Day: 200 & 201
Towns / Cities Visited: 131
Countries Visited: 21
Steps Taken Today: 39,343
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,326,538
Our two-hundredth day saw us spending our time simply travelling back to mainland Europe to continue our adventures in countries where English is not the language of choice. As such, I will just give you the brief overview of the happenings before moving on to much more fascinating tales. Our day began with the always appreciated hotel breakfast spread, before we checked out and made the short walk to Luton Airport. Why were we at this smaller and more out of the way of England’s aviation hubs? Because we were to take a budget flight to a tiny, obscure airport in Slovakia; Poprad. A rather painless flight later and we were arriving at our destination with little hassle, except for the usual sore legs that come from being crushed into tiny seats when you’re nearly six foot tall. All the pain was washed away though, as we stepped down from the plane, and were gifted the insanely picturesque view before us. Our singular plane sat alone on the tarmac, with the High Tatras rising up in the background, dusted lightly with snow and being caressed lightly by the few fluffy white clouds that bobbed lazily across the otherwise perfectly blue sky.
A short taxi ride delivered us to our accommodation, but it was at this point that our so far trouble-less day faltered slightly. As is the scourge of so many hostels worldwide, ours was having problems with bed bugs and the main house was closed for fumigating. Luckily, as there were not many guests at this time of year, they had managed to fit us into a seperate cabin with a group of three guys, and as we had been booked into a shared dorm anyway, this was hardly much different. Entering our accommodation for the next two nights we were dismayed to see that the double bed downstairs had already been claimed with bags, and thus we would have to sleep up in the loft area with the other two guys, with one bed being directly below a skylight with no curtain. Sigh.
Trying to stay positive, we made a quick jaunt over to the supermarket and picked up supplies to scrounge together a meal in the small kitchenette, along with some drinks to help us relax. It was soon after, as my partner popped back to the shops to buy a couple more drinks, and I stood vigilantly stirring the sauce for our pasta, that the power decided to cut out for the entire cabin. After about an hour of the hostel owner trying to figure out which switch board the power for our abode was connected to, light and heat were restored and we finally got to sit down to our meal, just in time for our three roommates to arrive back. The friendly group of statesiders tumbled in, and immediately took it upon themselves to surrender the double bed to us, upon seeing that we were a couple; a kind gesture given that it was the best bed in the place, and an action that was much appreciated by us. We also learnt at this point that they were headed on the very same adventure as us the following day, and thus the entire cabin hunkered down into bed before too long.
We arose early the next day, downing the pastries and yoghurt we had bought for breakfast, cobbling together a packed lunch, and donning our hiking gear, before, along with our roommates, heading out to the bus stop. An easy half hour trip saw us arrive in the tiny town of Hrabušice, just within the embrace of the Slovak Paradise National Park. A little googling, and a solid attempt at reading the area map near the bus stop, saw us heading off down the road in the direction of our destination. You see, whilst looking into hiking in the area during the planning stage of our trip, we had come across what is thought to be one of the most beautiful hikes in the country, the Suchá Belá Gorge Hike, and it was towards this we were pointed.
As we walked along the road, we were gifted with a continuous view of the High Tatras once again, rising up from the horizon, while a few stray highland cattle grazed lazily in the paddocks beside us. It really is breathtaking the natural beauty of this part of the world.
Eventually, we made it to Podlesok, the even tinier town at the entrance of the gorge, which is essentially just a couple of cafés, and a caravan park. Paying the entrance fee into this maintained area of the national park, it was finally time to begin the hike. It starts out simply enough, and the trail is well marked, as you pick your way along the white pebbles which give this gorge its name. Suchá Belá Gorge translates roughly to ‘Dry White Gorge’ in the local tongue. The towering trees with their lush green foliage provided shade from the near noon heat of the cloudless day, and the small trickle of river mixing with gentle birdsong provided the soundtrack for our walk. Every now and again, it was necessary to clamber over a stray fallen tree trunk, but otherwise it was generally pretty basic.
As we continued though, we arrived at a few rudimentary ladders, seemingly nailed together each season by the park rangers from fallen trees, in order to provide relatively safe passage over the river, or at rocky escarpments where easy footing was unable to be found unassisted. Our research of the hike had mentioned a few ladders, so we thought nothing of it and had fun stepping across them like we were on some sort of obstacle course.
We continued on, and the terrain grew steeper, with the number of these ladders growing in number exponentially, but eventually it flattened out a little again. As the gorge grew narrower, it felt more and more like we were on some Lord of the Rings based quest than a leisurely hike. Eventually, we rounded a corner we found ourselves faced with something we had not expected; a sharp rocky cliff, probably a good twenty or so metres high blocking our path. So how were we to continue you ask? Well there is one option, and one option alone. It was an option the couple at the base of it were seemingly in a heated debate as whether or not to go for. You see, the only way up to the next part of the hike is by climbing a rather questionable looking metal ladder, slick with spray of the tiny waterfall cascading down the stone, and at such a strange incline that you either have to clamber up with hands and feet, or try and walk upright whilst clinging for dear life onto the metal chain secured to the rock-face. The thing is, if you do choose to climb up and continue, this is the point of no return, as the signage clearly states that from here on out its a one way route; there is no coming down these ladders in reverse.
As we stood at the bottom I couldn’t help but think of every high ropes course I had been forced to do on school camps, where I though to myself ‘When is this actually ever going to help me in real life?’. Well, 12 year old me, apparently that would be now, at age 27, standing at the foot of sheer cliff in a gorge on the other side of the planet. The same fear swept over me now as it did as a child, but as I took a moment to truly consider the root of the fear, I finally came to the realisation that it was never the challenge that scared me, or the heights, it was the fact that the eyes of others were upon me. As an introvert, the judging eyes of others has always been far more terrifying than any other challenge. The three American guys from our cabin stood behind me, as did my partner, and the quarrelling couple, of course. It was then, in that moment, that I did the same thing I did when I went skydiving with my brother a few years back. I took a deep breath, swallowed whatever little saliva had managed to stay in my mouth, wiped the sweat from my palms, and did the only thing I could think to do; take the first step. My foot slid a little on the slippery surface of that first rung, but I steadied myself, white knuckles clinging to the rungs ahead of me, and I took another step, and another, until eventually I was on the metal grate which forms the first landing between the three ladder ascent. Two more bouts of this and I was at the top, weak kneed but triumphant. At this point there was only one thing left to do, turn to my partner and blurt out ‘A few ladders, my arse’.
The hike went forth once more, and as it did so it only became increasingly akin to a level of Donkey Kong, with areas meaning our passage through was only possible by jumping between tiny metal platforms anchored to the rock, or by clinging for dear life to metal chains as you made your way along slick rocks at silly angles, or simply by having to traverse more cliff face metal ladders. I couldn’t help but think, as much fun as we were having with our impromptu obstacle course, that there was no way in hell this walk would pass an OH&S evaluation in Australia.
Despite all of the physical challenges, it is the immense beauty which surrounded us which made the quiet moments in between truly magical. It is no surprise as to why this national park has been dubbed Slovak Paradise. From the natural caves in the rocks which make you feel like if a hobbit or an elf were to pop their head out and invite you in for tea it wouldn’t really be that strange, to the tiny translucent mushrooms which sprout proudly from amongst the moss, paradise is to be found just about everywhere you look here.
Eventually the track evens out to a steady incline free of obstacles, and it was here we took the opportunity to perch ourselves, legs dangling, on yet another fallen tree, and ate our lunch amongst the sounds of nature. As we finally reached the top of the track and the picnic area there, we looked back to be given a stunning view over just how high we’d climbed in the past two hours. Another quick break, and we were soon heading back down the paved road which leads back down parallel to the gorge. To our disappointment, the bike stall which stands here was not open to hire bikes from to ride back down, despite the sign saying that, by all intents and purposes, it should be open at that time, and thus we were left to our feet once more. The trek down, unsurprisingly, was quick and painless, and soon we were plonking ourselves back down at the bus stop exhausted but somehow equally energised by our adventure.
Our night was spent happily chowing down on a well-earned, home cooked risotto, and chatting with our roommates over drinks about travelling, and encouraging them to visit Bosnia as they move across into Eastern Europe. Exhausted, and relatively drunk, we eventually collapsed into bed. Luckily tomorrow was to be another travel day, so a residual hangover was unlikely to hinder our plans greatly.
As I lay in bed, as often happens in the quiet, inebriated night minds of people with depression, I though, rather melancholically about my self image. I have, for the most part, always teetered on the heavier end of the scales. Not only have I always found comfort in food emotionally, but cooking and eating have always bought me joy, hence my career choice of chef being solidified in my brain at the age of eight. Of course, there have been times where dieting has found me shed ten kilos here and twenty kilos there, but in the end I usually find myself back where I was. Thats not to say I’m obese, and I’m sure my broad shoulders and hips throw out BMI readings to some degree, but I am far from being a waif. This trip for example, with its smorgasbord of new and exciting treats to sample, has found my jeans grow a little tighter, despite the daily step count almost constantly flying past 10,000.
In times when, like so many other women, I feel like perhaps there is a little too much of me to love, I often come to despise the shell around my gentle soul. I often dislike my shape; my thick, cellulite dappled thighs that mean the inseam of jeans rarely last longer than six months; my calf muscles that bulge like a cyclist despite my lack of bicycle; my less than toned arms that would probably feel right at home in a tuck shop; and my shoulders with a width that means that despite being tall, I will likely never be able to reach any level of swan-like elegance. Still, as I reflected on the day’s adventure, for the first time in a long time, I chose to not apologise to myself for my shape. You see, those thighs and calves carried me safely up each and every one of those ladders; those arms sport strong biceps beneath their jiggling exterior, biceps which held me safely on each of those chains; and those shoulders carried the weight of our backpack when my partners needed a break. I may not be society’s perfect shape, but that does not mean I am not perfectly capable. To those like me, on the days that you find it hard to love yourself, and when the world tells you every reason why your worth is based on your weight, remember, it is possible to be shapely and strong, curvy and courageous, fat and fearless.