Fancy a trail riding holiday where you’d be forgiven for thinking dirtbikes have the ‘right to roam’? Well that’s just what you get in eastern Europe…
The gulley is steep and rocky – careful placement of the front wheel needs to be balanced with maintaining enough momentum to roll over the football-sized stones. The mid-day sun streaming through the foliage above our heads means it’s hard to adjust to the contrast between light and dark but we all make it out unscathed, onto the short grass of an equally steep yet well-tended orchard. It feels wrong to be riding in amongst the fruit trees, and I spy that the owner, leant against his ancient tractor has turned around and noticed our presence. I don’t catch his words – I can’t speak the lingo anyhow – though I expect them to be along the lines of ‘get orf moi land’. Except as we gently roll down between his outbuildings and house, four generations of his family stand in the doorway smiling and waving at our knobbly-shod procession. If I were to pick one moment of trail riding in Romania with Adventuromania, then this was it…
Scotsman Stephen Palmer founded Adventuromania 11 years ago, having first visited the country back in 1990. A joiner by trade, back then Stephen was working on a house in Scotland when the customer told him about the orphanages in Romania. He offered to fly out and spend three months helping with building work there, and ended up staying for a year. On subsequent trips back he met his wife, Vica, and also began trail riding in the mountains. When friends asked if he could source them a bike so that they could come along, he struck upon the idea of trail holidays in the region and went on to build a base for Adventuromania in the eastern village of Brebu Nou.
Permitted to ride in an area of 10,000 square miles, over the years Stephen has compiled some 20 different day’s routes, each 120km in length. I’d be there for just two-and-a-half days of riding…
Having met up with one of my fellow riders, Phil Bryan, at the airport we meet the rest of our group at our base high in the mountains. Danes Lass, Paul and Martin are regulars of Stephen’s, and had already been there a few days when we arrive.
Phil and I kick back on the veranda with a couple of cold beers – ‘just mark them in the book’, asked Stephen, showing how he trusts his customers to simply note down what they take from the well-stocked fridge – whilst the Danes sunbathe in the searing afternoon sun.
The following morning breakfast’s at a civilised 8am. Stephen’s wife Vica would normally take care of meals, though at the time she was back home in Scotland so breakfast was arranged by family friend, the ever-smiling Bianca, whilst dinner was at a nearby restaurant.
Having filled up on Cheerios, toast and scrambled eggs – ‘you must eat eggs, they’re a good source of protein!’ trainee doctor Bianca reminded us – we get kitted up and head into the courtyard where our bikes await. Stephen’s fleet comprises of a dozen Honda CRF230Fs plus three Yamaha WR250Fs. Some may scoff at the thought of riding a 230 but the little Honda is almost the ideal tool for riding in the Romanian mountains. Low, light and lithe: they’re like little red mountain goats and inspire confidence on technical terrain. Being air-cooled means they don’t boil-up and there’s no rads to worry about should you drop one on the rocks. However, past experience has told me that the bike is just that bit too small for my lanky frame but there’s no need to worry as Stephen’s already fitted a pair of bar risers to my steed.
The Danes had driven over with their own bikes – a 450EXC, 200EXC and CRF450X – in a box trailer, and should you want to do likewise then that’s cool. Just be aware that the riding can be very technical and a big thumper will almost certainly be something of a hindrance at times…
Click on any of the images to see the full frame
Within 200 yards of the house we’re already on the first trail; a twisting rock-strewn descent. At the bottom the ground changes to loose sand, though Stephen soon cans this for the steep grassy banks which surround us. There’s no fixed trail, instead we skip over ditches, across cambers and up the climbs.
Joining a forest road leads to an utterly stand-out track, the kind which you’d never tire of riding. Wending its way between the trunks of oak and beech, the trail switches from single- to double-track and back to single-, whilst throwing you left, then right, then back left again. There are a few ruts, but they soon peter out into gentle berms through the turns. Stephen later tells me that the forest stretches for mile after mile and that it’s easy to spend half-a-day simply following one gloriously slaloming trail!
When we exit the woods the surroundings have markedly changed. Here the open grass has been baked a lustrous gold by the summer sun and the trails are wide and dusty. ‘I can’t believe it’, laments Stephen, ‘it’s never normally like this. We usually get rain at night and that keeps the dust down. But it hasn’t rained here for months…’
Our route continues, trying not to use the main tracks but sticking to the smaller trails and ‘off-piste’ excursions. We cut down small ravines, careful not to drop a wheel into the rain-ruts which scar their centres, and across wild grassland. Narrow goat tracks lead us around small escarpments and we dip into a shallow stream for a couple of hundred yards before climbing out of the valley up a series of short ascents and rocksteps.
In front Phil’s bike begins to crab up a steep hill and he pauses on a small ‘plateau’, looking down to find his rear tyre fully deflated. Stephen’s soon on the scene and suggests that we continue onwards to somewhere slightly more suitable for tyre changing and out of the blazing sun. Just such a spot lays at the crest of the climb, where he sets about quickly swapping-out the punctured tube under the shade of a tree, accompanied by the constant clanging of bells hanging from the necks of nearby cows. The view is superb – an almost 360-degree panorama of rolling plains and jagged hills, glowing with the rich ochre of parched grassland and the deep dark emerald of forest canopies.
Soon another pitstop is required in order to replenish our fuel tanks for the long afternoon ahead. The CRFs have merely sipped at their 8L of juice, so it’s really to ensure that the thirsty 450s and gluttonous stroker don’t run dry. At the filling station an old couple in a Dacia jalopy are trying to release the tailgate of their car, and when they eventually force it open and prop it up with an old wooden crate a powerful stench wafts outwards and mingles with the petrol fumes. The reason for the funk is revealed when we peer through the car’s rear windows and see nine small pigs crammed onto the back seat!
Making our way back into the hills we come across something that is to become a regular feature of the three days – a pack of dogs, and big dogs at that, all barking excitedly. We ride past them, but they give chase and easily match our pace. The reason for the dogs becomes apparent as we round a corner to be confronted with a large flock of sheep and a shepherd equally as vocal as his canine collection. Initially he seems incredibly angry at our presence though he’s instead simply shouting at the dogs to shut-up and offers a reciprocal wave and a smile as we shuffle slowly past. When we next stop for a rest Stephen explains that the shepherds spend long periods of time out in the hills with the sheep, often sleeping in small shacks or under ‘tarpaulins’, and the dogs are required to guard the flock from wolves! I’m excited by the prospect of a lupine encounter, though as Stephen’s only ever come across one in all his years of riding in Romania the chances are slim.
At the foot of a hill Stephen points his Honda upwards and begins the climb. There’s no set path, just a tussocky slope, and when it starts to get a little steep he begins to zig-zag to decrease the angle of attack. Part way up, we turn into the hill and head straight up, plotting a course around the larger clumps of grass. In second gear the little CRFs scamper up the climb. At the summit we’re greeted with another fine, far-reaching view…
Lunch comes at a small village shop, where we buy bread, sausage, cheese, tomatoes, bananas and drinks, and assemble sandwiches at a table in their shady garden.
Leaving the village behind we find our way blocked by three blokes leaning on brooms in the middle of the road. The tarmac is fresh and they won’t let us past, not even if we promise to ride up the drainage ditch which runs alongside the road. An alternative route is required, so we backtrack a few hundred yards before Stephen finds a steep rocky track leading up into the woods high above us.
Mixing loose stones with sharp-edged boulders, and a tough gradient with occasional off-cambers, it’s far from a straight-forward blast and I’m glad to be on the little CRF. It doesn’t waste its time fruitlessly spinning away its power and getting out of shape, and it’s easy to pick a course around the bigger obstacles. It allows you to concentrate on the terrain, rather than what your bike’s doing.
The track zig-zags its way upwards, though we occasionally cut chunks out by running straight across, or up, the hillside. One final series of switchbacks, which look down over the valley below through a clearing in the trees, lead us up onto a ridge where Stephen simply suggests that we ‘head straight for the top’. The climb is steep so the 230 doesn’t romp up it, instead it burbles along perfectly happy in second gear. Regrouping at the summit we pause for five minutes to fully absorb the view…
Stephen then presents us with a choice, whilst pointing out key locations and features on the horizon or hundreds of feet below us. ‘We can go down there (though we’ll have to walk the bikes down part of it) and it’ll take us two hours to reach that point. Then it’ll be two hours back. Or we can head down here. From where we are now it’s at least two hours back.’ Whilst everyone’s keen to get in as much riding as possible the longer route would likely see us pushing our luck with the daylight, so we plump for the shorter option. I can’t imagine that it’s any less stunning than the other way!
We descend, first over short grass then through a small boulder-field and down through rocksteps amongst a clump of bushes, before rolling to a halt within the ‘saddle’ of the ridgeline. In front is another peak, and to our right a rustic animal pen on an open paddock and a drop down into dark woods. ‘As far as I know, I’m the only person who’s ridden up that mountain,’ comments Stephen as we size-up the climb in front of us. ‘I’ve never taken anyone up there and I never see any other bikes out this way.’ But before we give it a try we need to find some water to top up the rads on the 450EXC, which has already boiled-up a couple of times.
200 yards inside the woods we come across a natural spring. The shepherds have built a fence around it and, using hollowed out branches and tree trunks, have tapped it so that the water runs into a makeshift trough. It’s a simple, yet ingenious piece of ‘bush engineering’ and as we replenish the KTM’s cooling system a herd of wild horses gallop through the woods in front of us, vanishing amongst the leafy boughs just as quickly as they appeared.
With the Katosh back in rude health we turn around and head back out to the bottom of the climb. A small gap in the bushes marks the way, and as soon as we’re through them the ascent begins. Grass immediately makes way for root-riddled soil, and the further we go the looser it becomes, until we’re soon battling against the climb, fallen branches, and an eight-inch deep mix of dirt and leaves. As with so many of these wooded climbs, as we make it out into the open the terrain changes and rocks become the next hazard. Fortunately here they’re fairly sparse, and we’re soon chugging up through the long grass to an even more spectacular view than the last.
If the morning was a complete mix of riding, then the afternoon stood out for its numerous long descents, the first of which meant turning 180 and dropping back down the way we’d just come.
Dodging the trees and branches proves far easier than I expect, and in places it’s possible to let off the brakes and slalom through the trees. The CRF’s light weight makes it easy to gather everything together when things do turn hairy, and we arrive back in the sun-drenched paddock barely a minute later.
Again we retrace our steps, this time down into the woods to the spring, and then straight down through the trees. At first we pick our way along a narrow dirt trail, then the ground becomes rockier and rockier before ultimately turning into a mass of stones and boulders. Any semblance of a path disappears – even if the surrounding woodland forms an ‘avenue’ of trees to ride along – and the only way to tackle it is to pick a point far down the hill and try to head for it.
The next big hill demands just as most focus but for a slightly different reason. It’s incredibly steep and a few hundred feet long, yet with an entire hillside to pick a line from and plenty of run-off at the bottom it’s also rather tempting to simply give the bike its head and fly down it. Unfortunately, this plan is scuppered by numerous large rounded boulders dotted about in the long grass. To try blatting down it would be almost like riding through a minefield – you might make it through unscathed, but then you might just hit one and be fired into the air. We don’t take the risk and instead inch down it slowly.
Narrow paths alongside maize fields and freeriding across scrubland leads us back towards base, with the final descent of the day being a run back down through the forest we started out on. The track starts out flat enough and we barrel down it line astern, but soon it’s clinging to the hillside with little in the way of run-off, before plunging down towards the lake at the bottom.
As we ride into the back garden of Stephen’s guesthouse his nephew, Danny, takes our bikes and begins jet-washing them down, while Bianca looks down from the veranda and asks ‘would you like a cold beer?’ Perfect!
That night I sleep like a log thanks to a combination of tiredness, the most comfortable mattress in all Christendom and the plum-derived moonshine known as Tuica (pronounced ‘sweeka’) which Stephen’s friend Adrian has been generously sharing with us!
Roam on the Plains
The next day I’m keen to see how I get on riding a WR250F on the Romanian terrain. There were times when the CRF felt a little too small (in physical size more than displacement), and at other times I pitied the Danes on their larger, heavier and not to mention feistier, enduro bikes. Stephen suggests that the day is going to be even more technical, with fewer ‘point it at the clouds and gas it’ climbs so I’m not entirely sure I’ve made the right decision. Hey-ho…
The sky is smattered with long grey clouds, suggesting that we may be in for some rain, though the direction we’re travelling looks to be bright enough. We head out into the hills the same way we had the day before, though I certainly wasn’t complaining about another ride up through the forest. However, once we emerge from the trees we take a completely different route, even though we’re heading more or less to the same part of the region.
From the green grass, plum trees, terracotta-roofed wooden shacks and haystacks of the ‘foothills’ we make our way higher, onto more rolling barren terrain, where the views are uninterrupted except for a light haze hanging it the air. We play among rocky outcrops before heading off onto the next plain. And the next…
Lunch comes from the same store as the previous day, though this time we stash it in our rucksacks to eat on the trail and keep riding.
A hardpacked singletrack starts innocuously enough, weaving alongside a wood before crossing a gentle mountain stream. Then it turns tough. A series of rocksteps send us up onto steep slope, with little margin for error. The gradient is severe, and customary hairpin turns begin in order to make lighter work of the climb, though in places the track has worn away at the edges and it’s hard to position your wheels and your feet. Each individual section is barely a wheelbase long, so if you can flow from one part to the next it’s far better than taking an individual bite at each climb. Trying to make one turn, I wedge my front wheel against a bank and look back to see the back tyre resting in a hole in the track. Let the clutch out and the bike simply stalls, but give it more gas and the rear tyre will either spin fruitlessly or the Yam will rear-up and most likely push me over the side. Carefully watching my footing I hoik the back-end around whilst one of the Danish guys grabs the forks and manoeuvres the front. With the bike back on the right course I can get going again…
Higher up the gradient lessens just enough to enable us to ride straight on up, though now the rocks start. We cross a boulder-filled gully to get on the right track and then begin tackling a delicious blend of slabs, off-cambers and loose stones, all the while climbing higher and higher, though the treeline.
For around half-a-mile the trail becomes wide and straight, a jagged grey tear in the wooded hillside. The Yamaha remains stable on the loose rocks, yet allows me to carefully pick a path around the bigger boulders. I’m loving it…
Part-way up we traverse the hill on a narrow path. To our right the woods climb abruptly, to the left is a long fence made from split branches neatly tacked together. We follow it, until we reach a small wooden hut where Stephen stops to talk to a lady and her daughter. ‘Look at their shoes’, he suggests, and I scoot forward to see what he’s talking about. On their feet are old sections of tyre, neatly formed into soles and laced together.
Further along we continue the climb through the woods. It’s tough going. The trail is barely as wide as our handlebars and the forest floor is covered in loose stones and fallen leaves. Traversing the slope is okay, it’s when we each a short climb at 45-degrees to the hill that the sweating starts. As soon as our tyres touch the slope the ground slips away, forcing us to dismount quickly or lowside into the hill. Ideally we’d have taken a slightly higher line, made the climb less steep and used some momentum to carry us though, but most of us have gone too far along the trail. One of the Danes takes a run at it from the back of the pack and makes it most of the way up before the back-end of his bike slides out from under him.
With plenty of heaving and shoving we make it over the camber, proceeding just a few yards before we’re faced with another series of switchback turns and awkward angles. Occasionally we hit a break in the trees and whilst this gives us a little respite from the loose leaf material and flint-like stones it brings with it a number of awkwardly-placed rocks.
Eventually we all reach the summit, only to find a small crack in one of the engine cases of Phil’s CRF. Oil is gently weeping from the split so Stephen suggests we stop for lunch while he fixes the motor with some ‘liquid metal’.
As we scoff down our bread, tomatoes and cheese the wind begins to rustle the trees above our heads and the sky darkens with an eerie grey cloud which promises rain. Sure enough, just as we pack up and get set to head off along the hilltop the first spots begin to fall.
We’ve travelled little more than a few hundred yards when the front-end of the Yamaha starts to wander downhill. I counter-steer against it though something’s clearly not right. When Stephen momentarily stops at the exit to the woods I break the bad news. ‘Mate, I’ve got a puncture…’
A small fire still smouldering in the open suggests that a shepherd has only just left – perhaps concerned about being struck by lightning should a storm roll in – but we’re going to have to stay a little longer and fix the flat. Trees at the edge of the woods provide cover from the light rain and we start the process of removing the flat tube and the huge thorn that’s punctured it.
Roam Sweet Roam
Fortunately the rain doesn’t stay with us for long and the grass remains grippy as we drop down from one peak to the next. Rocks are few and far between now, allowing us to take in the awe-inspiring views and keep up a good pace, though they soon make a reappearance as we enter the section of woods we’d dropped down through the previous day, and head up towards the natural spring.
We press on, through the paddock and past the climb we’d conquered yesterday towards the pale-coloured cliffs far in the distance, riding goat tracks, well-trodden paths and open grassland. The occasional fence or hedgerow partly determines our route, though there are no ‘fields’ as we know them. Most of the livestock we see has their front feet manacled so that they can’t go far or fast.
We keep our pace to a crawl too as Stephen leads us to the top of a helter-skelter of hairpins which will take us down through another forest. ‘If you can’t make it round a turn then get off and walk the bike’, he warns before we start the descent. Each turn is so sharp that without the skills of Jarvis or Blazusiak the only way to ride the bike down is to roll the front wheel over the inside edge of each corner and then brake-turn the back-end so that you pivot around the headstock. Attempting to ride round one corner, I realise that the Yamaha simply doesn’t have the requisite steering lock and instead I’m left to get off and drag the back-end round to prevent a trip over the edge.
This natural fairground ride fires us out in the bottom of a river valley, where we ride along the riverbank before hoiking the bikes up onto a narrow bridge. Sizing it up, the bars only just fit between the wires on each side though more of an issue is that as soon as you set tyre on it the bridge begins to sway. There’s a 15-foot drop into the water below…
Stephen goes first then guides each of us across. Ride too slow and the bridge begins to swing and you lose your balance, too fast and it REALLY starts to move around! Safely on the other side – some calmly, others with racing hearts after getting a little giddy with the throttle – we head down a nearby road for a mile or so before again crossing the river. This time the bridge is fixed with girders, though the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of wooden planks that form its platform make it look far more unsafe than ol’ Galloping Gertie we’ve just crossed. I hang back from the two guys in front, just in case the weight of three bikes and riders exceeds its capacity…
And so the climb begins. Straightforward enough at first, we’re soon riding another loose stoney goat-track along an impossibly steep slope. Then Stephen’s off the bike, heaving, puffing and shoving the little Honda – most uncharacteristic. A tree has fallen, taking a good chunk of the path with it and leaving an awkward tangle of roots and holes to negotiate. There’s no way around, we have to go through it.
All hands on deck, one by one we ride into the mess before cutting the engines and hauling the bikes over the stumps. Beyond it, for just a few yards, the track is barely 18in wide and requires a steady throttle to negotiate without spinning the back wheel and sliding over the edge.
Just when we think it’s over, there’s more. Another tree has fallen, this time completely blocking the ledge-like path and the only option is to climb almost straight up the slope. Again we work as a team, riding the bikes as far as we can before pushing ‘n’ pulling them, and not for the first time I wish I was on the little CRF230. A WR-F simply won’t chug on a closed throttle and find grip like the Honda will.
Thankfully, that’s the worst of it done with and although the trail that follows is by no means a cake-walk – with numerous rock sections and steps – it’s all rideable. No, more than that, it’s incredibly enjoyable. The dirt is hardpacked, the rock sections just the right size and severity to be fun rather than tiresome, and in between each obstacle the trail flows beautifully through the woods.
The rain returns and the cloud cover knocks the edge off the sunlight. Thankfully it keeps the dust down on the fast, winding downhill track that we use to cover some ground so that we get back before sundown. As we move from valley to valley the weather improves and for the final few kilometres – a mix of wide trail and freeriding across the parched hills – we’re blessed with light as golden as the chilled Romanian beer that awaits our arrival back at base…
With the Danes heading for home in the afternoon, day three is going to be cut short so Stephen ensures that we stay relatively local. Gentle trails take us out towards a small wood, where we come across an old woman living in a bijou tumbledown hut. Stephen chats with her, before leaving us to go off and check that the route he’s planned down into a stream isn’t blocked. Meanwhile, the woman demands we try some of the apples from her orchard and tasks Phil with getting them off the tree. Pointing at some fine-looking specimens high in the branches, Phil thwacks them down with a large stick and tries one of the biggest examples. The grimace on his face suggests that it’s not pleasant. Meanwhile the old lady offers me one with a large maggot hole tunnelled through it and I’m forced to carry it around until she’s not looking before craftily disposing of it. Phil, on the other hand, has now discovered that the smallest apples are by far the tastiest and even though we’ve ridden slap-bang into the middle of her orchard and disturbed her morning the old lady insists that we leave with a good selection.
Weighed down with apples, we ride along the stream before turning tail and heading back down it, swapping it for firmer ground when the water begins to get deeper and cuts channels through the surrounding earth.
Looking for a way out of the valley Stephen leads us through a ‘field’ of five-foot tall grass, ploughing through it towards the foot of a climb. Where rainwater has been channelled around an escarpment it’s carved a deep scar in the hillside and it’s obvious that we’re going to have to avoid it if we’re going to make it up the slope. Stephen gives it a whirl, gets to a point where the route disappears from view and then calls down to us. ‘Nope, we’re not going up there,’ he yells, before coming back down to meet us. ‘I haven’t been through here in a while and it’s dug out a huge hole’, he explains. So instead we backtrack and Stephen opts for leading us out on the opposite hillside.
What a stunning climb! There’s no set trail through the oak woods, so we find our own way, zigging and zagging where necessary and picking our way around fallen branches and rock-filled crevices. When we find a steep section we head back the other way, and although the top remains out of sight it can’t be far off when we stop to suss out the lay of the land. As I pull away I take an awkward dab and feel something go in my back. I recognise the problem immediately and although it’s nothing that a few painkillers won’t sort, there’s no way I’m going any further up the hill.
Realising something’s up, the group return, Phil gives me a couple of ibuprofen and, as the CRF450X is also a little poorly we take the decision to head back.
Through villages of lowrise houses, ornately decorated with coloured tiles, children congregate on the corners to wave and old folk sat out on their steps raise a hand. Stop and the kids come up and want to shake your hand. The same scene is played out in the fields, where almost everyone returns our waves or flashes us a smile. If you’re fed up with being glowered at on the trail then this is the perfect antidote!
With the drugs kicking-in, I suggest to Stephen that we could head back on the trails rather than along the road we’d been following, so he immediately formulates a plan and again leads us up into the hills, past abandoned shepherd’s huts, through fragrant pine woods and across vast expanses of open grassland.
Eventually we reach Brebu Nou and park the bikes in the yard. Physically I’m aching, but mentally I’m aching to get back out on the trails…
Roam is Where the Heart Is
One of the most incredible things is that Stephen doesn’t carry a GPS unit or a map. Instead he relies on the knowledge that he’s built up over a decade of riding in the area to put together each day’s route.
The riding is some of the most amazing I’ve ever experienced, and not just in its technical nature or visual appeal (some of the scenery is truly astounding) but also in the away that we didn’t always stick to defined tracks and trails. Although you can’t simply ride anywhere, it often felt as though that were the case.
And bear in mind that Stephen can tailor the terrain to your particular needs. Want something more extreme? He’ll guide you there. Don’t fancy so many tough climbs or manhandling your bike over obstacles? Then he’ll leave it out. There really is something to suit every ability. But I think it’s really those of clubman standard and higher that really need to experience what Adventuromania have to offer, because there’s so much to both challenge and inspire.
And when you add to that the sense of being out in the wilderness (even though you seem to be able to get a phone signal in the remotest of places), the incredibly friendly locals, it really does make for a phenomenal place to go trail riding. In fact, ‘trail riding’ doesn’t seem like the right phrase. ‘Roaming’ might sum it up better…
Thanks to: Stephen, Bianca, Danny and Adrian for their splendid hospitality. And to Phil, Lass, Paul and Martin for putting up with the numerous photocalls!
Since this tour was undertaken back in 2011 there seems to have been an explosion in the number of companies offering trail and enduro tours in Romania, the company responsible for this tour was www.adventuromania.co.uk but we haven’t been able to find them on the net. There are however many companies that are out there offering a variety of tours. And don’t forget, if you go on a tour with one of these operators, tell them RUST sent you!