One Abyss, Three Exits
We took advantage of past autumn, which was mild and dry, to finally reach Ponor, one of the natural attractions of this mountain, at that time of year. From the village of Dojkinci, on the macadam road towards the Arbinje forest, along the river, next to the Tupavica waterfall, we emerge high. In the distance we can see the Kopren peak, under the canopy of fog, and three peaks over 2,000 meters high: Tri čuke, Vražja glava and Midžor. The winds and forests whistle, the glades rush towards us like waves. And then, at 1,500 meters above sea level, there is a descent into the Ponor. In that big sinkhole, the river springs up, immediately creates a waterfall and soon sinks for a long distance

Text and Photo: Stanko Kostić

The mountain range is about 530 kilometers long, difficult to see. Stara Planina (the Old Mountain) extends in the southeastern part of Serbia, and in neighboring Bulgaria, all the way to the Black Sea, bears the name Balkan. Much has been written about its beauty, as well as plant and animal species. Last year, it was declared a national park at the highest level of protection. Lookouts in the foothills of Stara Planina, still underexplored, offer stunning views. Expanses of forest and grass open up, above which mountain peaks rise in the blue distance. There are also a large number of springs and rivers. They run across the slopes towards the basin of Visočica and Nišava, creating some of the most beautiful mountain karst waterfalls in Serbia. Many of them have not even been discovered yet. Some, at high altitudes, in areas of heavy snow, can only be reached in summer and early autumn.
We will step into a small part of that pristine nature.
– Our goal today is to go through those areas of untouched nature, to take good photos in some exceptional places, but also to repair or replace the existing markings on the mountain roads and maintained trails – says Dragan Novaković, from the Tourist Organization of Pirot, our guide and driver. – We will sleep in a building that is 950 meters above sea level. We will pass by Tupavica, probably the most picturesque waterfall on Stara planina, and then drive uphill to the Klisura plateau... You will see, I should not be telling everything in advance.
In the year behind us, autumn was unusually warm, without snow. The people of this area tell us that they don’t remember anything like that. We took advantage of this climatic confusion to visit Ponor in autumn, the largest karst cove and one of the major tourist attractions of Stara Planina. It was named after the underground river that springs on one side of the rock, above the collapsed cave vault, at the bottom of a sinkhole surrounded by vast grassy terrain. It is given life by the waters from the coves and karst streams, which, aggregated, form a spring.
– After the waterfall, this water continues its short journey and disappears, a little lower, in another limestone cave opening as a subterranean river – explains architect Tihomir Obradović, a member of our reporter-tourist patrol. – They say that afterwards it appears much lower and mixes with the Dojkinačka River.
Down the entire area, on the side, a depressed cove can be seen, now dry. In the spring, water from melted snow collects in it. Now it thirstily waits for new water, when the moisture would revive the grass around the edges and the whole area would come to life with the herds of cows, goats and sheep that the peasants bring for summer grazing. Ten years ago, we tried to get here, but we were hindered by the sloppy and slippery roads, soaked by the spring rains. Geomorphologist Jovan Cvijić visited the area back in 1896. He describes it as a closed depression that stretches in a northwest-southeast direction. The layers on the northern sides, he says, are composed of tabular mica and quartz sandstone. The southern part, with sides up to eighty meters deep, rising above the bottom, is composed of blue marly limestone. According to Cvijić, the depression is similar to the fields in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is rich in springs that erupt on all sides and meander through the plane of the abyss, forming streams. They come together to form a short subterranean river.


In one part of our journey, we follow the course of the Dojkinačka River. Three wells are hidden in the forests of the Kopren plateau. The water from them merges into one flow, which, a little lower, cascades from a cliff about thirty meters high. The resulting river carves its way through the karst and untouched forest of Arbinje, hurrying towards the Jelovička River and Visočica, and then through Nišava towards the South and Great Morava and the Danube, all the way to the Black Sea.
– Every mountain, including this one, is best conquered and known through the river valley – Dragan Novaković teaches us. – The river forms the blood stream of the landscape, provides life with its flow and traces the path from the confluence to the spring, where the most beautiful landscapes are hidden.
The village of Dojkinci is located fifteen kilometers from the spring. A small mountain village, with houses made of stone, wood and mud. The unusually beautiful, modernly equipped mountain lodge is managed by the Tourist Organization of Pirot. The lodge has a modern kitchen and bathrooms, as well as an accommodation capacity of 50 beds, in double rooms and dormitories. There is also a village shop nearby. It is about 35 kilometers from Pirot, very suitable for outdoor classes, scouts and mountaineers. We spent the night there and continued to our destination in the morning. Ponor is at about 1,500 meters above sea level. It borders with the peaks of Kopren and Stražna čuka.
–Ponor can be reached by a routed and marked hiking trail about five kilometers long. We chose a route that is twice as long – says Dragan Novaković.
We set off from the lodge along the macadam road towards the Arbinje forest, following the course of the river and the signpost for the Tupavica waterfall, also a jewel of this part of Serbia. After two kilometers, we turned right, climbing uphill on a trail through a beech forest. We stop occasionally to take photos. After seven kilometers, we came out onto the Klisura stretch.
– We will stop here for a while – says Dragan. – I need to replace the old road sign board. Here, we have prepared a new one. It is a crossroads. This is the road to the peaks of Stražna čuka and Kopren. To the right you go to Ponor, to the left to the viewpoint at 1,750 meters, one of the most beautiful in Serbia. If you look into the distance from that lookout, you will see Kopren, under the veil of fog. There are also Tri čuke, Vražja glava and Midžor, all peaks over 2,000 meters high.
The air is crisp and humid, smelling of grass. If it weren’t for the sound of Dragan’s hammer, the silence would be unusually deep. Then the winds blow, fluttering the leaves on the edge of the beech forest, interspersed with the occasional birch and bush. The glades come towards us like waves.


A break, a snack, then we continue our journey. Soon, the mountain confronts us with its temper. An opaque wall of fog suddenly stands in front of us. We know that behind is a field of dry grass, without other vegetation, but we cannot see through the opaque. The distances disappeared around us. We are powerless, as if chained. It’s as if nature is reminding us that we have wounded the landscape and silence with the sound of a 150-horsepower engine, or with our careless penetration into this ”border world”. And in an instant we become crumbs, straw, worthless and weak in whimsical outback.
Confused, we got out of the car. Then the magic again: the play of wind, fog and low clouds in front of us. As in Andrić’s story ”Aska and the Wolf”, like colorful figurines from a children’s kaleidoscope, the way to the cove began to appear. A seemingly inhospitable mountain, through a transparent curtain of fog in the distance, revealed itself before us, shyly, as if a bride lifting her veil. A few minutes later the mist recedes, drifting towards the distant gorges. A vast field of fallen yellow grass appeared before us, under the light of the late October sun. And the view to the cove opened up.
We leave the jeep on the plateau, below which the terrain undulates down towards Ponor, the central sinkhole. We reach it on foot, on a wet, slippery road. A little above the opening are benches for rest. We direct our view from them to the cave vault. From the hole in the bottom you can hear the roar of the waterfall and the gurgling of the water. It is the sound of life here. Grasses, herds, people know it. After a rest, we descend into the sinkhole. A steep path leads us to an unusual scene. Water gushes out through a cut in the cracked rocks. Then, over mossy rocks, a small waterfall. The water thus flows into a short stream that disappears under the vault of the cave, in the karst.
– I told you, the local people claim that this water reappears in the village of Brlog, below Dojkinac, by roads known only to it – Tihomir Obradović repeats.
Refreshed by the cold spring water, our three-member team continues its exploration along the old mountain paths. We know that new issues and blank pages await.
About ten years ago, on this same road, we met a man with a herd of goats. He reminded us that the road is bad and that we cannot reach Ponor by car, but only on foot. It took us several hours to walk to and from Dojkinci. We couldn’t do it then, so we left it ”for another opportunity”. And, well, that second opportunity did arise. We didn’t even feel how a decade had passed.
– What can I say, there are fewer and fewer of us in the village. Only us old people remained, while the young went to Pirot, Niš, Belgrade. They go to school, get a job there, and then, because of their obligations there, they forget about all this. They come sometimes, usually during the summer – the old shepherd told us then. His face is recorded in our photographs. – In the past, there were huge herds of sheep here. Now there is little left. A few goats and sheep, in each old household. An occasional pensioner comes back. A doctor from the city comes to the village once a week, in a car, and brings medicines. Some young people have started to restore houses for tourists. They come for a day or two. It is nice when you see people and talk to them. It will get better, I guess.
The old man then sighed and stared into the distance, perhaps the one described in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Then he recommended that we definitely visit the Tupavica waterfall, in the vicinity of the village. We did so, the photo will testify.


Since these areas are still insufficiently explored and full of surprises, we turned to the Tourist Organization in Pirot for help. It provided us with an SUV and a driver. So Dragan Novaković came with us. This Tourist Organization has done a lot to bring the ancient jewels of nature closer to visitors. Let us mention the work on marking the paths to these hidden natural beauties.


– I set off with an intention to enjoy and learn how nature, with water, in silence, builds shapes and still compositions of incredible colors – says our companion Tihomir Obradović, an architect. – But, truly, I had no idea what kind of beauty I would see and experience in this unusual place.

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