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Riding the Blue Rustbucket on Lake Komani, Albania

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When a guidebook calls it “one of the world’s classic boat journeys” there must be a reason.

Here it is.

Beautiful Lake Komani

You’d think such an extraordinary destination, a gateway to the Albanian Alps, would be easy to find, with hundreds of travelers making a beeline for the lakeshore.

Not quite. But that’s part of the adventure.

Crossing the lake requires a ferry, whose very existence was open to debate until the last minute. For days I checked online to find exquisitely contradictory information: it’s running; it’s not; it’s beached; it only runs every third Wednesday.

In the end most of these statements proved in some way true.

Getting to the lake – a man-made reservoir – is a three-hour undertaking, one that begins at 5am in Tirana and which for me almost didn’t happen as I fought off the advances of my guesthouse’s overly-amorous pet dog and almost missed the only daily van.

The highway was smooth and I was lulled into near sleep until we started climbing, the road becoming narrower, the potholes larger and the precipice steeper with each hairpin curve. The driver, growing visibly tense, stopped briefly for what I hoped was an insulin injection as we crept forward. We rose and fell, skirting mountain slopes and lakes, across countryside so calm and abandoned the few scattered farms seemed to have been placed there by an unseen hand.

To reach Komani we climbed to the top of the dam, emerging into a narrow cave with enough room for one vehicle at a time: no lights, no concrete support, just a ragged hole drilled right through the mountain.

Komani ‘town’ was a pit stop of a restaurant, a bar and a concrete slab of a wharf along which a few stubby barges floated lethargically. The car ferry was nowhere to be seen, having been beached the previous Wednesday because it cost too much to run (€600 or US$775 in gasoline for a single lake crossing). Can’t blame the owner for scrapping it.

Instead of the car ferry, we were welcomed aboard what I affectionately nicknamed the Blue Rustbucket.

Riding the Lake Komani ferry

Other than a wing and a prayer, there’s really no reason this ferry should still be afloat. My swimming skills are legendary and I’ve been known to sink in the shallow end of the pool so I wore a hidden bum-bag/fanny-pack lifejacket, which accounts for some of the bulges under my shirt. The others are proudly my own.

It was a perfect little ferry: rusty, smoky, layers of welding patchwork glueing it tentatively together with a few humps and bumps around the body. Tools were scattered near the motor and water covered the leaky floor. It wouldn’t have made it past even a cursory motor vehicle inspection: no lifejackets, no lifeboats, and at one point – as we came to a standstill virtually against a mountain wall – no motor.

There was hardly room for a clutch of passengers, let alone vehicles, but that didn’t deter two Poles touring the Balkans from loading up their BMW 800 trail bikes.

Loading a motorcycle onto Lake Komani ferry

Lake Komani: “One of the world’s classic boat journeys”

It lived up to its reputation for every last minute of the four hours or so it took us to cross.

High mountains embraced the smooth reservoir, their sides dropping at nearly straight angles into the calm water, a jumble of ruggedness, wilderness and solitude. The one jarring intrusion came from smoke rising densely above the trees, evidence of the perennial forest fire season that plagues the Balkans every dry July and August.

We were half a dozen passengers, perched on wooden benches, eyeing the two swaying bikes with suspicion and wondering whether they’d end up on our laps. The sun baked our heads and we took turns standing up, enjoying the breeze. I relaxed, knowing I had my private ‘fanny-pack lifejacket’ securely around my waist should I end up overboard.

We felt at peace despite the engine’s clanking and sputtering, which couldn’t override the sheer awe we all felt gliding through the scenery. Other than a canoe or two, we were alone in the world.

Canoe on Lake Komani

We inched ahead, honking the horn once in a while to attract passengers who scampered down invisible tracks. We picked up an old man and his generator: he was taking it to town to be fixed. One time, we just stopped. The motor died and the two machinists looked at one another in surprise, lifting the greasy grate and tapping around with a hammer to investigate. We drifted close to the mountain wall, so close we actually pushed the boat back with our feet (the rest of the passengers) and arms (me). A bit of clearance, a bit of luck and the engine puttered back to life. Onward to Fierza! To the end of the lake!

Old Albanian man

The one dissonant note in this otherwise sublime journey was the litter floating on the lake. Stowing garbage isn’t yet a way of life in Albania and if anyone wants to start a volunteer project to clean up Lake Komani, this silky reservoir could become a major kayaking or canoeing destination: the mountains are noble, the water mirror-smooth, and the occasional tiny pebble beach could welcome tired paddlers.

It is truly a spectacular boat journey. But it could use a bit of a clean-up.

Mirror surface of Lake Komani

Photos are by Anne Sterck. 

9 Comments

  1. Andrea on October 17, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    I would love to visit the lake but I’m not too keen on the boat ride. 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 17, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      I did have a few interesting moments – like getting into the boat – but the water is so calm that even if you ended up IN the water you’d be fine as long as you had something to hang on to! It is very much worth it. I suspect if more travelers start visiting, the boats will get bigger and newer 🙂

  2. Agness (@Agnesstramp) on October 21, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Hi Brave Woman on the Road 🙂

    I love the scenery, it’s simply beautiful. I have already picked up my favourite 3 photos: the first one, the last one and the one with the man riding a boat. I did boat riding many times in Vietnam, Cambodia and China, but never seen such a beautiful scenery.

    Happy travels and keep inspiring solo travellers x

    Love,

    Agness

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 21, 2012 at 11:57 am

      Thanks Agness, it truly is a beautiful and majestic lake, and as yet so empty, so a great time to visit! The boat ride was beautiful and, um, interesting… Albania is still ‘undiscovered’ by most travelers and it’s a little jewel, easy to get to and far easier to visit than you’d think. I’m planning a few more posts on different regions of the country in the coming weeks.

  3. Tiny Girl with Big Bag on November 4, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    Truly beautiful landscape. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Melissa on October 13, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Loved this. My husband and I laughed a lot. We think we’ll brave this trip next summer.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 13, 2013 at 8:22 pm

      Well done and great idea! And if you can find time to hike in Valbona grab it. I fell in love with Albania, and this region was one of the reasons for it.

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