She climbed Tibet, the Andes, Mount Everest, drove off road in Morocco and Island… Karmen has many more extreme plans
Photographs: Vilijam Ćirjaković
As soon as I met Karmen Kajdaći Jovanović, it was clear to me that the only thing poetic about her is her name. A person that can rival thirty-year-olds in looks, and someone closer to a hundred in life experiences, places that she climbed to, descended into or driven trough. Her immeasurable adrenaline is unspoken of, with each mention of Tiber, the Andes or Mount Everest her face glows. And once we switch to topics of off road driving in the desserts of Morocco, or local roads in Island, Karmen catches on fire. I somehow thought of asking what happens when you get stuck with a ‘soft’ passenger on such adventure? She gave me a wide smile and acknowledged that it does happen sometimes, but that “we men… listen to me, I mean our male energy’’. That’s just it, Karmen has this incredibly strong energy that conveys a message that there are no problems with her, sleeping in a tent for days, crossing tens of thousands of kilometers stuck in a seat, bathes in a cold stream, hangs on a window of a jeep in order to balance it and help the men dig it out of the sand. On the other side, she claims to have never had problems as a woman, even in very patriarchal environments, because each time she would get told that she looks like their women – in the Andes a Peruvian woman, in the markets of Morocco a Moroccan, and in the cliffs of Kailas an Asian.
After a couple of hours of talk it was clear that Karmen has much more to say, which makes this story an introduction to the trilogy of her unusual travels, which could be considered science fiction to most. During which, with help from friends, she made amazing photographs and clips with authentic music which take your breath away (which you will be able to see in the second part – off road driving in Island). In the meantime, she passes her weekends by descending into beautiful Serbian caves, and recently passed an amateur radio test, because it’s the only means of communication on most of her trips. And, as you might have guessed, she loves to sneak out on her own, and take a look on top of 5000 meters, or drives off a bit further waiting for hours for a geyser to erupt. But when it comes to speleology, she claims to have finished the official course and acts very disciplined.
Let us start with one of your recent actions, descending into Suvi ponor pit in Miroč. How long have you been interested in speleology and where have you been?
Descending into Suvi ponor was actually a seminar with which I have successfully finished the practical part of my speleology course, making it my first descending. I have always admired these underground beauties and finally at the age of 47, I spared enough time to start a course. I didn’t even thing about my age until I found myself at a desk surrounded by other beginners out of which the oldest was only half my age. It turned out that age isn’t a problem, as soon as there is motivation and will. Caves are cold, dark moist, often muddy and from my perspective beautiful. In order to become a speleologist you truly must love a cave.
How do you get prepared and stay in shape for a demanding trip?
As a true procrastinator I start working out before a trip. Before hiking tours, especially before the Himalayas, I worked out for a year, irregularly during the first six months, and intensely during the rest. My workout consisted of me climbing to the 19thstory of a skyscraper every other day. Ì gradually increased the number of floors, and later on added a backpack. Right before the trip, the number rose to 200 floors, or 10 climbs and descends. ì can only brag about being consistent with stretching exercises.
How much attention do you pay to your gear? How important is it when it comes to extreme sports/
My gear is very important to me, and no matter the sport, comfortable footwear is a must. When it comes to off-road driving it’s car gear. The car that you take into a mountain must be functional and equipped with adequate pneumatics and basic elements for extreme situations. Rafting requires a helmet and a safety vest. Speleology demands extreme caution. Results of a careless attitude towards ropes and other climbing gear, as well as a poor choice of such, may put a life in danger. It is because of this that in order for one do practice speleology a course is mandatory.
Besides for speleology you’re into trekking? Multiple tours on Tibet were full of physical challenges, how did the organization of the trip look and what was most interesting?
Travels to Tibet are one of thee most interesting and demanding travels I have ever been on. Before Tibet, the highest peak I conquered was 4600 meters, while 5673 waited there. I was constantly overwhelmed with the question whether I could do it. When it comes to the plain tickets, accommodation and complete logistics, they all fell on our tour guides while it was my task to be physically and mentally ready, as well as to pack required climbing gear for all 23 days in one backpack, whose weight couldn’t be over 21 kilograms. You can’t even imagine how hard that it. We reached Tibet through Beijing. We traveled to Lhasa for two days, on the famous train that travels at an altitude over 5000 meters at one point. We are introduced to Lhasa and the wonderful Tibetans, their monasteries, which there are many. The people and their culture crawl under our skin and we continue our travels filled with some specific warmth they shared with us. We head to Mount Everest, farther to the mountain Kailas which we travel around and pass it’s peak (almost 5700 meters). Traveling through the Tibetan plateau lasted over two weeks, and during it we were mostly at an altitude of 5000 meters.
It’s obvious that your adrenaline lies at the upper limit, were there moments where you longed for a resort, for a day or two?
At the bottom of Mont Everest we spent a day at base camp at 5200 meters. While I gazed upon the sun lit peak, I agreed that it deserved to be called Mr. MT. Everest. Spending two weeks at such high altitude was extremely physically exhausting. Everything is hard there – walking, breathing, and blinking… But the whole group only kept adding accomplishments and celebrating each one with a smile, no one longed for a rest at any moment. At each conquered obstacle we began a new climbed with our energy renewed. After returning to Belgrade we were useless for a week.
I am a mother and a housewife before all else, and after that someone who loves nature
Which are the countries you trekked through and which parts would you love to see?
With mountain climbers I visited Peru, Tibet, Bolivia as well as some interesting parts of Chine, I’m planning a visit to Vietnam and Cambodia in the autumn, and after that who knows. Each part of this planet has its beautiful nature, which to me is an invitation; we’ll see how much of it I’ll have time for.
Off-road jeep traveling is another passion of yours. How did you start and what made you decide to do so?
An off-road vehicle opens another interesting way to visit otherwise unreachable natural beauties. I love driving so it made itself an imperative discipline for me to fall in love with. Out of all activities, off-road gives me the biggest adrenaline rush.
I assume that Top Gear was your favorite show, do you watch Grand Tour?
I am a mother and a housewife before all else, and after that someone who loves nature, and runs towards it in every possible way, therefore there isn’t much space left for TV and computers. I have no idea what those things you asked me about are.
A jeep through Morocco, I believe it to be a Hollywood movie adventure.
Traveling was an adventure from the first till the last minute. An individual trip with your own vehicle opens many possibilities. We crossed the tall Atlas, got through a snow storm and got stuck at a curve in the snow. We crawled into the dessert, got stuck in a sand dune and barely managed to breath in the heat. We visited the vivid markets and squares of Medina, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh and Fes, as well as a couple of other larger cities, but we also visited their villages and spent time talking to locals, Tuaregs, Berbers. We tanned at the beaches (got stuck there as well). One night while searching for a cold beer we stumbled upon a brothel…
You also reached Island. What did especially surprise you there, what did you enjoy the most and what was a problem for you?
The same goes for Island, as it did for the trip to Morocco. Traveling with your own car opens many possibilities. The trip to Island was planned much in advance. The accommodation and ferry tickets need to be bought months in advance. The routes through the island are chosen based on hotel reservations. We mostly camped for two days and spent the third in a hotel. Traveling in this way has its disadvantages; it means that you’ll live in your jeep for a month, which excludes every comfort. After a week your body knows each stich in the seat, and the bumpy roads allow you to diagnose that you don’t have a kidney stone, otherwise it would have fallen out by now. You spend every night in a different city, carry stud, pack and unpack a tent and camping gear each night. On the other hand, when you find yourself at the bottom of a majestic waterfall, geyser, volcano, and stand on a beach formed out of volcanic lava, watch a seal play, and whales dance in the sea, you forget about all that and continue on.
Sports that I practice are only means by which I meet nature better and deeper
What are some other trips you conquered and what is your unfulfilled dream?
I mentioned all the most interesting destinations I traveled through in this conversation. My dreams were Machu Picchu, Kailash, Luxor and the plateau of Giza, the heritage of Mayas, Egyptians and Tibetans. I mostly visited that, mostly by foot. What is left is Mexico and the heritage of Aztecs. And I don’t know why but I’m drawn to the Western Wall, I also want to go to Mongolia by a car…
Other extreme sports you tried? Did you think of being a passenger on the first commercial flight into space?
I don’t see these sports as extreme. I love spending time in nature, where I can go with a SUV, I like experiencing a river in the mountains, and rafting is the best way to experience a river. I love caves, but without ropes and special training you can’t meet them. Sports that I practice are only means by which I meet nature better and deeper. I don’t see myself on a flight into space, I still haven’t fully met the planet I live on currently.
Is there anything you are scared of?
Yes, I have a phobia of horses and animals that are bigger than me.
Some of my biggest trips began while standing in line to buy tickets for an AC/DC concert
Who do you travel with? How do you balance work and family?
I go on mountain climbing tours with a tour guide that I gained trust in, and the rest of the crew I mostly meet at the airport. After each trip, new people enter my life and eventually become great friends and enrich my everyday life. Off-road tours are drives where all participants function as a whole and when I travel with them, it feels like traveling with family. On those trips my younger son, the best passenger, often accompanies me. I am privileged to be surrounded by lovely people; therefore I have support from friends and family for each adventure. I have to give special credit to my sons, mother and ex husband who took care of family and work each time I’m away.
Age obviously isn’t an obstacle for you. Are there other women who manage to follow your pace?
When I start something new, like for example this speleology course, I don’t look at the calendar but listen to my body and myself. There will come a time when I’ll have to settle down, but it will be when I feel that way. During my travels, I was privileged to meet older woman who were my inspiration. I hope with all my heart that I will be an inspiration and an example that years should not be an obstacle.
Many will say congratulations, but a few will dare to experience a tents of things you did. Is it a matter of personalities or do some things in life get in motion by accident?
Some things get started by accident. I recently told some acquaintances how some of my biggest trips began while standing in line to buy tickets for an AC/DC concert. But I do thing that crucial elements are personality and drive.