Wake up! The sun screamed as it penetrated through our tents walls. A 19hour day, 14 of which were spent hitching 430km was now behind us and we ached to complete our mission south. Our goal was to see Krakow and a national park above it. The time on our phones indicated 9am so we quickly got a move on, avoiding the free shower our snuck into campsite offered as an overcrowded (and overpriced 18€ a night) facility block would take up too much time. It was not until 2pm that we found ourselves standing on the outskirts of Warsaw, huddled under a bus stop as torrential rain flooded the roads. Whilst black riding (not paying) 2 trams and a bus to get out of the city, an insane thunderstorm had rolled over the city and was predicted to stay the entire day.
Our worst hitchhiking day of the trip began. We had no option but to stand, with our trusty umbrella, as the sideways rain blew across our entire body. We were forced to stand on the raised kerb of the road as all footings around us were submerged in water and when trucks drove by we would ran as a wave of water threatened to drown us. Time led us to taking turns as the umbrella could do nothing for two people. On our third shift and holding a drooping sign, a lovely talkative Polish lady picked us up and 5 minutes down the road the sun began shinning. She was travelling 150km in our direction.
Being dropped 40km further then our driver had intended to drive, we stood at an empty petrol station despite it being a major highway. Slowed traffic due to roadworks before it gave us the option to hitch on the road and luckily, as it was now 4:30p, a Belarus plated car pulled over. Inside a lovely couple who were driving directly to Krakow offered us a lift. They were really nice people, easy to talk to and the wife, who’s name we sadly have forgotten, had studied and lived in the States, making her english communicable. Our final lift was running smoothly until another drastic thunderstorm came over us. The rain was so heavy cars were forced to stop, trees threatened to be blown over and as we watched from inside our little car, sight outside was almost entirely shielded be rain. We had planned to reach the national park however after waiting 30 minutes for the rain to stop, it was past 7pm and we decided to be dropped just short of the centrum. We thanks our friendly Belarus friends and walked the couple of kilometres into the city centre. We had finally reached Krakow! With found wifi we quickly discovered the cheapest hostel, 7€ each a night and checked in.
The next day it rained. We decided to stay put in Krakow and fend off the 6€ left from staying in the hostel again that night, sadly missing the national park. An umbrellaed walk around the town, failed attempt at reaching a rooftop to photograph the city, a vegetable/dumpling shop (if you go to the markets the famous Krakow dumpings are crazy cheap) at the local fresh produce market and relaxing inside Massolit Books & Cafe reading was all our day consisted of. We also experienced our second consecutive night at a location in 21 days feeling the relief to stop for a change! A home cooked vegetable curry totalling 3€ and an early night was our preparation for our daunting mission the coming days..
The following morning we jumped onto a tram to reach the outskirts of Krakow. We found another local market, stocking up on vegetables and caught a bus further. Walking to an indicated spot on hitchhike.org, we came across two hitchhikers already thumbing. We chatted briefly however 4 hitchers in one spot were too many so we continued walking until another bus stop. Our wait was only minutes before seeng a lady come running up the footpath. As it turns out they had stopped further down the road. They were heading exactly where we intended, Zakopane, the Winter capital and highest mountains in Poland. From here, we intended to climb the largest mountain Rysy and step across the border to Slovakia. A idea we had little actual knowledge if it were possible. Luckily we had a couchsurfer lined up and hoped maybe they could give us some advise.
After being dropped in the centre, loading up on supplies for some days of hiking and walking 5km to our couchsurfer, we were friendlily greeted at the door of an apartment by Roxana and Marcin. They had dinner already prepared for us, a vegetable chicken soup with fresh bread and sweet and savoury Polish style (very thin but not a crepe) pancakes! We chatted easily as the pair had both spent some time in Australia and had plans to return in September. The food was hungrily devoured and an early night resulted in an early rise as we thanked our hosts goodbye and were outside eating breakfast on the move. With confirmation from Marcin, we began our 2 day 18hour hike to Slovakia. A meagrely 2500m high mountain to climb.
The hike firstly took us along the outskirts of the national park, walking just inside the tall pine tree line as the mornings sun shone rays through the branches. We walked the distance back into town however came to the popular hiking path further above it. Instantly we recognised it as a flood of people emerged and we were suddenly in a cue. The next 2km of uphill brought us to the park entrance where we had to ridiculously cue for 45 minutes to then realise we did not have enough money and they did not take card. As a result one of us payed and the other simply walked in. The crazy amount of people continued for the next 2 hours of walking, somewhat sabotaging the beautiful views surrounding us. The track took us up a gruelling 2000m, a struggle with our fully loaded backpacks. Upon reaching an alpine lake, large bare stone mountains cradling the circle pool below as if a newborn baby. We stopped and had lunch with the crowds of people.It appeared we had out hiked the crowds after continuing. The odd people we passed asked where we planned to reach as it was reaching 4pm and we had no idea what was coming. Climbing a small crest on our hands and knees, we peered at a sign indicating the next 1km section was to take one and a half hours. We looked up. Gradually the winding rock track increase in steepness, peeling across the face of a mountain until the track disappeared when reaching a jagged, almost unclimbable section. Squinting we could see a build up of people as they traversed slowly down and up the section. From where we stood it did not seem possible and the only motivation which drew us forward was our determination of walking to Slovakia.
The first half an hour grew to incredibly steep. Towards the end before the climbing began we were requiring multiple breaks, gulping air and feeling the icy temperature on our sweat covered bodies. Once the track became to steep to walk, chains running through steel eyelet rods stuck into the rock were required to hold onto. We had no idea of the difficulty this track involved, the signs suggesting nothing of it. Most of the time we actually felt unsafe due to the increasing cold and exhaustion from 9hours of hiking/climbing with loaded packs. Once the final hour of struggle was over, we peered down at what we just accented, now skin numb as small patches of snow sat beside us. Our view however was incredible and the patterned rock peaks of many mountains sat pointing to the sky. Our path then lead steeply down rock steps for a further 2 hours (due to our exhaustion), crossing a family of mountain goats playing on a grassed mountain side, until we reach the valley of five lakes.We had planned to make it further, to the next valley where the most popular tourist lake sat, Morskie Oko, however our current exhaustion forced us to stop at 7pm when reaching a lodge beside a lake. We had been told of these places, a refuge for hikers in various locations across the mountains where for a small fee people can have a room or bed. Something like a hostel. We pushed open the front door, revealing a bustle of noise and people. The traditional log building smelled like a snow cabin, sweat, fire and moisture in the air. We made our way past a canteen area, filled with noisily eating people then up a half flight of stair, revealing a reception desk. Upon asking if there were any beds we were given two options; to sleep on the floor or walk another two hours to another hut. The four degree temperature outside eliminated the possibility of camping so we chose option one. 10€.
Sleeping on the floor was allowed literally anywhere once past 9pm when the amenities closed. Popular areas were the hallways, then past 9pm people made use of the large canteen room, kitchen and reception area. We scouted for a trafficless space, finding all had been snatched early. The Canteen easily fit 30+ people however because of the noise coming from the room we guessed it would continue till late. Everywhere we scouted had people already until we interpreted the potential under the bar service desk. Putting our bags nearby to indicate it was our territory, we cooked a rice curry until 9pm then set up our mats. The cold hard slate ground offered no cushioning however being use to having no bed, our extreme exhaustion grasped sleep instantly.The next morning was a chaotic, individually organised rush of far too many people crammed into a house trying to prepare for the days hikes. Thankfully our area underneath the bar was spacious and we quickly through some extra clothes on and were out by 9am. Bodies sore and faced with an extremely steep section of track, we wearily dragged ourselves up. We had not even began the climb to Slovakia, another 2500m peak and were hours behind from the slow previous day. As we looked from the opposite side onto the valley of five lakes, we jointly agreed another (average person and we were much slower than that!) 7hours to reach Slovakia would not not possible with our packs. Slowly we made our way down to the famous lake.
Unimpressed by the hundreds of people crowding its shore line, the path around a standstill at times, we did not stay long before taking the 9km asphalt track leading away. Behind us, we left the trail which we had hoped to climb, up mount Rysy and across the border to Slovakia. After 2 hours we reached a large car park, littered with busses, horse and carriages and bustling tourists. Continuing on we reach a bridge which had on each side two large blue signs, a ring of yellow stars around a uppercase word. POLAND and SLOVAKIA. While we had not walked the intended, more difficult and satisfying route, technically we still walked across the boarder; kind of walking to Slovakia!
(94km walked, 106km hitchhiked)