Hiking the Balkans: Via Dinarica, Croatia, Pt.2

DAY 9.

Alan hut to Skorpovac hut, 19 km

The trail today descends gently through pine forest that later in the day gives way to karst fields and meadows where cows stand grazing, barely looking up as I pass. I am greatly enjoying the Velebit. It’s scenic (when you can see anything), well-maintained and easy to follow. No wonder it is one of the most popular trails in Croatia.

I’m marching up an unchallenging forest slope as I see movement to my right. About 50 metres ahead of me, a wild hog with three babies on her trail shoot onto the trail and back into the forest. I stand frozen in place for a couple of minutes, even long after I have stopped hearing their rumble through the underbush. My heart feels like it has somersaulted in my chest.

Obviously, they were more scared of me than I was of them, but you never know. Wild hogs are vicious creatures. That’s what killed King Robert in Game of Thrones! Never underestimate  a mama pig with her babies. I continue carefully, this time singing Disney tunes a little louder.

As the day progresses, the weather gets worse. Dry morning changes into light drizzle and towards the afternoon turns into a relentless stream. My shoes have never fully dried and now, water welling between my toes, I keep dreaming of Finnish food, of the beach and Plitvice park, of love and passion or just some good conversation, of dry socks and hot showers.

But I am not too bothered. Despite the rain, I am still warm, and the trail has been gentle with me. I’m so glad I dared to take on this challenge. My body feels strong and my feet carry my weight, and the backpack, while still making my back ache, feels a little lighter.

Skarpovac hut doesn’t look like much on the outside. Steel plates and plastic glued together, it seems flimsier than the half-open picnic shelter next to it. It proves to be firm, though, and even has an indoor toilet (even though it’s the squat variety). The French boys are already sitting at the table with beers in hand. Skorpovac hut is indeed one of the few places along the trail where you can grab cold beers.

As I approach, a big white dog jogs to greet me with her tail wagging. A small man with a weathered face appears on the doorway and yells something to the dog in Croatian. That must be Tihomir. Through comments left by previous hikers, I already know he is a bit of a trail legend. His hospitality is sincere and overwhelming, and the four of us sit outside switching between English and German until it gets too cold.

I fall asleep dreaming of clean white sheets and running water. It is the last night before a rest day, and I have conquered two thirds of my route in Croatia.

DAY 10.

Skorpovac hut to Karlobag, 19 km

The last day of the second leg dawns beautiful, the rain of the past few days just a memory in the glistening dew. Today the trail takes me through Dabri and Dabarski Kukovi, the Central Velebit area, marked with large karst stone formations, rolling green hills and sweeping views over mountain valleys.

The day starts with a big ascend to the Budakovo Brdo peak. I’m just dragging myself uphill when I hear an angry hiss to my left. I look and almost scream. It’s a black snake with dark grey diamonds on his back, curled up and head high, obviously extremely pissed off that I’ve dared break his peace. I step past him as quickly as I can, all the while apologizing to him profusely. Do snakes even have ears? And then, if they do, he probably doesn’t even speak English.  Later I’d learn that there are a few venomous snake species in Croatia, and this was one of them.

As the sun climbs higher, I strip down to a tank top. It seems incredible that just a couple of days ago I was shivering in a mountain ranger’s hut with my feet basically shoved into a wood stove. This one might be my favourite section so far. From the peak, the trail continues along a ridge, still clearly visible among the tall grass that the wind from the sea sways like waves. A couple of mountain goats stop to stare at me before fleeing down the hill.

The silence of the forest has been replaced by an incessant buzz of insects. The noise is almost unbearable. Large beetles with metallic, green shields land on my neck and my cap, unbothered when I try to swat them away.

I take a long break at the Ravni Dabar hut to get some water out of their cistern. A group of older Croatian men has gathered at the picnic tables in front of the hut, and as I make to leave, they stop me to ask where I am going. To them it seems unspeakable that a woman could hike alone in these parts. One grandfatherly type advices me to go down and take the next left and I smile and say thank you, fully aware that it’s the wrong route but too eager to get to my destination to share my feminist agenda with these past-time gentlemen who are clearly just concerned for my well-being.

Still, though. I have survived the trail for ten days, as womanly as I ever was. Fuck off.

After a hard climb and a walk in a thin birch forest, the trail turns to asphalt for the last few kilometres. It leads to a quiet road and a roadside hostel. I sit in the shade of a sign detailing their services – beds! food! wifi! – and devour a Snickers, my last one. It doesn’t matter; I’ll get to resupply in Karlobag.

After about 40 minutes of hitchhiking, an old man in a red car lets me hop in. When he hears my name, he gets excited.

‘Helena! My daughter also Helena. Helena from Troy, beautiful princess.’

Karlobag is significantly smaller than Senj, only boasting two supermarkets and a couple of restaurants. There is an Irish bar, though. It seems impossible to go anywhere in the world without finding one.

My cash is low but I’m too tired to go looking for an ATM now. I count my pennies at the restaurant and substitute the Coke that I’ve been craving for days for house lemonade. It’s good enough to wash down the worst pizza I have ever had in my life. Still, I somehow don’t mind. Stars are starting to pierce the soft veil of the black sky above the sea. All colours seem brighter, lights sharper. I feel like an outsider in the middle of clean white shirts and polished utensils, but it is a strangeness I observe with excitement.

DAY 11.

Karlobag, 0 kilometres

I get up late and buy peaches and croissants for breakfast. I sit eating by the sea and watch the teenagers frolicking in the shallows below. The sea in Croatia is incredible: clear and perfect, swaying in gentle hues of azure and turquoise. It feels good to just sit and let the sun burn my skin.

The two supermarkets don’t sell everything I would have hoped for but I still manage to stock up. For dinner, I return to the same restaurant that cursed me with the worst pizza of my life, and clearly not having learned from my mistakes, order another one.

DAY 12.

Karlobag to Zdrilo hut, 6 km

I have to wait for a lift for over an hour. Only three cars pass, every driver shaking their head sadly like saying, ‘sorry, not looking to get murdered by a stranger today’.

Finally a trio of Swiss travellers pulls over. My starting point today is the roadside hostel where I ended the trail two days ago. A confused chicken follows me for a bit as I hoist up my backpack and start trudging.

The first part of the path rises steeply along a ski slope, now covered in rough, green grass. Midday sun is already making me sweat. I climb slowly and painfully, following the path into a forest where the nature has started to overtake the trodden trail. Every time I climb over a fallen tree, I stop to rest my backpack on it for a while.

Having heard so many good things about the Zdrilo hut, I’ve decided to overnight there, despite only getting about 6 kilometres done today. By the time I arrive, though, the heat and the steep ascend have drained me, and I am starting to feel a little weak. I can feel the start of my habitual summer flu pounding the back of my head.

Zdrilo hut is less than a year old and while small, exceeds all expectations. There’s a table and a wood stove, and a wooden bench that would fit a few sleepers side by side. I am the only one there, though. It takes a while to figure out how to get the sink working, but then I accidentally step on the button on the floor, and fresh rainwater starts spouting from the tap. The hut is covered in solar panels, so there is even electricity.

At dusk, I climb the peak next to the hut. Sharp, pink flowers and scraggly mountain plants dot the white karst rock, now turning yellow under the sunset. The Adriatic sea fades into layers of colour, islands jutting from the colourful mist like ships sailing towards the coast.

I have covered nearly 200 kilometres on my own but against all odds, I don’t feel lonely. Other words come to mind: strong. Empowered. Badass.

I might be alone. But I think I prefer it that way.

DAY 13.

Zdrilo hut to Tatekova hut, 21 km

Today has been hard. Weather forecast promised light rain and I’m glad it was wrong, but I’m not too hot on the alternative either: +30 degrees Celsius, with no breeze for relief. I’m sick now, too. My head is pounding and I feel weak and woozy. I stop for an hour when I get to Sugarska hut, knowing I’m pushing my luck with daylight but unwilling to go on.

I think I might struggle to get to my goal today, so I decide to stay at another hut a few kilometres earlier. Umm, wrong! The universe has other plans for me. Jelova Ruja turns out to be a ghost house. Windows thrashed and broken glass and splinters lying on floors wherever floor still exists, frames missing doors and trash lying around, either left behind by careless hikers or squatters. I don’t want to wait to find out. Sunlight is escaping me, I’m tired and hungry, and I’ve still got some two hours to hike to the next hut.

To get to Tatekova hut, the trail crosses expanses of pale, smooth stone. I almost lose my way a few times. In the dying light, it isn’t easy to tell the difference between a faded red waymarker and a splotch of red iron on the stone. Finally I see the shape of the hut. It is little more than a shack, lopsided picnic tables standing next to it and an axe but no firewood in the adjacent store room. The hut is spacious on the inside, though, prepared to cater to a group of twenty hikers. I’m not surprised to find myself alone again.

I still feel a little bit on edge being in the wilderness by myself. I am not scared but little noises sometimes make me jump.

Of course it’s just animals.

I’m pretty sure of that.

The scratching on the walls indicates dormice, so I hang up my food by the rafters. The hut has two rooms, the other one with a slanted ceiling and sleeping mats to choose from, but I curl up on a bench in the kitchen with my back against the wall.

The scratching sounds loud in the quiet night.

DAY 14.

Tatekova hut to Struga hut, 19 km

The heat that has followed me for the past few days is still relentless. Just two hours in, my water bottle is almost empty. I am still sick. When I see two stone squares rising from the ground near an old house in ruins, I rush to them; but the other cistern is filled with more spiderwebs than water and the other one has a body of a fat lizard floating in it, so I decide to hold on until the next cistern.

The route from Tatekova to Struga is marked with destroyed farm houses and necropolises. I also pass some farmer’s cottages that are probably lived but feel too shy to ask them for water.

The first kilometres run through a leafy forest providing much needed shade but after that the trail turns up and runs along a grassy hill. It ends on a plateau, easy to walk but somewhat easy to loose, too, since many criss-crossing tracks made by tractors and cows run against each other in the grass. My back is soaked with sweat. Behind me, dark clouds have started to gather around mountaintops, and an approaching thunderstorm gives out a warning rumble.

Luckily it never reaches me. The trail turns up once again and dives into a pine forest. The path is wide and easy to follow; in fact, it doubles as a mountain biking route. My feet drag. Every once in a while, I have to stop to blow my nose.

As soon as I reach the first lookout, I throw my backpack on the ground and flop down onto a rock to cheer myself up with some sweets. Buying a bag of gummy bears to add to the trail mix has been my most genius idea since… well, it’s probably the best thing I have ever done.

Suddenly I hear voices. People! I haven’t seen anyone since I left Karlobag three days ago. A family of four climbs up to the viewpoint, led by a Croatian man with a weathered face and friendly wrinkles around the eyes.

I complain for a bit about the heat and the hard ascend.

‘It’s not that hard’, one of the family’s teenage sons shrugs.

I glare at his half-empty daypack and decide to not point out the monster that I’m carrying on my back.

When the guide finds out I’m headed towards the Struga hut, he advises me to bivouac that night. ‘They had a bedbug problem last year’, he tells me, ‘I don’t know if that has been fixed.’

We part ways as I, despite my heavier load, trudge on faster than the family. Soon the soft pine needles under my feet turn to stone, and I continue my ascend on the breast of the mountain, carefully watching my step on stones that try to slide off under me. I’ve been sweating all day, but when I reach the top, a cold gust of evening wind catches me unawares and takes my breath away. A lone mountain goat stares at me form a cliff above as I turn my back to the sea and continue along a clear, grassy path towards the hut.

Based on comments left by other hikers, I had expected Struga to be a popular hut, but once again I’m the only guest there. Well, the only human at least – I see a dormouse peeking at me from a tree as I walk up to the hut. Hand hovering over the handle, I read the badly translated note on the door: Struga has been treated for bedbugs, prohibited to enter before seven. Seven what? Seven o’clock? The note is from a few weeks ago. Seventh of July? Whatever. I decide to take the guide’s advice and camp out.

It’s technically illegal to wild camp in Croatia but who out here is going to see me? My humble one-man tent proves easy to put up – luckily, since it’s the first time I have opened it. In the dark, I lie awake for a bit, listening to night time bugs quietly chirping and to the scratching steps of dormice rushing up and down trees. My music is playing, and after a bit of hesitation, I turn my headlamp off for the night.

DAY 15.

Struge hut to Ivone Vodice hut, 13 km.

When I open the tent door, light shines through. It is early enough to be chilly, but the sunlight filtering through foxtails of tall grass promises another sweltering hot day.

And that it is. A thin, well-worn trail snakes through exposed meadow and mountainsides slippery with slated stone. Once I slip and almost go over the edge. Carefully, I collect my legs underneath and crawl back on the trail, my step a lot lighter on the unpredictable stone now.

 The only shade comes from the dwarf pines squatting next to the narrow trail. I meet a Czech hiker on the first peak, and he graciously gives me half of his water since he is on his way back down.

This is also the first part of the trail where I’m starting to see signs of the past war. When Yugoslavia broke up, most of its old countries wanted independence. And while Croatia might not have taken the hardest hits in the following war, its signs are still visible, now a part of my hiking route: a red steel sign warning against getting off the trail because of unexploded landmines in the area.

I follow the signage to Vlaski Grad. Based on previous comments, I know the hut there has been demolished, but being uphill, I spot some construction materials and decide to try my luck.

The route down is steep, and it takes me a good half an hour to slide my way down. The construction site is empty. I had hoped to meet someone else here, maybe find a rainwater tank, but I’m alone.

I stop to fix up my feet. The outsides of my big toes are chafed raw, and skin is coming off the pinky toes. My soles are hardened and calloused but the heel still hurts when I touch it to massage it.

I’m almost out of water, my feet ache, and I’m still hours away from my destination. I watch the Sveto Brdo peak rising above me, looming and dark, like mocking me for my weakness. Clouds have started to gather around its peak. It’s the last climb of the hike but I doubt there’d be any visibility left by the time I’d get there.

Consulting the map, I notice I’m not too far from another hut. Ivone Vodice should have water. I passed the junction leading up to the hut earlier in the day since it would have meant hiking for a very short time today, but now it starts to seem like the only option. And, I repeat it to myself: there’s water.

To my surprise. Ivone Vodice is not empty. As I stomp into camp, huffing and puffing and dragging my feet, I half-startle a dark-haired girl lighting up a fire in the camping area. She offers me a cup of tea and we get to talking, and suddenly I realise just how much I’ve missed human contact.

She’s French and a classic hippie with short, loose dreadlocks and parachute pants. She tells me she’s been in India for a couple of years and is now hiking around Europe in the lack of a better plan. Her backpack looks too huge to be carried comfortably, and her walking stick is almost as tall as her, but straight and polished, unlike the pine branch that I picked up off the ground on my first day of the trail.

‘Yeah, it’s a bit big’, she admits, ‘but my brother made it for me. It’s nice to have something from him with me.’

As it gets dark, we retire to the hut: she upstairs, me to the bench downstairs. She has never seen a dormouse before, so I show her how to hang up her food so that they don’t get to it. For the last time, I squirm into my sleeping bag and set an alarm. As much as I want to stay awake for a bit longer, just feeling the darkness around me, my eyes are heavy and soon I’m fast asleep.

On my last night on the Croatian trail, I sleep through the night, rid of bad dreams and imagined horrors.

DAY 16.

Ivone Vodice to Seline (to Zadar), 11 km

In the morning, I have my last breakfast and last cup of tea. I fill up my last bottle of water. I say goodbye to the French girl and hoist up my backpack for the last time. I am very aware of every last thing on the trail today.

It takes me way longer to get to the coast as I expected. The trail runs all downhill, some sections steep or badly marked, the route obviously in very little use. I keep getting tangled in spider webs that have sat there unbothered for so long that they have had time to grow into big, intricate designs. The sun is hot with very little shade. But all through my descend I can see the blue sea and the sunlight reflecting off windows and roofs of the town built by the water, and as I brave on, it gets closer and closer.

I arrive in Seline through quiet backroads. Just before the path turns to a road, I leave my walking stick leaning against a stone fence. Maybe someone will pick it up from there. Strangely enough, it wrenches my heart to leave it there; it feels like leaving a companion behind.

Given enough solitude, humans will pack-bond with literally anything.

A woman in a one-piece swimsuit and a see-through kimono glances at me suspiciously as I pass her on the street but I just smile at her; and with every kid in swimming trunks and middle-aged men with bellies flowing over the waistband of their shorts, I smile a little broader. They all look at me like I’m crazy, and I can only imagine what I look like: make-up-less face breaking out with red pimples, unwashed hair in messy braids tucked under a dirty cap, mud and dust crusted on my leggings and shoes starting to grin at the toes.

I sit outside the local supermarket and open a juice box, a Sprite and a bottle of ice tea all at the same time, and take turns taking gulping from each one of them. The cold drinks taste wonderful. I take out a Snickers, the last one left in my backpack, and eat it slowly, savouring every bite, as the thought like a news announcement runs through my mind in a continuous film.

250 kilometres. I made it. I made it.

Later I’d get up and walk a few kilometres down the road, past the town limits and hitch a ride to Zadar where I’d celebrate my success with beer and cocktails. I’d buy a bracelet with three seashells woven into its band and meet a man who’d break my heart a little. I’d sit by the sea, writing in my diary or just hungrily absorbing the sunshine that, while laying on the dark rocks that fringe the Croatian seaside, wouldn’t feel so bad.

But in this moment, I know nothing that lies ahead. I can only look back, glowing, peaceful, resting my twisted back and aching feet, with one thing in mind:

I did it.



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