"Jane – you walk." Obediently I slid off the mule that had carried me to the top of the mountain pass. I should have walked the whole way with the group who were still toiling up through the forest, but the previous day had exposed my limitations and I had been presented with the alternative of riding on the second mule while the first mule carried all our bags. As there was no road or track, walking or the mule were the only options.
The ride had been an experience – the mules clattered up the mountain unerringly, following a path invisible to my eyes and often stepping along the very edge of the precipice. Their owners, Zek and Murresh, strolled behind, occasionally practising their English. "Jane – you OK?" I was, although I had no stirrups and no reins and was balanced on top of a wooden frame. The only alarms came when crossing the mountain streams, when the mule had to be restrained from flying leaps. Here I realised that I also had no riding talent.
But now I was at the top. Ahead the land dropped almost vertically for hundreds of feet – snow, rock, scrub and then lush forests. We walked along the ridge for five minutes and then down a gentle slope. The mules, one still laden with the group’s luggage, ambled a few feet more and stopped by the edge of the cliff.
"Jane – you wait, you sit." Zek and Murresh unloaded the bags and sat down. Two heads appeared from below. There was a rapid exchange of Albanian and our bags and all four men disappeared down the cliff. Peering over the edge I saw them hurtling down the cliff like goats with our bags, and in a clearing far below two fresh mules.
Later we would see many facets of Albania – the mighty castle of Krujë rising out of the bazaar sprawled around its base, ancient Apollonia, whose treasures are largely unexcavated, and the historic higgledy-piggledy streets of Berat with multicoloured lights twinkling in the dusk. Later there would be fun-filled evenings with the group and hours of cheerful companionship during our daily travels.
But at that moment, and for the first time in my life, I felt not like a tourist but like a traveller, even a pioneer. All too soon the group arrived and we moved off – more cliffs to scramble down, more paths to negotiate and, for me, another mule waiting at the bottom.