EE2017 pt. 3 – Wild Carpathians – The Transalpina Experience

posted in: Europe, Overland, Romania | 0

»Io Romun, no cigan!« was the bottom line of my conversation with a local guy in Deva who cleaned windshields in front of a supermarket. We were finally heading towards Carpathian mountains. Our approach was quite timid at first. We took Route 66 (actually Drum National 66) to Petrosani and then started the so called »Strada Strategica«. I only assume the name comes from the fact that it runs along some of the highest peaks of Carpathians and connects the towns in east—to-west direction, perpendicular to other main roads that normally cross the mountain range in the north-south direction.

Kea Pika playing at our stop in the gorge that runs along “Strada Strategica”     

From Petrosani the »Strategica« carries the mark »7A«. It is very beautiful, sliding through a stunning gorge next to a mountain river, offering many nice places to stop and have a picnic. But if you see a place you like, don’t hesitate to stop. So many Romanians take this road with the sole purpose to have a nice little barbecue along the river, so most of the best places are already taken, if you travel in the high season. And if you stop, do take some time to wonder the magnificent woods above the river and the road. Mossy ground and tall trunks, fresh air and wonderful green light penetrating the branches will make you feel you’re entering a fairytale.

The beautiful magnificient woods of Carpathians

»7A« brought us to the second-famous road over Carpathians in Romania. Transalpina is bested, in popular opinion, only by the notorious Transfagarasan further to the east. While Transalpina may not have so many steep curves and daring looks to the surrounding high peaks, it is just as beautiful, even higher, and is covered with way better (newer) asphalt than Transfagarasan. Not that we overlanders/offroaders care about such mundane facts… We bought some blueberries from gypsies that were selling them allong the road, and that was nearly all of Transalpina we had planned for the day. Because only after a few kilometres we turned off the asphalt towards Lotrului mountains and especially 2242m high Mt. Steflesti.

Rain was catching up on us when we left the asphalt behind and not without fear drove on the track through the forest. It was steep and it was muddy and, due to new rain, it was wet. And we were alone, only one vehicle, with an eight months od baby in it, and so without options to make any mistakes. But we started. And soon stood dazzled in awe.

Beautiful tracks on top of Carpathian ridges in Romania

When we broke the tree line, we reached the broad shoulders of Carpathian mountains. The track just climed up over the grassy slopes to the top of the broad ridge. There was a storm behind us, chasing us with thunderbolts, and there was a storm ahead of us, raging around now still quite distant Mt. Steflesti. And there was us in the middle, our little Lancruiser like lost between the clouds and the magnificient grassy mountains. We almost didn’t know what to do – whether we should drive, take photos, shoot some video… we tried doing all of it at once and in the mean time we jumped of excitement. Those were really uplifting moments of our overlanding. We enjoyed every metre of the track, going up and down the slopes, winding through the pines and blueberry shrubs, slowly but surely following the ridge up to it’s highest points.

On the ridge between two storms n Carpathians

Soon the storms around us ceased and left only a thick carpet of hail that looked surreal in the green grass. We passed some shepherd’s huts with dogs barking and guarding their sheep. Sun started to shine.

When the storms ceased and the sun started to shine on the magnificent Carpathian ridges

On one of the ridge tops, covered in mountain pines, we decided to stop for the night. The place was perfect for a bivouac. It even provided a feast of blueberries for our little Kea Pika. At the height of 1939 meters above sea level we spent our first night in the Carpathians.

Kea Pika enjoying the freshly collected blueberries. It was a bit cold though, but nothing unexpected for altitude of nearly 2000 meters ASL.
Evening at our first bivouac in the Carpathians at 1939 m ASL

The next day started magnificently. We drove on, following the ridge, shooting photos and video, enjoying our trip. One of the best spots was the peak called Piatra Alba, where a rocky shelf on which you could park you vehicle protruded over a deep valley. We broke the barrier of 2000 m  ASL even before that. Then we proceeded towards Mt. Christiesti and reached it’s top at the height of 2198 m where we parked the Landcruiser among huge rocks. About 25 kilometres of the great Carpathian ridge were behind us. Less than 10 remained until reaching a dirt road in the valley deep bellow us.

Enjoying the glorious moments of crossing Carpathians at Piatra Alba

And that was where the fun part started.

I could not find a reasonable track from Mt. Christiesti on. Oh yes there once was a track descending the peak eastward, but now it has been completely eroded, nothing was left but big sharp rocks, just waiting to wreck the car. I could not fathom to drive there. The rocks and the holes between them, combined with the steep incline of the slope, would not allow any control over the vehicle. Too steep, too rocky, too insane. I tried to spot a different way around, because a few hundred meters ahead on the sadddle there seemed to be a track leading on towards Mt. Steflesti. A track that after reaching Steflesti would hopefully descend to the valley where dirt roads are. As hard as I looked, a couldn’t find a reasonable passage.

The only marginally possible route I could imagine was to descend the northern slope of Christiesti almost to the line dividing mountain pines from grass, continue from there to the east until coming under the saddle between Christiesti and Steflesti, and then attempt a direct climb over steep grassy and mossy slope to the saddle.

It was a completely crazy plan, but the only one I could come up with. Either that, or returning via the whole ridge we drove since the day before.

So we went. Not only was the incline of the slope a problem that could easily cause the vehicle to roll sideways, there were rocks hidden in the grass that could at any moment bump the wheel and cause the roll. On top of that those steep slopes were hiding many springs. The water of those springs soaked the slope and made it muddy and slippery. They were better to be avoided. Dreading the roll, especially with a vehicle loaded up to the roof and over it, carefully tackling each and every metre of the slope, each and ever rock and grass bump, we somehow made it under the saddle. All that was left was to drive those maybe 500 meters to the saddle and at the same time conquer about 200 meters of altitude difference. Of course there was no road, not even a track. Just a bare slope that reached somewhere up to the space, it seemed.

That was the day when I learned why Toyota equipped the Lancruiser 80 with triple difflocks. I needed all of them, just as I needed every bit of power the mighty 4.2 litre turbo diesel could provide and all the ground clearance and grip that mud terrain tyres could give me. Somehow the efforts combined were sufficient. We reached the ridge again. From there to Mt. Steflesti was only a short drive.

The slope disappearing down to the right was the one we came over. It must be admitted that it doesn’t look like much on the photo…

Mt. Steflesti was magnificent, basking in the sun that finally drove the clouds away. But from the west I could see another storm approaching. I was afraid, because I knew Steflesti wasn’t yet the end of our trouble.

Our Toyota Landcruiser HDJ80 on top of Mt. Steflesti (just below 2242 m ASL)

I went on foot to check the path ahead. Again the tracks vanished into grass, but it seemed to me that I can follow a certain direction leading towards shepherd’s huts some 200 meters lower and about a kilometre further east. Soon after the huts there was a forest. Forest with a dirt path that should lead to the valley.

But the slope we had to descend was so steep that we couldn’t follow our trail back if there would not have been a passage ahead.

The first raindrops of the storm caught us just when we almost reached the huts. I said almost, because vast expanses of mountain pines prevented the passage. And the incline of the slope drastically rose. There was no way forward.

I went on foot again to check the terrain. The shepherd dogs came barking. The silhouette of the shepherd showed soon after. I could not speak any Romanian, but I sure as hell understood him saying that I cannot continue that way.

After several minutes of fractured conversation by mouth and hand, comprising words like »drum«, »Vidra«, »cabana«, »jos« and many many more, accompanied by drawing figures in the air with his cane that too vividly translated to rolling the vehicle down the slope, I finally convinced the shepherd to show me where there once was a passage. We went to our vehicle and then navigated the labyinth of mountain pines and rock on foot. However surprising I found it, there were some barely visible tyre tracks to be found. A scratched rock here and there. Broken and dried branches. A first I thought the shepherd was going to send us back toward Steflesti, but luckily he knew a path I was looking for. That path involved quite some rock crawling and pine cutting and swearing, but it was there and it was promising us the delight of the valley it led to. I could not thank the shepherd enough.

I returned to the vehicle and we started on the path. For less than two kilometres it took us nearly an hour. I had to cut a passage through a field of mountain pines, and that was when the storm that was chasing us developed its full potential. In seconds I was drenched to the skin.

We had to wait for the worst of the storm to pass us. The labyrinth path the shepherd showed me was so complicated that I could not follow it just looking out of the car, especially not in the hailstorm and the fog it produced. I had to leave the car a few times, each and every time returning all soaked and nearly frozen. Do not forget that this drama was taking place at an altitude of 2000 meters ASL. Even in July the temperatures during the storm were barely above zero.

After rocks and pines and grass we finally approached the bottom of the slope where big firs stood. The faithful Garmin 276c promised there would be a dirt road leading to the valley and on to Lake Vidra. And there was a road!

Finally back at the “road”. I took of the rain-soaked shirt and the heating in the vehicle was turned full-on.

Actually it was not so much a road but more of a scar on the face of the mountain where water of the storm ran, partially closed by branches, filled with rocks and mud, but for us even that was better than a golden highway. Eventually it broadened, leading even over some small stony bridges, boldly curving over the steep forest slopes of the Carpathians. Five hours after the trouble at Mt. Christiesti started we were fortunately back on the »7A« road and found a good place to camp on the southern shores of Lake Vidra (Lacul Vidra). The coordinates are N45⁰ 25.401′ E23⁰ 41.973′. Those were one of the longest five hours of my entire life.

Our track over the Lotrului mountains. Never to be repeated again.
You loose concentration for only a second, miss a rock hidden in the grass, and this happens… fortunately nothing that would prevent further driving. Gods were merciful this time.

We have unanimously decided that we shall not seek such adventures in Carpathians anymore, because there is too much that could go wrong and so little to do if something goes wrong, especially driving solo. So we took the Carpathians on in an easier manner. First we drove from Lake Vidra to the top of Transalpina, then we continued on the »Strategica« eastward. It was really beautiful, leading us over the ridges full of blueberries and sheep and horses, with magnificent views all around, with some great bivouacs and water springs, all the way to Voineasa. Well the descent from the ridge to the valley was a little bit rough. 10 kilometres took us about one hour. But we were not in a hurry.

Over 2000 m ASL, almost on top of the Transalpina

In Voineasa there came time to replenish our supplies and head on towards Lake Petrimanu. The valley leading to the lake is not nearly as beautiful than the valley along »7A« from Petroseni to Transalpina, and the lake itsef is not so gorgeous either. But there is another lake higher up. The dirt road got significantly worse as the end of the valley approached and as we stopped near the upper lake after crossing the river (N45⁰ 21.880′ E23⁰ 43.546′) we were pretty sure we were not going to be bothered. But just when we were about to leave, a group of Romanians came to make camp at our spot. That would not be so special if they would not be driving Dacia Logans. And with those Logans they crossed the river too. This was the moment when I felt like a pussy travelling the world in a 4×4 vehicle…

The “Strategica” – its best views

From Lake Petrimani we tackled the good dirt road towards Curmatura Oltetului, a pass leading us over the mountains to the town of Polovragi. It was beautiful driving and sightseeing again, with blueberries on top of the pass almost the size of the artificial ones sold in supermarkets.

Beautiful bivouac at the end of the “Strategica” over Voineasa. It even provided some rainbows.

The next morning we descended the southern slopes of the Carpathians through a nice gorge of Oltetului to the little town of Polovragi. Reaching the asphalt there meant the end of our Transalpina experience.

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