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Oxen powered firewood extraction – A century-old Balkan tradition and a necessity

In Durmitor National Park, we explore old techniques of survival and living with nature

One of the almost extinct Balkan crafts, which today barely survives in the mountainous and forested parts of the Balkan Peninsula, is the craft “rabadžija” (i.e. one that deals with the transport of goods by carts or ox-carts).

Extracting firewood from parts of the forest inaccessible to conventional vehicles, with the help of oxen, is one of the oldest living Balkan crafts.

Nowhere else in the forests of the Dinarides, outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, will you be able to better experience this occurrence, which usually happens in late summer and early autumn, during the time when locals are preparing for the coming winter.

I was lucky enough to be invited by the local “rabadžije” from Durmitor to spend a day with them and realize how difficult and how precious this craft is.

I was excited to be able to meet the local Durmitor highlanders and join them for a an amazing day of learning the local Durmitor traditions. Hanging out with “rabadžije” while listening interesting stories of life today and once before, made really great impressions on me. At all times they treated me to food and drinks.

This is a very difficult craft.

It is not uncommon for humans or animals to be severely injured, or God forbid they die while pulling out logs heavier than a few hundred pounds.

My hosts have many years of experience in pulling logs with oxen and they do this for the purpose of earning money for everyday life, but also for their own needs, because many of them have larger families who need firewood very often.

Going up into the remote parts of the forests to find good fire wood - Durmitor National Park

The first part of the job is to base the firewood extraction point on the part of the forest that is accessible by road, preferably asphalt. After that you go uphill for a few minutes to few tens of minutes, where you can find good logs that are cut and later pulled out towards the base. Since the hill is very steep, “rabadžije” very often use ox tails as a means of easier walking uphill.

“Rabadžije” love to talk about their craft, so they tell me the following:

“The most important is that we are healthy and alive. This is our everyday life and we go to the forest several times during the day.

Terrain is often hard to beat, but you have to use experience and understanding of the nature, to be able to do your job. You have to be able to manage oxen and protect yourself as well.”

Tie up the logs with chains for extraction - Durmitor National Park

Once you have felled the trees and prepared them for extraction, it is necessary to chain the trees to a “jaram” (eng. a wooden crossbar that attaches to the oxen’s neck), thus distributing the weight evenly so that each of the two animals can bear the same load.

Good oxen are trained from an early age, because when they grow older, their strength cannot be restrained. When they enter the forest, the oxen must know the commands to listen, with aim to avoid injury or accident. 

When you collect logs, you have to tie them well, distribute the weight evenly so that the oxen can pull. Being a “rabadžija” means you have to be in good physical condition.

“Rabadžije” with their oxen reach the farthest points of the forest, which makes this work highly valued in local communities. Without them winters can be harsh.

Animals are taught to be patient and do their job on commands. Once upon a time, each family had its own pair of oxen that it used for these purposes, and today it is only a couple of individuals who are trying to preserve this craft.

The state of Montenegro has limited the amount of forests that can be cut down annually to combat illegal logging. The cubic quantities of the forest are clearly defined by the number of family members and the penalties for non-compliance are very severe.

Local rangers are hired in the daily service of protecting all the beauties of the Durmitor region.

The hardest part of the job is pulling the logs down the steep forest slopes. This is also the most risky part of the job, which is approached carefully and without haste.

Oxen for these people are a way of survival, their blessing and they are treated with respect and appreciation, as if they were part of a family. 

It is important to note that the extraction of trees by ox-carts is not a tourist attraction where animals are used purely for display, but a real necessity of nomads of this area.

Pulling down the logs by oxen - Durmitor National Park

Even the smallest mistake can cost you dearly, which is why the long-term experience of these masters of their craft is important.

The power of oxen is incredible and the fact that oxen can extract up to 5 cubic meters of timber in one round proves that these animals and humans deserve respect.

The whole job requires knowledge of working with a manual and chain saw, bion, hammers, bridle and other tools necessary for the successful extraction of logs from inaccessible parts of the forest.

Knowing how to manage oxen and how to safely bring trees to the road itself is valuable knowledge. My hosts are some of the best in their craft on the whole of Durmitor.

After several attempts going up and down the forest, and pulling out tens of cubic meters of logs, it’s time for a break.

Having the honor to socialize with the Durmitor locals, for me one of the best experiences of exploring the vast expanses of Durmitor National Park.

The food of the Durmitor highlanders is rich in strength and energy. Dried meat, prosciutto, homemade bread, jam, cheese and the inevitable brandy or beer are on today’s menu.

At the end of the day, when the logs are pulled out, the cutting is done, the logs are cut into smaller pieces and transported to the homes of the Durmitor highlanders.

Cutting the logs into small pieces - Durmitor National Park

When the wood has been cut with a chainsaw into pieces, as soon as it is “wet” it will be cut with an ax. This process happens at home, because the size of the chopped wood depends on the needs of the individual.

The whole daily experience of my befriending with the locals and their beautiful animals has taught me how difficult it is for a person to understand the reality of life outside of his comfort zone. Exploratory journeys that are permeated with activities that help you better understand the traditions and customs of the local community are the best trips.

After them, you understand your life better and appreciate it even more.

Once upon a time, each house had a pair of oxen, which measured the wealth of the household. Today, this craft is on the verge of oblivion and extinction. Thanks to individuals who still revive the spirit of old times, we have the opportunity to see how life once was.

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