Reporter Podcast Exploring One of Europe's Last Wild Rivers
The last wild river in Europe is in danger. Holger Dambeck and Jonathan Miske accompanied researchers to the site in Albania, and in the Hörweite podcast, they spoke about the different accents of nightingales, introverted snail collectors and the charms of village life.
Adventurous trips, unforgettable encounters, anecdotes and impressions from foreign countries: In the Hörweite podcast series , SPIEGEL ONLINE reporters talk about their reporting trips around the globe (in German). In this edition, science editor Holger Dambeck and photo and video journalist Jonathan Miske discuss their reporting trip to Albania's Vjosa Valley. Here, you can read an abridged, English-language version of the interview.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You accompanied a group of researchers as they conducted an extensive plant and animal inventory in a river valley in Albania. What exactly did the researchers do there, and why?
Holger Dambeck: A hydroelectric power plant, a large dam, is to be built in this valley in southern Albania. Prior to such a project, an environmental assessment is supposed to take place. But it was never carried out, or rather it was, but only in a pro forma way. So the researchers went there to conduct this inventory and document all that lives there and demonstrate that the valley is worthy of protection.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can you explain what exactly is so special about this habitat and why they chose that specific site?
Holger Dambeck: The valley is special because thus far it has no hydroelectric plants and no dams. The river flows unimpeded to the Mediterranean and the riverbed is constantly shifting. With every flood, it moves somewhere else. There are areas near the banks that are flooded regularly, they are extremely special habitats. The researchers wanted to see what kinds of animals live there and what such an undisturbed river even looks like. Because in Central Europe, there are no wild rivers any more.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Jonathan, you took the photos and shot the videos for the story. Alongside some very impressive visuals taken with a drone, there are also images of the researchers at work. There is one image, for example, of an entomologist sitting with his upper body inside an enormous sweep net removing moths.
Jonathan Miske: I was a big fan of this operation, with them walking around with their butterfly nets. I simply hadn't seen such a thing very often and I think it looks delightful. But I also thought it was great when they found the turtles - or any time animals were discovered, like frogs cowering under a tree stump, for example. It was a bit like during childhood when you would sit in a field and examine the ants.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a science journalist, Holger, you often spend time with researchers. Jonathan, it's probably less common for you. What was it like for you to wander through nature with a group of scientists?
Jonathan Miske: I thought it was great and I learned a lot, in part because they were talking about their specialties almost the entire time. I remember listening to two biologists talking about the songs of the nightingale and learning that they apparently have different accents. Meanwhile, a different scientist was handing out leaves that you could eat. I've unfortunately forgotten what they were, but I felt fine afterwards.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is this cliché that scientists tend to be a bit quirky. Did you find that to be true?
Holger Dambeck: It was varied. Certainly, there were a couple of introverted clam or snail collectors who preferred to be alone and didn't want us following them around all the time asking questions. Others, though, were completely different. Even to the point that I helped inflate the dinghy, and then had to help figure out how to make the thing airtight. Because at first, we couldn't figure out how to keep the air from escaping.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the trip was something of an adventure?
Holger Dambeck: Yeah, at one point we needed to climb out of the boot and into the water in our shoes, because the water was too shallow to continue. And then I had wet shoes all day until 10 p.m.
SPIEGEL: How long did you spend with the scientists in total?
Holger Beck: I was ultimately there for five days, and Jonathan was there for a bit less than that.
Jonathan Miske: I was only there for three days and I missed a few things, as I later heard. A lot of exciting things apparently happened after I left.
Holger Dambeck: Among other things, one scientist caught a pretty large fish. I think it was a sea bass, but whatever it was, it was a fish that you don't expect to see so far from the Mediterranean. It was from the sea and swam upriver to where we caught it. We ate it that evening.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The hydroelectric dam would seriously affect local inhabitants. Much of their pastureland would be flooded, for example. Did you speak with the locals when you were there?
Jonathan Miske: Yes, we spoke with the people who lived there. We had a translator with us, who spoke German and Albanian. And I also met some people when I went looking for photos in the village. I even played some pool with a couple of young people.
SPIEGEL ONELINE: What does it look like in the village? What is life like for the people there?
Jonathan Miske: Everything looks very poor, with many houses that are falling apart. Some people still get around mainly with donkeys. A couple of times we saw donkeys that were packed with so much hay that you could barely see the animal. It just looked like a wandering pile of hay.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some of the scientists stayed with villagers, didn't they?
Holger Dambeck: They did, because they wanted to capture nocturnal animals or those that were active right at daybreak. They needed to be close by, of course, so they could get up in time and make their way into the valley. That was only possible if they stayed in the village. Some of them slept in tents and some stayed in people's homes - and on the third evening, the villagers invited the scientists for beer and raki in the village bar. And then there was this funny moment when they all began to sing. It was really quite impressive.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Were you able to return the favor with a song of your own?
Holger Dambeck: I didn't sing, but there was a group of Austrian scientists who sang hiking songs in German, which was a little strange in its own way.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Enver Hoxha was the dictator of Albania until 1985. He led the country into isolation and had hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers built for fear of foreign invaders. Did you see any traces of this dictatorship in your travels?
Holger Dambeck: One evening, we drove to Gjirokastër, Hoxha's birthplace. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because there are very old Ottoman buildings there. In between them, there are these Stalin-type constructions, and then more old buildings. It is a weird mixture. That also might be what makes Albania so special: This mixture of dictatorship left-overs, picturesque villages and ultra-new buildings, glass palaces of the kind you would expect to see in Kazakhstan.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: This time you were in Albania on assignment. But would you return as a tourist or recommend it to friends?
Jonathan Miske: Albania is an extremely beautiful country and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to hike, kayak or spend time in nature.
Holger Dambeck: I feel the same way. There are, perhaps, a few shortcomings that you have to come to terms with. It is not a country that is perfectly set up for tourists. Albania is far from that. But that also has its charms, because you experience more things and you can do many more things spontaneously than in a country where everything is totally organized.
A man with his donkey in the Vjosa Valley in Albania.