Sunday, 16 August 2015

Fish, Chips and Slovakia. Part Two... High Tatras

Grass meadow

The landscape of Slovakia is notorious for its mountain terrain as the Carpathians stretch across the most northern part of the country. This includes the high peaks of the Tatras range. Tatra stands higher than all the other peaks of the Carpathians. With 29 peaks at over 2,500 metres high and covering a range of around  232 sq miles, Tatra is separated in to several parts. High Tatras, close to the Polish border to the north, is a popular destination for hiking, largely due to its beauty and bio-diversity. Moreover, many lakes, rivers, forests and caves, attract wildlife such as bats, beavers, bears, wolves and ( close to my heart and a personal quest to see in the wild ) the Eurasian lynx.  

It is summer and the verdant scenery is swarming with wild flowers and butterflies. The sky is clear blue with a full blazing sun. The path becomes more rugged and the heat more intense. Every so often, some respite is found amongst a cluster of pine trees, oozing their cleansing aroma and ironically, in the height of the warm season, reminding me of Christmas. The hustling world below becomes more distant and the silence of the wilderness embraces with its commanding authority. How could the quietness be so powerful and absorbing?

 As we walked higher, the air changed and a slight shortness of breath was encountered ... this could have been related to recently quitting the evil weed otherwise known as tobacco. Then, perspiring, as the natural detox had taken a strong hold, I began to experience a wave of incredible well being.

Orange butterfly (Silver-washed Fritillary)

Red-spotted moth

The natural world was all around me. This was their territory. I was the intruder, the visitor, the stranger. Each step led me closer to the unknown and further away from the well-walked path of the ordinary. 

There is something about being close to the breath of a brown bear or snarl of a wolf which keeps you mildy circumspect. On the other hand, the lynx being within close proximity, infiltrated a gentle tug of emotion. I was fully aware that my chances of seeing a lynx were relatively slim in comparison, due to the fact that they are so elusive and stay very well hidden... especially from wolves and humans. I had this very same tug whislt on a lynx quest in southern Spain as well. My ardor only strengthens as life takes me moments closer to potentially fulfilling a precious goal of seeing one in its natural habitat.

European brown bears are the most feared animal in Slovakia. They can be extremely unpredictable and have been known to appear suddenly to the unsuspecting hiker.  

In the 1920's brown bears became almost extinct in the Carpathians because of over hunting. They were then protected between 1932 and the 1960's when hunting was banned. Bear populations were once again restored but the conflicts with humans was all too common and the ban on hunting lifted. By the 1980's, the bears had almost disappeared and with the EU legislation having to be imposed, they were listed endangered. Hunting, to date, is now restricted and numbers are steady with a population of just over 1,000 bears in the Slovakian mountains. The chances of meeting one were quite high and to that end made me somewhat nervous. Although a lover of wildlife, the only thing between me and a bear would be my camera.

The wolf has high populations in the northern and eastern terrains of the Carpathians and can be hunted between November and January with a quota set by the Ministry of Agriculture. There has not been any formal scientific monitoring of wolf numbers but hunting associations estimate circa 1,200 - 1,600, although it is thought by conservationists, numbers are considerably lower. The wolves in Poland are completely protected and sadly any packs roaming over the boarder to Slovakia in the hunting seasons, can be killed. The other threats to wolves are habitat loss, conflict with livestock owners and competition with hunters for ungulate prey. The wolf hones and benefits the landscape playing a vital roll in the continuance of a well balanced eco system. 

The Eurasian lynx is a keystone species and, like the wolf, is essential to the ecological system. They are very shy cats and spend the majority of their time high up, silently observing from the woods and out of sight. They prefer the forested, rugged country which provides many hide outs and stalking opportunities. They are occassionally spotted on rocks, seeking prey and on watch for other predators competing for a meal. Wolves have been known to kill lynx and, following their better instincts, lynx will avoid any confrontation. In defiance of the challenges in the wild, lynx are well distributed and thanks to their adaptability and secretive nature, they thrive in the Carpathians. Some of the highest populations of lynx are found within this region of Eastern Europe.

High tree, visible effects from the 2004 storm.

 Bear forest

Flower meadow

Peaks and forests

The surpassing beauty surrounding us was all consuming. Every step taken with gratitude. At times such as this, clarity prevails and all is possible. Around every corner as we spiralled upwards, another surprise was waiting and once again, the camera was shooting virtually by itself. The views were cinematic, wide and lit in such a way that I was almost choking on my excitement. Maria would say, "There's more to come...". "How could there be more? How could it get better than this?" I replied. So, I stopped, looked around and saw.

Twin peaks

Forest terrain

Dense forest



White butterfly

Wild flowers

Resting butterfly

The Tatra Mountains are supporting a diverse variety of flora. At every level the plant life has adapted to volatile landscapes and extreme weathers. The winters can be harsh and snow cover, on the summit can be as much as 410 cm or 161 inches. (1) Thunder storms can occur 36 days a year and avalanches are frequent. However, the forests are abundant, despite effects from storms and loggers. Local rangers preserve, protect and monitor and of course, the wildlife plays an important part in spreading the seeds. 

Work horse. Still used to pull the logs...

So, the forests provide resources for all and need to be sustained. Without them there would be no life. They consist of beech trees, spruce, mountain pines, mosses, fungi, herbs and berries. At high altitudes grasslands provide cover for lynx and from 2,300m where only rocks are present, lichens glisten and reflect nature's palette.

All I needed was to walk through this natural masterpiece to feel the benefits both physically and spiritually.

Wild flora

Black butterfly

Butterfly wing

Forest path

Clasping on the edge

Pines and peaks

In between hikes, we rested and fuelled up with snacks. At every stop the vision in front, beside and behind was breath-taking. We had the best seats in the house. The only thing missing was the soundtrack. At these high levels, the silence was almost deafening. From time to time a little bird would sing, but otherwise, nothing. Even the wind was still. We were lucky to have such a calm day for our adventure. With everything so quiet, it was hard to believe that this was real.

The mountain scenery just continued to give. It was a privilege to feel and be amongst this greatness. But the fear is never far away, for somewhere, hiding in wait, were eyes watching. Every so often, a twig would snap or a sudden swishing sound of branches would remind me that we were not entirely alone. Besides, mountains command respect by just standing at such prominent heights. The weather could change at a blink of the eye and take you in to a potentially fatal situation. With this knowledge, we remained mindful.

To be continued ...

ref ; (1) Wikipedia, Tatra Mountains. 16/08/15.

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