An expedition to trek the length of Bulgaria's Rhodope mountains, researching endangered raptors. On their trip of a lifetime, Alex, Adam and Katy avoided bears, experienced fantastic Bulgarian hospitality and got to see firsthand the rewilding efforts that are being made in the country.
The Rhodope Mountains
The Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, stretching 250km west–east along the border with Greece, are remote, wild and unexplored. Tucked away at the bottom of Bulgaria, with the exception of a few bird watchers in isolated areas in the east these mountains have received little attention from tourists. It is a crucial location for avian life, with over 30 of the 37 raptor species (birds of prey) found in Europe viewable here throughout the year – the highest number on the continent. There’s also a plethora of other wildlife, from snakes to bears, rare fish to deer and an impressive invertebrate community. This is a place to escape the business of the city and experience real wilderness, where it’s just you and nature and you can get lost (quite literally!) in the natural environment.
In May 2016 I, alongside fellow zoologist and cameraman Adam Wilkinson and a film production student, Katy Parrott, embarked on a five week research expedition to walk the entire length of the Rhodope mountain range, researching endangered raptors by carrying out twice-daily scientific surveys.
Although much research has been done in the east, there has been little in the range’s western side. Raptors in the region have suffered population declines due to inadvertent poisoning and habitat loss, making them a priority for research. We also made a film of the adventure, to be released in January 2016.
The adventure began in Yakoruda, a mountain town at the range’s western periphery, easily accessible via bus from Sofia. The friendliness of the locals was immediately apparent: we were taken in by a family who not only fed us but handed us some ‘special’ Bulgarian spirit and took us to an Easter ritual. Within hours of arriving we felt as if were part of the community. The spirit kept flowing afterwards, and it began to look less likely that we were going to get away on time in the morning!
Leaving Yakoruda, there is a path to the east which winds up the mountainside and provides spectacular views of the town and the valley it nestles in. There was silence, but for the distant sounds of the town and occasional bird song. What laws there are regarding wild camping in Bulgaria are rarely enforced: we were stopped numerous times by the police, who were checking we were not immigrants crossing the border from Greece, but once they had satisfied themselves we were not they let us camp wherever we liked.
As we were in bear territory, we had to store all our food up a tree at night when camping to ensure that bears didn’t get at it – or at us. This involved a few dry bags and a pulley system and on a branch five metres up and three metres out from the main trunk of the tree. Fortunately we weren’t attacked: unfortunately we didn’t see any bears, although we did find a number of worryingly large scratch marks on trees. Food for the trip consisted of porridge for breakfast, salami and cheese sandwiches for lunch and freeze dried meals from Expedition Foods for dinner. The dinners were actually really quite nice, but whenever we passed a town we would stock up on a greasy fry-up! With our 30kg packs, the mountainous terrain and the distance we were covering, we required over 3500 calories a day.
In those first few days we were hit with hail and snow, which we were repeatedly told is ‘extremely rare’. My weather research had found nothing suggesting the faintest possibility of snow here in May, so we were unprepared. The Rhodope hospitality was demonstrated again, as we were taken in by a small village, put by the fire and given food while our clothes dried and we gathered knowledge of the area. The people are among the friendliest and most generous I have ever met.
On day seven we reached Trigrad, a town surrounded by dramatic rock faces and deep ravines. The town boasts the ominously named Devil’s Throat cave, with a stunning 42 metre underground waterfall and a labyrinth of dark waterways: these have claimed numerous lives of those attempting to find out where the water goes, adding a spooky reputation to go with the name. We were fortunate enough to stay at the very friendly Trigrad Hotel, where we picked up some tips on what to see and what could be left out of our busy itinerary.
From Trigrad it was on to Golyam Perelik, at 2191m the highest mountain in the Rhodopes. We approached from the west, travelling through the picturesque town of Mugla which appeared to be virtually deserted, except for the shopkeeper. We were depending on this town for basic lunch supplies, but were almost disappointed when they refused to open the shop in the middle of the day. Once they understood how much we wanted to buy – breads, salami and cheese for three peoples’ lunches for three days – they were overawed by the money we gave them, which came to approximately £5! From Mugla, a brutal march uphill out of the valley brought us to the ascent up Golyam, which would take a day and a half. We were extremely luck to record a few eagle species in the area during our surveys: before this we had seen predominantly buzzards and falcons.
The 1980s Russian maps (which are the best available for trekking in the region) showed a path to the west of Golyam Perelik. This turned out to be a river, flanked by steep banks and impenetrable vegetation. The only way forward was to trudge through the river for a few hours, hopping from rock to rock where possible. The forest floor was remarkably gloomy due to the high ground either side and the thick vegetation above, giving the impression of a haunted forest: we became worried that a bear could jump out at any moment. We spent a night in the woods before reaching the summit, topped by a daunting military base, the next morning. Anxious of bullets and angry Bulgarian soldiers we skirted around the outside, through the snow which had accompanied us for the morning, and back down the other side to the familiar seclusion of the mountains.
The town of Smolyan was the largest settlement on our journey and, like the small villages encountered previously, it seemed to emerge out of the mountains themselves. It was a welcome break, after two weeks of trekking, to find everything a traveller could want, including easy access to innumerable trails. The Hotel Daffi, offering cheap but lovely accommodation with delicious food, is run by an incredibly friendly family who gave us a tour of the city and helped plan the next leg of the journey.
The striking Devil’s Bridge, our next landmark, is a historical and major crossing point of the Arda river constructed in 1518 and once critical for trade access within the Ottoman Empire. On our way there from Smolyan the vegetation changed abruptly from evergreen to deciduous and the weather and wildlife changed, too, with significantly warmer temperatures and more creatures everywhere we looked. It took three days to walk to Devil’s Bridge through remote mountain trails where we saw virtually no one, save the odd farmer and his sheep. There are all sorts of superstitions associated with the bridge, from curses should you cross after dark to being able to see the Devil’s face in the stones. We spent a night under a shelter sleeping on picnic tables in thrall to this stunning piece of intimidating architecture.
East of Devil’s Bridge are the extensive suburbs of Kardzhali, where the first of three large dams on the Arda river dominate the landscape. From here it’s only a few days to Studen Kladenets, the area’s wildlife hotspot, where a number of birding tours are run. One morning, after clambering out of a dense forest and up a small hill on our ‘off piste’ route to Studen Kladenets, we stumbled across a small herd of fallow deer standing regally in the sun, chomping on mouthfuls of grass. As they sprang off an Egyptian vulture flew over our heads, closely followed by a griffon vulture. Awestruck by this scene from an idyllic wildlife film, we looked at each other in amazement.
The Studen Kladenets area is home to a recovering colony of griffon vultures, one of the largest birds in Europe, as well as the Egyptian vulture, which holds the unfortunate distinction of being the fastest declining bird on the continent. Both species have been threatened with local extinction due to poisoning, habitat loss and hunting. Conservation efforts by the BSPB (Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds) and Rewilding Europe are bringing these species’ populations back, and Studen Kladenets is one of the best places to see them. To the southeast of Studen Kladenets stands a hill with a vulture feeding station, which is well worth the easy day’s beautiful hike to get there.
After three weeks heading east, the next place of any significance was Madzharovo. The route here is breathtaking, mostly following the Arda river with its vibrant plant colours, meadows, endless wildlife and beautiful scenery. We camped on the river’s beach just a few kilometres outside Madzharovo, where we swam right beside our tent. Madzharovo is another location known for its bird life, and our twice daily surveys filled up with exciting data points for eagles and vultures. There is a vulture centre, with all the information you can imagine on local wildlife species, conservation issues and strategies. It also has fairly cheap rooms – approximately £24 for an ensuite with three beds. Although there’s not much going on in the town it is a beautiful place to spend a few days’ rest, as we did, visiting the often-photographed meander of the Arda and tasting the local cuisines before the next leg of the journey south to the picturesque Byala Reka.
The meanders of the Byala Reka probably clinch the top spot for beautiful locations on our journey. We camped on the beach of the old river bed, right beside the new one with overgrown vegetation protecting us from the searing sun in the valley, and watched a golden eagle coming and going from its nest on the ridge just above us. We spotted more birdlife, including goshawks and falcons: a spur-thighed tortoise (vulnerable) even visited camp one day! After three days here we moved onto the final leg towards Ivaylovgrad and our finish at the end of the Rhodope mountain range.
The route to Ivaylovgrad was mostly in the baking sun along tarmac roads through meadows and fields. The heat meant it was reptile central, and snakes made us all jump far too many times as they sprang away from our approach. Two days after leaving beautiful Byala Reka, through 30°C heat, we arrived in Ivaylovgrad: our expedition was complete.