by Alan Gray from Martin Rhys's Diary
17th August - 3rd September
Purpose of the Expedition
To mount the first ever caving expedition to Northern Albania�s Accursed Mountains and to explore and film caves as they are actually being discovered.
During the early 1970�s Martin Rhys, in the company of many of his generation hit the Hippy trail to India. Whilst on this journey and traveling through the beautiful Yugoslavian mountains he released that a right turn would take him into the then impenetrable country of Albania. This memory haunted him, and years later when he heard a radio programme on Albania he decided that he must visit the country, although at that time he wanted to see the surface rather than underground Albania. After an intervening period of many years, circumstances were right and dreams turned into reality. The expedition took two years to set up and a company [Speleo Productions] was formed to finance the filming, since it was felt that both Albania and its caves should be recorded on film to enable others to experience just a fraction of the expedition.
To turn the idea into an expedition took a great deal of planning. We were informed of an article in Descent which provided us with a name - Ray Argent whom we eventually managed to contact via CAFOD which is the official Overseas Development Agency for the Catholic Church in England. We were able to meet Ray in London and all subsequent introductions came via Ray. The original contact with our interpreter came from a meeting with Ray and this was followed up with great difficulty, since even in this modern age of instant communication, contact with Albania is almost impossible. Only about one telephone contact in about twenty works, and Fax communication is not possible. The only way I found to make contact by Fax was through the kindness shown by the Italian office of CAFOD, who then retransmitted my Faxes across to Albania.
Reconnaissance ( 12th to 19th June 1995)
Roger and Diarmid
A detailed account of the reconnaissance was provided in Axbridge Caving Group Newsletter - Summer/Autumn 1995, but a brief recap, that will hopefully enhance this report, is provided below :
The flight took Roger and Diarmid into Corfu from where the ferry took us into the port of Sarander in the south of the Albania. The purpose of this reconnaissance as well as trying to locate a caving area in Northern Albania was to assess the feasibility of driving from the south to the far north of the country, as this was the most cost effective method of travel. The first stage of the journey was an 8� hour ride in a dilapidated coach to Rrogozhire. Apart from the areas containing the oil fields, which were grossly polluted, the surrounding countryside was spectacular. Unfortunately at Rrogozhire the connection to Tirane (Albania�s capital) was missed and we were warned that it would not be good for our health to stay overnight in Rrogozhire since it was a lawless place, so along with the entire coach load of people we started to hitch. Funnily enough we were the last of the coach�s occupants to get a lift. What a lift, surrounded by hundreds of chickens in the back of a truck, I couldn�t stop scratching, but we safely reached Tirane and stayed overnight. Another bus ride, in the morning, took us to Skroda, once again beautiful scenery with huge glacier valleys disappearing to the horizon. The road north of Tirane is littered with roadblocks, but busses seem to have immunity so our journey northwards continued. We met our contact, Ray Argent who lived near Skroda in a village called Beize, and discussed the caving potential of the various areas with him. We agreed that the area around Boge, that the Italians explored in 1992 would be placed second on the list and the area around Vermosh first, since this area has never been explored by cavers. The first caving trip near Beize was disappointing, we could not find any caves in the vicinity of the village. The next day we were told about two caves high in the mountains east of Beize, one of which had paintings and monuments inside, unfortunately the guide did not show up so they were not visited. On that evening Ray spoke about his visit to Vermosh and once again talked about the caves in that area. Two of the caves near Boge (1� hours east of Beize) that the Italians had explored, were visited, high above the snow line in the mountains. The horizontal one was blocked by a mixture of frozen snow and boulders after 100 meters and the other had a vertical entrance pitch of 170 meters. This I descended for 46 metres and the blackness still could not be penetrated. The Italians had explored for another kilometre after the pitch where it choked in a boulder ruckle. On the return from these caves I stumbled across a cave that our guide did not know. The entrance rift was partially blocked with snow and after another 20 meters I free climbed a short pitch which then led to a boulder ruckle which was draughting so much my hair was actually moving. At Boje we had various other meetings with the area chief to sort out guides and mules. The trip back south to Sarander was eventful and we survived the night in a hotel in Vlore even though we could hear gunshots throughout the night. We arrived back in England a great deal wiser and half a stone lighter.
We knew that we could cave in the area near Boge and made some arrangements for that, however it would only be possible to reach Vermosh with a four wheel drive truck. No buses go as far north as Vermosh. It was because of the rumours that we heard on this reconnaissance trip that finally Vermosh was chosen as the base for our expedition. Another factor that influenced our decision to choose the Vermosh area is that the Italian expeditions had only explored the area as far north as Boge, thus the area around Vermosh, in caving terms, is unexplored.
On our last day in Beize, Diarmid and I decided to try to get a lift into Vermosh, of course no one was going that way. When we told Ray, he laughed, saying that it would take us a week to get there and back and if we could make it back would be questionable.
Conclusions reached -
a. Travelling by road from south to north would be impossible.
b. The caving area explored by the Italians should be ignored.
c. A lawless country, great care is needed.
d. Large amount of contacts were made which proved essential to the success of the expedition.
e. A four wheel drive vehicle is essential.
f. No carbide is available in the north.
g. An Albanian Interpreter is essential.
h. The expedition must be self sufficient.
i. There is no cave rescue in Albania.
Main Expedition Members
Roger Gullidge Joint Organiser, Caver, Financier
Martin Rhys Joint Organiser, Caver, Financier
Robin Williams Caver
Mike James Camera man
Diarmid Scrimshaw Film director
Vaso Bagalbashi Interpreter (Albanian)
Caving Experience of the Party
Roger Gullidge 20 years, Vertical & Horizontal caves, UK, Europe,
Australia, Thailand, USA, New Zealand.
Martin Rhys 25 years, Vertical & Horizontal caves, UK, Europe.
Robin Williams 15 years, Vertical & Horizontal caves, UK.
Mike James 20 years, Vertical & Horizontal caves, UK, Europe.
Diarmid Scrimshaw None.
Vaso Bagalbashi None.
Food purchased for the Expedition in England
Rice, Pasta, Dried Mashed Potato, Soya Mince, Dried Fruit, Porridge, Spice And Vegetable Cubes, Dried Soup Mix, Tins Of Baked Beans, Dumplings Mix, Dried Milk, Sugar, Tea Bags, Coffee, Pasta, Sauce Mixes, Dried Pulses, Corned Beef, Tinned Fish, Olive Oil, And Weeetabix.
This was supplemented by a small amount of local food i.e. Bread, Beer And Raki.
Basic First Aid Kit.
Extract from the �Blue Book� - All visitors to Albania should have the fullest possible medical insurance. Insurance policies should be carefully checked for war exclusions. Travellers should carry with them all medical equipment and drugs they are likely to need. It should not be assumed that even the commonest preparations such as plasters or asprin are available.
A one year old Land Rover 110 Defender Country Diesel long wheel base (ten seater) - hired from Range Finder at Amersham, it cost �420 per week plus an additional �15 for a roof rack.
Green Card Insurance was obtained but it was found that this was not valid in Albania. The only insurance that could be obtained was Fire and Theft for the vehicle with no Third Party liability. No broker would supply Third Party insurance for Albania which meant that if we did have an accident the result would be jail.
There was a last minute hitch; Albania is not covered by the Green Card scheme and thus the hire company was not prepared to release the vehicle. Insurance was obtained from a London broker, which cost �300, on the morning that the expedition was due to leave. The hire company delivered the Land Rover at 12pm on 17th August 1995.
Total mileage covered 3,000.
Individual equipment - Tent and Sleeping Bag.
Two Generators - one at 1,200W and one at 750W.
Caving Equipment (each caver)
Waterproof Oversuit and fluffy
Petzl Carbide Generator, Electric lamps.
FX2 battery Lamps
Ropes - one at 100m, two at 50m and one at 30m.
HI-8 Video Camera (owned by Speleo Productions)
Beta SP Video Camera.
Sound Recorder with built in Mixer - Sony.
Microphone + Boom.
Three 6v lights (adapted for underground use).
Days 50% Hot and Sunny [Max Temperature 25C]
50% Cold and Wet [Min Temperature 12C]
Nights Cold [Min Temperature - below freezing]
Personal Security (Extracted from the �Blue Book�)
Any visitor to Albania need to consider personal security issues very carefully. The visitor should behave with tact and circumspection. Jewelry, watches., cameras and video recorders should be avoided and cash should be carefully hidden. Many older people in the countryside identify photography with casting the evil eye and unwise camera use may provoke aggressive reactions. In the countryside, savage dogs belonging to shepherds are common hazards, particularly in mountain areas. They are generally bred from mastiffs and are designed to protect herds of sheep from wolves.
Involvement in a road accident is considered to be a potentially serious offense, and a driver unlucky enough to be involved should expect to be imprisoned for a short period while the circumstances are sorted out
ALBANIA - A Short Background
Albania is a republic and is one of the smallest countries Europe, it is about 200 miles north to south and 90 miles east to west. Albania is predominantly mountainous with peaks averaging from 2,000 to 2,500 metres. The rugged northern Alps include Albania�s highest mountain, Mount Korab at 2,777 metres. Average rainfall ranges from one metre on the coast to nearly two and a half meters in the northern mountains. Summer rainfall is scant in all parts of the country. Population in 1993 was approximately 3� million. Prior to 1967, 70% of the population was Muslim, 20% Greek Orthodox and the remaining 10% Roman Catholic, however in 1967 the Albanian government abolished all religious institutions, but freedom of worship was restored in 1990. The country remains one of the poorest and least developed in Europe. Virtually all industry is nationalised and farmland is either collectivised or organised into state farms.
Modern History - The Albanian Communist party was founded in 1941 and Enver Hoxha was elected as it General Secretary. The Communists formed a resistance movement against the German occupation during the Second World War and in late 1943 launched a bloody civil war in which the nationalist were defeated. In November 1944 the Communists seized control of the country; the Government being led by Hoxha. In 1948 Albania aligned itself with the Soviet Union and received large scale assistance. Its relationship with the USSR began to deteriorate in the late 1950�s and by the late 1960�s began to align itself with China causing the Soviet Union to break off relations. Relations with China began to cool and in 1978 Beijing also cut off its aid. The late 1970�s and early 1980�s brought a steady improvement in relations with its immediate neighbors. Albania, in response to the wave of democratisation that swept Eastern Europe in the late 1980�s cautiously eased restrictions on religion and foreign travel and also broadened its contacts with the West. Free multiparty elections were held in 1991 and the Communists clung to power. However in 1992 they lost the parliamentary elections and the first non-Communist was elected since the war.
Thursday 17th August 1995 We were two hours late leaving due to the problems with insurance for the Land Rover detailed above. Diarmid was met by chance in a little village between the M4 and Oxford; which was quite a coincidence as he was fed up waiting for us at a small roundabout just off the M4, so he drove to a phone box in a nearby village where we bumped into him. Foot hard down along the M25 and M20 to Folkestone and we were fifteen minutes early for �Le Shuttle�. Since the restaurant was shut we had to make do with beer (shame). Arrived in France at 2.30am.
Friday 18th August 1995 Driving all night, in two hour shifts, with no sleep, due to the fact that when you pack in five people, food for two weeks, caving gear, climbing gear and mountains of film and sound equipment into a Land Rover then just a small amount of comfort has to be sacrificed. Still Geneva was reached and then through the Mount Blanc Tunnel and arrived in Italy at 11.30am. The scenery was beautiful. Mike�s classic (to live with him for the trip) was a misdirection that would involve us wasting an hour trying to escape from the maze of Bologna. Hit the coast at Rimini at 9pm and couldn�t locate a camp site, in desperation we found an expensive looking Restaurant - the Pizzas tasted great and the owner was persuaded to let us camp under his car port. Horizontal at last. The weather is poor only, 17C and wet.
Saturday 19th August 1995 The restaurant owner has two Albanians working for him and they gave us stern warnings not under any circumstances to visit the North of their country. However one of them promised us the name and address of a �High Official� who could ease our way but unfortunately both the name and address failed to materialise. Left the restaurant at 10.30am. Our impressions of Italy is that the cities are smart and well looked after but the countryside is tatty and generally run down. After arriving at the port in Brindisi, in Southern Italy, we located the office for the �Illrya Line� and obtained our boarding passes. The customs were a disorganised shambles but were very thorough. We all had a shower before boarding, such a luxury to be clean - but this would not last for long. The small ferry, named �Kinsgtown� was manufactured in Aberdeen in 1964 and had been on the run from Italy to Albania for the past two years, and although she was old she had the feel that luxury was once present in the distant past.
On-board the bar was reached without mishap and after obtaining the necessary beers we took in our surroundings, a mixture of old and new fittings and young and old passengers. The crossing was eventful with dramatic electric storms - what happens if a boat is hit by lightening?
Sunday 20th August 1995 The aircraft reclining seats were up to our expectations - just like bus seats, vandalised, dirty and no hope of ever falling off to sleep on them. During the night the ferry sailed through the middle of the storm - what lightening; the night sky becoming day with every flash. The ferry docked at Durres at 7.00am exactly as scheduled. The weather was still wet.
Albania at last - the adventure begins. Tracking down our passports was difficult; they were held by an official in the lounge who only required $5 to release them with the appropriate stamps. All the vehicles were unloaded onto the quay for a customs check. The lower ranking official all wearing uniforms and the higher officials in plain clothes. Two iffy looking characters, who we thought looked exactly like 1950�s television smugglers, were being severely harassed, pushed about and threatened by the customs officials. This set the scene; then we were approached by a hulk of a man in a scruffy customs uniform with an enormous scar on his arm who spoke no English (quite fair I suppose since we didn�t speak Albanian). A photocopy of the Land Rover documentation was passed to him; this meant as much to him as the Magna Carter. Vaso (our interpreter) where are you? Ten minutes later an English speaking official appears and we were able to convince him with some difficulty that we were cavers who were making a film, I don�t think he believed us, but he gave our equipment a quick glance, decided it was too much trouble and agreed to stamp it to prove that it had been imported for re-export. The next official in the line of about 100 wanted a �Green Card� - what Green Card! When we told him where we were heading, his jaw dropped, he threw his arms in the air and said something like we must be mad and then let us through the barrier. Whilst all the other vehicles left the quay Diarmid and Roger were summoned to a mobile caravan. Things started getting hot since we refused to unload the Land Rover, but after name dropping that a high official was expecting us we were allowed to leave the quay. Still no Vaso. Driving down the quay through a very odd selection of buildings, skeletons of cranes and sheds; the only thing they had in common was that they were all dilapidated and run down, we were stopped three more times by the police, perhaps they just like talking to English gentlemen?
Amongst the throngs of people at the quay there were two waving at us - Vaso and his cousin Greje. We were all relieved to find them. Both men jumped on board, squeezing Robin between the luggage and the Land Rover�s roof, and off we went.
Our first impressions of Albanian�s busy villages and towns was much like those of India (including the smells). After half an hour Greje was dropped off as he was returning to Tirana by bus, and was sad that he could not join our expedition; we continued heading north. The roads were full of crazy drivers, pedestrians and horses and carts. Stopped in a restaurant for lunch - meat? salad and beer. Arrived at Baize during the afternoon and immediately headed for the CAFOD office, where Diarmid and Roger were greeted as old friends. We were introduced to Alben and Anton who promised to show us two cave entrances the next day. Dinner was taken at a restaurant, chicken or Veal with cold chips, on the outskirts of the village expensive, but good. CAFOD gave us permission to sleep on their office floor which was alive with cockroaches. Sleeping arrangements, Martin in bed, Roger in tent, Vaso on sofa, Diarmid & Mike in Land Rover and Robin on the roof-rack.
Monday 21st August 1995 Alben took us for a 1� hour drive across country along rough tracks to a cave which looked promising. It was agreed that exploration would be deferred since we had been promised two caves for the afternoon. Back to Beize where we met Anton who described the first cave as having �Paintings and Icons�. We drove up into the mountains and negotiated with two boys to guard the Land Rover for us. Trekked for an hour up the mountain carrying all the equipment including the camera gear. On arrival at the cave, which was unusual for this area since its development was horizontal, Roger immediately recognised it as one that he was shown during the reconnaissance visit - the paintings turned out to be coloured Stal and Bosses. Very disappointing. The next cave, which we christened Dove Cave since when Roger dropped the rope over the pitch out flew a dove, was different. A vertical shaft of over 100m. Roger descended the pitch on a 50m rope and Martin descended on a 100m rope and bottomed the pitch; the first time it had ever been descended. Roger transferred to Martin�s rope and also bottomed the pitch and we were quickly joined by Robin. The bottom was explored, but only bits of wood and old stal were observed and there was a 2 metre pitch that was choked. (Neither of these caves had been named by the locals) After the exploration the pitch was ascended and the boys paid for their guard duty. We exited at dusk and our exploration created some local interest. Through Vaso, as interpreter, one villager asked if I had found his dead cow. Apparently the cow had fallen into the cave and some weeks later was seen to be swimming in Lake Shroder which is some 20 kilometres away. I replied all we could see, apart from sticks and wood was what looked like a mummified sheep. How long had the cow been there? I asked. 160 years replied the farmer! Then an old peasant type man came over and asked how old I was and when I told him he kissed me on the cheeks. I suppose it was an honor, but I didn�t fancy his stubble. Back to Beize for bread, cheese sausage and tomatoes. Then bed; the sleeping arrangements were the same as the night before. Martin awoke to discover that most of his clothes had been stolen - serves him right having the bed for two nights.
Tuesday 22nd August 1995 Everybody checked their rucksacks and Roger also discovered that some of his clothes were missing. These thefts were reported to Lucat, the local headman, who was very unhappy and said that he would investigate but really there was little hope of retrieving our clothes. Lucat wrote a letter introducing us to the headman of Laepushe, (Jack) the main area we had designated for our explorations. No one had ever explored there before. The drive through the Accursed Mountains was beautiful. It took about four hours to reach the village which was on the boarder with Serbia. The village of Laepushe was quite a surprise since it was more of an area rather than a village, with the houses and a single general store very spread out around a large grassy area. We enquired at the house of the headman but he and his brother were away. We showed Jack�s wife the introductory letter, that Lucat had written, we were immediately taken as friends and she agreed that we could camp next to her house. Every piece of equipment was off loaded from the Land Rover. It seemed quite impossible that all this gear could be loaded into such a small vehicle. It felt good to get organised and set up a semi-permanent base after such a long drive. Vaso was settling in well and was proving to be well worth his �60 fee.
Wednesday 23rd August 1995 The night was cold and half way through I awoke and was forced to put on my undersuit. All right to think it now - should have bought a better tent. Woke up to a cold misty morning and shoveled down breakfast. Negotiated with a guide who agreed to lead us to two caves that are supposedly near the mountain peaks [Accursed]. The walk up takes two hours with unbelievable scenery, part way up we meet a lad with his pony who agreed to carry some of the heaviest equipment. This was a great relief since we had just reached the steepest part of our upwards struggle. The first cave was in an beautiful Alpine style pasture which was close to the nomad�s summer village. The first time we met the nomads they were fascinated and very friendly since we were probably the first Westerners they had seen. The cave entrance was total disaster area with stacks of rubbish and human excrement pilled high and we were only able to negotiate six metres of passage. We looked at other holes in the near vicinity but all to no avail. Another upwards climb for half an hour brought us to a rocky area that by looking at it appears to have great caving potential but again no caves were located. To make up for the disappointment was the scenery, the most dramatic in the world and the weather fine and sunny. At last Vaso finds a rift and when a stone is thrown down it seems to sound deep. Robin also finds a similar hole. So the walk back to the campsite is a bit more optimistic. Both holes will be investigated tomorrow, they are about 600 metres above sea level. Looking at the area�s catchment suggests that there must be a cave system, all we have to do is find the right entrance. Back at the camp Diarmid cooks up Spaghetti Bolognese; it�s good as we are all starving; this was cooked and eaten in the Land Rover since once again the thunder storms have struck.
Thursday 24th August 1995 Started off with porridge, as I was short of clothes I did some washing while Roger and Diarmid went off to buy some bread. All the caving gear was assembled and we started off up the mountain, this time without a guide and taking only 1� hours to reach the cave entrance. Rigged the pitch noting that there were heaps of loose stones plus a large rock poised to fall and a snow plug partially blocking the entrance. Roger was the first to descend followed by Mike with the lights and camera; I follow next. The pitch is 46 metres deep with snow at the bottom and several possibilities of ways ahead. Lunch time means an ascent and we are watched by several kids both human and animal (goat). Returning to the base of the pitch a way on is found; up a six metre high chimney, away from the snow and then back down a fifteen metre pitch once again with snow at the bottom. The cave then narrows into a rift which Roger and Robin explore; closely followed by Mike who is continuously filming. After the tight descent of the rift and an easy-going walk in a small stream for four metres; then a short hands and knees crawl, and a pitch that looked about 12 metres deep is reached. The cave heads to the right and the chamber above the pitch is nine metres high. Back to the surface and full of optimism that we have achieved one of our objectives to find a new cave system. (Today�s progress distance 40m depth 86m) All the equipment was stored, well hidden, inside the cave, and attached to the rope on the entrance pitch. Ropes, SRT Kit, Harnesses, Lamps, Dry and Furry Suits, and we returned to camp in the village. The menu tonight was beans, beans and Smash. During the preparation of this meal several of the locals were close and one of the local�s wives just found the preparation of the Smash potatoes unbelievable, so much so that she ran off and brought the rest of her family to observe us cooking this culinary masterpiece. 9.15pm bed time; it�s going to be a cold night.
Friday 25th August 1995 Today was a disaster. We woke up to rain; the tent leaks but luckily my sleeping bag doesn�t. I borrowed a coat and a pair of jeans from Robin and put a black bin liner over my shoulders. Six bedraggled cavers start their climb up to yesterdays cave. Half way up it stops raining and we are beginning to fell happier until we reach the cave entrance. Here we find that all the caving equipment that we hid yesterday has either been vandalised, thrown down the cave or stolen. Everything had disappeared. Our saving grace was that we had carried a rope and a few odd bits of tape, carrabinas and a descender up the mountain. We all hunted through the sparse undergrowth and found a few more items and were able to make up a very dubious abseiling kit, he had no hand ascenders. Roger very bravely volunteered to go down the 46 metre pitch in search of ropes and any other equipment. Roger felt quite confident that he could free climb the pitch if no ascenders could be found. He wasn�t too worried until his light went out and the water level rose at the bottom of the pitch. The only light available was a reluctant carbide, which Roger mounted on a woolly hat, and true to form as soon as he had reached the bottom of the 46 metre pitch it went out. However he did manage to salvage some equipment (two helmets, 2 descenders, 1 ascender, parts of lights and one harness) which means that we could just about carry on with the exploration. The lack of helmets was the greatest problem. The people of Northern Albania that we met had no conception of sport for pleasure. Survival was their only occupation. From the moment we entered their village high in the mountains they were suspicious of our intentions. The mountains belonged to them, and it was their way of life. They thought we must know there was something inside the cave; gold was rumoured. Whatever it was they wanted it to stay in the mountains and us to leave. We walked down the mountain, laughed and jeered at by the kids (only human this time). This incident was discussed during the walk and we all agreed that we had been warned that this sort of thing would happen. The Blue Guide warns people not to go to Northern Albania and we are as far north as it is possible to go. The cave has been named Vaso�s Shepella (Vaso�s Cave) since Vaso had discovered it; he felt very honored having a cave in his country named after him. The entrance of the cave is about 450 metres above sea level and the area surrounding the cave entrance is classic Karst topography. It must be stressed that no suspicion for the incident quoted above fell upon the Nomads who lived in the Summer Village we can only assume that the vandalism and theft was the doing of the nomadic Shepherds. Back at base camp we had a couple of cans of beer each to lift our spirits, Diarmid cooks up a fantastic vegetable stew and we all change and dry out. Halfway through the feast there is a tap on the window of the Land Rover, it�s our host the headman, he has been away in Yugoslavia, and invites us to his house for a coffee. The room is lit by one candle and the four older male members of his family are present. I am sat at the head of the table as the oldest guest. We were all offered cigarettes and since it is impolite to refuse I have a couple. The room is very long with a wooden ceiling and a glass fronted wall cupboard. On the walls there are religious pictures, very garish. Also on the wall is a carpet with a scene depicting Christ the shepherd near a river. These people are devout Catholics. After coffee comes Raki and Beer. [Raki is a national drink, a colourless spirit made from grapes, in the lowlands or plums in the mountains. It is usually very strong and should be treated with respect. It is not customary to swig it down in one gulp, but to sip it slowly]. Our host Gjik (Jack) Alia has been negotiating with the Serbs to put a road from Vermosh into Montenegro. The Serbs and Montenegrins apparently now (1995) form Yugoslavia. Of all the �Family� we have met the one lady who fascinates us, we have nicknamed �Twin Peaks� for obvious reasons! We all roll out of the house at 11pm - yes it�s still raining. The theft of our equipment was discussed with the Headman who said that although he was very sorry there was little he could do since the gear was stolen by nomadic herdsmen whom he had little or no jurisdiction over, and did not know who they were.
In the whole time we were in the Laepushe the locals would not sell the expedition meat or vegetable since they only had enough provisions for their village to see the Winter through. The general store sold some out of date food but this was very limited and in some cases worse than no food at all.
Directions from the Village of Laepushe to the Vaso�s Shepella Entrance - From the village General Store follow the obvious track down hill. As the steep hill levels off keep right, over the stream either by the bridge or ford and follow the track. Over the gate, past the army post, and cross another stream, the track continues with houses on the left and vegetable plots, and the stream, on the right. About 500 metres after the houses on the left is a small footpath which turns left and continues up the mountain for about forty minutes of hard very steep climbing. The track eventually descends into a large boulder stream bed, almost dry when we were visiting, cross this stream bed and ascend the steep bank on its opposite side. From this point many of the mountain villager�s shacks can be seen. Walk through the nomad�s summer village keeping left towards a large grassy area surrounded by the mountain tops, take a right turn when the football goat posts are seen, a stream sinks close to them. From the sink head up to the mountains following the obvious easy climb up the mountains. About one third of the way up the cave entrance can be seen (marked by a belay bolt) about 150 meters on the right. Approximately 200 meters from the goal post.
The cave entrance faces north. A steep boulder ruckle leads into a rift type entrance about 3� meters high by 2 metres wide. A vertical drop of 2 meters leads to a chamber five meters by 3 metres at the head of the first pitch. The area is vented and partially lit from a vertical chimney and crack at surface level. It is estimated that due to the weather conditions and the snow plug access to the cave system would only be possible for two to three months each year.
Saturday 26th August 1995 Woke up at 7.30am still bloody well raining. All the caving gear is soaked through (under suits as well) is soaked through and nobody fancies the trek up into the mountains (nothing to do with the Raki I assure you). It was decided that a day off was in order so we drove for an hour along the rough track and reached Vermosh; the most northern town in Albania, only 15 minutes from the Montenegrin border. Vermosh is a spread out village with 330 houses and more than 1,200 people. The people raise sheep, pigs and cows, and grow corn and potatoes. Winters are hard. In the Communist times the villagers had special Zone Kufitare (border zone) stamps in their passports and no one else could come to Vermosh. No one was allowed to walk around then; anyone who did was sent to prison. A typical frontier town, with a wide scruffy main street, most of the houses were stone walled with timber and tile roofs. True to form we find a bar, a long room with about ten tables each surrounded by plastic patio chairs. The whole town is curious about us which creates a strange atmosphere. We all feel very venerable - there are no police in the far north. Keeping a cool head we order a Turkish coffee. Considering the shabbiness of the town the bar seems quite prosperous, perhaps the people have nothing to do but drink. Behind the bar on the wall are shelves drinks, cigarettes, biscuits and sweets. On the top are four coloured spot lights. We drink our coffee and leave. On the way back to the camp we stop off at a village shop for lunch - croissant, bread and a tin of mackerel. The croissants are imported from Greece and freely available wrapped in a sealed packet. They are dated best before 28 May 1995, nearly three months out of date, we still eat them. On the way back, half way up a valley some caves could be seen, close to a lime kiln. We asked the man at the kiln about the caves and he stated that he had been in one of them but entry was only possible from the top of the cliff; from what he told us they could be worth a visit; perhaps near the end of the expedition. One thing of note about the Albanian countryside is littered with thousands of wartime defensive bunkers. Enver Hoxha (Head of the Albanian Communist Party from 1941 until 1985) was paranoid about being invaded and all the mushroom bunkers were manufactured and buried in the ground, they are everywhere, and each would fit perhaps two soldiers.
Arrive back at camp in Laepushe at 2.30pm its still raining (now 48 hours of continuos heavy rain) we are all thoroughly pissed off. Diarmid cooks spaghetti and Pesto with beans. I am writing the diary, Mike and Diarmid are discussing the film in Mike�s tent, Vaso is reading and Roger and Robin are asleep in the Land Rover. At about 7pm everybody is fed-up so we decide to go to a bar about 500m up the track. The small bar was the size of a large garden shed, it had an earth floor, wood plank walls and a large fridge humming behind the bar. Three locals were there when we arrived which then made a total of nine; completely filling the place. A radio was playing distorted Albanian traditional music. The scene was set. Mike had brought the game �Pass the Pig� with him and within a few minutes, and a short introduction to the rules of the game by Mike, the locals had joined in. They loved it and thrashed us four nil which was very surprising as they had never seen the game before. The whole evening was so ridiculous that with a few beers the awful weather was forgotten.
Sunday 27th August 1995 It has stopped raining!!!! So we spent the first part of the day drying out. Then back up the mountain. We have managed to cobble together four SRT Kits and hope to find some more bits and pieces further down the cave. Roger descended the pitch first, but all he managed to find was one caving helmet. This makes a total of three helmets between three cavers and two film crew. We agreed that Vaso�s Shepella has tremendous potential, with a catchment area of about 100 acres, and that exploration must continue. Diarmid and Vaso stayed on the surface to guard the rope from the Nomadic Herdsmen in this lawless area and the rest of us descended. The caving party could not help thinking about the horrible fate that could await us if this the only rope was cut. The nearest cave rescue team would have to come from Italy, and just to get to the scene would take four days - by which time the victim would be long dead from exposure. The numbers that would normally undertake an expedition to an unknown area, in caving terms, such as Albania would normally be in excess of twenty. Mike descended with a Petzl Zoom lamp attached to a woolly hat. Still a brand new cave has just started to reveal it�s secrets and cave fever has set in. First pitch negotiated, through the rift squeeze, Mike busy filming, then into new ground. As each step is taken we are convinced we have discovered an enormous system; no-body has ever been here before, it is very exciting. The next obstacle after a short crawl is a twelve metre high waterfall. We drop a ladder down and carry on for 20 meters and enter a massive chamber over 90 metres high and 30 to 45 metres in diameter. Off one side of this chamber we could see a pitch. Robin rigs it with a 50 metre rope and descends. The pitch is sheer, about 40 metres. I follow Robin, then Roger and Mike. At the bottom of the pitch we relocate the stream which continues down a series of free climbable waterfalls, this was very cold since the water temperature was only +1C. Roger�s light fails so that curtails today�s exploration. We reemerge triumphant. With only the poorest equipment left, after the theft, we have discovered an enormous new cave system. Arrived back at base camp at 9pm and ate like kings - soup, dried vegetables, soya meat, tin of tomatoes, broth mix and dried milk. It�s now 11.15pm, I�m finishing my beer and then going to bed. It�s cold (+1C) but not raining. Perhaps the Gods are at last smiling on us?
Monday 28th August 1995 Woke up to a bright and sunny morning, just the right day to go caving. However I felt tired and wanted a day above ground. The rest, including Mike who had an upset stomach, (as he had bought some tinned fish which was long past its �best before date� and smelt it, but he decided to risk eating it) caved again while I guarded the rope. During the day the weather changed and when the cavers emerged six hours later it was again raining hard. Robin, Roger and Diarmid discover more passages today. After the waterfalls the stream disappears to the right; to the left is a slot in the floor which is the start of the next pitch of about 25 metres. The pitch bells out into a roomy chamber and an inlet to the upper end of the chamber is joined by ours with a showerbath from above. About six metres downstream a one metre wide stream enters a hole in the cave floor and a tight difficult free climb of four metres leads to a narrow rift. The rift is traversed, at high level, for about 30 meters and leads to a large chamber to the left 15 metres wide and 45 metres high. The rift then continues on for another 20 meters gradually opening out into yet another chamber to the left 30 metres long and 55 metres high. Note due to time limitations these chambers were not explored. From this chamber the rift divided by a floor, Robin explores the upper portion and Roger the lower. The two sections join after 20 meters (the stream is so far below it cannot be heard). A shelf to the left forms into a roomy passage adjacent to the rift and after 10 metres further progress we are halted overlooking a massive chamber. Our lights could not penetrate the blackness so we were unable to assess the massive size of either the chamber that we had just entered or the pitch that was below us. Five metres above us on the right hand wall was a cluster of pure white formations comprising of both flowstone and stal; the first we had seen since entering the system. On entering this massive chamber apart from our hearts beating there was absolute silence so either the stream does not flow through this chamber, or it is so far below that the sound does not reach where we were stood. Both Robin and Roger felt that this, the last chamber of their exploration was part of a huge cave system, taking all the water from the mountains we have been exploring. The cave has tremendous potential, but demands a large experienced team and a large amount of equipment. Many side passages were not explored, although some of the uppers series, above the waterfalls were pushed but this area was dangerous as the rock is White Gypsum and is crumbly. The exploration was discussed by the underground crew and it was agreed that due to the small size of our party, the poor quality of the caving gear and ropes that remained, that for safety reasons the exploration of this system had reached its limits. Thus on the return trip the cave was de-rigged and all equipment carried out. It was dark when we eventually arrived back at the camp and still raining hard. I see why they are called the Accursed Mountains because it is always bloody well raining. We erect a temporary awning and after a curry we all crash out. It should be stated that Vaso even though he had no caving experience was eager to venture underground and the only reason this was not possible was due to the extreme lack of caving equipment.
Tuesday 29th August 1995 YES it�s still raining. We decide to go in search of caves near Vermosh. When we arrive there is a festival about to start. So realising that nobody would be interested in showing us caves we decided to attend the festival. Mike and Diarmid wanted to film, so Roger, Robin and myself, all dressed in our national costume (filthy scruffy caving gear) tried to mingle. We have only been in the area a few days and everyone we have met is at the festival. The sun comes out and it makes a very pleasant break. The festival is a cultural event with two teams taking part in recitals and dancing. Gjik seems to be Chairman and with much delight, fires his pistol to signify the start of the next event. The festival was to celebrate the laying of the foundations for a new church in Vermosh. The festival was held in a natural amphitheatre near to the church. We sat and watched teams of dances dressed in traditional costume in various competitions. The music was provided by three men who played various stringed instruments. Gjik marked the contestants, the crowd voicing its disapproval of his decision at times. Children sang and various elders gave speeches. After a couple of hours we rejoin Mike and Diarmid to do some filming. Guess what, Thunder, Lightening, Hail and Rain. Accursed Mountains!
Wednesday 30th August 1995 Mike and Diarmid film us walking from the camp into the hills. The weather remains warm and sunny an ideal time to dry out the clothes. On the route to the mountains we pass a priest�s house. Luckily today Diarmid makes contact with the priest and we are all invited in to meet him. What a wonderful deep man, so friendly and knowledgeable, he was one of only six Franciscan monks to survive the Enver Hoxha regime. Although he was imprisoned for drawing a map of caves he still continued to preach and never left Albania. He gave us coffee and Raki; he was 78 years old and has discovered caves in Northern Albania. During the Communist regime it was forbidden to go into caves as the Army used some of the caves for the storage of arms. He also told us that he had long discussions with an Archaeologist Anton Fistoni who has seen all the caves of Gaytani. After the interview we drove to Vermosh to locate a walk-in cave we had been told about. When we tried to find a guide, all the information we could get was that there was a cave about 1� hours walk away. So we had a coffee and decided to return to Laepushe to try and find the Singing Shepherd (we had heard his haunting song the day before and today Diarmid hoped to record him on film, but was unable to as he had returned to the mountains) and interview the Chief. On the journey back we stopped to investigate what looked like a cave entrance on a nearby hillside. This involved Robin and Roger crossing a river and climbing up the hillside. Roger climbed up a difficult and, from where we were standing, a dangerous climb to investigate the cave. Entrance to this cave was not possible since it was a fast flowing resurgence, entry may be possible from above by abseiling down the cliff face. Robin climbed part of the way up, realised that he was stuck and couldn�t get back down so continued on up to the top. He then had to walk around the top of the valley to return to the Land Rover. Unfortunately the remainder of the party did not realise this and after 30 minutes a search party was dispatched. Robin then returned and the search party was recalled. This being our last night in the mountains we lit a fire drank too much Raki and speculated how many more kilometres of cave that could have been discovered if our gear had not been stolen.
Thursday 31st August 1995 Woke up to very cold rain. Today we return to Beize. The line of snow is creeping down the mountains - the Accursed Mountains way of wishing us farewell. Time to go. The camp was dismantled in the rain, everything and everybody wet and cold. The journey to Baje is about 40 miles and takes three hours. The first thing encountered on the road was a very old Chinese bulldozer repairing the road. It�s so old that the blade is winched up by a rope instead of the more usual hydraulic power. The bulldozer pushers loose stones off the road to flatten it and repair the landslip. The whole machine is so old and ramshackle that when it turns it takes what seems like several seconds for the blade to catch-up. After this delay, about an hour later we spot our first car on the road. We stopped at a resurgence to get some more cave film but after all the rain there was loads of water about and no body could be persuaded to change into a cold wet suit. So still shots were taken and the drive to Beize completed without incident. When we arrived in Beize the rain stopped. We ate our supper, sat outside a restaurant and enjoyed a slap up meal, as usual unidentifiable meat that was always called beef and salad. Later on Diarmid interviewed us in a railway goods yard. Vaso although a very good interpreter had been getting on people�s nerves mainly because he was lazy and vain, or perhaps it was because we were all tired after the exertions of the expedition. Also on the minus front were Diarmid�s interviews which were designed to probe and be disruptive thus adding spice (as Diarmid thought) to the film, but all they succeeded in doing was pissing people off.
Friday 1st September 1995 Up at 5.30am and drove to Durres; the village is south of Beize and has an Indian flavor. Full of hustle and bustle, cars, lorries, buses, horses and carts, cows, sheep and goats. Despite all that, very exhilarating and exciting. At Durres, Vaso was paid off and departed. Boarding the boat was a performance, trying to understand the bureaucracy and almost getting thrown off for not having the correct papers. Eventually the paperwork is sorted and we are away; we�ve done it, and against so many odds. The first caving expedition to explore in the very far north of Albania, record the expedition on film and return safely.
IMPRESSIONS OF ALBANIA
A country who�s infrastructure has been destroyed but not yet rebuilt. Much of the economy is black and controlled by gangs. Some very expensive cars are in evidence, Mercedes, etc. apparently most of these have been stolen from Italy and shipped into Albania and sold cheaply on the black market.
In Beize on the northern border smuggling of arms and oil to the former Yugoslavian States is rife. Young men in their twenties are dressed in 1950�s style jeans or flares with many styles in-between looking like Harlem hoods. All a very strange mix; when men meet they always shake hands and if they are close friend they kiss each other on the cheek. I have not seen the same affection shown to women.
Albania is a beautiful country rich in natural resources. Although extraction of these resources this has polluted some areas it is a minor rather than a major problem.
The people are poor and uneducated, however, they are rich in culture and family traditions. The mountain people are friendly though cautious of Westerners.
Albania , its people and its scenery are unique in a European country.
Due to the very small size of the expedition, especially since there was only three with caving experience, priority had to be allocated to either the filming or to surveying. Unfortunately the survey had to take a lower priority and thus it was only possible to produce a line diagram elevation showing the relationships of the pitches in the cave system - this is attached.
The expedition was run on a shoe string. The total costs per person was �460 which included all food, insurance and transportation.
Since the 1995 expedition, the political situation in Albania is in turmoil, due mainly to the collapse of the �pyramid funds�. This scheme began in 1991 and paid very high interest rates to investors, using in part the money of new investors who had just joined the base of the pyramid. The first fund collapsed in 1996 and over $1 billion, a third of the country�s gross national product has been put into these schemes before they were declared illegal in 1997.
In southern Albania the country has slipped into lawless anarchy with armed gangs plundering and enforcing their rule. The Government has promised constitutional elections in June but it appears that little heed is being taken of this promise as the county continues its downward spiral. According to the press, the north of Albania is not yet involved but it is most probable that this insurrection will engulf the whole country since, with 80% of the country�s residents loosing their entire life�s savings, the political situation is far from stable. Albania does not have enough resources to even start to pay back the investors in the failed pyramid schemes.
The north and south of Albania have always been divided both in culture and religion. The area of Vlora in the south was a no go area to Westerners during the reconnaissance when things were reasonably stable. The north however is different; even now Tirane and its conflicts will seem another world away to the people in the mountains.
The feasibility of mounting an expedition to Northern Albania in the near future is very questionable. There would be two ways to mount an expedition, either as the 1995 expedition, with innocent friendly naivety which has been proved to work, or to hire armed Albanian guards who would forcibly protect both the expedition members and their equipment. Personally I would adopt the former approach since even the loyalty of the armed guards would be questionable and they would probably inflame the locals.
If another expedition is considered several problem areas will need addressing :
Further exploration of Vaso�s Shapella is not possible whilst camping in Laepushe as the daily four hour walk and the exertion of then caving to the required standard has reached its limitations. To leave the security of the chief�s land in the village and camp on top of the mountain is very dangerous, but the only way forward to further extend this cave system. A large team of six to eight cavers is essential with a back up team of four to five. Considerable amounts of equipment is necessary and food self sufficiency is essential. The camp in the mountains would have to be guarded at all times.
The only question a future expedition has to ask is : Is the definite possibility of extending a massive new cave system, Vaso�s Shepella, worth the hazards associated with both the interaction with the local population and the dangers of virgin cave exploration? Knowing the minds of cavers the answer will be a resounding YES.
The expedition was a success against many odds. In spite of loosing half of our time due to bad weather and half of our equipment to nomadic shepherds we found a significant cave system exploring to a depth of approximately 150 metres. We had all trained well for vertical caves which are predominant in the area we explored. We were ill prepared for the changeable out of season weather and na�ve to the real problem inherent to the Albanian people and their culture.
One final conclusion don�t play �Pass the Pig� with an Albanian!
Other Articles published relating to this Expedition
Scrimshaw Diarmid : Inside the Accursed Mountains : Video Filming in Northern Albania. Published in Underground Photographer No. 1 December 1995.
Background to Speleo Productions
In 1994 a member of the Axbridge Caving Group (ACG) had a dream - to travel to Albania and discover a large cave system that man had never entered before. He persuaded another member of the Group that this fantasy could become a reality, and then added another handicap - to film this cave as it was being discovered.
It was realised by these two individuals that to produce a professional film, that would appeal to an international market, it required the appropriate level of funding. Loans were taken out with the bank and the company �Speleo Productions� was formed.
The rest of the Caving Group thought they were crazy. The odds of finding a new cave are equivalent to winning the Lottery jackpot; but then to film the mythical cave and pay for the privilege? Still, one more member of the ACG had more money than sense and he signed up for the expedition.
In Albania the nearest rescue is from Italy, and just to get to the scene would take four days - rescue is impossible since the victim of an accident would probably die from exposure or of minor injuries, before help got to them. Still, the three individuals practiced their rescue and caving techniques together and slowly the three individuals became a team with a common goal - to locate and explore an unknown cave in the remote Northern mountains in Albania - known as the Accursed Mountains.
The Film - �Within the Accursed Mountains�
On 17th August 1995 the trip began, an expedition to a country with some of the world�s most beautiful caves and one of the worlds most firmly closed doors to the outside world. The expedition was a great success with many difficulties, some captured on film, and an important new cave system was found, partially explored and captured in a unique film. In addition to the caving footage there are stunning views over the surrounding mountains, interviews with local villagers and a visit to a local Arts Festival.
The team returned with twelve hours of film, more bank loans were taken out and the long laborious task of editing the film commenced. In September of 1996 the finished product was ready, a forty two minute long film - �Within the Accursed Mountains�.
Title - �Within the Accursed Mountains�
Duration - 42 minutes.
Copyright - Held by Speleo Productions
Format - BETA SP above ground. HI-8 underground.
Director - Darmid Scrimshaw
Cameraman - Mike James
Editor - Gary Hewson (BBC)
Narration - Brian Gear
Original Music - Kirby Gregory
Breakdown of the film
30 % of the film is shot underground and the remaining 70% above ground.
The film opens with an interview of the cavers discussing their hopes and fears
regarding the expedition.
Footage of the Landrover travelling through the Albanian mountains
Interview with the Albanian headman of the village.
Caving footage showing initial exploration of an unexplored cave.
Views of the mountains, the mountain people and setting up camp.
Caving showing further exploration. Equipment is stolen - the resulting problems.
Interview with a Franciscan Monk (Sub-titled)
Visit to a local Arts Festival
Final Caving footage
Ferry leaving Albania.
The Current Status of the Film
You may wonder why the very long delay from shooting the film to the final edited version being ready as a commercial product. Two main reasons; the first was finance and when you are working with a small budget then favours are asked and people who are helping you for a very low fee just cannot be hassled; the second is that this whole process of film production and the subsequent enquiries relating to its sale have been a massive learning process, which naturally has been quite slow.
The final version of the film was shown to several professional producers from the BBC and Independent Television who rated it highly and provided much constructive criticism regarding future films.
Over forty television companies were written to offering them a viewing; the majority of the companies turned the film down flat without a viewing, but two companies are interested and negotiations are continuing.