Thursday, 29 August 2013

Brasher Kanika GTX Walking Boots – Update

Last Autumn I bought myself a pair of Brasher Kanika GTX Walking boots. For me, this was a bit of a departure in that they were a) fabric, b) in the sale and c) bought untried off the Internet.

Brasher Kanika GTX Boots - condition as they are now

Now I’m always open to a bargain. But when it comes to footwear I am usually quite finicky. Normally I have chosen boots only after a rigorous selection process. Sore and/or uncomfortable feet are a nightmare on a walk, especially when trekking or doing an LDP, and if you need to be able to rely on your footwear for several days or weeks in a row you need to have the right choice. So I always want to be as sure as I can be that they will fit and be comfortable when tackling the range of walking we do.

Fabric boots were also something of a departure for me in that I have traditionally favoured the durability and protection that leather boots have offered (against stones, rough terrain, peat bogs, etc). I don’t like wet feet either: after one memorably painful day’s walking a few years back, I now insist on a decent barrier against water ingress as I am in no hurry to repeat the experience. 

Lightweight fabric boots with waterproof Gore-tex lining (1132g/pair size 8.5)

Having said all that, I was also interested in trying to bring my footwear thinking into the 21st Century, especially with a view to two characteristics: reduced weight and increased comfort levels. Like most people's feet, mine have changed over the years and now tolerate heat, cold, wet, discomfort, etc, differently to how they did ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.

So, when I found the Kanikas at a knock down price, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to try something a bit different and test a few preconceptions as well as a pair of boots.

The original review is

Early indications were good: sturdy, supportive, light and comfortable – just what I was after. But what would they be like after a bit of punishment?

Well, ten months on and they’re still going strong. In one sense I’m not surprised – after all, Brasher are a reputable manufacturer – but I think I had a lingering concern about just what build or materials quality would be sacrificed in making a “cheaper” boot, even by a trusted supplier? Presumably, as well as being aimed at a lesser suitability, a lower price point indicates a reduced materials spec or an expected lesser performance in some way? Technologies also change, and whilst some changes are good, some are a complete flop and disappear, never to be seen again.

No deterioration of stitching or gluing in toe/rand area 

With preservation of my Burmas in mind, I've actually worn them quite a lot – not least a week on the Camino and ten days in the Balkans during which they were subjected to a variety of testing conditions. And it’s so far, so good: still comfortable and wearing well after an estimate of some 350 to 400 miles. They were plenty comfortable on the harder tracks and roads of the Camino, cool enough in the hot Balkan weather, and tough and protective enough (just) when subjected to more rugged mountain days. They are probably my “go to” footwear of the moment: in other words, a good all-round pair.

I’m not an advocate of the throwaway society – far from it, in fact. But the principle of spending £50 to £70 in the sales on a pair of reasonable boots (boots good enough for general walking and maybe a bit more) and walking them into the ground whilst saving my more expensive boots for the toughest conditions might well be a step forward. Horses for courses, you might say.

Ankle cuff padding and stitching in good order

Burmas are currently £190 RRP (although they can be bought for about £150) and prices are escalating as exchange rates and rising living standards in the countries in which they are made have an increasing impact. I should easily get my hoped-for year’s wear out of the Kanikas, and then some – which is looking to be a real bargain. If I can get a couple of years out of them, I’ll be quids-in. And, by picking the right footwear for the occasion, it shouldn’t lead to more expense over a 3-5 year cycle if I stick to my rough pound-a-week budget per pair.

The upshot of this experiment has been twofold. Firstly, I’ve got a pretty good pair of comfortable boots for a pretty good price  - and I’m always happy to get good gear at competitive prices!

But it has also shifted my perceptions slightly as to how to choose and use footwear. Whereas before I might have had “boots” for proper walking and “trainers” for easy outings or popping to the town/pub, I can now see the benefit of having a range of options. If you did winter climbing or high-altitude mountaineering, you’d have suitable boots for the job. So why not apply the same principles to subdivide other types of walking activity?

Sole units show little wear despite 350+ miles usage

The idea of having a wider range of footwear and matching their use better to the expected conditions makes sense. It sounds obvious, and although many have understood this principle for a while it is probably not practiced as much as you might think.

Like I said, this has been something of a mini epiphany. Isn’t it good when you challenge your perceptions and hit on a winner? 

Sunday, 25 August 2013

No Flops But Flip Flops

Our recent trip to Montenegro had been an experience much enjoyed and full of fascination. Great fun, great food, great weather and great company had combined to make for a memorable trip, and one that will linger long in the memory.

But our return to these shores left us with something of a dilemma: to maintain the high standards to which we have become accustomed, where next for a helping of outdoor fun?

Montenegro translates as Black Mountains, and indeed there are many. So what could compare with the majesty and grandeur of soaring peaks and plunging gorges we had recently encountered? Where else could elicit that frisson of excitement engendered by somewhere so strangely exotic and deliciously foreign; so tantalisingly close by, but with a hint of eastern promise? 

Oh, yes, that’s right: Norfolk.

To be honest, we’ve had our eye on a trip to the north Norfolk coast for some time, but never quite got round to it. Which is slightly odd, given that a two-hour drive puts us squarely in the thick of things. OK, so it’s not the most mountainous of destinations, and plunging gorges are conspicuous by their absence, but Norfolk’s charms are many and varied, they just lie in a different plane.

As this is about as close to a seaside holiday as we get, there was a list of things we wanted to achieve. To whit:

Walk on the beach
Eat fish & chips
Go to an amusement arcade
Paddle in the sea
Have an ice cream
Buy some flip-flops

Beach near Holkham

Holkham provided us with our first stop of the day, where the not-particularly-friendly car parking charges encouraged us to just a two-hour visit. Still, it gave us plenty of time for an amble along a short stretch of the Norfolk Coast Path and back along the beach. Although not cold, the brisk breeze and slate-coloured cloud lent the scene an authentic “British” seaside feel. A few hardy souls braved the sand, but the tide was out and when that happens you need more than a couple of hours if you intend to reach the water.

Progress under grey skies

On a spur-of-the-moment decision we headed inland. Walsingham is famous for it’s religious shrines, and has become a major pilgrimage centre drawing pilgrims from across the world. There are two shrines: one Roman Catholic and one Anglican, both to the Virgin Mary. Besides that there are three parish churches, a Methodist Chapel, a Franciscan Friary, three Orthodox places of worship, and a couple of other chapels dotted about for good measure. And, if ruins are more your thing, there is an Augustinian Priory too. There may even be one or two more opportunities for prayer that I have missed: a definitive list is hard to find. Let’s put it this way: if you are a troubled soul in need of succour but as yet undecided about the precise pathway to salvation, Walsingham would be as good a place to start as any.

Grounds of the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham 1

Grounds of the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham 2

Icons at the Orthodox chapel of St Seraphim

Back on the coast we had a look round Blakeney, where the lure of tea and cake proved irresistible. Then it was on to Sheringham for a walk along the front as far as the lifeboat station. From this slightly elevated position we could see a small group of physically fit but rationally suspect (why else would they be doing it?) swimmers ploughing back and forth against the backdrop of the Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm.

Up in town the streets were thronging with holidaymakers. We turned perfectly good money into a half-hundredweight of two pence pieces and gradually fed them back to the arcade owners. Afterwards, we checked in at the Youth Hostel then went out for Fish & Chips followed by a pint to round off the day.

Next morning dawned a little brighter. We headed off along the coast road, following signs for the beach at Weybourne. The beach here is very different to that at Holkham: instead of sand and dunes we found pebbles and cliffs, and no expanse of sand to separate us from the briny. The tide was in as well, so we didn’t have to go far to reach the water – which was surprisingly warm, given the early hour.

Beach, boat and blue skies

Shadows and surf

Breakers on the beach

Cliffs and clouds

Our next stop was Cley Marshes, where we spent a couple of hours walking round the nature reserve. The shingle beach, saline lagoons, reedbeds and salt marshes here form a unique ecosystem that supports large numbers of waders, migrating wildfowl and other bird species. Bittern, Bearded Tit and Avocet are just some of the species to be found here. We didn’t see any of these, but in the course of our perambulations we did spot a Little Egret and a Marsh Harrier.

Cley Marshes 1

Cley Marshes 2

Wells-next-the-Sea was advertising a “Harbour Day”, so we stopped by the see what was going on. Mostly, it was “fun”, and as it was a nice Sunday in the school holidays there were thousands of people milling about going pink in the sun. Of course enforced “fun” is usually anything but, so we had a quick amble round but only really stayed long enough for an ice cream.

Wells harbour

By now the afternoon was wearing on. All weekend we had been seeing signs advertising Samphire, an edible plant that grows on the salt marshes. The trouble was: what to do with it if we bought some? Eventually we settled on doing something simple with it – boiled, served with baked salmon fillets, new potatoes and Hollandaise sauce – and a small shop near Brancaster furnishes us with the necessary ingredients.

Samphire, salmon & hollandaise suace

Despite the lack of lofty heights, we’d found plenty to keep us entertained. The weekend had also served well as a recce for a potential Norfolk Coast Path break – just under 50 miles of stunning and varied coastal walking between Hunstanton and Cromer that could be squeezed nicely into a long weekend – or a weekend exploring the attractive villages of north Norfolk on foot.

All in all, we’d had an excellent time, with almost everything on the list achieved. The only flop? The flip-flops! We’ll have to save them for next time.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Black Mountains Of The Balkans – Day 9

Monday 29th July 2013 – Grope Hut to Rožaje

Total Distance: 11.20km / Total Ascent: 53m / Total Descent: 803m

And so to our last morning on the trail.


We woke quite early, washed at the spring, enjoyed another sizeable breakfast and generally pottered round the place getting ready to leave. Another cracking morning had been forecast and duly materialized.

Cliffs of Hajla's North face

As we were getting ready, a group of three Serbians arrived. They must have started out early, and were set on an ascent of Hajla from this side. Finding the hut open presented an opportunity for rest and refreshment they probably hadn’t expected: although tackled via a route to the side, the sheer face of the 400m cliffs is a daunting prospect.

Chatting in the sunshine

We chatted for a while and took photographs, then bade each other farewell. They picked up their rucksacks and refocused on the summit while we made the final preparations for our descent.

Group outside the Grope Hut - Zuko in the centre and Serbians on the right

As the next group wasn’t due until the following weekend, Zuko had the task of closing the hut before leaving. Dimitrije helped him batten down the hatches and lock up, then we hit the trail for the last time.

Looking back at the summit

On the face of it, the descent from the hut down to the outskirts of Rožaje might have been seen as a bit of an anticlimax. But not so: the track led down through beautiful woodlands, dappled with sunshine, and there were tantalizing views back through the trees to the summit of Hajla Peak. Of course Hajla dominates the surrounding countryside, but there are plenty of other tops in the vicinity, many of which would make satisfying objectives in their own right. Perhaps we could come back one day to bag a few …

Beautiful woods

Our route was straightforward, progress was unhindered and our tempo was good, so we reeled in the kilometers with ease. Nevertheless, we were glad to have Zuko with us who walked these paths often and knew the way well. He kept popping hither and yon, collecting mushrooms, and by the time we had reached town he had a fair haul.

In all, it took about three hours to make the descent. At the bottom, we met up with Dimitrije’s Dad, amongst others, who had got involved in a complicated car shuffle (Musa was unavailable, having a Russian group to look after). We said our hellos and almost immediately our goodbyes, as the group reorganized itself for a variety of onward journeys.

We jumped into Dimitrije’s Skoda for the half-hour transfer to our lunchtime assignation at the Etno Selo at Vrelo, an upmarket hotel and restaurant set in quiet countryside between Rožaje and Berane. We had grilled trout (2 each!) with potatoes and salad, all washed down with cold beer. Delicious!

Water babies

But what really made the location was the swimming pool. It was hot – easily the hottest day of the trip and a predicted 37°C – and we had spent the last four days with only modest washing facilities. For three self-confessed water babies stewing in the midday heat, the prospect of a refreshing dip was irresistible. It might have been on the pricey side, but so what? Along with the meal, what better way to round off the trek?

Our trip was almost over. We stopped briefly in the village of Petnjica to look at the mosque – unusual in that it was built on three floors – then all that remained was the return transfer to Podgorica.

Fortunately, this gave us a couple of hours to chat and admire the wonderful countryside for one last time: round Bjelasica, past the Biogradska Gora National Park, through the Morača Canyon. Then we were back in Podgorica, saying our farewells to Dimitrije: a sad moment.


We had a bite to eat in the hotel restaurant, and reflected on a wonderful trip. We’d packed a lot into ten days: mountains and ridges, villages and farms, monasteries and mosques, woods and lakes, rivers and springs, and, above all, cheese. And we’d learnt a little along the way about two fascinating countries, their way of life and the fantastic and varied hiking opportunities on offer. 

Both destinations look to have an optimistic future, and one in which tourism – especially eco-tourism and cross-border trekking – can be a force for good, playing a major part in bringing stability, co-operation and prosperity to the region. I hope, one day, we’ll be able to explore more of this exciting area.

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Black Mountains Of The Balkans – Day 8

Sunday 28th July 2013 – Bogë to Grope Hut – Hajla Peak

Total Distance: 18.77km / Total Ascent: 1496m / Total Descent: 973m

By 9.15am, we were packed, breakfasted and ready to depart on what was expected to be a tough day. Just before setting off, expedition-style, we posed for a group photograph outside the Hotel Rudi Alpina.

Kushtrim, Dimitrije, Missy G, Jules, CJ and Musa

The route began with a steady pull out of the village along a dusty road. One of the challenges that make an ascent of Hajla Peak from this side a significant undertaking – quite part from the stats of the day – is the fact that after leaving the village there is no water source en route. For a long day in hot weather (35°C temperatures were forecast again today) with little shade to mitigate the effects of the sun, that meant carrying all the water we needed. And that meant heavy packs. 

Taking on water

At the spring we drank our fill, topped up to the limit, and drank again: for me, a good half-litre consumed and three litres carried. Our preparation must have been good, though, as we all coped well with the extra weight.

Leaving the village

We followed the track up on to a level plateau reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales, then climbed again to reach an obvious col. At this point, just under two hours had elapsed: a steady pace had been maintained, and we had made good progress.

Border formalities

Hajla Peak stands on the border between Kosovo and Montenegro, and the col marked the line of the border at this point. Photographs were taken to celebrate the moment: it seemed ludicrously easy to hop from one country to another.

Graves beside the border

However, a pair of graves brought the reality of the situation back to us: these lands have been the scene of conflict and struggle for hundreds of years. In that time there has been loss and hardship, and the human cost has often been high. Against this backdrop of strife and distrust, it has taken years of work by many people to reach the point where five trekkers can walk this way unhindered, something we should not forget in the joy of the moment - or take for granted.

Continuing upwards

We turned east and continued upwards. At first, we threaded our way between minor rock summits. Soon, though, the trail steepened, and we reached an altitude where the trees dwindled and were replaced by low pine bushes about two to three metres tall. Again, summer growth had all but blocked the path, and pushing through the bushes was scratchy, hot and tiring. With waymarks infrequent and obscured, bushes too tall to see over, and no obvious line to follow on the ground, route finding without assistance would have been almost impossible. Thankfully, Kushtrim’s local knowledge once more came into it’s own, and we bullied our way up through near-impenetrable vegetation with only a few minor scratches to show for it.  

We took a now-customary one-hour lunch break in the shade cast by these stunted pines. Kushtrim helpfully informed that this was the favoured countryside of the Brown Bear, so we were slightly nervous about nodding off lest we become Grizzly fodder.

Fortunately, they kept themselves to themselves.

Not far to go now - main summit on the right

Carrying on, we plodded along on an ever-upward trajectory. Gradually, bit-by-bit, we gained height. Eventually, we popped out on to an open grassy area from where the summit could clearly be seen. Another hour should see us on top.


There were flowers aplenty to take our minds off the remaining ascent, including rare Edelweiss. We also saw some young, grouse-like birds hopping from rock to rock. From what I could find out, I think they might be young Rock Partridges.

Young bird, possibly Rock Partridge

All these distractions helped us negotiate the remaining uphill plod. Soon, the summit was just a stone’s throw away, and we were scrambling up the last few rocky metres to the top. 2403m, many of them earned the hard way.


A well-earned rest

Dimitrije on Hajla Peak

We spent a good half-hour on the summit, resting, soaking up the views and enjoying the sense of achievement. From Bogë to the top had taken us about six-and-a-half hours, including stops, so we had earned these moments. Photos were taken, messages sent, and memories cemented in the mind.

Looking down the precipitous north side - Grope Hut just visible

From here, many of the principle peaks of the region were visible. The hut where we were staying the night was a precipitous 400m below us, and we could also see all the way back to Jelenak, the pass we had crossed two days before.

The mountains we have crossed

All too soon it was time to begin our descent. The trail was quite steep, with loose rock hidden beneath the grass – the sort of terrain where tired legs and lack of concentration can lead to a stumble – and, but for one minor incident, we all managed to get down relatively unscathed.

After dropping off the summit ridge, it was time to say our goodbyes to Kushtrim. Other commitments meant him descending back into Kosovo, and we were sad to see him go. In the way that only mountain trips are able to do, he had become a good friend over the past four days.

Approaching the Grope Hut

We continued down the Montenegrin side. It was still steep, but the path was clearer and we could see our objective ahead of us. An hour or so later we were shrugging our boots off and downing cold orange squash – the first chance to top up on fluids since 10.00am.

The Grope Hut is not much to look at from the outside, but is comfy and cozy on the inside, and we were made to feel very welcome by Zuko and his uncle (who owned the hut). It turned out we were the only group staying the night: unlike a typical Alpine hut, this one was usually only open by arrangement.

Inside the Grope Hut

So we had a communal room for about 14 all to ourselves. We dumped our things and went almost straight down to dinner. Zuko had rustled up grilled chicken, salad, peppers, bread, pudding and fruit, followed by coffee and mountain tea – another huge meal, which this time we wolfed down. For perhaps the first time in days, we were actually starving.

Mountain tea drying

We spent the evening in cordial conversation with Zuko and Dimitrije. Occasionally the generator had to be coaxed back into life, but it was all wonderfully relaxing. Finally, we retired about 9.00pm after a tough but memorable day. 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Black Mountains Of The Balkans – Day 7

Saturday 27th July 2013 – Kućište to Bogë

Total Distance: 19.05km / Total Ascent: 882m / Total Descent: 906m

After the big stats of yesterday’s walk, something a little more relaxed was on offer today. Another fine morning dawned – one that promised to be a sizzler if the 35°C forecast temperature materialized – and again we had a leisurely breakfast al fresco on the terrace.

Looking over to the restaurant with Hajla Peak just visible at the rear

Our cabin

Blue skies and the moon

So it was a little after 9.30am when we set off down the hill towards the main road. Much of today’s route would be following forestry tracks, but what was lost in pathly beauty was more than made up for in scenic quality and general interest.

Looking towards Bogë

On the descent into the valley

This slightly dilapidated insignificant-looking bridge is actually a major road junction. The road on the left is the main road through the Rugova Valley from Peja (Peć) the nearest city. To the right is the road to Bogë. Heading into the middle of the shot is the road leading over the Čakor Pass (Qafa Qakorrit), and just out of shot is the bus stop. This really is the transport hub of the region.

 Kućište's equivalent of the Hangar Lane Gyratory

As you can see, the Čakor Pass road is not in great shape. As a historically important thoroughfare and the “main road” linking Peja in Kosovo with Andrijevica in Montenegro, I tried to find out a bit more about it’s viability as a route. To be honest, I’m still unclear as to the current situation. Suffice it to say the condition is poor and difficult to negotiate, even on a bike, as it is unmade in parts. The high point is at about 1900m, so it is prone to snow in the winter months (and in the summer too, in stormy weather), it was blocked/closed in the late 1990s during the fight for independence, and, as it crosses the debated border area I mentioned yesterday, there may or may not be a working border crossing at the moment.

For all the reasons mentioned above, traffic currently uses the Rožaje pass, located a bit further north. I asked Musa, who had driven the 4WD from Bibino Polje to Kućište, about the journey: whereas we walked a route of some 18.5k, the road journey was about 125k. The Čakor Pass route would be something like 60k in comparison.

Life in the fast lane

We sat in the shade for a few minutes, taking on water and watching the world go by. Intermittently, cars would slew to a halt in a kerfuffle of dust and lately applied brakes before tentatively tackling the bridge.

Nearing Dugaive

From the valley bottom, we picked up another track heading uphill towards the village of Dugaive. Soon we left the track for a series of overgrown paths that led through tough, thorny undergrowth and made for uncomfortable passage. Once in the woods, we found the first of several patches of wild strawberries, and picked a few, amazed at their sweetness.

View from our lunch stop

But before long the path became clearer, gradually steepening as we approached the end of the climb. Eventually we reached the top and found a shaded spot beneath pine trees for lunch. 

Forty winks in 30 degrees

With a cool breeze and plenty of shade it was a very pleasant spot for a break, and we spent a leisurely hour resting and enjoying our food. The view was wonderful, overlooking the foothills of tomorrow’s objective, Hajla Peak.

Hajla Peak

Looking from here, it seems a daunting prospect. It’s a big mountain, so we would have distance as well as ascent to contend with - and little shade.

Intrepid hikers (in classic V formation) on the way to Shkrel

Moving on we took another track that contoured round the hillsides and eventually brought us out near the village of Shkrel. Here we split from CJ and Dimitrije. CJ was having a bit of knee trouble, so in order to be at her best for tomorrow’s undertaking she decided to take the most direct route to our evening digs at Bogë.

We opted to carry on a little further with Kushtrim. First we had a look at a memorial commemorating the war heroes of the village: all those who had fallen in battle since 1879. We saw that in one tragic incident, three men died on the same day. The monument is topped with the double-headed eagle symbol of Albania, acknowledging the mainly Albanian ethnicity and mixed Muslim/Christian faith of the Kosovan population.

Cemetery at Shkrel

This was a symbolic place for Kushtrim: he was born in this area, and members of his family were buried in the cemetery. It also opened a window on the personal stories that make up the complex history of the area – in fact of the region as a whole – where the past is close at hand and not all that long ago.

This was a sanatorium in Ex-Yu times

We carried on along further forestry tracks, skirting behind the hill above Bogë, topping up with ice-cold water from a handy spring. The walking had not been strenuous, but the heat of the day and dusty tracks had created a thirst that needed assuaging. It was interesting talking to Kushtrim, and over the space of a couple of hours we were able to chat about all sorts of things: from Kosovo and Hajla Peak, to tourism and wildlife – even the differences between American English and British English got in there somewhere.

Bogë in the valley below

Eventually, we came out on the open hillside high above Bogë. Bogë is a fascinating place. For a start it’s known as a ski and holiday resort, although there is no ski infrastructure in the way of the Alps, just one simple lift. It’s also at an altitude of around 1540m – much higher than Chamonix, and almost on a level with Zermatt – which is deceptive, given the feel of the place. There is plenty of walking in and around the area, and it would make a good base for exploring the Rugova Valley and picking off a few of the more notable summits in the area. More information on the area can be found:

A steady descent brought us down to the village by about 5.30pm. With an earlier than usual finish, there was time for a refreshing beer and a chat before dinner. With a soon-to-be father (Dimitrije) and a new Dad of three weeks (Kushtrim), conversation soon came round to the subject of Prince George …

Yet again, dinner was a sizeable feast based around local specialities. Not that we were complaining, mind, because it was all delicious, but there was just so much of it that more than half was left uneaten. I gather this is a cultural thing, but to those of us brought up to finish what food we were given it means either eating too much or letting good food apparently go to waste, neither of which comes easily.

Unusual saddle pattern used to shear sheep

Afterwards, we wandered through the village in the dark. The one small shop was closing, cattle were being milked and bedded down for the night, and somewhere nearby a party was starting. Well, it is Saturday night!