I sat in a hostel room in Maribor, northeastern Slovenia, hiking gear and packaged food strewn all over my bed. I was planning to start walking the Slovenian Mountain Trail the following day but I still knew almost nothing about it. Established in 1953, It’s one of the oldest long distance mountain trails in the world and constantly appears in ‘Top 10’ lists, and yet I could hardly find any decent information on it (in English, anyway). Does anybody actually walk it? Was I missing something?
Then I found a stat which explained exactly what I was signing up for. I was comfortable with the 550 kilometres I’d have to walk, but I read that at the same time I’d also be climbing 33,000 vertical metres – the equivalent of seven scrambles from Everest Base Camp up to the summit. I was fit and strong after 1,200 km of hiking over the previous few months, but I hadn’t done anywhere near that much vert. My pack was reasonably light, but the thought of hauling it over 23 steep, rocky, serious peaks filled me with absolute dread.
Five days later I was getting a pretty clear idea of how tough the trail was. I arrived at a mountain hut near dusk, tired and frightened after a long, sketchy day in the mountains. The notorious Kamnik-Savinja Alps were living up to their reputation for brutal climbs and steep slopes and, despite being June, lingering snow was making things risky. Having camped out the previous nights, I treated myself to a night in the hut, and my first shower in five days. My plans of pushing on through these mountains the next day were politely shut down by the hut wardens, who were clear that there was still too much snow on the higher peaks and that I had no choice but to take a detour.
It was out of my hands, but I couldn’t help being a little disappointed. So I turned to the one comfort in my life – food. Sitting outside setting up my cooker, I pulled the cap off the new gas canister I’d bought the previous day. I froze as I realised that it was the wrong type – it wouldn’t fit my cooker. A panicked check of the map confirmed it would be at least a week before I would reach a town big enough to have an outdoors store. All I could do was laugh.
Over the following week I was to master the art of ‘cold soaking’ couscous and porridge.
One of my favourite camping spots, overlooking the Vipava Valley.
Solo hiking is an interesting beast – something I think everybody should try at least once. Your world becomes humblingly small, and infinite at the same time. As you settle into your walking routine, the worries of regular daily life dissolve and you think only as far as the edge of your map, and grapple with dilemmas like ‘can I smash out the 22 km tomorrow morning before the supermarket shuts at midday, or will I have to ration my food?’. But you also have so much time and space to ponder life’s big questions, in particular the ever-present (and very hard to answer) ‘why am I doing this?’.
I’m generally comfortable with my own company and never felt lonely on the trip, even when I would sometimes go a day or two without speaking to another human. But I did notice how much just a small social interaction would lift my spirits. There was Arturo, who let me fill my water bottles at his house, then insisted I sit down for a chat and a shot of schnapps. The old lady sitting in the park with her dog, who spoke zero English but somehow managed to teach me a few Slovenian words. Kristina and Reilly, the Slovenian-New Zealand couple I met on a mountaintop on a long, tough day, who invited me back to their house for beers, let me camp nearby and even took me to their favourite ice cream cafe the next morning. Each encounter made my day and added so much colour to the trip, regardless of whether or not we were speaking the same language.
A high country farm with Triglav looming in the distance.
And when I couldn’t find any people, the mountains made for pretty great company. Over half of the country is forested, and a decent chunk of the other half seems to be mountains and lakes. The tallest of all the mountains is Triglav (‘three-headed’), a 2,864 metre throne of rock looming over the Julian Alps. The country is small enough, and the mountain prominent enough, that you can see it from much of the land. It’s on their flag. They’ve fought battles on it, and for it. In fact, they say you aren’t a true Slovenian until you’ve climbed Triglav (complete with a bizarre confirmation ritual involving schnapps and spanking…).
Triglav National Park, with its many peaks, lakes, gorges, trails and huts is incredibly scenic and unsurprisingly popular with tourists – it was somehow strange to hear so much English being spoken. Unfortunately I had to take yet another detour around Mount Triglav itself due to dangerous snow conditions, but to behold it at dusk from nearby Jalovec (2,645 metres) was a humbling experience. Besides, unfinished business is a great excuse to go back sometime!
The stunning Triglav Lakes Valley in Triglav National Park.
I left the National Park and headed south, now on the home stretch to the end of the trail at the coast. The rugged alps changed to rolling countryside – no less stunning, with the trail connecting a number of world-famous caves, valleys and cliffs. In the alps I’d had no trouble finding fresh streams for water, but it suddenly became much trickier in the drier, flatter country. At the same time, Europe was getting hit by a heatwave and I was often trudging through afternoon highs of over 35 °C, so it was a huge relief when I’d stumble upon a water fountain in a village, or a mountain hut with cold Coca-Cola. One morning I paused when I heard a rustle in the bush beside the trail. A fox stepped out, and froze as soon as it saw me. We locked eyes for a brief, powerful moment before it scampered. It looked just as tired and thirsty as I felt.
Finally reaching the Adriatic (Mediterranean) Sea at Ankaran after 24 days on the trail. Photo:Matt Girvan
On my 24th day on the trail I reached my final summit and saw for the first time the glorious Mediterranean Sea. I pushed through a 14 hour, 50 km odyssey in 38 °C heat, fantasizing about ambling down into a secluded bay, taking off my shoes for the last time and dipping my toes in that cool blue water. Instead I stumbled onto a crowded resort-style beach, buzzing with holiday-makers and tanned locals. Hunched under the weight of my pack, sweaty, unshaven and bewildered, I’ve never felt so out of place in my life. There was no moment of enlightenment. No parting of the clouds. No deep revelation. Just a cold beer, the sand between my toes and plenty of time to reflect on one hell of an adventure.