THE FORSAKEN MOUNTAINS. Crossing the Ivaneţ ridge with its salt springs, gleaming meadows, and Orthodox crosses – date bearers of genesis – we finally arrive in the most distant of Buzău mountain ranges. The village of Lopătari rests at the foot of the mountains. Everything about it is remarkable. Mailmen sit astride horses. Saltwater courses through riverbeds. Solitary fires burn for weeks and centuries on banks of forest brooks and amid barren pastures. They feed on gas rushing from the earth’s core and the singed ground smokes sweetly. Not long ago, local children and a colony of ants discovered the blaze around which we cook and sleep. Just a few meters away, a black pool lies concealed amidst the undergrowth. From it, a tarry current pours into the river and another bubbles up from the river bottom. Natural oil seeps. Ten meters further on among some hazelnut bushes, the air is thick with sulfur, and alabaster water gushes from the mightiest of sulfur springs. Across the valley, strange cliffs loom; their stones, when thrown into flames, are set alight. The salt encrusted underworlds of Meledic and Sărata, deep gashes in a great salt karst, present another miracle. Stones, branches and dead insects are coated in elaborate briny blooms, white battlements of salt in a prehistoric canyon. A karst lake lies amid open plains, a fairytale realm among steepest Carpathians in a cracked and barren land.

Two crystalline rivers embrace the Penteleu Mountains – the Bâsca Mare and the Bâsca Mică: green waters, white bluffs, shallow pools. Stately beech trees stand amid the virgin forests of Viforîta surrounded by muddy bear tracks, tall fir trees, three-toed woodpeckers and ancient sycamores. A beautiful corner of the Carpathians indeed. Ridge-top sheep folds are enclosed by fences to keep wolves and bears at bay. Days go by without meeting a single tourist. Making camp above beautiful Red Lake, bear scaring in the woods, quiet singing deep into the night – and not a soul knows we are about. At the end of a day’s march through grass, muddy beech forests, and damp pinewood thickets, we reach the end of the map with storms approaching. Drenched to the bone, we forge miserably onward not knowing if we have crossed into the Vranceas which must lie somewhere before us. Such days remain long in your memory, little brother, they are well worth the slog.