‘The police wave us off like old friends’: cross-border kayaking from Montenegro to Albania

“Hello, over there in Albania!”, my kayaking guide Gigo shouts across the water as he paddles along effortlessly. He doesn’t really need to shout, because although we’re in Montenegro, we’re only a few metres away from the Albanians. We’re on the Buna (Bunë) River, a 40km stretch of water which divides the countries and is so tranquil that every sound is amplified, from the dip of our paddles to the rousing tones of the Muslim call to prayer.

I’m on a six-day kayaking adventure, following a 70km route that crisscrosses the border. Starting in Lake Skadar (Liqeni i Shkodrës), which spans both countries and is the largest lake on the Balkan peninsula, at about 400sq km, our aquatic odyssey traces the Montenegrin side of the lake, crosses to its Albanian shores and then follows the Buna all the way to the Adriatic. With a mix of wild camping, homestays and waterfront cabins, it’s the kick out of my urban cocoon that I have long craved.

The kayakers visit the monastery on Beška island
The kayakers visit the monastery on Beška island

Our expedition starts in Murići (Muriq), a small lakeside fishing village where Montenegrin Gigo briefs us on technique and safety. Albania’s snow-covered Accursed mountains, perfectly reflected in the water, vie for our attention. Some paddling experience is essential for this trip – I’m not a total novice but am definitely rusty; after a quick lesson, though, I feel my confidence grow, despite being the oldest in the group (my fellow kayakers are a Montenegrin woman in her 20s and two British people in their 40s).

We start gently, soon stopping off at Beška island, where the only residents are 16 Serbian Orthodox nuns in a 15th-century monastery. It’s quite surreal to have reached an island that feels like a different world so quickly. After a tour and some homemade pomegranate juice, we paddle off along the karst limestone shoreline, passing another island monastery, this one home to monks. Over the next two days we stay in Montenegrin waters, kayaking between four and five hours a day, with regular breaks.

Pelicans Skadar Lake national park
Pelicans in Skadar Lake national park. Photograph: Sevaljevic/Getty Images

Plans to camp at Bobovište (Boboshti) on the shores of the lake that night are scrapped as the wind picks up. Known locally as bura, this dry, cold wind is something you don’t mess with on Lake Skadar, by all accounts. We head instead to our homestay in Ckla (Skje) a day early and watch the water go from mirror to maelstrom from the safety of our wooden house.

The next day we retrace our steps in the support minivan and kayak the section we’d missed. While the wind whips up a few white horses, it’s not enough for us to be unsafe. It sparks my own emotional maelstrom, however, as I wonder if my age is holding me and the rest of the group back. Gigo offers gentle encouragement. “This is not a race,” he says. “We are all on our own journey and taking it slowly is the best way.”

meal on low table with lots of red fabrics
An Albanian spread served by the Kovaçi family

That evening we stay with the Kovaçi family, who run an ethnographic museum in their home in a tiny inland hamlet in the Ana e Malit region, 30 minutes’ drive from Ckla. Identifying as Albanian Montenegrins, they lay on a feast of Albanian food, served on a sofra or round table at floor level. Platefuls of japrak (stuffed vine leaves), burek (filo pastry pie), slow-cooked beef and heaps of vegetables are naturally accompanied by glasses of rakia (fruit spirits).

Before we set off to kayak across the border into Albania the next morning, two Montenegrin policemen come to the homestay to check passports and sign us out of their country. Undiscovered Balkans is the only adventure company in Montenegro to be doing a cross-border kayaking trip and the police look slightly bemused, but by the time we hit the water, they wave us off like old friends.

woman in kayak on Lake Skadar
The author on Lake Skadar

The tempered bura becomes our friend today, blowing gently into our backs and carrying us into Albanian waters. We drift alongside ancient olive groves, watching pelicans gather on nesting islands and relishing the calm. I fall into an easy rhythm, relaxed now, appreciating the headspace that being out on the water can bring.

Throughout the journey, the juxtaposition of cultures is a feature of these borderlands. Placenames are in Montenegrin and Albanian, architecture is influenced by Ottoman style and communism, and cultural heritage is multilayered and complex. The lifestyle is a shared one, however, where subsistence farmers bring their goats down to the lake shore to graze among ancient olive groves, smallholdings are delineated by drystone walls, elderly women tend to their tomato and pepper plants, and men drive small herds of cattle along dusty lanes parallel to the river.

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Our only urban stop is in the Albanian city of Shkodër, in the foothills of the Accursed mountains. This is also where we leave the lake and hit the Buna, paddling past the city’s imposing Illyrian fortress just as the sun sets. We dip into the city itself for dinner but spend the night at Legjenda, a suburban glamping site on the river, where every cabin has bespoke wooden carvings and stained glass created by the owners.

As we paddle the next day, the Accursed mountains recede into the distance and the river soon opens out into wide, willow-lined stretches. We pass a handful of fishers in traditional green or yellow boats, taking care to avoid their nets. That night we pitch at a wild spot beside a derelict border ppost, where nature has completely taken over signs of the country’s conflicted past. Over a campfire Gigo makes risotto for dinner and is up early to prepare eggs with sudžuk sausage for breakfast.

The final hurrah is a wide stretch of river opening out into the sea, where our epic journey reaches a slow crescendo as we paddle past chic riverside cabins, a world away from the remote villages we have seen over the past few days. Even here we’re greeted with waves and smiles, as kayaking is still pretty new in these parts and tourists relatively rare. We spend our last night in one of these contemporary cabins on stilts, swimming at sunset and rising to paddle into the Adriatic waves at Velika Plaža, back in Montenegro. Although, at this stage, it doesn’t really matter which country I am in any more. I just feel happy to have been welcomed so warmly into this natural kingdom, a bipartite paradise where wilderness still reigns and utter peace prevails.

The trip was provided by Undiscovered Balkans, and costs from £945pp for seven nights. The price includes three nights of camping (conditions dependent) and four nights in local guesthouses or apartments, transfers from/to Podgorica, all meals and some snacks, five days of guided kayaking, equipment and fees for Lake Skadar national park and border-crossings. A donation to conservation projects in Montenegro and Albania is also included. Trips run on set dates between April and October.

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