Dry brown leaves crunch beneath our hiking boots as we make our way quietly through the forest. Drops of rain splatter on the canopy above and birds twitter merrily around us. As we turn up a hill, climbing over mossy tree trunks that block the track, a ranger points out a hole in the ground where a male deer usually sits, perched up high so he can see danger coming. Then we see it. A small fluffy fawn is lying curled up under a tree, almost camouflaged in the leaf litter. Childhood memories of Bambi immediately come flooding back. Only two or three days old, the deer is not yet able to stand. It looks at us warily through one eye. Mum is likely circling nearby waiting for us to leave. Usually, only rangers come to this part of the park, so the animals here have no reason to fear humans.
There are around 120 European deer living in the reproduction centre in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park. The 430-hectare fenced area is a sanctuary for the species, whose numbers dwindled during the Balkan wars. Occasionally, deer from other areas are introduced to bring new blood to reduce the possibility of malformations, and every year or two about 25 deer are released into the greater park. During summer, rangers place hay in wooden barns or feeding stations for them to eat in the colder months, when weather can be severe with an abundance of snow.
After our walk, we jump in the rangers’ 4WDs and head up a winding road through the park, which is around two hours’ drive from the capital, Skopje, and help them place salt lick around the hills for goats. It’s unusual – if not unique – to have such access to rangers, and I wonder if it would be possible in more developed countries. Gorki Balojani, from Balojani Tourist Services, spent two years developing the wildlife conservation tour for people looking for an authentic experience. “I love nature,” he says. “I want to help in the protection of wildlife and the institutions that are in charge of it, to give added value and benefit from tourism while at the same time protecting nature.
“Usually when tourists are in the outdoors, hiking and mountain biking, going for picnics and camping, they are using the natural resources and not giving anything back. The voluntary work is just to get the idea that you are helping and doing something for nature. You’re leaving something behind as a tourist.”
A proportion of the cost of each tour goes towards the conservation of the park, and guests can donate more if they wish. “I also want people to see how their money is being spent,” Balojani says. “I have been in tourism a very long time and have experienced mass tourism and been involved in developing other eco-tourism products. I wanted to make an impact and leave something behind and I thought this was the right product that was not on the market. There are wildlife watching tours in other countries, but there are none working to this level with national parks. It’s hard – they are public institutions so you are working with government, but they understand and accept the idea, and they’re committed to do something.”
Located in the northwest of the country, near the Kosovo-Albania border, Mavrovo is the youngest and largest national park in Macedonia. It has between 85 and 100 brown bears, 1300 chamoix, 600 wild boar and 500 rabbits. There are also up to 25 Balkan lynx, while the number of wolves is hard to determine because they migrate between countries. With snow-capped mountains, lakes, rivers, streams, canyons and caves, the park is heaven for adventure lovers, with opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, horse riding, rafting, and skiing in winter.
Mavrovo is divided into different levels of protection. There are more than 30 villages in the least protected areas, with many offering chalet-style accommodation. In some pastures, shepherds are permitted to graze sheep in summer. Others have endemic and endangered species and you can only visit with a ranger.
On a hike through a canyon along a tributary of the Radika River, we pass over rocky streams and waterfalls before spotting the tracks of a female bear and its cub in the mud. It had rained the previous day and the markings are still soft and in tact, indicating they were probably made the night before. We are warned to stay in a group in case we come across any brown bears, which can grow up to 500 kilograms, with a ranger at the front and a guide at the back. Although we are told that bears rarely attack humans, unless they think their cubs are in danger, it is comforting to know the guides are there.
It’s a four-hour drive from Mavrovo to Pelister National Park, which is in the southwest near the Greek border. Established after World War II in 1945, it is the oldest national park in Macedonia. We meet another group of rangers and hike for an hour uphill to check a camera trap they had placed there previously. Mounted on a tree in front of an animal trail, the infra-red camera senses movement and takes three photos.
There is a strong sense of anticipation as the rangers place the memory card in the camera to see the results; a wild boar with five cubs captured at night, its eyes glowing white; a deer looking straight at the camera. The trap is one of 10 placed throughout park, which is home to 30 or so bears and up to five lynx, which are so rare to spot they are known as the “ghosts of the forest”. Cameras are checked every two weeks.
In ancient times, the area was home to a Macedonian tribe called the Tribe of Lynx, who lived on the southeastern side of Mount Pelister. The great conqueror Alexander the Great’s grandmother, Euridika, was from the tribe. Until two years ago, rangers weren’t sure lynx were still living in the park, but they have now been captured on camera three times.
Ranger Jonche Gogovski says traps are important to see whether the animals are healthy. “We’ve learnt a lot about what kind of animals live here, how many and when they move,” he says. “Usually, during the day, they rest and move in the early morning and in the evening.” Gogovski was 15 years old when he saw a bear for the first time when he was helping his father as a shepherd. “Brown bears are very rare in France, Spain and Italy; it’s only in the Balkans that we have them,” he says. Hunting was banned 15 years ago, and since then the population has increased dramatically.
Pelister also has the largest concentration of the rare pine Molika in the world and is the only place where they are protected. The next day we help the rangers plant seedlings in a roped-off nursery, and put our name next to it, joking about returning years later to find our tree. After three or four years, they will be transplanted in another part of the park to replace old and fallen trees, so returning to find ours is extremely unlikely.
The hiking trails in Pelister are a legacy of the war, and the park is dotted with trenches used during the conflict. Our guide, Jonce Ilievski, has found German helmets in the hills. Ilievski is the son of mountaineer Dimitar Ilievski, who was the first Macedonian to climb Mount Everest in 1989, but sadly died on descent. Every year, on May 10, 300 climbers gather in his memory. Jonce was just 13 when his dad, aged 35, died. He has followed in his footsteps and is a member of the Macedonian Association of Mountain Leaders.
While it is disappointing not to see a bear on the trip, for me it’s not about that. It’s the chance to visit a little-known, emerging destination with scenery to rival Switzerland for a fraction of the price, and interact with both nature and the people enlisted to protect it.