My Hajla Beer Hiking Adventure began when we pulled into the northern resort town of Rožaje near the Serb and Kosovo borders. We were a group of seven — myself, two couples from Paris (Marie Lynn, Oliver,
Veronique, and Patrick), a Brit on vacation (Alison, who happens to be the British ambassador to Montenegro), and our mountain guide who doubled as our driver.
Our mountain guide was a man named Radonja Srdanovic who seemed to know every twist and turn on most of the routes we took during the week. He did an admirable job of getting us around in the mountains and improvising as needed whether due to weather or tired legs. Radonja’s knowledge of mountain traditions, medicinal plants and mushrooms meant that we were always learning something along the way. The Hajla hike was one he was not familiar with, so we also had a local guide, Ensar Zejnelagic.
We were expecting to transfer into 4-wheel drive vehicles at Rožaje for the drive to a mountain lodge we would stay at that night, but I think that everyone was a bit surprised when we pulled up beside an open, vintage Yugoslav Army troop carrier and started heaving our bags up into it. We all climbed aboard and jolted onto the road heading toward the forest. It was late afternoon and the brisk air had us diving into bags for jackets and warmer duds. Twenty minutes up the road there was a loud bang, and we pulled onto a siding.
The bang had been the death of the front drive shaft. Our driver improvised and decided he could remove the shaft and continue with just the rear wheel drive. It took some time to remove the shaft so we decided to (what else?) relax … and have a beer. Patrick, one of the French, put some Pink Floyd on his phone and we were well into the adventure by then.
By the time we got back onto the road, dusk was beginning to set in. We were driving on a jeep road climbing through the forest dodging the frequent branches that were sweeping over the sides and top of the vehicle. After thirty or forty minutes of driving in the dark, we came to a halt having gotten stuck in a deep puddle that the two remaining drive wheels were unable to handle. Our driver and his crew once again went into improvisation mode and pulled out snow chains. With great persistence, they finally got the chains to stay on the wheels and pulled us through the puddle. Following another 40 minutes of less eventful driving we pulled up at GROPE – a mountain lodge of the Mountaineering and Ski Club ‘Hajla’ Rozaje.
Our driver, Feka Kurtagic, is also a leader of the mountaineering and ski club and would also be our host at the lodge. The club earns some money by bringing groups like ours to use the lodge. Feka was an excellent host and he and his helper Arif Bektasevic immediately began opening the lodge and preparing a late dinner. Everyone was ready for a good night’s sleep in advance of the next day’s hike.
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Hajla Mountain Hike
The Hajla hike entailed navigating a steep route up to a high ridge that forms the border between Montenegro and Kosovo in this area. Like every hike I made in Montenegro it was challenging and photogenic. At the crest of the ridge, the route turns sharply and follows the border up to a summit. The route is marked sporadically with painted rocks and signs, but I was glad we had guides who knew where they are going. Ensar pointed out clusters of Edelweiss flowers that lined the ridgeline route at various places.
Hajla Hut Life
The GROPE lodge was a rustic but comfortable enough place to spend the nights. It is situated in a high meadow with great daytime and sunset views. We were well fed by Feka and his crew and he was generous with beer (when we ran out) and his rakija. The downstairs room could almost be called a museum for all of the interesting artifacts and memorabilia on display. Upstairs are two bunkrooms typical of mountain huts everywhere.