Hiking the Balkans: Via Dinarica, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Pt.1

Via Dinarica is a new long distance hiking trail in the Balkans, spanning from Southern Slovenia to Northern Albania with plans to extend to Kosovo and Macedonia. Currently it runs for 1,200 kilometres through 5 countries, connecting mountain ranges, forests and lakes along its wild beauty. For now, the trail is little more than a compilation of separate hiking paths, some of which are barely maintained or badly marked. Via Dinarica is for the adventurous.

Last summer, I solo hiked almost half of this massive trail. As I started out on the biggest hiking trip of my life, accompanied by nothing but lust for adventure and a backpack half as big as me, I expected to explore life in these countries in a way that a regular tourist might not: communicating with locals through a complex game of charades, conquering mountain tops and seeing sights that no tourist bus could get to.

This is the first part of two parts describing the hike in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Hopefully future Via Dinarica hikers will find it useful, and the rest of you will find it entertaining!

Oh and hey, one note! In this journal, I’ll mention the Bosnian war a few times. Since it’s not really relevant to the hiking story, I won’t talk about it much, but if you’d like to learn some more about it, check out this post first.

 

Jablanica

DAY 1.

Jablanica to Ravna, 4 km

If the Croatian section of Via Dinarica lifted me up and empowered me, the Bosnian section was ready to take me the fuck down.

Even before starting out, the hike seems cursed. I had to buy a new stove since I couldn’t find gas for my screw-on stove. Luckily, getting a new one is easy and cheap: a puncture-type camping stove costs about 5 euros, and a small gas canister less than 2 euros, and they’re widely available everywhere. On the morning of my departure, my laptop had also spontaneously drained its battery, and I had to charge it again.

Despite everything, I arrive in the town of Jablanica hopeful and excited. I buy a Snickers ice cream from a petrol station, like marking my last brush with reality, before setting out. Past a small war monument and over a bridge, glancing over briefly to snap a picture of a half-collapsed railway line. At the first turn, I whip out my GPS.

And I have no maps.

I sit down by the road to figure it out. I try everything. Turning it off and on again, changing batteries, changing the settings, deleting old maps. I connect the GPS navigator to my computer and try re-installing the GPX map. I delete and re-install over and over again. I even find a customer service number for Garmin’s Nordic customers, and hands shaking dial their number. The automated robot voice doesn’t even get to the end of its list of options before the last of my Bosnian cell phone credit runs out and the call ends.

I sit down on the hard, dirty ground, with my back against a building, and try to breathe. Tears sting behind my closed eyelids. It’s going to be okay. Could I do the trek without GPS, just using the auxiliary apps on my phone? Terror seizes me as I imagine myself lost alone in the Bosnian wilderness. I hug my knees and cry.

After a while, I calm. A little embarrassed by this surprising burst of emotion, I struggle to my wobbling feet, pack up my bag again, and walk back into town. A quiet restaurant lets me use their wifi, and I try re-downloading the maps. (Psst – this webpage is where I got all my maps.)

I still don’t exactly know how I fixed it, but I did. After two and half hours of frustration, I finally hoist up my backpack, ready to GO.

Ravna

I have lost massive amounts of time. As I struggle on in the +35 degree heat, rising high above the river valley below, I try to pick up speed. But the ascend through the forest is steep, and I almost lose the trail a few times trying to follow the GPS trail. Turns out that some of the GPS routes for Bosnia are wrong, and hikers should rather follow the trailmarkers.

The landscape is starting to take on the golden hue of sunset when I reach the village of Ravna. It is basically just a small collection of two-storey country houses spread along a strip of asphalted road. As I emerge on the road, a family of four turns to look at me. I smile.

‘Café Bela?’

The man, half toothless and in a dirty vest, walks with me for a few hundred metres to point out a big, white house with orange lounge chairs in front. Café Bela serves cold drinks and according to a previous hiker rents rooms. Alina and Senad, the couple who own the house, are in the process of renovating the café so they don’t have a room for me, but after a quick (Google Translate) conversation in my limited Bosnian, they point me at a meadow next to their house.

View from my tent

My clothes are soaked through with sweat. I pay 1,50 Bosnian marks for a glass of lemonade that I knock back with exhausted gusto. Seeing this, my wonderful hosts bring me a glass of homemade blackcurrant juice and refuse to take payment. They seem to take pride of their land and everything it produces. I sit there, already tired, and let the world slowly spin on. The couple’s teenage son drops by to say a few words in English – he’s the only one here who knows any English – and their elderly grandmother offers me a whole cucumber to eat while I try to pet their cats.

Café Bela picks up after dark. It is the watering hole for the whole tiny village, and as I finish writing my journal entry in my tent, I can hear it getting louder. There is no music but the sounds of voices laughing and asking for more beer mix together pleasantly. I can hear someone mention ‘finska’, so they must be talking about the strange tent on their backyard. And strange it is: this lone Finnish girl crashing on this friendly Bosnian family’s lawn in a ragged one-man tent.

The last remark on my travel journal from this day reads: “Maybe this hike is cursed, but it’s got its upsides too.”

 

DAY 2.

Ravna to an unnamed shelter (Prenj), 11 km.

Today marks the first breakdown I’ve had on the trail.

(Can we exclude the one from yesterday if I hadn’t technically started hiking yet? Cool, thanks.)

The trail from the village ascends steeply for almost four hours, first through slender willows and thin birch forest, before changing into a pine forest path covered in soft pine needles. It’s barely nine o’clock, and I’ve already had to strip down to shorts and a sports bra. For a moment I feel exposed before realising that, once again, I must be alone on the trail.

Reaching the Milanova Kuliba hut doesn’t feel like a victory. The steep ascend has taken me longer than I thought it would, and once again I’m behind schedule. There is some water in a large plastic tank by the first hut. It’s yellow even after boiling, which I guess must be because of iron. I hope drinking it doesn’t kill me.

While in Croatia many trails were badly overgrown and impossible to navigate without the GPS, in the Prenj national park it’s the opposite. The trails have been recently marked and moderately easy to follow, whereas the GPS trail is often misleading and straight-up wrong. And this is a place where you don’t want to get lost: Bosnia has the largest amount of unexploded landmines in the world, and straying off the trail could prove fatal. As long as you stick to the right route, though, you’ll be fine.

But only if you do.

The grassy path leads to a rocky area and I lose my way. The white stone shines against stark sunshine, and it’s hard to tell whether I’m looking at a faded waymarker or a natural streak of dye on the rock. Every time I lose the trail and have to scramble up the hill to pick it up again, just one thought is pounding in my head: how far along the trail have the mines been cleared? Is the trail safe around one meter, five, twenty?

The heat is making me drink my water faster than usual. I’m way over halfway through the bottle before I realise how little I have left. But by now I’m back on a grassy path that undulates through uneven meadows and coarse yellow grass, and for a while going is easier.

Then: dwarf pines.

What on the map only looks like a collection of open-sided triangles, turns out to be a thick growth of dwarf pines. The deeper I dive into their little forest, the denser it becomes, until I lose the trail again and become confused. The needles are sharp. I can hear them scratching up my sleeping mat and ripping holes in my tent bag. The sharp branches claw red marks on my bare legs as I force my way through yet another forest. They seem endless, unyielding. Above me, the sky is pale blue, but underneath the tangle of the dwarf pines only shadows reign.

The trail hits a dead end. The dwarf pines stand strong without any indication of a pass-though, and on the other side is just a big white rock, pompous in front of me like taunting my incapability.

That’s where I drop my backpack to the ground. There is no more strength left in my body. I scream and curse at the pines but they don’t care, not even when I hit the nearest bush with my walking stick. I haven’t cried on the trail before, but now I do, and for the first time too I wonder: why did I decide to do this. I can’t do this. I can’t. Why did I think this was a good idea? I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.

 

 

 

But the only way is forward.

I collect myself, slowly, gently. I put on my backpack and swig from the bottle that is almost empty. Breathe. Breathe. The rock in front of me is not smooth nor too tall, so I carefully choose my steps and climb up and past the pines.

But now my time is running out: the yellow glow of the impending sunset has already started to darken the shadows around pale karst stone. I fly. The trail leads me onto a plateau of flat rock and I keep taking the wrong turns, searching desperately for the next marker, hurrying as fast as I dare while my eyes strain in the fading light. The next hut is still over two hours away and I know I’m screwed.

Suddenly, as if by a miracle of a god or just some smart hiker’s association, a small A-frame hut rises in front of me. It is not marked on any of my maps, nor has it been mentioned by a previous hiker, which just strengthens my almost delirious belief that it was put there by a miracle. I walk to it carefully. I almost feel like I am invading the realm of the faes, and if I touch or drink anything, I will not be allowed to leave.

There is no cistern, but there are a lot of bottles on a table inside. I pick up one that has clear liquid in it and smell it. Vodka. Everything else looks like petrol or mosquito repellent.

But there are also four plastic canisters lined up next to the wall, and one of them is half full of water. At that moment I can’t even imagine someone might need it; I selfishly fill up my bottle and drink deep. I don’t even bother boiling it first. It tastes heavenly.

 

DAY 3.

Unnamed hut to Jezerce hut, 11 km

Psst, recommendation: I don’t usually listen to music when I’m hiking, but this day I was listening to Free by Rudimental and Emeli Sandé. You should probably put it on too because it’s a pretty fucking dope song.

 

In the morning, I have a better chance to look around and enjoy my spectacular surroundings. The hut is surrounded by skeletons of lean young trees and willowherb, whose pinkness seems all the more vivid as the early morning sun hits their flowers. The white karst walls rise up in the distance. With the uneven layers, they look almost decorative. It reminds me of the Moon, but only if the Moon also had areas that were fresh and beautiful, ground thick with pale green grass that continues down into the valley and over the nearest ridge.

I spend some time following wrong markings and getting lost, but once I pick up the trail again, it rolls smoothly under my feet. I’ve filled up my bottle with the last of the water from the canister and swapped shorts for yoga pants in case of further vicious dwarf pine attacks. Soon I’m sweating again.

In a snow cave

The trail is slowly leading me towards a group of tall, sharp mountains that look dark and mysterious even against the blue sky. And then I really see them: those impressive giants standing in front of me, still kilometres further and in no way on my itinerary, but now that I’m right in front of them, my way seems to lead directly to them. Suddenly my heart beats faster and it feels like I can’t breathe, like a panic attack but the complete opposite of it, like there was an empty space the size of an aerodome in my chest that could fill with love for the whole world and lift me up, up off the ground, make me light on my feet and full in my heart, and that no one could ever stop me, and that I was exactly where I needed to be, when I needed to be, and nothing else would ever matter as much as this love and lightness and freedom.

After I rein in my smile and take a couple of selfies, I continue on, suddenly forgiving Prenj for all the hardship it has taken me through.

By the time I arrive at a spring marked on the map, my water is running low. Expecting to find multiple spots to fill up, I haven’t been rationing it too well. But the spring turns out to just be a muddy puddle in a tiny cave with the mouth of a plastic hose sticking out of it. I can’t figure out how it works, if it does at all.

I go to lift up my backpack but something feels off. It’s not lighter but still somehow easier to manage. What is it? I soon realise my sleeping mat isn’t hanging onto it anymore.

Consulting my camera, it turns out I dropped it while I was taking selfies by the big cool mountains. In one series of photos I have it, in the next one I don’t. I’ve been walking for over an hour ever since; going back for it would mean an at least two-hour delay with no water and walking mostly uphill.

I’m sure I can get a new one in town tomorrow.

So I climb up to the Vratnik hut, expecting to find another spring but running into some more red steel signs warning about landmines in the area. The hut itself is locked. I peer in through the window to see a half-full canister of water sitting pretty on the table. So close but so far away. My throat feels dry and itchy, and I take a few careful gulps of my water, now acutely aware of how little I have left. In the last, desperate attempt, I try to pick the lock of the hut with a hairpin but it turns out that all those Nancy Drew books I read as a kid have prepared me for absolutely nothing in life.

Forward.

On an easy-to-follow, flat path, I hike through meadows that are in equal parts covered in coarse grass and bone white karst stone. As the path turns down to descend the last hour till the Jezerco hut, it turns into little pebbles that would be slippery if the trail didn’t switchback over the steeper sections.

When I reach the hut, I’m surprised to meet three other people there. One is a lone Bosnian hiker, the two others are travelling together. One of them is a lizard scientist who has come to Prenj to calculate the population of its endemic black salamanders, and his friend – a painter and a graffiti artist from Sarajevo – has come to accompany him.

They greet me in perfect English while the older Bosnian disappears into the hut.

‘I’m coming from Vratnik, there’s no water there. It’s also locked.’

‘Yeah, you have to ask for the key in advance from the ranger in Ruište’, they tell me. ‘Where are you going today?’

‘To Bijele Vode.’

‘Oh, but that one will be locked too.’

‘But isn’t there space to camp near there?’

‘I think so’. The graffiti guy shrugs. ‘Why not just stay here overnight though?’

I’m eager to continue, but the sun shines so sweetly on the front of the hut, and there’s water and a nice, clean hut to sleep in…

‘Are you going to Boracko Jezero tomorrow? There’s a trail that leads straight there from here, it’s a lot nicer than having to walk on the road from Ruište.’

And that seals it. I drag my backpack into the kitchen and kick the boots off my sweaty feet. I spend the next hour cooking enough of the nearby lake water to drown a pony, and then sit upstairs in the chilly attic journalling and listening to Taylor Swift. I have to admit defeat to Prenj.

 

DAY 4.

Jezerce hut to Boracko Jezero, 18 km

Prenj has been sucker punching me left and right and down low ever since I started hiking, but my last day in the park begins clear and beautiful.

Wild raspberries dot the sides of the trail that is clearly new: it’s narrow but easy to follow, and the markings are impossible to lose. Winding through a valley, the path enjoys the same spectacular views that are the trademark of Prenj without any of the gruelling climbs.

After a while I start hearing the sound of jingling. The herd of half-wild horses perks up as I hike closer. A few of them are wearing metallic cow bells around their necks on sturdy leather straps. The young black stallion in charge of the herd stares at me as I slowly walk closer, trying not to scare them.

I freeze when the young stallion picks up a trot and gets nearer. His body language is alarmed but not threatening. I extend my hand towards him. He steps a little closer, moves his head. The rest of the herd has already picked up on my presence, and they are starting to move past me. Some of the younger foals hesitate as if wanting to say hello but then sprint back to their mothers with a look of suspicion on their furry faces. Finally, the young stallion leaves too with the last horses of the herd. I let them pass. I can’t stop smiling.

Leaving behind the rolling meadows, the trail turns into a wide gravel path. A pair of hikers, a motorcycle and a tractor pass me as I’m walking down like reminding me that I’m getting close to civilisation again. The town of Boracko Jezero isn’t far. A few kilometres before I can already see it glistening underneath: the large blue lake with the village spread around it sporadically, a village that is barely more than a few tiny convenience stores, apartment rentals and camp grounds.

Just two kilometres from my destination, I get horribly lost. The trail only seems to lead away from the town but I follow, in hopes that it might curve back at some point. It doesn’t. I find myself on the edge of a large pasture. The previously good weather has snuck away without me even noticing, and dark clouds are starting to gather. Over the mountaintops, thunder rumbles.

A large, open field is possibly the last place I’d like to be in a thunderstorm.

Boracko Jezero

I start to rush, but my body is still hurting from the past few days of intense hiking and I’m not getting anywhere fast. I know there’s a road nearby but even if I find my way there, I’ve suddenly got 5 more kilometres to go – easily an hour’s hike more. With every threatening rumble, my heart rate increases a little. My breath is short and head is heavy, and with a little bit of disgust I notice I’m tearing up. Like, damn, it’s not that serious.

I run into a shepherd who kindly walks me through the pasture where he’s grazing his sheep and to the asphalted road. Hvala!! The one word I know in Bosnian doesn’t seem strong enough to thank him.

A few cars pass me on the quiet road before a young guy driving a beat-up station wagon takes pity on the poor hitchhiking me. He drops me off at the edge of the town – after asking me out through Google Translate and me politely declining – and I walk into town in heavy drizzle.

Boracko Jezero is a popular weekend getaway for Bosnian families, but surprisingly in mid-August, it is quiet and resting. I’m trying to find a guest house when an old, legless man in an electric wheelchair whirs past me and asks if I was looking for a room. ‘Sobe?’ He brings me to a big, beautiful “pansion”, where his family greets me as their seemingly only guest. A younger woman who I can only presume is his granddaughter shows me my room. I’m ripping off my shoes before the door has even fully closed behind me.

After a bit of wi-fi therapy and a long, hot shower, I put on fresh clothes and wander out. The rain has stopped, leaving the air feel fresh and crisp. Grey clouds block out the sunset so that when I walk around the lake following the one road in town, the world around me keeps getting darker and darker without changing colour, as streetlights come on.

I have a full three-course dinner with a pint of beer for 10 euros at the first restaurant I can find. After a while I even get the creepy waiter to leave me alone but not before he has shown me his Google Translate app, where he’d written ‘young and nice looking’. Like wow, this dude really doesn’t have high standards.

 

DAY 5.

Boracko Jezero to Vranske Stijene, 20 km

Today might have been the first day that nothing has gone wrong. Well, except that I have blisters on almost all of my toes. One of them is particularly painful. I’ve wrapped two band-aids around it and that kind of helps. My neck is killing me, too. Every time I stop to take a break, I try to stretch and massage it, but it seems like there’s a kink in the muscle that I just can’t knead out.

I follow the asphalted road out of Boracko Jezero in the morning before turning off the road into a mountain road. On my way, I pass farmhouses build from grey stone, barely clustered together closely enough to call the settlements villages. An older Bosnian woman points me on the right path when I ask for directions. (I swear, I’m not always lost.)

 

It’s another scorching hot day. The trail has risen sharply upwards and my calves are burning, thighs aching, the backpack pulling me back like trying to capsize me off the mountain. The trail has become narrow and I trudge on it carefully.

The views today are gorgeous, though. The steep ascend rewards me with views over pinnacles on the other side of the canyon. Deep green forest runs below my feet and drops down into the canyon below, hiding its bottom in green foliage, before running up the mountain on the other side. Clouds have gathered behind the furthest peak. I can barely make it out; it must be raining there.

The village of Dubocani seems like a ghost town when I walk in. On my way in, I pass a stern-faced old woman herding half a dozen goats with a small boy, and when I greet her in Bosnian, she doesn’t reply. I have heard many stories about the Bosnian people, many contradicting each other: some say Bosnian hospitality surprised them while others criticise locals for their lack of friendliness. Based on my encounters with people in Sarajevo and Mostar, and those I’ve had while hitchhiking, Bosnians do seem friendlier than their reputation. I can well understand why I would be treated with suspicion on these backlands, though. Villagers probably don’t see a lot of hikers, let alone foreign women hiking alone, and might not know what to think of that.

I find the well above the town, bubbling clear groundwater out of a small steel tap. I sit on the narrow edge of the stone well and fill up my bottle twice, taking in deep, greedy gulps.

A small mosque in Dubocani

The back of my shirt clings wet to my skin; it’s time to move on. I follow the trail up Vranski Stijene, “Crow’s Rocks”. That just sounds like something straight out of Game of Thrones.

Farm houses up here are more scarcely spread and separated by large fields of wheat and grass. The sound of cowbells sounds faintly in the darkening night. I can imagine the old ladies in their layered skirts and a scarf wrapped around their heads to protect from the sun waving a long, limber willow branch at a small herd of slow cattle, bringing them in from a day of grazing.

At sunset, the colours of the landscape become deeper. Green of the fields shines emerald, and the sky is lit in hues of yellow and gentle purple. It is time to stop for the night. I find a perfect spot in a sandy pit next to the road and tried asking a woman in a nearby house if I could camp there, and I’m pretty sure she said okay. She might’ve also told me it was cursed by a spirit that has a special affinity for Finnish redheads. I mean, she was talking in Bosnian, and for some reason people here never seem to nod or shake their heads even if that would help understanding.

I hope I won’t wake up being trampled by cows or something.

View from my camp site

 

DAY 6.

Vranski Stijene to Lukomir village, 18 km

 

It feels like I’ve walked into the Bosnian Windows desktop wallpaper. After yesterday’s climbing, I’ve reached the plateau on the Southern side of Bjelasnica, and my path runs in a straight line up and down rambling green hills. It is as if the ground itself is swaying in gentle waves against the blue sky. On my right looms the sheer drop down to Rakitnica canyon, fringed by sharp mountain peaks that the distance colours in cooler shades of blue.

The ruins of the Blace village stick out of the landscape in squat, ghastly figures. After the war, little remains but the foundations of farm houses that once stood here, and a few crumbling stacks of stones in place of walls. A small, white church overlooks the abandoned town from a hill as if to remind that while people might have abandoned the village, god would still be vigilant – or whatever force might have taken over after he left. There is water in a well at a house that’s marked with the familiar red-and-white dot.

After the village, the trail rises steeply uphill. Trailing the edge of the canyon, I wade through green grass and yellow flowers, marvelling at the beauty around me everytime I have to stop to catch my breath. After an easy morning, the steep ascend now is killing me. Sweating through my shirt, legs barely moving, I make my way up little by little.

Blace

Behind me, clouds have started to gather.

The storm hits me while I’m still two kilometres from my destination. I might have made it in time, but I wasted 45 minutes following fresh trailmarkers that led me the wrong way. The trail runs on the exposed side of the mountain, and it quickly turns treacherous. In five minutes, I am soaked from socks to scalp. My feet slip on the wet stones as I rush down the path, and water runs over the edge of my cap in small waterfalls. As the sky rips open, I count the seconds between the sound of thunder and the lightning, but there is no interval: the lightning and the sound come at the same time.

I have never been religious but now I am praying: please don’t let me get hit by a lightning, please don’t let me get hit by a lightning, please don’t –

The rain lets on slowly but as I finally see the first signs of the village, it has turned into little more than a drizzle. I can still hear the claps of thunder but it is now fainter, further away.

I cross a small bridge and ascend the small hill leading to Lukomir. Someone has thrown out a mini fridge that now lies rusting among the wet grass and other trash. I wish I could pick some of it up but I can barely pick my own feet off the ground.

Lukomir is the highest altitude village in Bosnia, and since it is only reachable by walking, the most remote one as well. Its location has worked in its favour; it remained largely untouched by the Bosnian war, and people there still live like they have for hundreds of years. Alongside farming, tourism has also become an important source of income for locals: in the morning, old ladies sit by the path leading out of the village with knitted mittens and hats hoping to sell them, and two guest houses have opened for business.

I get my own twin room in the cozy guest house. The water in the shower isn’t exactly hot but it’s warm enough to make me moan a little. After cleaning up, I head downstairs for dinner.

The guy running the guest house speaks excellent English. He serves me freshly made bread rolls with soft cheese and creamy butter, and I munch on my dinner while his family sits in the adjacent room watching a loud Bosnian reality show. None of them pay any attention to me after an initial smile.

When I go back upstairs, my whole room smells damp. There is no way my clothes are going to be dry tomorrow. It’s hard to care right now, though, since this bed is very, very cozy…

Lukomir the next morning

 

This was the first part of my 13 days of hiking in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After I put out the second part, I’ll link it here.

Would you hike Via Dinarica?

2 thoughts on “Hiking the Balkans: Via Dinarica, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Pt.1

  1. Good write-up. Brings back lots of memories. We hiked it last year and I believe that climb up from Ravna to the hut near the top was the steepest climb I’ve even made. And yes, those dwarf pines were cursed loudly by both Ray and I quite a few times.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I know I read your blog posts about the route a couple of times when I was planning my hike 🙂 I’m also very happy to see that others struggled with the climb up from Ravna, makes me feel less weak, haha.

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