The wild heart of Albania

LWA Ansprechpartnerin Naturschutz, Susanne Blech © Land Water AdventuresA post by Susanne Blech

Susanne is Land Water Adventures' contact person for nature conservation, expert for the environment and wilderness, guide for whitewater and expedition style, friendly, changing encyclopedia of nature and does not leave her tent without coffee.

The protection and preservation of wild landscapes is her passion and the project Albania within Land Water Adventures is a very personal concern for her. In August 2019 Susanne was on the spot, at the wild heart of Albania and writes down her impressions here.

More information about Susanne here.

He bends down deeply to push the hand plough into the sun-dried, torn earth. A lean cow stands stoically next to him in the leather harness. A shepherd rides past leisurely on a donkey. It is noon and the high August sun burns relentlessly down on the farmer with his draught animal in the cloudless sky. Above the scenery lies a leaden heat and a great calm, enveloped in the never-ending, scraping sound of the cicadas. In the background, behind high piled yellow haystacks, a bright turquoise band winds its way through the deeply incised valley. Some impressions on the upper reaches of the Vjosa suddenly leave behind the feeling that time has stood still here in southeastern Albania, not far from the Greek border.

Blick auf die Vjosa © Land Water Adventures

Save the Blue heart of Europe. Save Vjosa. Die Kampagne zur Rettung der Balkanflüsse vor dem übermäßigen Verbau mit Staudämmen hat auch das Ziel, diesen besonderen Fluss zum ersten Wildfluss-Nationalpark zu machen. Ein majestätischer Strom von 270 km Länge mit noch unverbautem Lauf,  der frei mäandrierend von seinem Ursprung in Griechenland an der albanischen Küste in die Adria mündet. Es ist ein wilder Strom mit hoher Wasserqualität, wie es sie in Europa kaum noch gibt. Und doch ist auch die Vjosa von der Zerschneidung durch Staudämme zum Zweck der Energiegewinnung bedroht. Unterhalb der Stadt Tepelena wird mit Unterbrechungen seit 2007 an einem Kraftwerk gebaut. Die erzeugte Energie ist für den Export bestimmt. Die Proteste gegen den Staudammboom halten unvermindert an. Denn die Vjosa ist nicht nur ein Ökosystem von unschätzbarem Wert, sondern auch ein Stück weit kulturelles Erbe Albaniens.

Im März 2021 erschien ein neuer, dokumentarischer Kurzfilm „Vjosa Forever“, der von Patagonia produziert wurde und internationale Aufmerksamkeit auf das Projekt des ersten Wildfluss-Nationalparks Europas sowie die drohende Umweltzerstörung lenken möchte.

The Vjosa still has it, the character of an untamed river. And the idea of travelling in this special place with a group of nature-loving Packrafters, perhaps making a contribution to its preservation through sustainable travel, talking to the local people and hiking through the Albanian mountains has taken on more and more form. In August we went on an exploratory tour: Arriving at the headwaters of the Vjosa, a landscape spreads out in front of me that could hardly be more picturesque. Yes, this great river has the potential to be a national park. The first Wild River National Park.

Die Vjosa © Land Water Adventures

Heavily armoured beetles crash noisily through the air at low altitude, so that you suddenly duck. A praying mantis hangs motionless and well camouflaged in the high grass of the embankment, while swarms of swallows draw fleeting patterns in the blue sky. Along the Vjosa the heart of nature seems to beat strongly. What is perhaps not known to many, also in Albania a kind of Everyman's Right applies and one may bivouac in the free nature. A larger invitation can hardly be pronounced by the country for Packrafters.

Selbst im August ist die Strömung der Vjosa stark und ihr klares Wasser ist kalt. Sie trägt in sich die lange Strecke von ihrer hochgelegenen Quelle im griechischen Pindosgebirge. Viele Passagen erfordern Konzentration, die Fähigkeit den Fluss zu lesen und den richtigen Paddelschlag vor dem nächsten Prallhang zu setzen, doch es gibt auch immer wieder Abschnitte, die dazu einladen, sich treiben zu lassen. Weiße Kiesbänke locken zwischen canyonartigen Steilwänden für eine Pause ans Ufer. Es ist eine Tour für wildwasseraffine Landschaftsgenießer.

Kaffee mit Aussicht auf die albanische Vjosa © Land Water Adventures

In the numerous small cafés on the roadside, men of all ages sit and curiously watch passers-by. A lamb spits on a barbecue. Or is it a goat? Both are traditionally served with a fresh salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. Albanian beer is also served. Also some wineries line the fertile river terraces and produce the one or other good drop. In a small grocery store I get into conversation with the son of the shopkeeper, who now lives in England. He tells me that after the dam was built above the Lengarica Gorge, a tributary of the Vjosa, fewer fish were fished than before. I also learn a lot about the persistent corruption in the country, the gaps in the education system and that people have not learnt to work for something like the protection of nature. The fact that nature conservation is still in its infancy is also shown by the scattered garbage collections on the outskirts of the villages. Every flood takes a turn downstream. Plastic shreds high up in the treetops on the bank impressively mark the water levels that can be expected here at other times of the year.

Plastikfetzen am Ufer der Vjosa © Land Water Adventures

Beni and his wife Dona try to give their guests the idea that plastic has nothing to do within nature. At their "Albturist" they run a small but cosy camping site in the Vjosa valley and offer rafting tours in summer. With a lot of love for detail Dona creates something new out of something that has been left lying still and creates a place to feel good with her warm, hospitable nature.

Camping Albturist Albanien © Land Water Adventures
The little oasis of well-being Albturist
Beni and his friends are good partners for route planning.

When the sun has set, a pleasantly cool breeze expels the heat of the day. There is always a wind blowing in the Vjosa valley. The campfire crackles. Hungry the flames lick at the faded driftwood. Only a few points of light reveal the scattered dwellings. Over the sparsely populated valley, the Milky Way spans at night in a large arc, shining brightly. A long, powerful howling sounds down from the wooded, night-black mountain slope and breaks the nightly chirping of the crickets. The dogs in the surrounding settlements react with continuous barking. It is quite possible that it is a wolf they want to drive away. The Vjosa runs south of one of the largest forest areas in Albania, the Hotova-Dangell National Park.

Im Hochland Albanies unterwegs © Land Water Adventures

The exploration tour takes me from Vjosa further inland. The mountainous backcountry, through which only a few roads lead, of which even less are asphalted, is dry and barren. Untiring flocks of sheep and goats push back the young green on the pastures and uncover the mute heirs Enver Hoxhas, the countless concrete bunkers that the communist autocrat had built in his last years. The mountain forests of oak, pine and pine trees, typical of the region, provide shade. Where they stand in dense groups, their resinous scent hangs in the air and invites you to take a deep breath.

It is this special mixture of picturesque landscapes, untamed rivers, remote mountain villages and hospitable people that makes the southeast of Albania an unforgettable experience.

Susanne beim Genuss der albanischen Gastfreundschaft © Land Water Adventures
The author enjoys the enterprising Albanian hospitality in the still rather inaccessible mountainous hinterland. But she didn't want to exchange her sunglasses for food.

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