Bears, lynx and wild boar await intrepid visitors to the mountainous forests of travel’s newest hotspot: the national parks of Macedonia
Even in the soft light of dawn, it was impossible to miss the huge imprint in the damp earth. “I reckon that’s a size 44 shoe!” smiled Gorki.
The park rangers confirmed the track was that of a very large male bear, and fresh... very fresh.
We were following a river trail through a narrow valley, with thick, dark forest on our right, while the rising sun revealed a mix of trees, open grassland and rocks on the high slopes opposite. We’d left our hotel at 4am to get here early in the hope of seeing one of Mavrovo National Park’s ursine residents.
Bear tracks (Simon Chubb)
Ranger Trpe explained that there were about ten bears in this valley, maybe more, and this was the time of year – April/May – when they give birth. They are true omnivores, eating roots, honey and bees, and we had nothing to fear providing we didn’t approach any cubs.
We spotted the tracks of a smaller bear, probably a female, and then had our eyes so rooted to the ground that we’d forgotten to keep looking up too. The sharp-eyed rangers pointed out a chamois high on the side of the canyon in a rock-strewn meadow. These small goat-antelopes are adapted to living in precipitous, rocky terrain. As we walked on, Trpe pointed to where he had once seen a chamois run out into the open, a lynx in pursuit. “It’s the only time I’ve seen a lynx,” he revealed. “You could live or work here for years and never see one. I was very lucky.”
I had briefly visited Mavrovo National Park a couple of years ago and fallen for its rugged beauty, especially once I heard that it was home to bears, wolves, wild boar and lynx.
Hiking in Mavrovo NP (Simon Chubb)
So I jumped at the chance to join a five-day trip through a trio of Macedonia’s national parks – Mavrovo, Galicica and Pelister – in search of wildlife, heading anti-clockwise along the country’s south-western borders with Albania and Greece. The aim of the Bear Conservation Survey Expedition, run by our guide, Gorki Balojani, was to join the park rangers, participating in their activities and helping the parks generate an income for conservation work.
Over 70% of Macedonia is mountainous, and Mavrovo NP is its largest protected area, with three mountain ranges, 80 peaks and 16 canyons within its borders. It is popular during the colder seasons as a skiing and winter sports destination, although the quantity of snow can vary. But, when the snow melts, it has all the ingredients for an adventure break, with hiking, biking, rafting and horseriding all available.
Mavrovo also has tremendous potential for nature holidays. The species stats are impressive: 1,495 flora, 129 bird and 50 mammal types are found here. There are probably over 100 bears, and 14-to-25 lynx.
At the park’s information centre, overlooking Mavrovo Lake, we studied camera-trap photos of bears and lynx and heard about a project in which several lynx had been collared with a GPS.
“They are the ghosts of the forest,” said Gorki. Tracks are sometimes seen in the snow, but looking for them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. “Animals usually take the same trails all the time,” explained Gorki. “But that doesn’t apply to lynx.”
Bears are now protected throughout the country, and there are penalties if you shoot one. Not that you would have thought so in our hotel, where a stuffed bear greeted guests in the lobby, while a range of badly taxidermied critters graced the lounge area.
Although illegal hunting may still take place, awareness of the need to protect them has risen. If a bear becomes a nuisance to humans, it will be put on trial complete with a defending lawyer, and only if found guilty can it be shot.
There is now a focus on preventing damage from bears. For instance, villagers will put fruit, such as apples, in locations well away from their fields to keep them away. The same happens with beekeepers, who leave honey in places for the bears well away from hives.
Boar caught on camera trap in Pelister NP
But the park’s conservation focus isn’t just on iconic species; the deer and chamois need to thrive too. We headed down the road to the Reproduction Center for Deer, where attempts are being made to help deer numbers grow. An area had been enclosed, and its fence constantly monitored as bears will destroy it by climbing over it. Several feeding stations have been set up; corn is put out for the deer in autumn, so that they can gain strength for the cold months, and hay during winter and spring, as well as salt.
We strolled through a quiet beech wood, a constantly changing mix of dappled sunlight and sleet breaking through the canopy. In a clearing sat a hay-filled barn made of wooden poles, the gaps between the bars wide enough for deer to pull the hay through.
“We will divide into groups,” explained Trpe. “One group will fix the barn, the others will move the hay to allow access to the back of the barn.” Grabbing pitchforks and climbing onto the hay, some of us moved it to allow space for the repairs to be done.
Meanwhile, the others chopped branches into lengths to replace a couple of the barn’s bars, and then nailed them in. No doubt, the rangers could have done a better, and much faster, job, but it was good to get a hands-on insight into the project.
A walk through the reserve followed, and by lunchtime we had worked up an appetite and tucked in with relish to a hearty ‘picnic’ stew with forest mushrooms, salad, roasted courgettes with white cheese, and fresh bread. The food was becoming one of the highlights of the trip; all local, all bursting with flavour.
Replenished, we jumped into 4WDs with the rangers, taking roads through the park until we turned off up a rough mountain track. As a hailstorm lashed the windscreen, we bumped and twisted, and then negotiated snow and ice across the trail.
Eventually, we reached a ridge and pulled up in a grassy meadow scattered with primrose, violet, crocus and gentian. These mountain pastures are home to the chamois, and the rangers had brought salt licks with them, which they placed in carefully chosen spots on the steep slopes. We gazed through binoculars, searching in vain for the wild goats, but there was nothing to be seen other than the shadows of scudding clouds dancing across the hillsides.
Lake Ohrid (Simon Chubb)
The next day we left Mavrovo along one of Macedonia’s most scenic roads, through the Radika Canyon and past Lake Debar, a large man-made lake with a submerged village within it. Reaching Struga, on the shores of Lake Ohrid, we skirted the lake and entered Prespa Valley, a sea of apple blossom stretching before us.
We had views down to the glittering expanse of Lake Prespa, straddling Macedonia, Greece and Albania. A large, old and relatively shallow lake, it was once a popular holiday destination for Yugoslavians.
Today, as part of the Galicica National Park, it is better known for its birdlife and its fish, including an endemic trout that has lived in isolation for millennia.
A few days later, I took a boat trip on the lake. Everywhere I looked I could see pelicans, hundreds of them. As we chugged through the waters, they’d take off, flying slowly and purposefully just a few feet above the lake.
Lake Prespa (Simon Chubb)
These Dalmatian pelicans are the largest birds in the pelican family. Although they mostly breed on the Greek side of the lake, they feed on the Macedonian side, hanging out near the sleek, black pygmy cormorants, which are also prolific here. Gorki had explained how the cormorants’ diving often drove fish to the surface, where the savvy pelicans would often be lurking in wait. “The cormorants bring the fish to the pelicans, hah hah!” he laughed.
There are two uninhabited islands in the lake, one of which, Golem Grad, belongs to Macedonia. It has only been open to the public for a few years and as we approached, it dazzled white and austere, covered in what looked like dead trees. But it transpired they were bleached in guano, the droppings of hundreds of roosting cormorants.
As we rounded the island, the vegetation got greener, and we could also see the foundations of medieval churches. The name Golem Grad means ‘Big Fortress’ or ‘Big City’, and this island was first inhabited in Neolithic times.
It had clearly been an important cultural centre over the centuries, and is believed to have been where Tsar Samoil, a legendary 10th century ruler of Macedonia and beyond, was crowned. But why? Frustratingly it was hard to find much information on it.
We pulled into a small cove and jumped out of the boat, climbing a steep path to a 14th century church dedicated to St Peter, its interior walls revealing damaged but beautiful frescoes. We strolled across the island, watching out for tortoises that crossed our paths, and occasionally catching a whiff of the cormorant colony. The vegetation was lush, and the soundtrack was of birdsong. As we explored, we came across the remains of Roman houses, an early Christian basilica and a small water reservoir.
The island is also known as Snake Island and, returning to the boat, we discovered why. Dozens of harmless water snakes slithered or swam away at our approach, while others slunk behind some rocks. It is claimed there are 10,000 snakes on the island, and it was easy to believe.
Many of the villages on, or near to, Lake Prespa have suffered depopulation, with families migrating overseas for jobs. One village at the edge of Pelister National Park has instead tried to reinvent itself as an ecotourism destination. Visitors to Brajcino stay in the village inn or in several village homes that are simple B&Bs, and use it as a base for exploring Pelister or the surrounding rural scene.
As we settled into our accommodation an old man went past, leading a cow on a leash. The view from my bedroom window was a bucolic scene of orchards, vegetable plots and a cow pasture, while occasionally peeping out from behind the cloud were the brooding flanks of the Baba massif, the mountains that constitute the park.
Pelister’s rangers came to meet us and filled us in on the park. It is believed to be inhabited by around 30 bears, 20 wolves, a healthy population of roe deer, 30 chamois, and Macedonia’s national symbol – the lynx. One of the rangers explained that lynx are an indicator of a good population of wildlife, and that the park’s camera-trap survey had revealed at least three individuals.
Gorki had explained that one of the ancient tribes of Macedonia was known as the Tribe of the Lynx, and that they lived around Pelister in Lyncestis, Land of the Lynx. Eurydice, the 4th-century Queen of Macedon, mother of Philip II and grandmother of Alexander the Great, was reputedly from this tribe.
The rangers knew even more about the habits of the lynx than its significance in history. We learned how a lynx will eat a roe deer over a number of days, covering the carcass up and returning twice a day. “A lynx is like a surgeon. It will suffocate the deer or break its neck, and then go into the vulnerable parts of the body. It only eats the meat of the deer, not the skin, the liver, the bones or the head. So you can always tell a lynx kill from a fox or a wolf.”
They explained that the number of bears was growing. “We like tourists to come. We know there are not many places in Europe where you can see the bears. It’s better than hunting them.”
We clambered into the rangers 4WDs and drove up a track just outside the village and into Pelister. After less than 15 minutes, we pulled up outside a newly built hide.
It was surprisingly luxurious, with glass windows, seating, and bunk beds to allow for overnight stays. The hide looked over a grass meadow in the valley below, and where a bear is known to regularly visit.
Rotten apples, donated by the village, had been thrown into the meadow, a hopeful extra enticement for the bear to visit. The biggest surprise of all was an infrared night camera and TV monitor set-up. As Gorki, who had brought it, explained: “We have the technology… now we just need some help from above to bring us a bear!”
Boar caught on night camera
It was early evening and still light, so we headed out on foot with the rangers to check on two camera traps in the woods. We followed a steep animal trail up into the forest, dried leaves crackling underfoot, defying our best efforts to walk quietly. The cameras were attached to the sides of trees and revealed images of wild boar digging up acorns, a female boar with several cute young, and a fuzzy shape, possibly a bear, heading away from the camera.
Back in the hide, we made ourselves comfortable as darkness fell, and watched the TV monitor, hoping for the movement. The minutes and then the hours ticked by. At midnight, we gave up and, disappointed, clambered into the vehicles back to Brajcino.
A couple of weeks later, I would learn that Gorki had taken a Dutch couple to the hide where they had seen chamois, a golden eagle and... two brown bears. But the fact that I’d not seen Macedonia’s ursine stars didn’t matter. The thrill of the search had taken me over lakes, out to islands, up mountains and through forests more wild and pristine than I ever imagined. As I stood in the village, a nightingale serenading me, I knew it. This place, much like the bear track in Mavrovo, had made a lasting impression.
The author travelled on a Bear Conservation Project through Macedonian company Balojani (www.balojani.com.mk). The excursion to Golem Grad was arranged separately.