I gobbled a late lunch in Sárvár, a rather pretty castle town along the River Rába in Vás, and ate it in the shade of an old churchyard. Pleasant though this was, I didn’t linger but pushed on, eager now to make distance and embark on my new change of plan. I was following the Rába upstream and south, towards a very wild, mountainous and remote region in Hungary called the Orseg. It wasn’t a bad day for riding, warm and sultry, and God knows these rural Hungarian backroads were quiet enough, but for some reason the miles didn’t flow as sweetly or swiftly as those along the Donau Radveg. If they had I probably wouldn’t have been tempted by the shortcut I seized upon later that afternoon when I first began to sense that my goal of reaching Slovenia that night might be slipping away from me.
By then I had come into the Orseg proper, its hills and dark woods reminding me more than a little of the Ardennes. Few roads run through here, and as I looked over the ones that did, during my lunch break in Sárvár, I saw where I could trim a few miles off my route by quitting the main road and following a series of obscure back country tracks along a minor tributary of the Rába River, which rises in the heights along the Slovenian border. The only worrisome bit was between the villages of Nagymáfka and Döröske where the road was marked as an indistinct dotted line.
Dotted lines on a map can mean anything – a forestry track, a country lane the authorities don’t bother to maintain anymore but which local farmers drive every day, a four wheel drive path fishermen use to gain access to their favourite holes along the river, a hiking trail, anything. I decided, with an optimism born of impatience, that this one was perfectly navigable for bicycles.
And so off I went. I passed through Nagymáfka on a deeply rural backroad where scrawny chickens clucked and squawked and scuttled out of my way, and huge fearsome dogs snarled at the ends of chains in front of Tobacco Road shacks. Just about where I imagined the dotted line segment on my map must be starting, the bitumen faded away and the road became a narrow, leafy dirt lane, and continued into the forest, woodsy and picturesque with humid sunshine dripping through the branches.
Around the next bend it grew narrower still, the trees huddling close and shaggy. Sentinel shoots of grass and wildflowers appeared in the middle of the track. Soon it tapered to a hiking path, and a rather muddy one at that, thanks to the recent rains. It also began to climb. I shifted into an easy gear and pedalled onward and upward, obliged to dismount every now and then to ease my loaded tourer through the tight spots between the trees. The need to do this grew steadily more frequent as the trail wound higher.
However slow going it might have been, it sure was pretty in there. The forest was deep and solemn, with occasional shafts of pale yellow sunlight filtering through the leaves and illuminating all sort of beautiful still-life vignettes: a glistening bank of ferns along the path; a rush of pink wildflowers set against the hard green of summer foliage; the rich chestnut tones of a rotted trunk, covered with moss and lichens and brightly coloured toadstools.
I paused to soak it all in, take a few bracing sips from my water bottle, and seek a bit of reassurance from my map. It looked right. There hadn’t been any ambiguous turn-offs or other possibilities, and in any event it couldn’t be any more than a couple of miles to Döröske, and I’d already covered some of that distance.
I capped my flask and pushed on. Once the path stopped climbing, the ground became marshy and waterlogged, dense with undergrowth and ankle deep in mud. The trail here was no more than a chain of muddy puddles. Riding became impossible; even pushing the bike through this wasn’t easy: wet ferns tangled themselves in the spokes, and vines snagged on derailleur cables. There was more and more water. Puddles grew wider and longer, harder to circumvent, until finally the path seemed to vanish altogether, the way the channel of a river loses itself in a vast marshy delta. Ahead was nothing but a silvery sheen of water, bunch grass, swampy shrubs and the trunks of tall solemn pillar-like trees. I’d found my way to the middle of a swamp.
I paused to absorb all this, noticing now more than ever the vast conspiratorial hush of the forest, an eerie spell of silence that was accented rather than broken by distant gurgle of water, and the lonely twittering of an unseen bird. I reckoned I could still find my way out the way I came in, but turning around and giving up now would mean having to back-pedal all the way to Vasvár and then pretty much starting over; no Slovenia tonight. All this thrashing about would have been for nought.
I studied the map some more. It couldn’t be that much further. If I kept on a straight bearing I should be fine. I’d come out on a road, either at Döröske or just below there. But that’s assuming I could navigate a straight line through three-quarters of a mile of dense, marshy wood without a compass; it is not for nothing that sort of thing is known as ‘dead’ reckoning. A few degrees off, even a longer stride with your left leg than your right, and you can find yourself tromping around in endless circles.
The idea of giving up and turning around was even less appealing. I sploshed on through the muck and moss in as straight a line as I could manage, picking my way from tree to tree, shoving aside branches, wrestling my bulky tourer through the openings and barking my shins repeatedly on its pedals. Another pause, a couple hundred yards deeper into the marsh, another grand unfolding of the map. A vision came to me of an imagined gilt-framed oil painting hanging in the Royal Geographic Society: an intrepid traveller from London standing beside his bicycle, deep in a marshy Balkan forest, consulting his map as though it were the Times and wearing a perplexed frown. The title, engraved on a small brass plate affixed to the frame, reads: Lost on the Way to Istanbul.
As I was picturing this, the fans of sunlight that had been filtering down through the trees faded away, as swiftly and completely as if someone had turned down a dimmer switch. The gods had evidently lost interest in this little game and were going home now. Hand in hand with the sombre lighting, and gathering sense of abandonment, came a low growl of thunder.
I decided I wished I hadn’t come this way.
On the bright side, if I ended up having to camp out tonight, at least I had a decent stock of food with me and water was certainly plentiful, and God knows these woods were secluded. No chance at all of anybody coming by in the night and disturbing your slumbers. Nothing human, that is. I wondered if they had wolves here.
That unsettling possibility, and another theatrical rumble of thunder, put me in mind of a tale by ‘Saki’ from a collection of adventure stories I used to read as a child. It was called The Interlopers and was about two sworn enemies who encounter each other in a lonely Balkan wood – not unlike this one, I imagined – and just as they are squaring off to kill each other a gust blows over a huge tree which pins both men, breaking their legs and arms and rendering them helpless. As the hours pass, they realise how futile and silly their feud has been, begin to see the humanity in each other, and in a heart-warming exchange agree not only to forgive each other and end their quarrel but to pledge lifelong friendship – and so it might have been, if only a pack of hungry wolves hadn’t just then trotted into the scene.
That cheerful train of thought reminded me that nobody in the world had the least idea of where I was at the moment, or where to start looking in the event that I never turned up in Istanbul. My stated intention when I left Vienna, as scribbled on several postcards, had been to follow the Danube as far as Budapest and from there journey eastward to Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains. It is there that friends and loved ones would have believed I went. And there is where they’d instruct the searchers to start searching, not down here in this wilderness along the Slovenian border.
This was no time to break an ankle. “Believed to have vanished in the Carpathian Mountains” might have wonderful cachet as a traveller’s obituary, but when it comes to picking one for myself, I much prefer Freya Stark’s: “Died peacefully in bed, aged 100”.
Happily the Lost Traveller in that painting I had been picturing on the walls of the RGS managed to pick up the trail again, although not without a great deal more thrashing and scraping and squelching through mud, and no small measure of luck. My wanderings led me through the marshy thickets to the base of a high steep bluff, slippery with leaves, which I managed to scale, hand over hand, stumbling and cursing, with my bicycle slung awkwardly over my shoulders.
There at the top I was rewarded with a glimpse of a pond, its silvery expanse visible through the leaves, with a couple of chalets on the other side and the homely spectacle of two men fishing from a canoe out in the middle. Better still, closer to hand, was a clearing in the forest. I could see the sunlight and the bright green of blackberry brambles, and when I made my way over there was delighted to find the trace of what appeared to be an old fisherman’s path. Relieved now, I scrambled back down the bluff to retrieve my saddlebags, brought them up, reloaded the bike, and set off once more. It was a lucky break but I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
The path firmed up nicely, no question about it, broadening to a well-worn track that led, alas, not to a public road but squarely into somebody’s backyard. I slowed as the house hove into view, a sense of unease creeping over me. So many of the houses I’d passed that day had had huge, nasty-looking guard dogs patrolling their yards; it seemed to be the done thing here in rural Hungary. And while they’d invariably snarled at me as I pedalled by, hurling themselves at their fences and lunging to the ends of their chains, none of them were ever loose; I’d been perfectly safe out there on the road. But now I was not on the road. I was intruding, an intruder, not a willing one, to be sure, but an intruder nonetheless.
If one of those things charged me now I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, legally and probably literally as well. I peeked cautiously around, like a deer poised for flight. Nothing dozed in the shade. No doghouses were visible. No gnawed human ribcages or thighbones lay scattered about. The coast, or rather, the yard looked clear. With a sigh of relief I emerged from the shrubbery, and stepped light and lively across the lawn, making for the side gate that led around to the front, where there would be a driveway and the prospect of a clean swift getaway. I moved with celerity and purpose, affecting an abstracted, miffed, slighted irritated air; the innocent wayfarer who’d lost his way and was blinking his astonishment at finding himself in this strange backyard – all this for the benefit of any as yet unseen observers who might be inside, holding leashes.
So absorbed was I in affecting this air and in looking around and appreciating this wonderfully dog-less backyard, that I wasn’t paying fullest attention to what was in front of me, and so when I ambled around the side of the house it was to bump my front tyre into the ample rear end of the homeowner who was at that moment bent over, working on the engine of a battered blue Trabant parked in his drive.
It startled him. Startled me, too. We both jumped. Fortunately for me I had nothing but empty sky over my head, whereas he had the bonnet of a Trabant a scant few inches above his. He hit it with a nasty sounding clunk. He snarled out something brisk in Hungarian and whirled around, obviously surprised to see me and not particularly happy about it. He rubbed the back of his skull with a grease-stained hand and with narrowed eyes took my measure, his expression one of suspicion and immense distaste.
I took his measure too. It was worth taking. He was big, but no bigger than, say, your average international Rugby forward. He was in his late twenties, wearing cut-offs and a torn blue singlet that showed off his biceps, triceps and latissimus dorsi to splendid effect, no doubt for the benefit of his pretty, blond, halter-topped girlfriend who had been standing admiringly by with a bottle of beer while he tinkered with the Trabant. I could see why they didn’t have a dog; they didn’t need one. There was more than a touch of pit bull about his eyes. They were not smiling.
It was I who broke the ice. “Hi there! Sorry to disturb you. I … uh…seem to have taken a wrong turn somewhere. You see, I was coming along this little dirt lane a ways back there at a place called Nagy-something and…well …” I gestured towards the hills behind the house “… it just sort of faded away in the woods and well, here I am. I hope I didn’t startle you.”
I had no way of knowing whether or not either of them understood English, but hoped that a light, breezy nice-doggie tone and a touch of the old bonhomie would butter the wheels of understanding and convey the idea that I meant no harm.
My new friend with the bump on his noggin scowled and stepped forward, placing his spanner down on the fender, carefully, gently, but in a manner that suggested it could be picked up again, swiftly, and used on something other than the Trabant. “That is not a road back there,” he pointed out in a dead flat monotone and not-so-bad English. He put his hands on his hips: what had I to say to that?
I gave a fragile laugh and agreed it with; it was unseemly the way it petered out like that. I would have thought my sorry state – the scratched up legs, skinned knees, torn shirt and the tendrils of blackberry vine still tangled in my spokes would have been eloquent of the truth of my tale. Perhaps it was; he continued to scowl but he didn’t pick up the spanner.
It occurred to me it might be wisest now to shift the focus of our conversation forward in time, away from the uncertainties about my character and how I’d come to be in their backyard, and towards the altogether brighter prospect of my departure. “So – how do I get from here to…uh… Dos…Dos…Dos”
“Döröske?” the girl spoke up.
“That’s the one.” Under the strain of the moment, the name had escaped me. I’d been going to say Dostoyevsky but I knew that wasn’t right.
“You’re in Döröske.” She pointed down the road. “That’s the village over there.”
“Ah, yes, of course. Splendid. Thanks. I’ll…uh… I’ll just be getting along now. People expecting me. Don’t want to worry them. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
I eased myself politely past his elbows, a Cheshire smile pinned to my face, then mounted up and pushed off, not so briskly as to imply guilt and the need for a hasty getaway, but not exactly lingering, either. “Have a nice day.”
I could feel their eyes on my shoulder blades all the way down the road to that first blessed bend which swept me from view. God, what a relief it was to have smooth hard bitumen under my tyres again, to press down the pedals and feel that old liberating sense of movement, of escape. The afternoon was pretty far gone by then, my shortcut through the woods having cost me the better part of three hours. I didn’t make into Slovenia that evening, but camped a few miles short of the border in the woods near Oriszentpeter.