THE NAME OF CAPE EMINE (Bulgaria) has Arabic origin. It means “fearless and courageous”.
Ever since I start thinking of adventures the idea to cross Bulgaria from West to East popped up in my head. This route required trekking on the back of Mt. Stara Planina for 600+ km, climbing of 100+ peaks, and to accumulate denivelation of 20k+ m. To make things even more complicated, at the central part of the mountain 279 days a year are dominated by fogs and storms with winds often exceeding 100km/h. Along the course, there are only handful mountain refuges and water fountains, giving limited opportunity to refill. My idea was to do this adventure alone because I had only 17 days to completed it and I feared, if I take anyone with me, I will be slowed down and my chances for success will be near zero.
In the early morning of Aug 1st, 2015 armed with a big smile on the face, backpack, tent, trekking gear, sufficient food for two days, camera, lot of positive energy I started my journey from Kom Peak (2016m). My trusty best friend Mitko came to escort me for the first 40~45km to make sure the hungry adventurer was kicking off well.
From Kom Peak I took two small pebbles. The first one to throw into the Black Sea at Cape Emine, and the second to keep as memory.
Smooth beginning is what I expected. Instead just few km down from Kom Peak we were lost. My GPS unit sent us into wrong direction. Returning to the right track required steep climb and fighting with the dense bush. From there we could see how a girl who seems to have similar course was surpassing us, because she avoid the mistake we did. The sun was already burning and that event made me realize navigation will be much more challenging than I initially anticipated. Based on quick estimation we were 1.5 hours behind the initial schedule. Apparently not the most brilliant start. Anyway, deeper concentration and I still might be able to spot some of the trail marks to arrive at Cape Emine on time.
In the late afternoon we caught up on the girl. Ani was a solo traveler who wanted to walk along the “Kom - Emine” trail as well. Her plan was NOT to have a plan and just to complete as much as she could. We invited her to trek with us till we find a place for camping. Ani didn’t have any map and I wanted to help her. Regardless of the mistake from the morning, I was still confident in my navigational skills.
My GPS notified me we had about 3.5km left to arrive at the camp location when we met a guy in early 30’s. Tzetzo was a theater artist who had an unsuccessful “Kom - Emine” attempt previous year and was fully committed to make it this time. I could read in his eyes that failure was not an option. I offered Tzetzo to camp with us as well. That day despite different pace and motivation Mitko, Ani, Tzetzo and I completed the first leg (43km) of the trail. Those two strangers who joined me seemed to experience numb legs and few blisters on their feet already. I start to have doubts, if they could sustain their endurance for the future as well. This is why at that moment I had no intention of building any group whatsoever.
What is the price of 1gr weight in the backpack?
On the 2nd day I woke up early and my head was full of thoughts. Maybe I have taken too many things with me and I should use the last chance to optimize the weight of my backpack. Simple math 600 km x avg.1000 steps/km x 1g = 600 kg. Good! Now multiply this by 1000 to get how much I can cut, if I remove only 1 kg of my luggage. Yeah, I know there must be some smart dude who might read this and comment that all this weight will be lifted not at once. Sure! But still it requires effort and calories. Nothing comes for free. So, it was an easy decision to send my tripod and few more items contributing to 1.5kg of total weight. Tzetzo and Ani also used Mitko to send home 4+kg.
Every morning I spent about 1.5hours for preparation. Majority of the time I filled placing plasters on my feet as protection from what was about to come during the day. Walking 5~10km was one thing. But doing it for 35~40km was completely different story, especially if I had to endure all this for multiple days.
Learn the secret of raspberry wine
Without been affected by my concerns about Ani & Tzetzo's endurance, I continued trekking with them. After all, we had so much fun together. Like the case of our arrival at Trastenaya refuge, when we met Olya. She was the manager who showed us her local raspberry plantation and share some insights about wine making. Not sure, if it was due the numerous jokes Tzetzo was making or the raspberry wine was kicking off already, but all of us were laughing all the time.
Time with my new friends was flying and suddenly we reached the 100km mark since the starting point. I was impressed how untrained people can adapt so fast to the challenges the tail offered.
In average we walked 40km per day crossing countless valleys, rivers, and mountain peaks.
The end of the 3rd day caught us at Leskova refuge where a giant mountain dog jump in front of me. I was thinking this was it! We were gone! That dog was perhaps 70+ kg, full of muscles, big teeth and deep bark like a thunder storm. Really frightening. However, the old lady who was taking care of the refuge gave the dog a signal, and suddenly we became friends.
Big part of Kom-Emine trail was immensely scenic…
...but also brought us to deep forests. Especially when was getting dark majority of the noises sounded like coming from a roaring monster. Sure, there must have been bears, wolfs, and other predators, but there is nothing more powerful than the human imagination. Anyway, we only saw the presence of wild boars, deer, and rabbits.
Our arrival at Vitinya pass was everything but pleasant. We had walked 12+ hours and with horror discovered we had only 2 Korean ramyon soups left and there were no opportunities to purchase any kind of food. In general, that kind of endurance trekking demanded lot of calories from our bodies. We were sentenced to starve that night.
Thankfully the security guard Marin, who introduced himself as the last communist of Vitinya pass, offered us all the food his wife prepared for his shift. To him we were his kids and he insisted to accept his help. We were saved!
Tzetzo, Ani and I were about half day behind my schedule, but I decided to give them a chance and continued on the trail together. I feared they might get lost without me and my GPS map.
On the way to Chavdar refuge we stumbled upon Temenuzhka and Vesko. They have travelled for couple of days and got lost. Without a map and compass they faced massive difficulty finding the way to continue. Thank God they have met us! As it often happens in life the right path was just 100m from them, but having too much stress they were unable to see it. I gave them water and suggested to bring them to the nearest refuge. One thing I had put in my bucket list was to safe a stranger. And there you go. I had perfect chance. Perhaps, they could have done it without my help, but let's say i brought them faster back on the trail. Other item in that list was to be disconnected for two weeks from internet and without a phone. Obviously I should have thought carefully what I wished for. Since that moment for some reason my phone refused recognizing my finger print and I was unable to use it. All my tries to log in went in the vain. Consequently, my family, girlfriend, close friends as well as former colleagues worried a lot that I was totally disconnected. Here Tzetzo and Ani helped me with their phones.
Face to face with the wild horses of the mountain
In the Bulgarian mountains especially in “Stara Planina” there a plenty of semi wild horses. It made me try to imagine what must have been exploring in the Wild Wild West when the first scouts traveled America.
Our delay compared to my initial schedule grew to 3/4 day.
45km Chase by a mountain storm
To wake up at 4:30am it became kind of routine. Quick refill with food & water and we hit the road.
Those clouds, those clouds! I had some bad feeling. Even the storm alarm on my watch was warning of air pressure significant drop or in other words upcoming rain. Around 11:00 we have experienced the first rain for about 20min. The dark clouds followed us all day long. While climbing the last Peak (Vezhen) the storm alarm on my watch went insane. Then the massive thunder sound came from NE. We have packed as fast as we could our walking sticks that could draw any lightning, and continue up to the peak in what later will be known in the history as “thunder pace” (2.0x of our normal pace). Nobody was talking. We were just pushing faster and faster to escape that storm. Vezhen was a peak with 2198m that was very flat on its top. Near the summit Tzetzo, Ani and I noticed our way was blocked by a herd of wild horses. As if by a command and the herd broke up into a kind of cordon to let us pass through.
We were descending for long time. Legs start to fill numb. It was already 20:00. The sun gradually retreated and darkness was the new king in the mountain. We were forced to use our headlamps to be able to continue. Nobody was talking again. Our trail brought us in a forest that was totally wet by the rain we managed to escape earlier that day. Even though, there was lot of water dripping from the threes and made us wet. Finally, around 21:30 we arrived at Echo refuge. That day we managed to achieve 45km and to compensate the delay from my initial schedule. Ani was about to cry, but she didn’t. Tzetzo and I decide to reward her by asking the refuge managers to serve Ani her favorite dish – tarator soup. Tzetzo wanted to make her feel more comfortable and was really taking good care of her. That night I realized walking 600km to Cape Emine is a big challenge, but Ani & Tzetzo will do the impossible and we will arrive on time.
After the storm comes the sun!
After the unthinkable long walk, I suggested late morning (8:00am) departure as a reward. Been awake since the break of the day I was relaxing in the refuge’s kitchen where I ran into Plamen. He is a local mountain hero among his friends. Plamen used any opportunity to be in the wild. Usually he walked super light with less than 5kg backpacks that allowed him to maintain remarkable high pace. And this scared his friends who were unable to catch up with him. As a result, he often wandered in the mountain completely alone. We had an interesting discussion about the trails in the region and he shared valuable tips for what I should expect in the next 2-3 days and where to find water. It was matter of time to see, if i had remembered correctly everything Plamen instructed.
Some part of the trail btw. Echo and Kozyastena refuges were entirely covered by thick fern. But you never know what might jump out of the bush – a snake, a wild boar or a smiling theater artist.
Plenty of flowers everywhere. Even though Ani proved herself as tough girl, she was still shy in front of the camera.
We were blessed to walk along such a scenic place.
Without much notice the 200km mark was waiting for us.
Have fun on abandoned rooftop building
It’s a bit tricky how to use a completely manual camera for a novice. However, Tzetzo managed to snap decent picture of me in front of “Orlovo gnezdo” shelter.
Just 2-3km from there we found an abandon building. On its rooftop two chairs were waiting for us. Great place to enjoy a short break. “Kom-Emine” flet like journey inside me. The hardship I had to battle daily, made me appreciate life more. Laughter, joy and hope were my best friends even in the face of the darkest storm or steepest slope. Great confidence, but could I still have make it on time?!
Singing to the mountain
Ever since i remember myself I love the mountains and try to protect them. While trying to share my philosophy with Tzetzo, he took things seriously. With a face towards Golyam Kupen peak he expressed his respect with a song.
Relaxing at the top of Golyam Kupen peak and falling in love with the mountain views. On the back on the horizon was TV tower at Botev peak to spot. Just a stone throw away from it, was Botev” shelter – our final destination for the day.
Hristo was the manager of the “Botev” shelter. Some people know him as harsh person and unwelcoming. However, after having repaired his laptop he treated us like dear friends. Hot bean soup and lots of beer landed on our table.
At the shelter, we met some strangers with whom we sang lots of Bulgarian songs despite the fact they had smashed us in board games dozen times earlier.
Unexpected meeting with friends
The next morning, I woke up around 5am to prepare for the day. Once entered the living room, I was greeted by the smiling face of my friend Maya. It turned out she was pacer for her friend Bozho who was ultramarathon runner and this was his attempt to cross the country for 5 days.
Later Bozho will be known as the first person to complete successfully Kom-Emine track for 5 days & 10 hours. Absolutely remarkable achievement.
On top of Botev Peak there were several buildings. A space-rocket-looking thing was a TV/Radio tower that covers 70% of the Bulgarian territory with signal. There were also several military buildings and a weather station.
We met Loren, who worked as a meteorologist and shared with us insights about weather forecasting. It turned out on Mt. Stara Planina 279 days a year were overlaid by fogs and storms. We were super lucky to have such a sunny day at that moment, but the wind from N start picking up again.
Avoid judging people based on their look
Encountering Ukrainian cyclist. Initially I was fooled by his chubby body figure, but it turned out he was riding for more than 1000km. Great endurance!
Tazha mountain refuge 2nd manager with a wooden leg who believed that only good should be done to others. Time was flying super-fast again.
There were also exceptionally difficult times. Like when my ankle got swollen. Fortunately, this was the end of that day and we decided to camp in the middle of the forest. Just 20m down the trail we noticed a table with a big B/W TV from the 60’s on its top. Seems somebody wanted to feel like at home when in the mountain.
At Republica pass we met various people, like Dani and Acho who were crossing the mountain by bikes. There was also Misho. His strategy was to be super light and we were a bit jealous because of his 5kg backpack. My leg was still in pain, but I was able to carry on.
To discover the meaning of socialism
Dani and Acho decided to continue with us till the end of the day. Later that night we made a camp in the forest and organized dinner together. It was total socialism. Everything belonged to everyone. On our improvised dinner table, we had: cheese & ham sandwiches, meatballs, Korean ramyon, lens soup that we cooked on the gas stove Acho and Dani carried with them.
Sleep in a place called “three graves”
We were walking till we got to a place called “three graves”. It was already sunset time and without many options left we set our camp there. That night we made lots of stupid jokes given the fact we were exactly 3 people there. Well, truth be told, nothing bad happened to us and we could carry on.
In the following days our friend Mihso from Republica pass managed to catch on us. He became the new member of THE fellowship.
And there you go, it was already the 400km to celebrate. On many occasions we played different games to help us pass time faster. Like 3 letter words, or movie titles. Most of the time I was loosing since was way to concentrated in keeping 13.0 min/km pace or looking for next the navigational point. Yeah! Lot of lame excuses.
Enjoying shower in the cold fountain water at Rizhki passage. On the following day we managed to get lost despite having 2 GPS devices & 2 paper maps together with a group of other mountain enthusiasts. Consequently, my delay from the initial schedule became half day again.
Running from the hungry “horse flies”
The terrain became more and more flat. I could smell already the Black Sea and there were less than 80km left. Even so, destiny wanted to put my patience and goal determination to a test. A swarm of flies that lived sucking blood from horses and cows in the fields attacked us. We were warned about this potential threat by Dani & Acho, who were there 2 days earlier. All my exposed skin was covered by repellent against mosquito and fly bites. I had also my buff in my head, waving around my face and neck.
Yes. But No! None of these seem to have worked. It was a moment of desperation. And then the nice breeze from the sea came. Again the nature decided to be merciful. By some miracle Ani, Tzetzo and I managed to survive without many bites. But MIsho didn’t have our luck. You can imagine the kind of marks those big flies can leave.
Somewhere that day we made the 500km since the adventure Kom – Emine began.
How I befriended the gypsies of the mountain?
We were walking for hours. Our water supplies finished and everyone in the fellowship suffered. Again a feeling of despair seized gradually our souls. And then from nowhere horse wagon with some crazy mountain gypsies crossed our trail. Desperate times, desperate measures! Tzetzo asked them for help and received instantly big bottle of fresh water. All of a sudden all prejudice and bad stereotypes about gypsies were gone.
Tzetzo, Ani, Misho and I had only 1 decent tent which was way to small to fit 4 of us. There was no guesthouse in Kozichino village. While debating what were our options a mid-aged man approached us. This was Minko who was the chief of the gypsies. He offered us to accommodate us in an abandon bungalow in their camp. Been super tired after trekking for 40km+ without sufficient supply of drinking water under the hot sun and after fighting hopelessly with horse flies we were exhausted. Instantly we accept his generous offer. Again the gypsies saved us for the second time in the same day.
A day full of troubles
40km left to Cape Emine and one last final push. That day we left the gypsies’ camp right before sunrise.
In my head I imagined this to be the easiest stage of Kom – Emine adventure. Nevertheless, I had no idea how wrong I was.
That day I experienced absolutely everything what happened in the past 16 days. From running to escape of a storm; being attacked by the horse flies; having water shortage; getting lost – twice; fighting our way out thru dense bush vegetation full of big spikes that broke my pants and ripped my skin.
Around late afternoon of Aug 18th Misho, Ani, Tzetzo and I arrived at the little square of Emona village. We had about 2-3km left to Cape Emine. The sky was covered by dark clouds again. My watch sensed a rapid air pressure drop and started warning about the danger. No matter how many people we asked to help us, everyone was simply ignoring us. The arrogant ignorance of those people made me realize I was back to the civilization.
Nevertheless, we left our bags at the only pub in the village and rushed to Cape Emine.
Unexpected twist at Cape Emine
Celebrating our successful mission accomplishment, but were we too early to do so?!
Remember the two pebbles I have taken at the starting point at Kom Peak?! Now was the time to throw one of them in the depths of the Black Sea. Then somebody gave the great idea to swim naked in the sea. Challenge Accepted!
There was very light rain while two rainbows decorated the sky. The water in the sea… oh boy! It’s hard to find words to describe this magical moment when my tired body from so much abuse touched the calm, warm and refreshing, blue water of the Black Sea! Misho, Ani, Tzetzo and I were speechless!
How the nature showed us its mighty power?
By some miracle we managed to convince a tourist to give us a ride to the nearest camping beach (3km away).
It became clear we had to sleep outside. On the way, just 10 min before closing time, we bought beer and food to make a small party. All of us were seated in the sand, laughing how we managed to overtake all obstacles along the trail, especially the mountain storms. And in that moment the sky open. As if there was a zipper and somebody pulled it. Literally! That night it was a flood. Extremely dangerous, because the thunderstorm lightnings were hitting very near our mini-camp and made the night sky bright as day. My eyes were closed but I still could see the light. Exhausted at some point of time I must have fallen asleep in my tent. Misho was hiding in the wonky 2nd tent. But Ani and Tzetzo wanted to let me have a quality sleep before I continue my big journey on the next day. So, they were using the sun shelter of a nearby camper as protection. Crazy!
The following day I had to rush again because it was the birthday of my girlfriend and I wanted to surprise her. Hitchhike to Obzor, bus to Varna, 2nd to Ruse, 3rd to Bucharest. Arrive at 16:00. Have 2 hours to prepare a surprise – custom cake with her name on the top, candles, balloons, hand written letter and a small gift. You can imagine how I looked after 17 days in the wilderness. Fortunately, I had just enough time to take a shower, shave and put some clean cloths before she returned from work. That night I wish I could share a funny story but the truth is I died at 20:40.
On the next day I had to travel to Sofia. From there I had to take the plane to Istanbul, followed by 2nd to Manila (Philippines), 3rd to Port Moresby – the capital of Papua New Guinea. Rush to board a small propeller plane to bring me to my next adventure in the deep jungle of the Southern Highlands where Huli Wigmen tribe reigned.
Good adventures are where everything goes against the plan, but still there is a happy ending!
PS: special thanks to my former colleagues from Samsung Bulgaria and Romania, who bought part of the equipment I needed for this and all following adventures.