As we embark on a hike to Vysoké Tatry (High Tatras), my guide Erik Sevcik points at a poster of Petra Vlhová, the country's top Alpine skier and remarks,
"Slovakia is a land of adventurers." We get talking and soon, I realise why the locals are so cheerful and happy in this tiny landlocked nation — Slovaks learn to
ski and hike even before they start talking. And the benefits are myriad. Looking at Erik's peach complexion, chiselled face and well-built physique, it's hard to
guess his age. When I ask him the secret, he blushingly credits the weather of the rugged upland playground, his birthplace. Here, craggy mountain peaks,
plunging waterfalls, turquoise blue glacial lakes and winding hiking trails come together to create the perfect adventure destination. In winter, snow transforms
the hiking trails into snow-smoothened ski slopes. And unlike any other European countries, alpine adventure here is inexpensive, sustainable and offbeat.
The summers in Slovakia are colder than our winters. Outfitted in multiple layers of clothing, I set out to hike in the Tatra National Park — the largest and the
oldest natural reserve in Slovakia. The High Tatras, a protected park with a small part across the border in Poland, is a UNESCO-protected reserve dotted with
35 valleys, over 90 mountain lakes and countless waterfalls. But what makes it so stunning is the sheer number of peaks cresting 2500m – 25 in total.
After a short funicular cable ride from Stary Smokovec, a small resort town, we reach the starting point of the trek at Hrebienok. This pocket-sized ski resort is
the base of numerous hiking trails of various difficulties, each one snaking through a different path around the inky-mountains and lush green valleys. I opt for a day hike to the traditional wooden chalet called Zamkovskeho Chata, a Swiss-style chalet built in 1942.
As we start trekking, we pass a tall, lanky man walking ahead of us, carrying at least 70 kg weight on his back. Looking at my bemused reaction, Erik explains
that the trek is called the Shepherd trek because of Sherpas like him. He asks me to not confuse the Slovak sherpa with the Himalayan sherpa as the former
carries only supplies to the mountain huts, not the luggage of the hikers. The High Tatras is a year-round destination, and the mountain chalets are the only
accommodation option available up in the woods. There are no roads for vehicles to tow supplies in the park. So, they have to rely on these sherpas entirely to haul everything up and down the mountain even when there’s snow, rain or blizzard.
The well-marked but rough-hewn rocky path led us through several wooden bridges, wild mountain streams and cascading waterfalls. The trail began as soft-
adventure — broad and smooth, before zigzagging into an uphill stony trek lined with towering spruce and Scots pine trees. We cover the first half of the trek
quite easily in less than an hour, stopping every few hundred metres to capture the beauty of the trail and the sweeping valley views. Occasionally, the fluffy
clouds try to shroud the snow-capped peaks and green-carpeted valley. Soon, we are in the most photogenic part of the trek – a creek named Studený Potok
that slices the barren granite peaks on one side and snow-covered mountains on the other side. Just next to the stream, the giant waterfall, Obrovský vodopád,
plunges down thunderously into a 20-meter-deep gorge. From here, our trail becomes narrower and steeper as we climb higher. We greet passerbys on the
way with ‘na zdravie’ and chat about Erik’s life here as we make our way to the destination.
On reaching the finishing line of the trek, a delightful traditional wooden chalet, we are greeted with a conventional Slovakian fare. After placing an order in the
cosy dining area, we plonk ourselves in the sun-kissed wooden-benched outdoor terrace. Hot lunch of local favourites — lentil soup, dumplings with sheep
cheese and pierogis stuffed with cheese was the perfect treat to our hungry souls.
The previous night Erik had light-heartedly said, "In Slovakia, hiking and wildlife sighting go hand in hand. You don’t have to trek miles to spot foxes and brown
bears." Wiped out from most parts of Europe, brown bears thrive in this wild, rugged region, and spotting one is never too hard. On my way back, down the
mountain, Erik's words came true when our paths crossed with Liska, a beautiful Slovakian wild fox. She stopped just a few feet away, turned to face me, sat
down and yawned for a while before trotting away. This touching serendipitous moment became one of the highlights of my trip. How often do you see a wild animal up so close, without much effort, and entirely on its terms?