Tadej Zun fixed me with his piercing blue eyes, watching closely for my reaction. “It’s early spring so the worms won’t be very big, but they’re still good to eat.” I didn’t give him the satisfaction of seeming shocked. After spending the previous 12 hours with this mountain survival instructor, nothing he said could have surprised me.
As I watched Tadej, or “Teddy” as he’s known to his English-speaking clients, disappear into the dense woodland in search of our appetiser, the darkness was gathering. The stars shone brightly through the leafy canopy above; my sleeping arrangements – a structure comprising only sticks and leaves – flickered in the light of the fire. In Slovenia’s Julian Alps range, less than four kilometres from where Lake Bled’s island church provides a celebratedly picturesque wedding location, my weekend survival course was exceeding all expectations.
Teddy wasn’t hard to spot in the army barracks where we met. Kitted out in camouflage, his shaved head, bright blue eyes and thick red beard gave him a distinctive look. In 2009 he set up Karantania Adventure, turning his skills as an ex-special forces soldier into a job sharing his passions with civilians in his country’s mountainous Gorenjska region. His girlfriend Angelica made up the sixth member of our group for the three days. Noticing evident familiarity with her boyfriend’s activities, I asked if she often joined her partner’s expeditions: “Teddy isn’t at home very often”.
“So these are something like dates for you then?” I asked.
“Yes. Something like that,” she replied with a wry smile.
High up on a ridge overlooking the narrow valley, Teddy had announced our arrival at the campsite. Directing us to a nearby water source, he advised: “The spring is 200 metres in that direction, but don’t stray too far to the left; there’s a gorge.” After hugging the right side on the way to fill our water bottles, we began constructing the shelters.
At first glance, the bivouacs inspired no confidence in their element-resisting properties. They were nothing more than a rib-cage structure of sticks, lavishly showered with leaves. The resulting construction looked as if someone had set about establishing a large pile of vegetation, but tiring of the pursuit, created a hollow replica instead. My fears were unfounded: it rained both nights and I stayed dry.
Later, after watching Teddy make fire from nothing but a flint and dried mushroom, I found that creating flames without artificial aids isn’t as simple as he made it look. After half an hour of patient tapping I managed to catch a spark, which began to smoulder softly. Placing it in a nest of dried grass and blowing timidly, the smoke became thicker until it burst into flames.
Standing up, I proudly held the handful of fire aloft to the cheers of the group. Realising quickly that the bundle was extremely hot, it was dropped hurriedly into the waiting fireplace, below fish left dangling on sticks to smoke overnight.
Slovenia, the furthest west of the Balkan states, is the most northerly fragment of former Yugoslavia, and the closest to Britain both geographically and figuratively. Indeed, it is the same size as Wales (presumably in the Balkans the standard measure of area is “the size of Slovenia”). The Julian Alps occupy the north of the country, the eastern tip of the European mountain range. The grey limestone peaks are ridged and often severe, roads and railway lines compete for space in the narrow valleys below, chopping through forest that covers over half the country.
Flatter plains to the south are pierced by traditional church spires, which look rather like pine cones put through pencil-sharpeners. Its central capital, Ljubljana, is pure charm. The elegant castle sprawls over a grey rock buttress, while the calm canal and stone bridges of the old town play backdrop to a lively waterside bar scene.
But I was in Slovenia to learn the art of survival. Waking the next morning at seven, we were herded sleepily down to a pasture above the spring, which to me looked like nothing more than a wide patch of dirty grass. To Teddy it was a veritable supermarket. Using his hat as a shopping basket, he picked plants as he walked: one he said would abate stomach-ache, another would serve as vinegar in a dish. He dug up the root of one plant that tasted sweeter than saccharine, and found edible yellow flowers named trumpets, which when blown through softly made a buzzing sound.
Returning to camp for breakfast, we ate our harvest with the remains of the previous night’s bread, which had been cooked directly on top of the fire-pit embers. A few of the worms remained, and tasted much the same as they had done; light and crispy, with an aftertaste of the pine forest floor where they had been discovered.
The day’s activities culminated in a night hike up Galetovec, the area’s highest peak, whose sheer rock face towers imposingly over the narrow valley below. Just before the summit (marked by two benches perilously close to the cliff edge), Teddy led us to an exposed mound jutting out from the mountainside, which he promised offered the best view in the region.
He wasn’t wrong. The light grey of the mountain’s rock-face gleamed through the half-light to our left, while before us lay the rolling hills and pine-brushed horizons of the foothills, where Lake Bled was visible, the orange-lit shoreline mirrored across its calm surface.
We returned to camp under starry skies, Venus shining more brightly than I had ever seen, and devoured our delicious smoked fish. Crawling into the bivouac to rest, the mysterious rustling in the shelter’s wall beside my head did little to prevent my immediate unconsciousness.
The next day, after showers and handshakes I visited the famous Lake Bled, which I had seen shimmering through the darkness eight hours previously. Walking along its shore, I came across a patch of the trumpet flowers Teddy had shown me. I picked a handful and, to the horror of a couple out for an early-morning stroll, ate them. Selecting one more and gently blowing through it, I buzzed softly as I ambled past.
Karantania Adventure (00 386 31 210 511; karantania-adventure.com) runs survival courses tailored to all ages and skills, from €170 (£137) per person for two days.