14-Jul-2001 -- My first visit to Vilnius in Lithuania. The reason for being there was a two day business meeting on Thursday, July 12 and Friday July 13, 2001. On Friday afternoon Débra flew in from Prague and joined me at the Radisson SAS hotel in the heart of the beautiful old town. We had decided to spend the weekend in Lithuania and see a little more of this country of which we knew so little.
Our first step was to make our way to the Hertz office to pick up the Ford Focus we had rented for the weekend. It was an excellent walk through the heart of the city, and we realised just how pristine and well maintained it is... certainly none of the obvious graffiti that defaces so many Central European countries like a plague. The people seemed content, friendly and laid back. We felt comfortable. We picked up the car, found our way back to the hotel, had a pizza and a pint for supper and got a relatively early night.
The following morning (Saturday, July 14, 2001) we rose at about 18h00 and had a hearty breakfast before settling our bill and packing the car. It was hot, and I was glad that they had upgraded our rental car to a model with an air conditioner! Our route took us north-north-west out of Vilnius through Ukmergé and past Panevéþys where we turned west towards Siauliai (pronounced "show-lay" [with the "show" as in "shower"]). Our objective was to find the grave of a member of my distant family who is buried there – genealogy is one of my interests.
The 200 km drive was uneventful but slow as the speed limit was generally 40 to 50 km/h in built up areas, 70 to 90 km/h on main roads and a mere 130 km/h on the highways. Now I have no difficulty when it comes to breaking speed limits, but I quickly learned to trust the Latvian guide book that we had picked up from Hertz:
"Cops are on the look-out, often hidden from view and using radar guns. They will stop you at the least provocation and fines must be paid on the spot."
Hmmmm!!! Within two hours I had been pulled over twice for breaking the speed limit. However, for once in my life I found it an advantage to be holding a South African passport and driver's license – both officers toyed with the documents for a while and eventually decided that it would be more hassle that it was worth to try to fine me!! ;-)
In Siauliai we bought ourselves a town map, and spent the rest of the day visiting every cemetery in the place. It was fascinating and, although we did not find the exact grave of my ancestor, we did find graves of unknown soldiers that I am almost certain contain his remains. We also drove to Gruzdþial (to the north-west of Siauliai) to try and find the airfield where he died, but to no avail.
By this time I was thinking of heading back to Vilnius... the sun was setting, and I really did not feel like driving at night. It had been a long day and I was tired. Heading back towards Siauliai Débra asked: "OK, so where's the closest confluence?" Mistake!! I had flown to Lithuania almost straight from Egypt-via-London, and had not had the opportunity to look on the Degree Confluence site to see if anything had been done in Lithuania. In fact, I had not even thought of doing a confluence.
We pulled over. I played around with the GPS and discovered that we were only about 40 km west of N56 E024. That was just too tempting, and I set a course to the waypoint. We took the direct route cross-country on the fairly good dirt roads that presented themselves. Hey... Colin McRae won the World Rally Championship in a Ford Focus!! ;-)
We eventually got to the village of Lygumai in the heart of the magnificent Lithuanian countryside and figured that the confluence was about a kilometre to the east-south-east. We got onto a farm road between the fields and a small patch of forest and tackled the first really challenging piece of road for the day. The road became narrower and rougher as we progressed and, by the time we turned to the south at the end to the patch of trees (close to the town of Pakruojis) it had dwindled to a seldom used track with low hanging trees and encroaching scrub.
Within a few hundred metres this track doglegged to the east and over a wooden bridge. Hmmm! This obviously ancient construction looked seriously dilapidated and we got out of the car to take a closer look. That was the first mistake! Waaaahhh!!! Squadrons of dehydrated mosquitoes and flies descended on us from nowhere!! Now coming from Africa, we know a thing or two about both of these cute insects, but I can safely saw that I have NEVER experienced clouds of bloodsuckers like this... not even in the Amazon.
Splatting insects on our foreheads and arms we studied the bridge. It was really old and many timbers had rotted through, but I though that I'd be able to make it across without depositing the vehicle into the river a metre or two below. Debs was nervous, but we were now about 850 metres from the sweet spot, and I was not going to give up with our objective so close! Debs decided to stay on the opposite side of the bridge to cut the weight of the car and to guide me over.
I dropped the clutch, hit my mark, kept the line and made it over the creaking bridge intact. Debs climbed in and we started heading west. At this point the dirt track started turning into a footpath and we decided to stop about 700 metres from the confluence. Debs decided to brave the swarms of bloodsuckers, to follow the footpath and to see where it led! Brave girl – I sat in the car with the windows up and the aircon turned up!
Debs walked eastwards towards a thicket of trees with her eyes to the ground, waving her arms around her head like a deranged person fending off demons! It looked so funny, and I now wish that I had taken a photo, but at the time I was worried - wondering how the hell we were going to make it back over the collapsing bridge!
I was then that I noticed something. In the trees towards which Debs was heading I was sure that I saw the silhouette of a person. Yes – there it was again, and soon the person materialised from the thicket. From a distance he appeared to be very agitated. Uh-oh! I turned off the aircon. Debs was still fending off the mosquitoes and flies, and had not noticed that she was now less than 200 metres from the man who was now walking straight towards her.
However, she was soon made aware of his presence – the guy started screaming at her in Lithuanian! She froze, took one look at the guy bearing down on her, and did a quick about turn! By this time I had got the car into reverse and done a tricky manoeuvre to turn the car around. I selected neutral, pulled up the handbrake and climbed out into the buzzing heat. Debs and our protestor arrived at the car at about the same time. The wiry man was dressed in a grubby white shirt, and wore baggy drab farm trousers held up with ancient braces. His hair was unkempt and bushy, his skin was sun ravaged and dirty, his face was unshaven, some of his teeth were missing, and he was WILD eyed with bushy eyebrows! And he was still bellowing at the top of his voice. He reminded me of a distressed extra from the movie "Deliverance", but personally, I blame fall-out from Chernobyl!! ;-))
Wow... this was getting scary! I decided to introduce myself, and shook his hand. He continued SCREAMING into my face! We played "dumb foreigners" as if we had lost our way, but the guy continues yelling and waving his arms around like a flailing wounded ostrich. I pleaded gringo "...ANGLICKE..." which only made him pause for half a second to repeat "Anglicke" before continuing his tirade. Hmmm – up close he reminded me of the Scottish janitor character in "The Simpsons", but faaaaar more rabbit! In actual fact the thick cloud of flies and mosquitoes that surrounded his head was just like something out of a comic book. This was just too surreal – it was time to leave.
We made our escape across the bridge, and I would not advise anyone to try and drive over it again! We headed back to Lygumai and our plan was to go around to the other side of the Deliverance-man's house in the thicket to see if we could reach the confluence from there. We drove north through Pamûðis and soon thereafter turned south-east on the road towards Pakruojis. Things were looking good – we were about three kilometres from the confluence, and on this heading, we would drive straight into it! We then got to the opposite side of the Wild Man's field and the GPS directed us to the green field across the road from his – the confluence was just a few hundred metres away. As luck would have it, a tractor path between two fields took us to within 25 metres of the confluence that we eventually found with relative ease (on the crest of an irrigation ditch) at about 20h00! A woman rode past on her bicycle with a pail on the back, and proceeded to milk the cow standing about 50 metres beyond us. I hoped it was not the wife of the Thicket Man!!
We took pictures quickly (as the light was fading rapidly) and drove back to Vilnius via Pasvalys, Panevéþys and Ukmergé. On the outskirts of the city we found a great, new, reasonably priced hotel called "Baltpark" and became the first guests to sleep in room 710. After a long day and an 800 km drive, sleep came easy I can assure you. Despite the hundreds of mosquito bites we slept well... our eighth confluence (and the first in Lithuania) had been a challenge for very different reasons!