scratching, occasional mud, some possible winching if you’re not careful, and several hours of pushing through an enchanting, peopleless jungle, with some really awe inspiring oak and beech trees. This is one of the places in Serbia where you can be sure that nobody will find you if you hide!

Preparing for the symphony of Stara planina

As I prepare to enter the realm of Stara planina (which can consume any amount of time I’m ready to devote to it), there are two more places worth visiting before I reach Knjaževac town, the key resupplying and refueling spot on the way to Stara planina.

The western wall of Tupižnica mountain
The western wall of Tupižnica mountain

Tupižnica mountain is actually a slight detour towards the north, but is well worth getting another spectacular sunset and night on it. The mountain is really big, but most of it is completely overgrown with vegetation. So much overgrown, that it actually can’t be successfully crossed by a vehicle, and even if you cross it on foot, prepare for a fierce fight with thorns and bushes.

Actually the only rational way to reach it is taking the semi-tarmac road to the highest peak, where several telecom antennas have been built. Just before the antennas, a gravel road parts to the northwest, eventually reaching several meadows and passing right by the spectacular western stone wall. This is the place to park your car and enjoy an unforgettable hike along the stony ridge, either southwards towards the peak (it’s really not far, and the trail is marked, or towards the wild north end. If you search around the meadow you’ll also discover quite a spectacular cave. But beware – it’s dangerous to attempt climbing down if you don’t have climbing gear!

Images from Tupižnica

If we haven’t decided to spend a night on Tupižnica, we can just roll on a serene gravel road towards the village of Stogazovac, and just before we reach the village make a stop to enjoy a unique short rocky canyon by the name of Ždrelo, which hides a church and a really attractive scenic viewpoint on it’s cliffs.

Images from the Ždrelo gorge

And what about Stara planina? Well that is a long story that cannot be cut short. Therefore, I’m leaving it for part two of The last oasis of freedom!

One thought on “The last oasis of freedom (part one)”

  1. Hi Aleksandar,

    Such a great and detailed report! Pictures are breathtaking! I’ve recently also read your article about the difference between offroading and overlanding – I cannot agree more! I love terrain vehicles in general but mostly because of their ability to take you further and allow you to explore territories that standard passenger cars cannot reach. Looking forward to reading part two!

    Kind regards,
    Marko Stanisavljević

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