An Unforgettable Albanian Experience (Gjipe Beach, Albania)

Four days and nights past of being a prisoner inside a hostel when the time came to finally put our packs on and leave. Two unfortunate events, the first being continuous rain then followed by food poisoning kept us bed ridden and prevented our Albanian experience from beginning. Budget wise, Albania was the best option to be stuck in a hostel however perhaps it would not have happened, if were were anywhere else.. Finally when we had the strength to move, a 5€ bus ticket and 50km later, (the effortless option) we found ourselves in the beachside town Himare.

Feeling restless for checking into another hostel, still weary and fragile from past days of limited eating, we dropped our packs then ventured to the beach. There is an incredibly beautiful strip of coastline from the city of Vlore and south, where every stretch is an unimaginable clear blue mirror. Laying on the beach this is exactly what we saw. Albania is still an emerging tourist destination, much quieter then nearby popular countries such as Montenegro and Croatia and as it was past summer and peak season, we only saw a handful of others on the beach. It was a paradise, but compared nothing to what we were about to discover…

The next morning we ate easily the best free hostel breakfast yet; scrambled eggs, tomato, cheese, ham, toast, croissants and cheese deserts. Table serviced and ready as we came into the communal area. Albanian hospitality.. always three thumbs up! We were then quickly checked out, carrying a 6L bottle of water and walking to the the small towns outskirts. Finding some sort of tiny gustation we put our thumbs out. It was our actual first hitchhiking experience in Albania, due to meeting some sick Austrians in Montenegro and traveling with them from the north to south. Having read hitchhiking is incredibly easy in Albania, our experience here justifying its peoples good nature, we still felt anxious of how it would eventuate. 45 minutes later after having a couple of cars stop but not being able to communicate our goal across and they drove off, we felt as if it was going to be a struggle.

Then a joyful, loose striped shirt, fedora wearing smiling old man walked over. He came from the town centre and happily greeted us in an array of languages. Choosing english we asked if he was hitchhiking also and he confirmed it was always his only choice of transport! He cooly stood beside us casually pointing down cars and before long a pickup truck driven by a local man with his 2 year old son stopped. We put our bags in the tray and jumped in the back and communicating through our fellow local grandpa hitchhiker, managed to be dropped at a town 8kms from our days destination, Gjipe Beach. Grandpa got out with us, needing to also hitch a further 3km to his village and as we walked through a tiny mountainous village, ocean off to the distance on our left and a cloudless warming sky above, a young tourist family yelled out a question. They asked where the best rakija (a local home brewed spirit) could be purchased and our friend acting promptly, cheekily stating he would tell them if they dropped us where we needed to go. Somewhat dumbfounded they agreed however could not fit us all in and we happily gave up the lift, continuing walking along the road and enjoying the scenery. photo-13-9-16-9-58-56-am

1km into the walk, sweat beginning to pour and the steep mountainous roads taking their toll, we began thumbing passing cars as we walked. The little road had no place for a car to pull in however a young guy stopped within 5 minutes, blocking the entire lane and happily taking us 3km to where we had to change roads. Traffic was extremely scarce due to being off season and again we began to walk, now on our final road to reach the beach. Blessed, a german plated car drove by and we were picked up by an old couple touring the riviera. They took us to a dirt carpark from where an extremely rough 4WD only road lead to the beach. Our luck of weather had surely improved with mid twenty heat beating down upon us and gruellingly making it down the steep track, the ocean teasingly visible over thick bushes, our eyes widened in awe.

Feeling cut off from civilisation, a cradled 400m stretch of white pebble beach lead from a grand canyon of overflowing green vegetation. The bluest, clearest water we had ever experienced sat at the shore and lead turquoise even 50meters out into the ocean. A handful of straw umbrellas and wooden lounge chairs lay on the beach (handmade from a local man we later found out) followed further down the beach by tree branch and dried fern huts. While it looked slightly commercialised from the track with these, once on the beach and sharing the magical area with only two dozen or so people, we could see the isolation.

Sitting under a fern hut we said goodbye and thanked the German couple who gave us the lift then had some lunch. A local tour guide taking a group of French tourists came over with a volley ball and asked whether we wanted to play. Of course we did! And for an hour we played with a mixed group of people. A black sky began creeping over however and we switched onto setup mode. Behind us was a small hut and the resemblance of a campground, hidden among an abundance of fruit and olive trees. It was completely shielded from views of the beach and we ventured in and asked a convoy of German 4wd vans whether it costs to camp. They stated they found no body to ask and we explored more of the area, discovering a fantasy like community ground with odd tents and people set up among the trees. We decided on a quiet corner, close to what looked like an out of season stage and bar area and suddenly heavy rain began falling. Retreating to a covered old ruined building we waited an hour for the storm to pass then set our tent up. By this stage it was early evening and we began to cook pasta however strong winds thrashed our stove fire and it was well into the night before dinner was eaten.img_4089img_4101photo-13-9-16-3-06-04-pmphoto-14-9-16-7-36-40-am

The next day we raised early, slightly driven for an adventurous day and by heat warming our tent. A repetitive musli with a cut apple kickstarted our day then we were off climbing the cliff on the opposite side of where we came down. Having previously researched a satellite map view of the area, we had seen a small cove and beach just two kilometres along the coast. We walked along a desolate beaten track, likely to have been hardly used for years as several concrete war bunkers sat crumbling among the prickle bushes. Every small shrub was trying to engulf the fading track seemed to have been created to hurt as they were sharp, hardy and prickly. As the track was almost unfathomable it abruptly came to an end and peering over the 50m high edge, we peered across to the hidden beach. It was incredible! Even clearer water than Gjipe, if that were possible, and in the middle a huge cave entrance sat, its depths unimaginable as we tried to see inside from so far away. Surrounding the beach were even higher cliffs then we looked down from and we disappointedly turned around. It was not unreachable however, we just had to swim!img_4158

Scaling backdown to our tent and making it over to the opposite side of the beach, we were dripping with sweat and ready for a swim. We made our way to some cliffs and jumping off, drew the attention of a Swiss guy named Quentin. He and his girlfriend Margaret swam over and the four of us dove and swam together. Mentioning the hidden beach and cave they were excited to join so we quickly headed back for a quick lunch then regrouped. We walked over to the small cabin where the local man seemed to live. We asked for some old snorkel masks as a German couple suggested it and speaking no english he seemed super friendly and pointed to four masks hanging from a nail on a timber post. One of them was in good condition however the other three had poor straps, one even braking as we stretched it. Quentin quickly ran to his van and brought back some plastic wire and threading it through a gap and tying it to the correct length, the four of us had very dodgy, but functional snorkel masks.

Two kilometres of turquoise blue water, white contrast cliffs scalable to jump from and sea caves brought us to the secret beach. It was as beautiful from the shore as when we looked down from above and we quickly made it to the large cave. It stretched triple over over head, ran ten meters into the side of the cliff and wide enough to hide an entire pirate ship. We left its inside in awe and sat on the pebble beach in its shallows. Admiring that places can still seem untouched and free from people..screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-3-47-11-pm

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Soon after a boat with people arrived and we were tiredly made our swim back as another black thunderstorm threatened to close on us. At Gjipe’s shore the clouds was blown back inland and now later in the afternoon we figured we better get cooking some dinner before dark. We found an old metal troff and using it as a fire pit, cooked earlier soaked lentils and vegetables into a curry. Quentin came over offering us ripely picked mandarins and oranges from a near tree to his camp and a jar of french honey he had helped produce. The kindness of strangers! We ate as it began to get dark then meeting up again, also with a German couple who had hitchhiked to Gjipe, went to the beach in plan of a bon fire.photo-14-9-16-4-43-39-pm

Firewood was in no short supply as large dead tree branches were scattered all over the beach. There were also bundles of dead ferns, perfect for beginning the fire. It only took minutes before we had a head high roaring fire and the six of us stood around it enjoying our last night in paradise. The Germans brought beers and popcorn while Quentin and Margaret made everyone a cheese fondu with potatoes. It was an amazing end to an incredibly fun day and enjoyable speaking until the fire dwindled to a circle of warm coals, we were glad to have completely changed perspectives of Albania. Its scenery, incredible nice and hospitably people and drawn travellers far surpassed our prejudiced feeling when first entering the country. We crawled into our tent late in the evening and fell quickly asleep, ready to make the dreaded hike out of our beautiful found paradise.img_4307screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-10-56-57-am

(24km walked, 35km hitchhiked)

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