Today was the day I had been waiting for: The seven stunning, pristine Rila lakes high up in the Rila Mountains. Absolutely breathtaking…partly due to the long climb up, but also for their sheer beauty!
The Rila mountains are not only the highest range in Bulgaria, but also in all of the Balkans. Home to some 200 pristine glacial lakes, rushing streams and gurgling springs and origin of some of Bulgaria’s longest and deepest rivers. It comes as no surprise that the name “Rila” stems from ancient Thracian origin meaning “well-watered mountains”. However, seven of these hundreds of lakes are indeed remarkably special.
Sitting one above another and connected by bubbling streams and small cascading waterfalls, a visit to these lakes is truly unforgettable. Each lake is named for its most prominent feature and a couple of hours walking will take you to the topmost lake where you are rewarded with a magnificent view of all seven lakes from a high panoramic viewpoint.
It takes us more than a couple of hours though… there are too many photographs everywhere we turn. We are in full daylight, so the lighting is not ideal for photography, but we can’t help ourselves we want to etch this incredible experience indelibly in our minds. In fact Evo, having visited these lakes many, many times since he was a child, hasn’t even bothered to bring a camera knowing that the light will not be up to his National Geographic standards. Fortunately though, I have brought mine, despite being a non-photographer, and I only had to ask once before Evo was off with my camera like a delighted child snapping here, there and everywhere. It is impossible to deny the magical powers of this special place.
In fact, so special, so spiritual, is the atmosphere surrounding these lakes that thousands of followers of “The White Brotherhood” congregate at Kidney Lake each August 19th to welcome their New Year.
Dressed in white, worshippers of this new-age sect come together to perform a sacred dance as the sun rises over the mountains. Their doctrine places a heavy emphasis on living in harmony with nature; thus it is little wonder that they have chosen to return to Rila lakes over and over again since 1929. It truly is almost holy in its serene beauty.
In the end, we don’t make it to the seventh, topmost lake known as The Tear. Had we done so, we would have been rewarded with an incredible, 360° panorama over the entire mountain range. Not only would we see the clear, deep waters of The Tear, but also all the remaining six lakes as well: brilliant splashes of blue, like fallen pieces of sky scattered down the mountainside. It is a stunning vista, but not for us today.
Instead we stop at the sixth and also my favourite lake: The Eye, which is a near perfect oval and intensely blue in colour. Despite it being mid-July, thick ice still clings to the bank of a shadowy shore. Steep hills slope up on three of its sides offering stunning views down to Kidney Lake below and The Twins Lake below that. Even with a wide-angle lens, it is difficult to get a shot with all of the lakes in the frame so vast is the view.
Evo may not have carried a camera up the mountain, but he did carry a picnic dinner for us all to enjoy and Eye Lake is the perfect rest stop. We have taken our time getting to this point in the hike and still we are in no hurry as our plan is to capture the lakes as the sun sets. We could try to get up to the seventh lake (probably only about 40 minutes more), but we want to be sure we are about halfway down the mountain as the sun sinks below the horizon. We have all brought headlamps knowing the final descent tonight will be by the light of the moon.
So we take our time relaxing, eating and Evo shooting about 75 selfies of himself by the lakeshore…with a DSLR camera, a bit tricky, but not for an experienced NatGeo photographer it would seem. He actually gets a really great shot of himself, his eyes reflecting the sunlight as it bounces off the water. We have been blessed with perfect weather today: not too hot, not too cold, a little cloud, some lovely sunlight…perfect. We need long sleeves for the descent though as the sun is rather quickly slipping below the mountain tops.
Sunset is perhaps a little disappointing in that the sun vanishes quite quickly without a lot of drama…a bit of pink and muted yellows and oranges, but nothing flaming and fiery. However, we are fortunate to have three grazing horses wander onto our path, posing for us against the colours of the sky…so lucky!
The final scramble down to the hut is a bit of a challenge at the end of an already long day. The path is incredibly steep with huge boulders to negotiate and slippery gravel. Darkness perhaps increases the challenge, but it also prevents a clear view of exactly what we are in for and this, quite possibly, is a blessing. We are exhausted when we reach the mountain hut where we will be sleeping tonight, but also elated. We order drinks and hang around together in the lodge looking over our pictures and reliving the day until we really can’t keep our eyes open a moment longer.
Quite honestly, I don’t think anyone really captured a photo that truly expresses the incredible experience of visiting these lakes. There is something about being surrounded on all sides by the immense wilderness, mountain vistas everywhere you turn, bluer than blue lakes, tumbling streams, rushing waterfalls, fresh air, cool breezes, warm sunshine… all of it, it just doesn’t measure up in the camera. But still, everyone came back happy, with wonderful shots and sensational memories they will not quickly forget.