Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

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#1)  Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

Postby Michael J Spraggon » Sat Oct 27, 2012 9:31 am

Hi everyone,

Here is the first thrilling installment of the Balkans Expedition travelogue, the story behind the reports if you will.
(This is my first ever post so hopefully the attachment will upload properly.)

               
                       
Balkans 2012 Travelogue Part 1.docx
                                               
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There will be about 6 further parts to follow every few days. These will be a bit shorter - about 2-3 pages each.

We hope you enjoy reading it!

Michael J Spraggon

European Champion Tree Forum Balkans Expedition 2012
A Travelogue by Michael J Spraggon

Introduction

I had been considering a trip to the Mzymta Valley in the Russian Caucasus for some time since reading tantalising reports of Abies nordmanniana growing to heights of over 70m or even 80m. After some email discussions with Jeroen Philippona of the Netherlands and Kouta, a Finnish tree enthusiast, we decided that it was probably best (and safer) to leave these plans until after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics as the area seems at present to be a hot spot of development and environmental protest.

Besides which Jeroen and Kouta had already been planning an expedition, as members of the newly-formed European Champion Tree Forum, to the Balkans to survey some of the increasingly rare old growth forests of Europe and when Kouta asked me if I would like to join them I was obviously going to say yes. The plan was to have 3 pairs of eyes scanning for potential champions and if a 60m+ tree was found then I would climb it to provide a definitive tape measurement.  With our itinerary finally in place and having obtained contacts and climbing permits for at least some of the areas we were due to visit, our expedition began in the northwestern corner of the Balkans, near the Slovenian city of Maribor.

What follows is a travelogue, a day by day account of the places we went to or passed through, interesting people we met, things planned or unplanned that happened to us along the way and of course the exceptional trees and forests we explored.  It contains only the bare minimum of technical detail about the forests and ecosystems we explored, mainly because Jeroen and Kouta have covered this much better than I could have in their reports on each area, which can be found on the Native Tree Society website on the internet.  I’ve also avoided going into the long flights of descriptive writing you might expect from ‘real’ travel writers, instead just putting in enough detail to give you a feel for the continuous and varied experiences you will inevitably encounter when travelling through so many extraordinary places in such a short period of time.

Day 1: Travel to Maribor

At London Heathrow airport I’m relieved to find that my green pack does fit in the hand luggage tray, just, but the tense moment comes at the security check. Sure enough my bag comes through the x-ray machine and is diverted into the ‘naughty’ line, as is the hand luggage of the young lady standing beside me. We are called to one side and have to unpack our things. Her transgression is a bottle of perfume; mine was eccentricity. With my best attempt to appear smiling and carefree I unpack, explaining to the official how the lead shot bags are used to install a rope up to 100ft up in a tree. The tension is diffused when she laughs and says ‘Interesting hobby you’ve got there!’

Ljubljana Airport is modern but very small, serving a country of just 2 million people. The Slovenians are very proud of their cultural identity. Apart from a 4-year period under Napoleonic rule when Slovene was allowed to be taught in schools their language was supressed by the ruling Austrian Empire. Today Slovenians are quick to tell you that Slovene is a very different language to Serbian so as I wait for Kouta and Jeroen to arrive (they are delayed due to a tunnel through a mountain in Austria being closed) I try out some of my hastily-learned internet Slovene on the girl at the information desk. Her laughter tells me that my pronunciation wasn’t quite there and with a handful of correctly pronounced words learned I go outside and order an ice cream.

Jeroen and Kouta arrive within an hour and I squeeze myself and my two packs into the back of the thankfully air-conditioned Golf. This is the first time I have met either of them. Kouta is a fairly tall slim man in his early forties, originally from Finland, with a narrow face punctuated by a neat goatee beard, a resonant but staccato voice and, as I soon find out, an obsession for being precise - why else would he be so interested in measuring trees?

Jeroen is in his mid-fifties, of similar height with a slightly more laid-back manner. He says he looks a bit like Jack Nicholson but I think he bears a closer resemblance to Sting and this resemblance manifests itself in my consciousness as an intermittent soundtrack of songs by The Police playing in my head over the next 2 weeks as we trek through the various forests.

We can all speak German and English, which is convenient as these are the two secondary languages in much of the Balkans, and Kouta, who had previously been to some of the places on our itinerary four years ago, had also learned some basic Serbian. Kouta insisted that our default language should be English as he wanted to practise his grammar which was fine with me.

Our Pansion for the night was in a village on the outskirts of Maribor, Slovenia’s second city and the 2012 European Capital of Culture. It has 95,000 inhabitants and a notable ski-resort, which seems impossible to imagine in the 35° heat today.
We arrive slightly dehydrated and are promptly shown though to the bar where we are given a complimentary shot of very strong fruit liquor by the manageress who speaks German.

After dinner and messing about with the laser rangefinders trying to guess the heights of nearby trees and buildings we take a short walk through the village. There is a man-made platform on a pole about 10 metres tall by the roadside and on top are two Storks sitting on a nest full of eggs, oblivious to the noise of the traffic passing by right beneath them. It seems perfectly normal to J & K but I am very impressed by the spectacle and regret not having my camera with me.

We walk into a wooded area in the dark and immediately I see lots of fireflies for the first time in my life. The silent pulsing of these eerie green lights in the warm still air is enchanting and I can understand why woodland myths of faeries exist.

Day 2: Ribnica na Pohorju and the Sgermova Smreka

After another short night’s sleep due to the heat I’m up at 06:30. I’m more tired than yesterday now but there is no time to worry about that, I’m hitting the ground running today (probably not the best saying in this case). Today I’m climbing the tallest Christmas tree in the world.

As we travel west towards the town of Ribnica na Pohorju Jeroen calls our contact, Matic Kristan, son of the owner of the tree. He is very polite and speaks near perfect English and instructs us to meet him in the town square. When we arrive there is no one around except for a shy teenager of about 14 so we drive around and come back to the square only to find that the teenager we had driven past was in fact Matic.

He shows us into the town hall where we are greeted by a welcoming party, including town officials, the land owners and the Deputy Major. We are shown into Mayor’s office and sit at a long table with Slovenian and Municipal flags at one end. Jeroen is our spokesman, explaining who we are and the purpose of our visit. Blaž Kristan, a short, broad man with an even broader grin who is the father of Matic and husband of Damijana (whose late husband’s father discovered the tree growing on his land 40 years ago) in turn tells us about the history of the tree. Matic translates for both parties with astonishing ease.

We arrive at Sgerm farm, a pretty, rustic place on the hillside with fine views across the valley. There is a huge St. Bernard dog walking around and lots of tiny kittens, which the dog seems to have adopted. To our surprise a film crew from Slovenian Television are waiting and with our expanding party now joined by Damijana’s oldest son Grega (who will eventually inherit the farm and the tree), daughter Tanya and two local foresters, we drive in a convoy down the hillside to the tree.

As we descend on foot, Blaž points to a thick silver trunk near the bottom of the slope. “50 metres” he says. The tree is a silver fir, not the champion tree. Moments later a much larger trunk comes into view. I follow it up from the base…and up…and up. It doesn’t seem to be getting any thinner. This must be it: the Sgerm Spruce.

The film crew start setting out their gear, and so do I. The crown of the tree within the 100ft reach of my Big Shot is dense and packed full of dead branches. Behind it the steep slope is densely packed with other tall trees and in front there is a thick understory of Beech. From one small patch of ground to the side I can see a small window of opportunity about 85 feet up. With the cameras watching I eventually get the line over the one limb I could see. Actually it passes over 2 limbs – the other is dead but is pointing outwards at a different angle which will help prevent the rope from sliding down the sloping live branch. I hang on the rope with Blaž who claims to weigh 100kg. It’s a good anchor so up I go.

At 80 feet, dangling below the branch holding the rope, I look for the next live branch to put one end of my lanyard over. The next few limbs are dead and obscure the path of my throws. Eventually I decide to put the lanyard around the same branch as the rope so that I can surmount it can have a better shot at the next live branch. I unfurl my lanyard. This is the first time I’ve ever used my new system. It uses two hitchclimber pulley systems, one for each side of the lanyard. I had just had time to put it together and pack it before I left. I soon realise that I had tied the hitches on the wrong sides of the pulleys so while still dangling below the branch I have to take apart and rebuild my system. By now Jeroen shouts up “everything okay Michael?”  “Oh yes! Just sorting my gear out.” I shout back casually, although I’m secretly annoyed at having wasted so much time.

Finally I get onto the branch and begin climbing on my lanyard. This tree is very different to the tall spruces and Douglas firs back in the UK. For a start it is twice as old and the climate is drier. My style of climbing is to delicately weave my way around every branch and twig, rather than pushing through them. It is much harder in this tree, with dense thickets of dead twigs and branches in places and stretches of dead stubs in others, each perfectly adapted in its own special way for snagging the free end of my lanyard, and everywhere: dry abrasive lichen lobes, which are exfoliating my bare arms very effectively.

From about 130 feet onwards it’s business as usual and the climbing is easy from here to the top. The feeling of excitement as the huge mast becomes thinner and I climb far above the surrounding canopy into the light is the same as it always was since I first reached the top of a tall tree nearly 30 years ago. This one is very special though – it’s the first time anyone has been on top of the world’s tallest Christmas tree. Perched just a few feet from the summit, where the trunk is no thicker than my wrist, I must be the highest fairy on Earth!

               
                       
image001.jpg
                                       
               

Summit of the Sgerm spruce.

Fittingly, I begin unfolding my wand, a 3 metre long tent pole with the top section bent over so that I can touch the top of the leader shoot while the pole is vertical. Kouta (or is it Jeroen – hard to tell over the crackling) comes on the radio: “the owner would like a talk from the top”. The first thing I can think of saying is “There’s snow on top!” They don’t understand, so I try it in German. They still don’t understand. I say it again. Now they’re confused. “I’m making a joke!” By now any chance of humour has long since evaporated.  Then they seem to understand:  “Can you bring some down?” “Yes” I say, “but it will have melted by the time I get down.” Now they’re confused again…I decide to get on with the task at hand.

The tape with the weight on the end is unwinding. I watch the numbers go by…48…49…50…51…the total height will be about 6 metres more than the tape measurement so when Kouta tells me to stop at 56.23 metres I know that this tree is every bit as tall as they said it was. Jeroen and Kouta still have to determine the distance from the bottom marker to the mid slope point on the trunk base and they refuse to tell me their laser height measurement either until I get down.

               
                       
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Above: The view from the top. Below: Looking down.
               
                       
image005.jpg
                                       
               


I finally abseil to the ground and, in a Pope-like gesture, kiss the ground only to end up with a mouth full of dirt and needles. As I look up Slovenian television is standing beside me filming it all. I’m asked to say a few words and manage some heartfelt drawl about how impressive this tree is and then someone, the Deputy Mayor (I think) hands me a can of beer: phew!

Someone asks me if I brought the cone down from the top. Now I understand the earlier radio confusion: they had asked for a cone, not a talk from the top, or snow!

J & K break the news to me: 62.26 metres (204.3 feet) - this is indeed the tallest reliably measured native tree in Europe and the tallest tree in Slovenia. The irrepressibly energetic Blaž declares that I’m now co-owner of the tree and we are all invited back to Sgerm Farm for lunch where Blaž presents us with gifts and Damijana revives us with the best meal we’ve had for ages. It’s going to be hard to leave this place but we have to be in Croatia by evening so reluctantly we say goodbye.

               
                       
image007.jpg
                                       
               

The Sgerm-Kristan family and friends back at the farm.

By early evening we have reached Zagreb, the sprawling industrial capital of Croatia, and take a short break in the main park. Sitting on the park bench, watching one after another of some of the most attractive women in Europe walking past, each a pristine picture from the pages of an up-market catalogue, I suddenly become conscious of my appearance. I’m covered in green dirt, my arms are scratched and raw, my hair contains enough lichen and algae for an undergraduate botany project and my filthy, sweaty, sap-stained t-shirt clings to my body. I try to smile at some of them and they glance dismissively to the side and keep walking.

It is dark by the time we arrive in the town of Kutina, where our hotel for the night is. After walking round the town 3 times to find a place that sells biscuits (because I’m hungry as always) I go to my room. It’s been an extremely long day and each of us can’t wait to get cleaned up and go to bed.

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#2)  Re: Expedition Travelogue Part 1

Postby Michael J Spraggon » Sat Oct 27, 2012 9:56 am

Here is a link to the TV article, as it appeared on a Slovenian rural affairs programme.

The article begins at 42:43 and lasts approximately 6 minutes.

http://tvslo.si/predvajaj/ljudje-in-zem ... 143078743/

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#3)  Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

Postby dbhguru » Sat Oct 27, 2012 10:21 am

Michael,

    Spectacular! Absolutely spectacular! Can't wait to read the next installment. You three are giving us tree-measuring at its very best. We can't thank you enough. By the way, you are a superb writer, and to have reliable height data on the Nordman Fir is very exciting.

    Michael, Jeroen, and Kouta, you guys are a class act. You rule. Sorry to sound so effusive, but this report heightens my desire to get over to Europe and have a European rendezvous, which is making more and more sense.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
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Native Native Tree Society
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Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
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#4)  Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

Postby Jeroen Philippona » Sat Oct 27, 2012 12:40 pm

Thanks Bob, for all the compliments. Michael is a good writer indeed, reason we asked him to write the travelogue; Kouta and I will just write the technical reports. While Michael starts the post with mentioning Abies nordmanniana (Nordmann fir or Caucasian fir), perhaps you confused things. The rest of the story is about a Norway spruce, Picea abies. Kouta later today will send a technical report about the spruce.

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#5)  Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

Postby edfrank » Sat Oct 27, 2012 3:01 pm

The video is excellent and worth watching, even if not in English.

It can also be seen here on Youtube beginning at 42:57:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9rs6YA4Ci8&feature=relmfu

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9rs6YA4Ci8&feature=relmfu[/youtube]

I am unable to download a copy of the video, but here are a few screen grabs from the video itself:

               
                       
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ScreenHunter_11 Oct. 27 14.33.jpg
                                       
               


.
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#6)  Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

Postby dbhguru » Sat Oct 27, 2012 3:32 pm

Jeroen,

   Yes, I got confused. I should have known that it was a Norway. Regardless, can't wait for the next surprise.

Bob
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#7)  Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

Postby jamesrobertsmith » Sat Oct 27, 2012 8:09 pm

Wow! The European version of Will Blozan!
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#8)  Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

Postby Bart Bouricius » Sun Oct 28, 2012 2:27 pm

Michael,

That was indeed cool, for those who are wondering, you have to go about 2/3 through the TV show to get to the measuring episode.
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#9)  Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

Postby KoutaR » Sun Oct 28, 2012 2:51 pm

Bart Bouricius wrote:Michael,

That was indeed cool, for those who are wondering, you have to go about 2/3 through the TV show to get to the measuring episode.


You can also jump directly to the spruce episode. Just click the bar until you find the point at 42:43.

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#10)  Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 1

Postby Michael J Spraggon » Sun Oct 28, 2012 5:38 pm

Thanks for the comments! I glad you liked part 1.

I have attached it again, this time it includes photos I took from up in the tree. The text hasn't changed.

               
                       
Balkans 2012 Travelogue Part 1.docx
                                               
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Michael

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