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  • Writer's pictureHiker Tom

Out of the Tunnel

The Vintgar Gorge, Radovna Valley, Bled, Slovenia

PATH CLOSED IN WINTER MONTHS. The words are printed clearly on a muddy white plastic plaque, once in the local language, and then again in English below. The plaque itself is pinned across a gate obstructing my way forward. It’s heavy duty, with thickset metal poles intersecting vertically and horizontally. Obviously designed not to be messed with. To my right roars the resounding thrash of glacial water coursing through mountain rock. The river is ten metres below the path, yet even so, the gate before me juts out into empty air for at least a metre or more. A part of me contemplates climbing onto and around it, then every other inch of me realises the naivety of the thought. Any slip would almost certainly be fatal – death by drowning, perhaps, or maybe the hypothermia would take me first. The cliff to my left is a near vertical wall of rock; yet again the gate is built much higher than necessary and climbing over it without ropes and karabiners is well beyond my abilities. Gazing up, a line of sharp spikes completes the defensive barricade, beyond which lays a sliver of blue sky at the top of the gorge – which I know from my research to be one-hundred metres tall.

I’m in Slovenia. Specifically, I’m standing at the southern entrance to the Vintgar Gorge and I’ve already hiked for three hours to get to this spot. Now there’s a rush of emotions in my mind: frustration that I can’t get to the heart of the gorge with its azure water that I have read so much about, despair at the thought of turning back and retracing my steps with my tail between my legs, fear of the prospect of trying to get past the gate – I could go on. If I had company, a friend or another traveler, then maybe we would push each other out of our comfort zones and reap the rewards together. But I’m not with company, I’m alone, and it makes a difference.

For a brief moment, I just stand still. Surveying the situation around me and urging myself to be brave. Then I consign myself to the inevitable and turn around. Though disappointed, the path out of the gorge is beautiful nonetheless – it trundles this way and that, up and down, and at the end lies a waterfall thirteen metres high; water gushes forth over the sudden drop just as the gorge itself opens into a wide sloping valley. A tranquil turquoise pool lies below, either side of which are banks lined with evergreens.

This is the point when I notice something new, a rocky path that veers to the right and leads up the valley’s face. It's a pretty old track and well concealed: I had been completely oblivious to it upon my original approach. Now my feelings of despair recede against a rush of curiosity. There’s a yearning to explore inside of me, and at this moment it is fastening its hold on me. As if by instinct, my fingers clasp onto the nearest suitable handholds and I begin my scramble upwards. I’m engulfed by trees on all sides and I delight at the scent of spring so fresh I can almost taste it.

While the trail is steep, it is not strenuous. The slow, monotonous action of the climb preoccupies my mind: I recall learning to scramble as a small child, I mull over what I have achieved on my travels and the experiences that I could only have dreamt of before. In this state, time passes quickly and so with it does my ascent, and before long my path is intersected by a narrow trail that meanders back towards the gorge…

One compulsive decision later, I’m exiting the trees and stepping out onto a cliff-side ledge. At its widest it is a metre, but in parts it feels as narrow as my shoulders. I’m not at the top of the gorge, but I judge that I’m at least half way up, and as I inch my head out ever so slightly past the edge, the river appears as a small blue vein far below. A sickening flutter spreads in my stomach and I rein back in towards the safety of firm rock. As I continue my way along the path, a slight bend reveals an old bridge just below me – in the centre of which runs a single train track. In that instant I begin to feel a slight rumbling in my feet, and the vague yet familiar sound of a locomotive engine permeates the still air. With a flash of understanding, I scuttle as fast as I can along the narrow path. The rumbling becomes fiercer as I reach my position. Fumbling in my bag I clasp hold of my camera and yank it out. I can feel the open air below me and try to block its presence from my mind as I steady my feet – there’s no room for error here. Chug-chug, chug-chug. With each passing second the sound is ever louder. I wait in tense anticipation, adrenaline coursing through me, before the train emerges from the mountain directly below my feet and rampages unrelentingly onto the far side of the gorge.


🌏Where can I find: The Vintgar Gorge 🌏


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