Serbia Mountain Bike Trek 2007 – Kopaonik to Tara
Dates: 29th April – 5th May 2007
Total distance travelled: c. 370km (230 miles)
Total climb: c. 7650m (25100ft – Everest is 8850m=29030ft!)
Total descent: c. 8215m (26950ft – we started higher up than we finished!)
Maximum elevation: 1756m (5760ft)
Mountain biking across Serbia
Serbia is blessed with some fantastic mountain ranges, criss-crossed by mostly unmarked tracks and trails and though there is a small number of enthusiasts who have ridden many of them, bike traffic is very limited – locals on the ground reported perhaps 20-30 cyclists per year on some of the more major tracks. Yet what better way of seeing any country than from the saddle of a bike?!
The scheme was the brainchild of Rob MacCurrach, who is hardly short of such harebrained (i.e. great) ideas – a Brit who has, with wife Tricia, been living in Serbia on and off for more than four years. He thought a group of us ought to try to cross a significant portion of Serbia by bike, taking in primarily mountain regions and using off-road trails wherever possible.
Planning the route
I was quickly taken with the idea and set about planning an approximate route which would take in a large swathe of the best known Serbian mountains: Kopaonik, Golija, Zlatibor, Tara and Povlen (the latter we didn’t quite make in the end), with plenty more in between.
It was a fairly late decision to purchase a GPS and do it the hi-tech way: although there was slight scepticism all round, it seemed as though trying to wing the trip just using ancient maps was going to be too risky, and I think that proved to be a good decision. Not content with using the basic Garmin Legend that I had bought, I contacted the local Garmin distributor, Infoteam, who loaned us a Vista Cx, a far superior model.
On the old maps, and using OziExplorer (THE program for serious GPS users), Rob and I then plotted our entire planned route in detail, using roads which were marked as un-tarmacked tracks or trails, and with the help of a route initially proposed by Aleksandar Veljkovic, a local GPS and freebiking afficionado. This route we then plotted onto the maps and printed them off, so we could see our track superimposed on them. If you click on the graphic to the left, you can see a picture in Google Earth of the entire route, or
click here if you have Google Earth installed and have a look close-up and in 3D (see below for a more complete file, featuring our planned track superimposed on our actual track!)
On the ground it was a fairly (though not always absolutely) straightforward matter of following the track on the GPS, whilst also recording our actual movements for posterity. Indeed, we probably cannot even guess at how many times the GPS kept us on track and saved us hours of wrong turns and long “detours”.
We knew from the start we could never do this solo, as the plan included camping every night at a different location. The amount of gear needed would have been too much to haul around by bike comfortably. So we enlisted the help of two enthusiastic guys, Dusan and Marko, who weren’t interested in cycling, but were keen on seeing some more of Serbia, especially its reptilian life, both being keen biologists. They would drive the Lada Niva Rob had acquired and meet us at strategic points along the route, find camping spots ahead of us, and generally get us out of scrapes (unnecessary, as it turned out).
The final lineup consisted of Robi, Zoli, Rob and myself, Mark Daniels, none of us in any way “professional” mountain bikers, but with just about enough physical fitness and determination, we reckoned, to get us across the route, which approached 400km in its original form.
We left Novi Sad on 29th April and headed up by assorted cars and buses to Brzece, a point sufficiently high up Kopaonik (around 1000m) to give us a good head start up to the top on the first day. After getting ourselves together in Brzece, Robi, Zoli and I (Rob was worried about a dodgy knee and sat out the first stage) headed off up the mountain. And… well, the rest is best told through the blog I wrote daily from the field, using a mobile phone (hence the poor picture, and probably text quality! Some lines were actually written on my bike!):
Also, check out the many pictures we took along the way, in the MTB-Serbia Gallery.
You can also
download this file, made for Google Earth, which shows you our original planned route (in grey), and the actual route taken (multicoloured, by day). There are also waypoints marked, mostly water sources and daily camping spots, though I have a more detailed store of waypoints, showing where tarmac starts and ends, etc.
In places you can see where we strayed from our route a number of times. Sometimes this was to avoid the deep snow (on the initial Kopaonik and Golija sections), which was still on the ground above 1500m and which scuppered some of our plans, leaving some tracks unexplored. Sometimes this was because we just ran out of time, like after the mark which says “Chaos”, where, as detailed under Day 3, we had a mixup with the backup vehicle and had to settle for a known route round, rather than the planned cross-country route, as well as on the last day, where we just ran out of time to do the whole of Tara as planned. But the most notable “detours” were due to our occasional attempts at “shortcuts” – where it seemed that the maps showed a quicker way, or a way which avoided a lot of up-down (but usually failed on both counts!).
And here is a plot of the complete elevation profile, by day, and with the mountains roughly indicated, so you can see the terrain we crossed!
I will leave it to the pictures in the gallery to tell a more full story. Here are just some general impressions about this trip, which I think we can absolutely pronounce a success:
Serbia has some fantastic potential for mountain biking, with stunning mountain scenery (though little of it venturing above 2000m) and a wealth of tracks and trails, some of it passing through very remote-seeming rural terrain. You are never more than 30km or so from civilisation though, and supplies can be bought at least once a day in a small town, while water is fairly free-flowing up in the mountains, though on some high-up sections there is no water for miles and miles.
Something which suprised me, but shouldn’t have, is that many of the tracks we had picked out as being “off-road” on our old maps (there are no new 50k maps available to the general public) had long been asphalted, which was sometimes a relief, and sometimes a little disappointing. I suspect it is going to get harder and hard to ride “off-road” in Serbia in the future…
Another consideration, which we HAD been warned about, was the abundance of snow still on the ground at this time of year (early May), especially above 1500m, which as you can see from the pictures from the first day, made the going practically impossible in places.
Highlights: the beautiful valley between the craggy mountain of Mučanj and the village of Močionica; the very wild rolling country between Zlatibor and Mokra Gora; the amazing view into the Drina canyon. Lots more – too many to speak of!
Lowlights: seeing too much destruction of natural beauty; getting mixed up on Day 3 and missing out on an interesting cross-country section; trying to reconnect my chain on Day 6 and failing to do so properly – don’t try repairs you are not sure about, is the moral.
Serbia and the environment
Environmental awareness is pretty poor in Serbia. Economic concerns come first and foremost, and the fact that so much of the country is so pristine is simply a reflection of the poor economic situation. Illegal building, liberal hunting (shoot a few deer if you must, but bears?!) and excessive logging are allowed in national parks, asphalt roads are hacked through the forest where a well-gravelled track would be quite sufficient, and dumping of litter is widespread. There were oases though – Mokra Gora, which seems to have captured the spirit of an alpine village, with its narrow-gauge railway and mock-ethnic village (the latter financed by Serbian film director, Emir Kusturica), thought the jury is out on this as this too seemed to involve much clearing of mountainside in its construction. Tara seems to have taken a leaf out of the book of Slovenia, by working largely with the existing infrastructure of tracks and trails in order to provide its tourist experience. The result is a largely unspoilt mountain experience, well worth seeing.
Serbia needs help in defining its environmental and tourism policy – it appears to be decades behind in its way of thinking, harking back to an era where progress is measured in cubic feet of concrete, and where roads are built at the whim of local politicians hoping to connect some village with civilisation and thereby revive some historical ideal, or just to provide an easy route to their country house… But then, as a friend commented, in a country where the president can be assassinated and no big deal made of it, it is hard to see how Serbia can be persuaded that a future in tourism needs to work with what nature has provided, and not exploit it destructively.
Serbia and camping
Just a note about camping in Serbia. Unlike some European countries, there are huge areas of land which do not particularly belong to anyone and are not fenced off. Camping is not heavily regulated, if at all, and the only objection might be to camping in a designated National Park area, especially with respect to lighting fires and the associated risk. We had no trouble at all finding camping spots for every night, and only at the Golija camp site (Day 2 – the remotest spot, oddly enough) did we make sure we asked the permission of the local farming couple we saw up there. After jokingly (Serbian humour) saying they would charge us 100 EUR, they were very friendly and helped us out, found somewhere to shelter our bikes and sold us some of their local produce at very low cost.
The verdict is, if you fancy an unhindered camping experience, come to Serbia. As long as you adhere to some basic rules about hygiene, fire-lighting, clearing up after yourself etc. you will probably be doing far less damage than that done by the “day-trippers”, whose “1st of May” debris we saw in a number of places. Combine it with cycling, and you are onto a winner!
See you here?
All in all, the trip fulfilled our expectations, giving us a unique look at the natural beauty of Serbia. The next trip (it’s no good, the bug has bitten us now) will probably involve a more localised trip, investigating one area and perhaps mapping its trails more thoroughly.
If you would like a no-frills, wild mountain biking experience, perhaps we can arrange something here in Serbia! Contact me, Mark Daniels, via the comments feature of this blog, and perhaps we can help put Serbia on the mountain-biking map!
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