Andrey Volkashin heads to Kožuf Mountain in Macedonia searching for vultures, only to find they may be rarer than he thought.
They told me not to travel to the Lost World. I couldn’t go to a place that doesn’t exist. Even if it did exist, it certainly wouldn’t be in the mountains of my homeland of Macedonia. I’d been obsessed with the Lost World ever since I was five and got a sticker of a Tyrannosaurus Rex for my “Animal Kingdom” album. This was one of the most thrilling and altogether disappointing moments of my childhood. I had discovered the existence of dinosaurs — only to discover they’d all died before I was born. I would never see one alive.
Recently, I found out that real-life dinosaurs do exist, after all. They’re now called birds. It’s a bit hard to imagine how my beloved T-Rex evolved into grandma’s rooster, but when you think about wolves and chihuahuas, you understand that evolution has a sense of humor. Vultures, however, have preserved their prehistoric appeal, so I decided to explore their nesting grounds in the mountains of southeast Macedonia. I had my eyes set on an immense canyon I’d discovered on Google Earth that lay well-hidden within the inaccessible ridges of Kožuf Mountain.
I only knew one person crazy enough to do this with me. So I called my usual partner for getting lost in other worlds, Elena.
“We start from Skopje and drive down to Kavadarci. At the foothills of Kožuf, we take a dirt road to a valley of a small river. I don’t know what it’s called, so let’s just say that’s “River One.’ We walk along its banks down the current for a day or two until we come to ‘River Two.’ This one is larger, lies lower, and creates deeper gorges. After about two or three days of walking against the current, we’ll reach the canyon, the Vultures’ Lost Paradise.”
Elena jumped in, “This is insane. When do we leave?”
And so it began — as usual when Elena and I travel — with both of our terrible singing and uncontrollable laughter. We would look at each other as we dove through the thickets and plunged into the swampy waters, our eyes silently screaming, “What the hell are we doing?” You see, Kožuf is truly wild, shrouded in legends and superstitions. Historically, this was a mining region, abundant with rare minerals, including lorandite, which supposedly is found nowhere else on the planet. According to some, the oldest mine on Kožuf has existed for over 5,000 years. Nowadays, most of the mines, along with the mountain’s few villages, have been abandoned altogether, leaving the land to nature and mysteries.
It took us only a few minutes to encounter our first snake. Thankfully, it was harmless. In Macedonia, there are three species of venomous viper and none of them are fans of damp and muddy gorges like the one in which Elena and I found ourselves standing. To our surprise, the river’s waters had sunk into the ground, leaving an empty river bottom full of sticky mud and wolf tracks. It was a bit like stepping into a fairy tale, but a more threatening one, with enormous roots reaching from a time before Disney had brainwashed the world with happily-ever-afters. Their tangled limbs ensnared us as towering treetops closed in over our heads, the heavy air laden with foreboding. We met a few more snakes and toads along the way, some songbirds too, but certainly no vultures.
It wasn’t long before I reached the point of desperation — that moment when you ask yourself, “What was I thinking?” We found ourselves standing in front of a narrow, steep cascade into the gorge. The only way down was to wade through stale pools swarming with the larvae of god-knows-what. In moments like this, there is only one solution: beer. I know this sounds stupid, and I’m not saying it isn’t, but I always start my adventures with some beer cans in my backpack. It adds a painful load to my shoulders, but after guzzling a warm brew in the middle of a mosquito-ridden swamp, the pain feels worth it. Besides, beer always tastes the most delicious when spiked with desperation. So, we continued dizzily through the gloomy waters, holding our backpacks above our heads to keep them dry. I had hoped to eventually reach the place where the river springs back to life at the surface, but by late afternoon, my fantasies of that place seemed like a delusion. Not willing to camp in the company of toads and snakes in the mud, we only had one option: to go uphill.
Higher above the river, the forest turned into a scrubland of wickedly thorny shrubs and disintegrating rocks. When I finally reached the top of the hill, I collapsed to catch my breath and was shocked to look down at my newly scratched and bruised limbs. I had been so eager to get out of that muddy hole that I hadn’t even felt the thorns piercing my skin. As the sun was setting, we found a patch of flat ground just large enough to set up camp. That night, we stayed up a long while gazing at the stars.
The next day our luck turned, foretold by a stunning black stork flying low above our heads. As soon as we passed to the other side of the hill, we heard the second river gurgling between the rocks. Relieved at the sight, we jumped in and bathed in the cool, clear waters, then walked upstream through the currents, mesmerized by the sights of the towering cliffs above our heads. At the joint of a small tributary, we found that the stream had split the cliff in two, creating a narrow ravine. We clambered inside to find water dripping down its rock walls through ferns and mosses. A tall, trickling waterfall, just for us.
For the next three days, the journey continued upstream over fallen trees, pools, rapids, and more canyons, each sight more spectacular than the last. Feet chilled from the water and heads burning from the sun, the journey was strenuous, but at last, I looked up to see the eagles and vultures flying high above our heads. The Lost World I’d been dreaming of ever since I was a kid had survived in a tiny pocket of pristine wilderness, not in a long-lost, far-away land, but in the very country of my childhood, a place I thought I knew so well.
But the biggest canyon that had beckoned me there in the first place still lay ahead. The closer we got, the more treacherous our trek became. Any reasonable person would wonder where our helmets and ropes were as we climbed through the rapids and up the waterfalls, but we never once questioned whether we should continue. By the time we reached our fabled destination, we had already seen so many wonders that we were not expecting the spectacle that awaited us, for, once again, we had underestimated Mother Nature’s generosity. Solid rock walls extended upwards from both sides of the river, reaching so high, they seemed to grace the clouds. The waters rushed and roared, pressing narrowly through the cavernous channel while Cypress and Platanus trees rose heroically from the rocky crevices. What a wondrous nesting ground for the vultures, I thought. Although I was too exhilarated to feel even the tiniest disappointment, I did wonder a couple of days later — where were all the birds? We rested on a tiny pebble beach, and I could tell from the stunning rainbow of colors in the stone that this was an area of dramatic geological history.
It hadn’t rained once since we’d started our trip, but shortly after we reached what I had christened “Vulture’s Nest Canyon,” angry winds began to blare louder than the rapids as ink-blue clouds rushed across the sky. It was the perfect dramatic effect to highlight the already breathtaking scenery, but a storm was on its way, and we had to make a decision. The river traveled a long way down from the high summits of Mount Kožuf, meaning the rushing waters of a flash flood could easily engulf us should we decide to camp there. By this time we had almost no food left — let alone beer — so we decided to take our chances and hurry upstream for a few more kilometers, hoping to find the tributary that the map said should be flowing down from a village.
As the rain spilled over us with all its rage over the following hours, we ran blindly, slipping on stones and flailing frantically through the floodwaters, hoping for the best. The currents were getting bigger and stronger by the minute, and panic paralyzed me. It’s a miracle that in this state we found the tributary. As we climbed our way toward the village, we came to a familiar sight. It meant good news for us at that moment, but terrible news for our Lost Paradise. “River Three” cascaded through a series of low waterfalls carrying loads of plastic bottles. Wasn’t this supposed to be an abandoned village we were going to? Where was all the garbage coming from?
We hid inside an old house, relieved to have finally found shelter. Eventually, the rain stopped, and the sun shone bright again. We took a stroll around the village. There were houses made of stone, some falling apart, some still standing, quiet with the silent ghosts still haunting them. And just like a spirit, the first human we’d seen in days, an old man, gazed at us in disbelief. “Hello,” I said. He kept staring, bewildered at the sight of the two drenched rats standing in front of his yard. Then, his wife showed up, and, no questions asked, opened the gate and invited us in.
Grandma Danche was ten years older than her husband Kotse. Their kids, just like many other Macedonians, had left our country searching for a better life, all the way to Australia. Danche and Kotse had done the opposite. They had moved from Kavadarci, the main city in the area, back to the village where they had grown up to spend their later years reviving the orchards and vineyards of their childhoods. They stuffed us with watermelon and feta cheese followed by sweetened Turkish coffee with lemon and rakia. We spent the night in their repaired stone cottage and talked about the history and the future of the region. We found out that the plastic waste came from a company that was drilling and bottling mineral water at the very center of the village. So ironic, I thought, selling pristine drinking water all over Macedonia while polluting one of the last remaining clean rivers in the country.
When we got back, I thought about the original inspiration for my trip. Why hadn’t we seen more vultures? So I did some research. What I found out shook me. In Macedonia, the Bearded and Cinereous Vultures are completely extinct, while populations of Egyptian and Griffon Vultures have declined to just a couple of nesting pairs, the main reason being illegal wildlife poisoning. As it turns out, it’s a common practice throughout the Balkans — in fact, a study estimated that within the last 20 years, 2,300 vultures have died because of poisoning in the region.
One day, my as-yet-unborn child will get a sticker of a vulture for their Animal Kingdom album, and I will have to tell them, “Listen, kid. The vultures died out. It wasn’t due to a huge rock that fell from the sky a long time ago, but because we poisoned them all. The last one died just a few years before you were born.” And while vultures are likely to survive longer in countries that properly steward their natural heritage, their future in Macedonia looks grim. With the country sinking deeper into political crisis and corruption, preservation of our remaining nature rests with a handful of struggling conservationists. Yet, someday, I hope things will change, that the magnificent wilderness of Kožuf Mountain will become a protected area, that better days will come for Macedonian vultures and the Macedonian people, and that the famous line from Jurassic Park — “Life finds a way” — will prove itself right.