When a guidebook calls it “one of the world’s classic boat journeys” there must be a reason.
Here it is.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Photos are by Anne Sterck.