Hiking through the Carpathian mountain range is an adventure that bestows a lot of rewards on the travellers who are intrepid enough to take it on, but it is not a challenge that gives itself up easily.
Ceahlau National Park in Romania is home to some of the largest, pristine and protected forests in Europe, and is filled with lakes, watercourses and hidden waterfalls interspersed through the jagged limestone peaks that lead up to the peak of the majestic Ceahlau Mountain.
Starting off in the tiny village of Durau early in the morning, our small band of adventurers felt like we were setting off on an epic journey comparable to any Greek Odyssey or ancient legend, and as the local guide regaled us with tales of the Dacian Gods who still lived in and protected the area, that feeling was cemented even further.
Travelling light was a necessity, as was preparing for a number of eventualities, so getting the balance between the right equipment and of course a good water bottle was essential. Little did I know that this would be my downfall later.
The forested terrain began to get steeper and more difficult as we progressed, the thick forested trail occasionally breaking up to reveal how high we were actually climbing, and our local guide telling us how Darzalus, the ancient god of the underworld tested mortals and only allowed those with the greatest health and vitality of spirit to enter his domain.
It was easy to smile and shrug off these tales of ancient Gods and local legends as we continued to put one step in front of the other. My breathing was becoming more laboured as parts of the forest turned into one, never ending stepping machine on maximum strength.
A brief rest was more than welcome by the time we reached the majestic Duruitoarea Waterfall and cracked out our small lunches of basic bread, cheese and fruit, washed down with clear water from the waterfall itself.
Apart from our small group the area was completely bereft of tourists and unspoilt from the gentrification and mass tourism that has infected so many other places, and despite being a popular local attraction, the falls themselves were relatively unknown outside of Romania. A fact I enjoyed immensely as I took a well deserved rest and started to fall in love with the area.
But eventually we did move on, and the trail went from relatively testing to downright aggressive in its attempts to dissuade us from going any further.
Long stretches of the route became an almost vertical climb with natural steps that stretched the limits of even the tallest in our group. The uphill gradient forced us to crawl in parts and even partake in a makeshift via feratta with ropes tied to trees when the drop down the mountain became particularly sharp.
I was getting increasingly tired, and after reaching for my water filter bottle that I had filled up at the waterfall, and realised it wasn’t there. I had left it behind!
The climb did not let up one bit, testing my endurance to its limits, and I was becoming increasingly dehydrated. Eventually disaster struck and my legs started to cramp up. The strain the steep climb was putting on my legs was more than my dehydrated body could take and my hamstring completely cramped up.
The Dacian Gods were determined to test me.
I fell behind the rest of the group from my former leading position and the debilitating pain was forcing me to rest more and more often. But there was nothing else I could do either. I just had to carry on, lurching up the mountain trail like some overgrown sasquatch and revelling in the signs that the steep terrain was slowly starting to level out.
After what seemed like an eternity of putting one agonising foot in front of the other I caught up to the group and the forest opened up onto a grassy meadow that signalled the top of the mountain. The lodge that was to be our home for the night was just a short walk away and I collapsed gratefully onto the grass to rest.
I had passed the ancient God’s test of endurance and had been allowed into their domain, their Olympus.
I had travelled off the beaten track, been tested and measured, and now it was time for my reward with some of the best views Europe has to offer that no one really knows about either!
A good adventure should always be just difficult enough to push you past your comfort zone, and an epic travel experience is only ever enhanced by delving deeper into the local history, culture and legend. You just need to remember to pick up your water filter bottle!