Farewell to Croatia and our first week in Bosnia
As I am writing this on a beach in Montenegro during our hitch-hiking trip, the events taking place three months ago seem far away in the past. By coming back here to meet my mom while she is on holiday, we made a loop of some sorts, but a lot of things happened even before we got here in the first place..
The pearl of Croatia
Last time, we left off cycling on the Croatian highlands. There was one more reason we choose this route instead of the coast, to go to a magical place known by many, the Plitvice lakes. The central, touristy part is around the middle, from where you can visit the main areas, but there is an unofficial road from the south, along a bigger lake lying in a North-West position. As Croatia has strict rules against wild camping (for money reasons of course, with fines going from a few hundred euros to up to two thousand), we thought we find a spot at the edge of the national park, where no cars can get through as there is a bar blocking the way, and have a hiding place for ourselves.
But we got a bit careless and the rangers found us in the morning, and after our initial shock is was obvious they just wanted a bribe. A small angry man was threatening us with the police and when realizing they won’t get what they want, they gave our passports back with a 1000 euro fine each looming over us. Except there was no check or any tangible evidence against us, not even mentioning that we are not living in our home countries anymore, and don’t own any property, so we are not really concerned with an idle threat like that.
Still, we were planning on staying for two more nights here, and this encounter forced us to search for a better hiding place, which we found in the form of an abandoned building. We found a whole cluster of ruined houses actually, mementos of a war which drove people away, nature slowly creeping back into the concrete. It was one of our better camping places, with a spring just a kilometre away, secluded, quiet. We only had to walk around 4 km on a nice, peaceful forest road beside a lake to reach the centre.
We haven’t read anything about Plitvice before coming here – and this happens quite frequently with places we just know we have to visit – hence we were taken aback by the landscape. There are several lakes originating from clear spring water, but it’s not what makes this area so unique. The thick, green forest around the lakes lies on a ground with rising elevation, and the lakes nestle into pockets of plains. Water is flowing freely down to almost a 200m gradual difference, through small crevasses, roots, and a lot of waterfalls, ranging from only a few meters to tens of meters high.
You can choose to go on a hike over the hills, where you could even spot bears and indigenous plant species, and have an exceptional view over the lakes. Or you can walk around on the wooden platforms built over the shallow water, admiring the small creaks, caves and waterholes right next to you, with the waterfalls so close you can’t help but get a little wet from the spray.
Brace yourselves, there’ll be an armload of pictures from here, we simply couldn’t choose 🙂
First impression of Bosnia
After a day of rest, we headed directly to Bosnia, and our first few nights there were also spent in a national park. The initial plan was to go on the border of Croatia and just take a peek at the Bosnian side before going back to the coast, because mines are still very much present there, dissuading us from wild camping. But we grew more confident in asking at houses for a garden space, and the food prices in Croatia were too high for our liking. As mines are not a problem in gardens and cleared public places (and wild camping is legal in Bosnia, sharing this blessing with only a select few in Europe), we decided it can’t be that bad. Besides, we heard so many nice things about the nature and people there; we really wanted to discover the country more.
Our first days were spent along the beautiful Una River. The national park was a long stretch with hills, mountains, and thick, bushy, green forest surrounding the water, which was so clean you could drink from it. Contrary to other areas of the Balkans, the landscape was fairly clean of trash, even having recycling in the close-by biggest city, Bihac. At that time, we didn’t really take note of that, our western European mind accepting it as a natural thing.
Small villages scattered scarcely across, not more than a few hundred inhabitants living in them. While we were having lunch at the riverbank at one of these, we got a taste of the famous Balkan hospitability, as we got invited to a grill party nearby. It was a fairly odd gathering at the middle of nowhere, finding a guy from Nigeria and one from Morocco there, of all places. Alan’s cup was filled with beer whenever it got empty (I still avoid alcohol so got the treatment with juice instead), and we spent the afternoon rather pleasantly, sharing stories and listening to people singing local songs about love (what else?).
Later we discovered that it is a rare treasure to meet people speaking even a hint of English this far out in the countryside (not just in Bosnia of course), and generally we had to resort to google translate and pantomime, which is not a good base for conversation. And while Slavic is spoken through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia with varying dialect and there are some similar words in Hungarian (luckily, sátor, which means tent is one of them, so we got that early on), we only picked up a few handful of words to get by, so we are pretty glad when we find someone speaking English.
After leaving the narrow valley of the Una, the landscape changed again, from lush green vegetation to dryer forests at first, but after we left the last city heading south and climbed to around a 1000 meter high, we were greeted by the same arid land we saw on the Croatian highlands. The remnants of civilization were only present through mostly ruined and abandoned houses, and herds of sheep scattering the view, indicating their owners were living somewhere not too far. Otherwise it was so remote that not even one car passed by per hour, gravel road was a given, and we haven’t seen a single human habitat for tens of kilometres.
In the middle of nowhere
According to the map, there was a small village on our way where we planned to ask water and tent space for the night, but when we reached it around dusk, we realized we literally had to go off the map to even get to the few inhabitants still living there, guessing which house was still in liveable conditions. Much is said about the place when I tell you that the stable for the sheep was a room on the ground floor of a big, two storied building, missing half of its side and roof, along with all windows. I think from this point on, not much surprised us, regarding weird places and animals.
Then it hit us that this far away from everything, there’s zero chance for tap water, and the ground was layers of rock with patches of grass, barely enough for grazing, surely not suitable for digging a well, so where do they get their water from? And old, loud, but otherwise friendly sheepherder woman quickly gave us the answer when she dipped her bucket in the deep drum underground, collecting rainwater. She proved yet again what they say about poor people, that they tend to be the most generous ones, maybe because they know the feeling of being desperate and in need. Seeing what they had to rely on as a water source made me think about our indulgent water usage in Western Europe (and we are not even in the ballpark, compared to the US).
Asking for a tent space proved to be more difficult. You may ask why is there even a need, among the open meadows, but we were still not comfortable about the mines and this area supposed to have a few, which mean a pretty low chance of finding one, but you only need to step ont hat one. Our question more or less consists of saying sátor (as I mentioned, tent in Slavic and Hungarian) and pointing to the ground, and that usually gets the meaning across. This time though, the old woman started to point far away and sent us on our way. And then a man we asked was trying to guide us to what we thought was a camping spot, but at the end of the walk pointing to the same way over the horizon as the woman before, making us utterly confused. Not much to do, we carefully chose a safe looking clearing and hoped for the best. Days passed before we realized that we slept under a mountain called Sator.. 😀
In these rural parts happened another first thing for me. We were riding peacefully and enjoying the weather and the view. Suddenly I heard dogs barking, and in the blink of an eye 3-4 sheep dogs were all around and behind us, appearing quite terrifying. I can honestly say I was pedalling for my life, and luckily we reached a downhill section so we could speed up. Still, they kept the pace for a long while, and as I was constantly looking back at them, I drove off the road and only a miracle saved me from falling. I was warned about dogs in the Balkans, but a knowledge of something cannot prepare you for the adrenaline shock and the shaking you get in real life But truth be told, I was expecting more chasing encounters, and actually most of the dogs you see on the roadside are stray ones, either afraid humans, puppies, or looking for some food. Just beware of sheep dogs (and on rare occasions, guard dogs in the countryside, but they are mostly on chains), and you’ll be fine.
Finally, we arrived back to civilization, getting through bigger and smaller towns, even having some nice conversations from time to time for a change. Spring was almost over, but it had one last surprise for us, where we ended up riding through a raging thunderstorm (with jackets off of course, as we deemed it not necessary, being warm enough). Of course there was no shelter for tens of kilometres and the storm kept steady for an hour, so we had to grit our teeth and suffer through it. I was so wet that after a while I was sitting in a puddle, Alan couldn’t feel his arm, but the worst part came while we had to go downhill.
At last, we arrived to a city, but instead of going forward on our merry way int he morning, we had to pay a visit to the hospital. But more on that in the next blogpost.