The following is a guest post by Brandon Green of Brandon is Still Alive, who graciously asked if he could contribute to the Monsoon Diaries adventures.
Brandon Green and I had taken the same Calculus III Honors class 9 years ago during my freshman year at Columbia University. Since then we haven’t really caught up with each other until only recently, when he approached me a few weeks ago about publishing his experience about getting lost on Snake Island on The Monsoon Diaries. Here is his story.
After a great deal of increasingly desperate searching and a long drive on a perilous cliffside road, we found a fisherman who agreed to take us to Snake Island, a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of a lake at the border between Macedonia (FYROM), Albania, and Greece.
In the little motorboat watching Snake Island grow closer, we realized it was larger than we had thought. As we got within a few hundred yards, we saw that the trees surrounding the island were absolutely covered in birds. Birds stood on every rocky outcropping and viable perch.
When within shouting distance of the island, our guide made loud whooping noises to scare the birds from rest, and they filled the sky, almost intimidating in their numbers.
We circled the island, getting a nice view of the ruins of a church that had once jutted out of the cliff face. Since we had no way to communicate with our boatman without the aid, via cell phone, of his English-speaking 8-year-old daughter, I was worried for a minute that we were only getting a tour around the island, but finally, after the circuit was complete, he pulled up to a small beach and helped us off the boat.
We set foot on the beach and instantly saw a trail blaze. I remember thinking this was kind of funny – why would you bother marking the trail on such a tiny island? Where could you get lost?
Some ten yards up the trail we came to a full map of the island marking the many structures that had been built there, from 4th century Roman ruins to a 14th century chapel we later saw was still in use. Cheerfully taking photos, we hiked along the path and admired the ruins. It was amazing to see how many people had built on this tiny island in the middle of a lake, especially since the vast majority of the structures were religious.
After passing two or three of the ruins, taking in the forest scenery, we pretended we were “Lord of the Rings” characters as a nod to the Island’s name “Golem Grad”, then took a few shots of a particularly malicious looking tree.
We could see that the sun was low over the mountains, but we pushed on. We figured that since the map clearly showed that the paths took us in one big circuit, we couldn’t help but wind up back at our boat.
We strolled along the paths, hearing rustling noises as we frightened rabbits and birds, until we came to one 4th century Roman Basilica that seemed to be the end of the trail. We checked the ruin’s marker against our map, and saw that the path was supposed to continue onward, but as much as we searched for more blazes, the path just stopped, which was a bit confusing, to say the least.
When we finally gave up looking for an onward path, I spotted another trail blaze that would return us along a different pathway, and hopefully show us the last of the ruins on our way back. We kept walking along, and were pleased to find that right next to the path going back to the boat, there was a nice bench we had missed before that would give us an excellent view of hundreds of birds flying around feasting on insects as the sun set over the mountains.
We sat down and had a nice rest as the sun set, then walked down the path towards our boat. It was starting to get dark, after all.
Except our boat wasn’t there, because this was not the right path.
Though we thought we had circled all the way back, we were seemingly somewhere completely different. How could this be? The island was so small, and the lake could be seen from every side. Besides that, we had a map! How could we have gotten lost? We pushed on, sure that the right trail was just a short walk along the side, but the trails we followed were unmarked and probably formed by animals, rather than the island’s few human visitors.
Though we could sometimes see the lake from the trail, most of the island was cliffs covered in dense forest, so we had to find the one tiny beach where our boat was parked, or we were stuck. What little ambient light made it over the mountains from the already-set sun barely filtered through the dense forest growth, and it got dark much faster than expected.
That was the last photo, because the light was gone, and we were more concerned with getting out than documenting anything. We knew that we should be able to get back to the boat by following the original path all the way around the island and back to our starting point, but we hadn’t brought flashlights, since we were just planning on visiting for an hour or so during daylight. All we had to see with was one meager cell phone screen that barely illuminated each step before we took it, and would have been almost useless in scouting the blazes 100 feet down what we hoped was the path. Unfortunately, not being able to see was the least of our problems.
The darkness brought real danger – Golem Grad is also known as “Snake Island”. It earned this name because it is home to an estimated 10,000 snakes. Most are supposed to be non-venomous, but since all 10,000 were about to get up for their nocturnal feeding time, we didn’t like our odds.
I promised my traveling companion, only half-jokingly, that if we had to spend the night, she could have my jacket.
Our actions began to border on the frantic, and we ran up and down the path from one ruin to another trying desperately to compare them to the map we had, but unable to understand why their positions didn’t seem to correspond to the map icons. What was worse, the reality of darkness was beginning to set in as we found that all the photos and videos we had taken during the day had come with a price – the smart phone, our sole source of light, was down to a mere 7%, probably not more than 20 minutes of use as a flashlight.
As we tried to walk in any way that didn’t make us sound like dinner, we still couldn’t help but be amazed by the amount of wildlife. The birds, previously beautiful, now menacing in the dark, flew over our heads from perch to perch. Things stirred in the bushes that were probably not rabbits. The darkness spurred our minds on to craft images of their own to explain the sounds around us. Every rustle below was a snake, every movement above a swooping bird, every snapping twig an unknown predator. The night calls became progressively more surreal until some of the birds cried out with noises that sounded almost human. One species kept calling back and forth in a way that sounded almost exactly like “Ha!”. “Ha!” we would hear, followed by a few seconds of silence, then, again, “Ha!”.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until about ten or fifteen of these rang out that I realized that rather than being the world’s most human-sounding bird, the sound might be coming from our guide. “Hello!” we yelled back, but either it was a bird, or he didn’t hear us. “Hello!” we yelled again, and finally, in response, we heard a more emphatic “Ha!” (which I’m guessing is the Macedonian equivalent of “Hey!”).
By the power of Greyskull, we were saved!
We walked, still hindered by the fading light, along the path in the direction of the shouts, trying not to think about ‘The Blair Witch Project’ as we passed ruins that were once-familiar, now sinister. I spotted what looked like a human form, and though every scary movie told me he would probably turn out to be a chainsaw or axe-wielding madman, he was in fact the guide we had paid to take us out to the island. We reached him and alternated between thanking him profusely and showering him with apologies. He very graciously accepted whatever he understood with a wave of the hand and a few words in his own language and led us back to the right path, seemingly more concerned about the snakes and the fading light.
He knew the paths well, though, and marched along efficiently, pointing out the rustling of rabbits in the bushes on the way back to the boat. At least I thought they were rabbits. We finally got back down to the boat, still shocked that we had been unable to find it on our own, and set course for the return to the tiny village of Konjsko on the shore of Macedonia, in the pitch black of night with only the sound of the boat’s motor filling the air and the thousands of stars overhead, untouched by light pollution, guiding our way.
This was written by and posted with the permission of guest blogger Brandon Green.
– At time of posting in Skopje-Petrovec, it was 57.2 °F – Humidity: 87% | Wind Speed: 2km/hr | Cloud Cover: scattered clouds