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New Europe

Day Fifty-seven: Viseu de Sus, Maramures

The lumberjacks' camp 
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'I sleep all night and I work all day.' With the engine, only eleven years younger than me, and the camera tripod at a lumberjacks' camp.
Michael Palin - New EuropeOnce out of the town we run alongside the River Vaser, the engine swaying, hissing and gurgling its way round the curves, following the sparkle of sunlight on the water. A pungent mossy smell rises from the gorge as the woodland closes in around us. The only stops now are for the driver and fireman to take buckets down to the river to refresh the engine. Only the increasingly acrimonious progress of the card game prevents it all from becoming stupendously idyllic.

We reach the first camps just after midday. The station buildings are dilapidated, some literally falling apart. Bellowed greetings. A few get off, one man recognising another with a fierce grab at his crutch. From somewhere two mattresses and a bedstead appear and are tossed so carelessly onto the wagon behind the engine that I assume they must be intended as fuel.

We move off again, out of the beech woods now and into thick conifer plantations. A man who's just got on offers me a cigarette. He shows me the box.

'Ukraine,' he says.

I nod and smile.

'Ukraine,' he says again, as if I haven't quite got it. 'Ukraine. Chernobyl!'

And he gurgles with laughter.

At the second camp, most of the lumberjacks, including the card-school, grab their carrier bags and jump down off the train, making straight for the toilets, and by the time we reach the third camp, within three miles of the Ukrainian border, we are almost the only ones left aboard.

Compared to the two we've just seen, the third camp is like Mount Parnassus. Modern wood cabins stand with the dark wood behind them, and the river and a flat strip of grassy floodplain in front. Here, a meal is cooked over an open fire. Another cholesterol fest, I'm afraid, with grilled lard and pork crackling proving quite irresistible, especially washed down with the deliciously cold, clear water of the Vaser.

I learn from our host that there used to be 500 lumberjacks working up here, but environmental pressure has reduced the amount they can cut, and now there's work for no more than 100.

The timber used to be floated down the river, a slow and costly process, but now everything depends on the railway and this eccentric Thomas the Tank Engine operation is the only reason logging can continue in these tightly enclosed mountains. Later, when we watch the lumberjacks at work, it all seems curiously casual. The weapon of choice is no longer an axe but a chainsaw, slung across the shoulder like a rifle. Once a tree is chosen and a directional cut made, the chainsaw goes through it in thirty seconds. Two men strip the trunk whilst the third brings up a spectacularly powerful all-purpose logging vehicle known as a TAF, one of which recently pulled a 27-tonne locomotive out of the river unaided. He hitches up not just the 70-footer that's been felled but two other trees as well, a combined load of over 3 tonnes, which is hauled effortlessly up a 50-degree slope and dragged away for loading.

It doesn't feel quite like the real world up here in the forest. When the trucks aren't working there is almost total silence. Maramures is remote enough, but this must rank as one of the least accessible corners of Europe we've yet reached.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Fifty-seven: Viseu de Sus, Maramures
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Vişeu de Sus
  • Book page no: 139

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