In August 1996 a caving trip to the Albanian Alps was organised by the Speleoclub Dabrowa Gornicza. It aimed at surveying the new karst regions for further exploration. Our destination were the Albanian Alps in the northern part of Albania. The members of the expedition were: Przemyslaw Wlosek, Kajetan Slawinski, Marcin Koziel (from Speleoklub Dabrowa Gornicza) and Marian Zagorny (from Katowicki Klub Speleologiczny) under the leadership of Grzegorz Badurski. Taking into account the uncertain situation in the former Yugoslavia we chose the longer, but probably safer route through Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. We visited a lot of interesting places and learnt much about the queer and often incomprehensible customs and traditions of the Balkan countries. The border checkpoints alone provided us with a lot of 'fun' such as disinfection, for instance, that we greatly reduced the finances of our expedition.
We would, however, like to advise anybody heading to the south of the penisula that they should choose the route through the former Yugoslavia despite the fact that you need visas that must be paid for. It is probably less expensive and certainly shorter. (Anyone wishing to stay in Albania needs a visitor's visa that can be obtained free from the Albanian Embassy in Warsaw.) After a week long journey we reached Ohrid Lake on the border of Macedonia and Albania.
After a pleasant swim in the Macedonian resorts we were transferred into a different world on entering Albania (or Shqiperise as it is called). The nice holiday camps we used to see in Macedonia were replaced by concrete bunkers, which we saw all over Albania from that time on. The speed of our journey dwindled down due to the horrible condition of what the Albanians called 'motorways'. These were full of holes and humps that made us stop the car several times. Passing by the filthy towns and villages as well as deserted factories on the both side of the mountain road we headed towards Shkoder to the north of Tirana. Trying to escape from the clusters of people we met on our way we changed direction of our route to look for some lonely place by the sea where we could rest. Unfortunately, it turned out to be impossible as wherever we stopped the car the 'visitors' appeared out of nowhere.
The night at the sea was a trial to our nerves. We were falling asleep accompanied by the gun shots and we were woken up by the 'fishermen' fishing by means of grenades. Taught by this exeprience we covered the journey to Shkoder in one stage, being interrupted only by the frequent police patrols. (By the way the job of a policeman seemed to be the most popular one there.)
Passing by the ruins of the medieval fortress on the hill we entered a comparatively big city of Shkoder. The inhabitants put us in contact with the families of the local cavers. However, the. Italian expedition operating there had already involved all the speleologists from Shkoder. We were left with two young people who were familiar with the area in question. We asked them for guidance as we did not have any detailed maps. We reached the town of Koplik and there we found a mountain road leading our destination. Our well-worn Volkswagen was climbing up the road arduously being frequently overtaken by the lorries which served as buses there. Eventually we reached the village of Theth at night dispite the problems we had had with the brakes and we pitched our camp there. The owners of the nearby 'hotel' ensured our safety smiling and presenting their guns. In the morning we could catch a sight of the wild and much desired landscape of the frontier mountain range.
The surrounding mountain peaks are over 2.000 m high and the highest of all, Jezerca, is 2692 m. From the bottom of the valley where we pitched our camp we could see the characteristic peak of Harap. There, at the foot of the mountain is the entrance of the famous cave in Harap. It is a quite small horizontal cave ending with a siphon. The Bulgarian cavers are said to have digged through it several times during their trips to the Albanian Alps. The cave is of interest to the Italian tourists and speleologists too.
Our camp was frequently visited by groups of inhabitants of the surrounding villages. After a few days we could not bear the company of the Albanians any longer. The camp gradually changed into a kind of market place full of the Albanian children trying to exchange anything they could for a spoon bait. We used to buy our food paying in the local currency (1 lek =100 qindarka) or in dollars (1$ = 100 lek). Thanks to the neverending company of our Albanian guests we began leave our camp more and more willingly to look for peace and quiet. Due to the fact that our equipment started to disappear suddenly two people had to stay in the camp guarding it. It goes without saying that it was harmful to the effectiveness of our expedition. We chose the massif of Maja Kakis as an object of exploration for our team reduced to 3 people. As it took us almost an entire day to reach that area from our camp we explored the massif putting up temporary camps in the mountains. The effect of surface exploration was finding a lot of entrances which, however, turned out to be of no importance as we examined them closer. Since we were running out of time, we limited ourselves to mark the entrances we had explored. Climbing the unmarked mountain routes we came across the marvelous canyons and waterfalls. We also got to know a group of Czech speleologists, and celebrated that unusual meeting with a camp-fire.
After nearly two weeks of caving activity in the mountains we left Albania going through all the checkpoints again. In Tirana a moment of inattention cost us the loss of our belongings (including a camera and photos that we had taken) which we had left in the car. We could not obtain any help from the police station or from the Polish Embassy situated 50 meters away from the police station (there was not even anybody to translate our testimony). Anyone going to Albania should be very careful with money and belongings as the responsibility for possible theft is fully on a visitor's side. The further attraction on leaving Albania is the vehicle tax (5$ per day) you are not informed about at the checkpoints or an embassy before you enter the country.
Summing up, the up-to-day isolation of Albania from the rest of the world, as well as the presence of the caves there makes that country attractive as far as exploration is concerned. Wild and beautiful mountain landscape is worth more detailed exploration involving a bigger number of cavers. Visiting and exploring of the Albanian caves is charged according to daily rates and permission can be obtained from the Department of Sports and Tourism in Tirana.
PS Please look up the Speleoklub Dabrowa Gornicza internet page: http://www.iss.katowice.pl/speleo.htm