You don’t often worry about dying when visiting a tourist spot. Nobody dies in tourist spots. Travellers perish when they do crazy stuff, like go hiking off into the pizza-oven heat of Death Valley, or take selfies on the edge of Victoria Falls standing on one leg, or drive motorcycles through Mumbai after banging a tab. Nobody dies at tourists spots – nobody dies at Lake Bled. And yet. And yet.
I took a pretty train out of Ljubljana and watched the mountains on the horizon zoom into the foreground. The train dropped me in a small town called Lesch, and I heave-hoed my backpacks to my hostel and sprawled out for an hour to de-sweat. I chose Lesch rather than Bled, my intended destination, because I’m cheap and wanted to save ten euros on the hostel. The downside was that every time I wanted to do anything I had to hike two and a half miles to the little lake town.
That said, it wasn’t a bad walk: I enjoyed wandering along the bike trail with my headphones in, singing at volumes in accordance with the proximity of passing cyclists. Occasionally one would glide up silently behind me and catch me off guard, and find me part way through a heartfelt, vocally-strained, pink-cheeked rendition of ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’, and I’d blush and trail off into silence until they’d passed.
Bled, when I eventually arrived, was so beautiful it made me curse.
‘Cunt,’ I breathed, as I turned the corner onto the town’s main street and saw, at the end of it, the expansive turquoise lake ringed by green mountains, with a sheer cliff shooting up on the far bank crowned with a red-roofed castle.
The town itself is very touristic, but for good reason. The lake’s waters are clear and crisp, and you can see straight to the bottom even at a depth of several metres. The local authorities don’t allow any tourist boats with engines onto the water, to keep it clean. When the sun shines on the lake’s surface it illuminates the water in a way that makes it appear phosphorescent, like a magical healing pond from a fairytale. You could imagine bathing in it and emerging from it a decade younger and two inches taller. I wanted to leap straight in and roll around in it and drink the lot.
I walked around the lake for an hour or two and watched a flock of chubby Slovenian kids launching themselves into the water from a rope swing in a tree, and headed home in the early evening. I bought a drawing pad and pencils on the way back to the hostel, because now that I’m drinking less I often don’t feel like socialising, and drawing feels like a nice way to chill out and keep to yourself without looking too antisocial. Sometimes it’s just nice to be around people without actually talking to them.
The next morning I messaged Rob, the muscular Aussie dude I met in Ljubljana. He’d arrived in Bled the previous evening, and he’d planned a full adventure day at another lake, Bohinjsko, an hour away. I marched the two miles to Bled and met him at a little bus station, and together we took a bus through the mountains to the other, less touristy lake.
Rob’s plan was to hire bicycles and whiz around several viewpoints around Bohinjsko, which has a circumference of 16 kilometres (10 miles, ish). I was game, feeling reasonably healthy after several weeks taking it easy on the booze. We hired a couple of mountain bikes and set off around the lake, both of us a little wobbly and out of practice for the first ten minutes. I got confident again quickly; too confident – I tried to do a little wheelie and almost soared over my handlebars into a hedge.
We chatted as we cycled, the lake passing by on our right, tranquil and deepest blue-green, while mountains shot up around the perimeter, so tall they seemed to loom directly above us. Rob took his top off to reveal his bronzed Herculean physique, all rippling abs and cannonball shoulders, and I was very hot in my black t-shirt but I didn’t want to remove it because I didn’t trust my pale stomach not to jiggle like fresh quiche over every slight undulation in the road.
The cycling grew difficult after thirty minutes, when we veered off to the left and climbed a hill that was at a devastating 30-degree angle. We got up it without stopping, but it was a horrible 100 metre stretch and left me dizzy and wheezing. Rob seemed utterly unfazed, but out of sympathy to my plight he agreed with me when I complained.
“Yeah, that was tough,” he said, without a single bead of sweat on his body.
We wanted to take a cablecar to the top of the mountain to enjoy the view, but it was €28 to go up so we decided against it, and instead set off to find some waterfall Rob had heard of. The temperature was reaching its peak for the day – a horribly humid 33 degrees. Another long, steep hill kicked the wind out of me, and I was forced to call out to Rob (who was sailing along happily in front) to pull over.
While I dismounted my bike and staggered over to a boulder to sit down and change from my black t-shirt to a slightly more breezy black shirt, Rob responded to texts on his phone. My head was pounding, to such a degree that I could almost see stars. I blew on my chest and arms to cool myself down.
“Wow,” I gasped, two metres from where Rob was browsing memes, “this is… really… intense… huh?”
“Yeah mate,” said Rob, glancing up from his phone. “Bloody tough.”
“I’m sorry… I’m taking… so long.”
“Nah mate, take your time, we’re in no rush.”
Once I’d got my breath back, we set off again. A couple of minutes of freewheeling downhill cooled me down, with the breeze whipping through the open buttons of my shirt. Then, inevitably, after another twenty minutes of flat road, it turned upwards again at an outrageous incline. And this time it went on for a lot longer than 100 metres.
Within twenty seconds of hitting the slope I’d lost all momentum. Slowed to a crawl, I was forced to stand up and heave each pedal around, dragging the heavy bike uphill in great uneven lurches like a wounded animal. I wheezed and gurned and gritted my teeth through the strain, and finally I could take it no longer. My breath was gone, the lactic acid was burning me up.
“Rob,” I called. “Bro, I’m just gonna…”
I didn’t have the energy to finish my sentence. Up ahead I saw Rob pull over and once again take out his phone, while I put up the kickstand on my bike and stumbled over to a boulder to sit in the shade. Only this time, I couldn’t cool down. In fact, I seemed to be heating up still – even off the bike. It didn’t make any sense. Sense. Everything was making less sense. What was – what was I doing?
My head grew heavy and I moved my body from the boulder to the forest floor. I’ve passed out enough times over the years to see it coming and prepare accordingly. Why would I pass out? I didn’t understand. I’ve done hard exercise before – lots of it. But something in my head felt… wrong. There’s no other language to describe it; simply wrong. Nausea crept over me and my vision turned wobbly, and as I felt my mind turn to static I realised I’d fucked up – badly.
“Rob,” I called. “I’m not good, man.”
I don’t remember whether he replied or not. I took my water out of my backpack as I began to hyperventilate, little tiny rapid hot breaths, and I laid myself out on the floor so I wouldn’t hit my head when I fainted. I poured the water on my head and drank several hurried gulps.
I heard Rob somewhere behind me asking what was wrong.
“It’s bad,” was all I could groan. “It’s very bad.”
He told me to take my top off, and I just barely managed to pull it over my head amid my wheezing. Even in my barely lucid state, I still cringed internally at the thought of Rob’s Achillean physique looking down pityingly on my sweaty cherub’s torso, writhing and groaning on the forest floor, little pieces of twig sticking to my clammy skin. What a humiliating death I was about to experience.
“You alright mate?” said Rob.
“No,” I moaned. It was hard to speak – it felt as though my tongue had swollen up and lost all feeling. “No. It’s bad. Very very bad.”
I could hear my own voice, distantly. I sounded panicked and afraid. Somewhere in the recesses of my scorched mind, I knew I was likely experiencing some level of heat stroke. I’ve seen a woman collapse on a crowded bus in Melbourne in similar heat. I The only question was – what level of heat stroke was I experiencing? How severe? It certainly felt catastrophic. I had to cool down, but I didn’t know how: even in the shade it was 30 degrees, and there was no breeze and no passing cars to beg for aid.
As the panting worsened and the nausea deepened and Rob dutifully ladled water over my head and shoulders, I felt hopeless. I could feel my brain frying in real time and my vital organs going haywire: all hands on deck, man the battlements, this is not a drill, the big idiot has gone and nearly killed himself again. I pondered the fact that I was about to die – in a Slovenian forest, halfway up a gentle slope, murdered by light exercise – but I was too preoccupied with insane nausea to feel anything more profound than ‘oh for goodness sake’. I’d love to say it’s the first time I’ve felt this sentiment. Alas.
Finally, the nausea peaked.
“I think I’m gonna… I’m gonna… oh God–”
In one great, agonised howl, I threw up the substantial and colourful breakfast I’d eaten that morning. It arced through the air and landed in a streak across the forest floor. I stared at it with wide eyes, imagining Rob standing behind me, staring with even wider eyes. Quickly I grabbed several handfuls of dirt and covered it up.
“Sorry,” I glugged.
By the time I’d covered my shame, I felt my mind being restored. In a matter of seconds, the red-alert nuclear meltdown of my mind and body had been averted, and peripheral sound faded back in and my breathing slowed to normal.
“Well, that was unpleasant,” I said, sitting up, flicking bark off my chest.
Rob looked at me, perplexed.
“Really thought I was going to bite the dust there,” I chuckled, standing up and taking a drink from my bottle.
“You seem to have recovered pretty fast.”
“Yeah, I dunno. As soon as I threw up I felt fine. Weird.”
A little shaken up emotionally but feeling A-OK physically, I walked my bike to the top of the hill, where we found a café and I guzzled a bottle of cola.
Soon after, we found the waterfall trail, left the bikes and hiked up to it. Visions of a crystal pool of water kept me pushing on, however we arrived to find it fenced off – you could only take photos from a distance. Oh well. We took some nice photographs.
I was sheepish with Rob for the rest of the day. How can you not feel a little awkward when you’ve only known somebody for 48 hours and they’ve just witnessed you collapse, wail in terror, take all your clothes off, then beg them to pour water on you while you cry and thrash around and loudly vomit all over the place. Hmm.
We eventually got back to the lake where we started and bought ice creams and went for a swim. Before that, however, the day held one last revelation: 95% of the way back from the waterfall, we didn’t have to pedal; it was almost entirely downhill. This made me feel much better about my almost-death: it wasn’t, as I’d thought, the result of a short hill climb. We’d been cycling up a gradual hill all day without realising it.
My little brother Charlie made me laugh when I told him this story over the phone last week:
“It’s a good thing you didn’t die,” he said. “Kate Bush Running Up That Hill is number one. It would have been horribly ironic.”