As you may know, I live in a valley. It runs roughly east west, with Bohinjska Bistrica somewhere in the middle of the valley, and Lake Bohinj marking the western end where it sits in a bowl surrounded by the higher peaks of Triglav National Park. It's like a horseshoe. To the north is Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia, and beyond that is Austria. The mountains on the southern arm of the horseshoe separate this valley from the next, the Socha valley, with its famously emerald green river. Keep going south and you'll be in Croatia. Veer off right a bit and you'll be in Italy.
The Slovenians, tired perhaps of clambering over the top to get to the Socha and the south, dug a railway tunnel through the mountains leading from this valley to the next. If you like trains and you like tunnels, it's a doozy.
Numerous English people live in the Socha valley and a particularly fine couple called Pam and Alan made it over to this side of the great divide to hire a car. They took me to lunch! It was a lovely gesture and very enjoyable (thanks guys, if you're reading this). Chatting with English people comes as a welcome boost. No matter how well a foreigner speaks English, one misses the chance to ruminate over shared experiences and to sink into a conversational style that relies, albeit subconsciously, on a shared upbringing. It recharges the soul, if that isn't too lofty an expression.
The ability to flop into comfortable chat also, I have discovered, helps with climbing mountains. Yes, a week ago the mammoth task of taking the cows up Vogel came around again. Sabina and Igor have a plethora of cows and some of them (the younger ones that don't need milking) spend their summer up Vogel. To give this some context, Vogel is the place where I ski in the winter and forms part of the mountain ridge that separates the Bohinj Valley from the Socha Valley to the south. Sane people, and those who aren't accompanied by animals that weigh 400 kilos, get to the top in a cable car. Cow-encumbered types have to walk.
The weather was cool and threatened rain, both good things for hiking up Vogel in the summer. Another good thing was an English woman called Kelly. She lives near lake Bohinj, is married to a Slovene and is a good friend of Sabina. Like last year, the humans in the party were fairly numerous. I could therefore safely get on with the simple task of keeping up and didn't have to worry too much about what the cows were doing. Kelly hadn't done this before and we chatted on the way up. To my surprise, this conversation took my mind off the punishing steepness of the trek. It genuinely helped. Since my bad back I have exercised very little and I wondered if I would even make it (at one point I came close to giving up). Chatting, plus a second wind, caused me to feel pretty good by the time we got to the top. It was a very enjoyable day and that made Sabina happy. She is a very enthusiastic woman and sometimes she worries that I agree to things that I don't actually want to do. It was a good day (rounded off by an excellent barbecue at Clemen's house) and I was only mildly exercise-crippled the next morning.
Despite my earlier euphoria I was genuinely surprised to hear myself agreeing to do it again a week later. Again? Surely all the cows had gone to that non-deadly pasture in the sky? Apparently not.
I assume that the ski-resort cows had been facebooking their friends about the opportunities for cud-chewing or head butting tourists up in the mountains, because on Friday three cows from the south of Slovenia -- a place called Novo Mesto near the Croatian border -- were coming by truck to be walked up Vogel. We had previously walked about a dozen cows, so three would be no trouble. It being a Friday, however, meant there wouldn't be as many people available to guide them. Would I go? Yes, I'd love to.
Friday taught me a whole lot about moving cows. Way more than I had bargained for.
Again, for context, the earlier trip was all about walking Igor's cows up Vogel. They are used to it, they are sensible, they got an early night. We left at 7 in the morning and the weather was cool. There were also lots of cow-people there to gently guide the beasts to where they know they'll have a good time.
On Friday, however, it was three cows who live in a place that's flat. They spent hours in a truck. There were only three of us to walk them, and one of them was English who spends all day on a computer. By the time they arrived at the cable-car at the bottom of Vogel it was almost noon on a hot day. The cows got out of the truck like teenagers on holiday with their parents. Recalcitrant is the word. Recalcitrant cows with a very long and steep climb ahead.
I quickly realised that (for the first time) I wasn't going to be a passenger. This wasn't just a case of being proud for keeping up with the pace. These cows were going to be ferret-jugglingly difficult.
I had a stick for cow-whacking. Don't be alarmed by all the whacking that goes on in the video. For those of you who may not have had to persuade a cow to go somewhere it rather wouldn't, trust me, it needs goading, and these beasts are half a ton of leather and muscle. It doesn't hurt them and if you let them simply stand that's exactly what they'll do. Or go back down again. Or fall off the edge, and there are several base-jumping opportunities for a naive cow on the way from bottom to top.
It started well, I have to say. I was able to think only about making the hike to the top. It was when we got to the first real incline that they became less inclined to move. Then, as an amusing addition to their stubbornness, they would make a break for lower ground. When a cow gets that glint in its eye and you think, crap, it's escaping back down again, you have to run down and head it off. Seriously, as a man elated to have made any progress up hill, running back down again was not something I wanted to happen more than once. I found myself winded and needing time to recover once the beast had once again been pointed up hill.
My contribution to the herding process was relative. The others did the lion's share, obviously, but compared to my previous trips (where my contribution was nil) I felt very much a part of the team. Later, Igor shook me by the hand and thanked me for my help. It was generous of him, but I do actually think it would have been insanely difficult with only two people.
For a while there were four of us, giving me time to do some filming. Tomash had come down from the top to help. Later, Clemen returned to the bottom and I never actually spotted him leave. "Where's Clemen?" I asked, during one of the numerous pauses where one of the cows simply sat down and wouldn't get up. "Gone back," Igor said.
"Oh," I said, and got back to the glorious task of resting.
These were milking cows and we delivered them not to the pastures at the top but at the milking and cheese-making hut below the ski resort. The ladies who run it gave us soup and beer and strudel. I saw where the cheese is made and watched Igor and Tomash doing technical things to check a cow for mastitis. The cheese hut was a good end to the walk: Fascinating, social, friendly, and once again, that special feeling of not being a tourist but being invited in. One of the ladies in the cheese hut suggested that we should get married on the grounds that we are both single and exactly the same age. Clearly she likes her men red, soggy, and on the verge of collapse. Or perhaps she is unused to the level of gratitude I showed at her excellent soup.
The three cows saw other cows and I'm sure, once they were able to stand and graze and say hello to new friends, they realised it was worth it. Even the hyper-annoying toffee-coloured one who caused me to chase it twice down hill looked grateful. I developed a soft spot for that cow. Near the top I patted it and told it I understood why it didn't like hills. They are hard work even when you don't weigh 400 kilos. They did well.
I managed to film a bit on both trips and I'll post it below. Annoyingly, a movie clip can't do justice to just how steep the route can get. It's not the north face of the Eiger by any means (in winter it's a red run on the ski slopes), but for the three cows from Novo Mesto, it might as well have been.
(Note: this post is now 10 days overdue because of video problems. So I'll post without.)
Slovenia, writing, other things