Sunset along the Croatian mountain ridgeimage

Expeditions

Jan 06, 2021

Hiking Through Minefields and a Pandemic in Uncharted Lands

What was meant to be straightforward trek along the Via Adriatica during a sleepy Croatian Summer instead revealed itself to be full of unforeseen events.

WRITTEN BY

Thomas Bouïssaguet

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“Pomalo” (Croatian that translates loosely as ‘the Chill One’) was how I ended up being known by thousands of people around half-way through my expedition this Summer.

“The Via Adriatica (VA) winds for 1100km (683 miles) along the Croatian coast.” This was all the information I had before leaving, which turned out to be too little. What I didn’t realise was that it also wanders through all the mountain ranges and hugs so many summits that you end up confusing them. 

Growing up in the south of France I was used to day hikes in the Pyrenees, but my daily life for 12 years in the flat Belgian countryside had softened my calves. I always thought of myself as a hiker because I was addicted to shopping for ultralight equipment, and my beard gave the illusion of a guy used to sniffing instant coffee out of his tent pitched atop a peak. I did finish the West Highland Way in Scotland a few years ago, but the equipment was not up to scratch and it was a difficult adventure. Let’s be honest, I’m not a real “mountain man.

2019 was a difficult year for me. A series of personal blows reduced me to a shadow of my former self. I managed, nonetheless,  to motivate myself to try something impossible: the Appalachian Trail. 3500km (2175 miles) of hiking through the woods in the USA, alone in the wilderness to finally reflect on who I am, to prove to myself that I can accomplish something crazy all the way to the end, to test my mind by melting my pounds of comforting fat. I decided to leave for April 2020.

The Via Adriatica in Croatia is a challenging 1,100km-long trail that spans the entire country

Taking this decision at the end of December 2019, I had the excellent idea of rupturing the ACL in my right knee during a bold dance move on a soggy floor on New Year’s Eve. The doctors and my physiotherapist still gave me the green light to start the walk, slowly. I proudly announced my departure on social networks, quit my job and hope was reborn.

One of the many open-access lodges on the Velebit

2020 came around and we all know what happened next. The pandemic-induced travel ban a few weeks before my departure changed everything. Here I was stuck in lockdown for several months and my dream seemed to be limping away. My physio sessions stopped and with them all sports activities. I gained 10kg of fat and my muscles were melting while I looked for another trail in Europe, which could justify the huge budget of my ultralight thru-hiker bag. I made up my mind for the Via Dinarica, because it starts in Slovenia, crosses the Balkans and I have fond memories of them.

Alas, the only country that accepted foreigners in the area was Croatia, which also has a national long-distance trail called the Via Adriatica (VA). Why not, I could start it and link the Dinarica when I crossed it. I downloaded the GPS track, took a Brussels-Pula ticket for July, and at the last minute, I decided that it would be a brilliant idea to have laser eye surgery. Clever boy.

The Hike Begins:

Flat and asphalted. The first days of walking went smoothly but were quite anticlimactic. I felt like I was hiking in Belgium if it were not for the 35 degree (95F) heat and the lack of shade. I’d like to point out that I hate the heat. I realized with horror that Croatia is much more Southern Europe than Eastern Europe, and I was heading even further south.

I persevered, my knee seemed to be holding, and I was making good progress. This was until I found myself in front of a wall of vegetation, and the GPS was telling me to walk right through it. When was the last time anyone had been on this trail? I pressed on and somehow managed to get through the barrier of vines, thorns, and branches that caused me to reach the other side a bloody mess. 

That’s when I realised that this trail would not be a clean French GR (exceptional national french trails “Grande Randonnée”). 

This trail is young, barely 3 years old, and less than 10 people had hiked it in its entirety. I was the 10th. Created and maintained by enthusiastic volunteers, it does not receive any state subsidies. Although some of the more popular sections proved to be well maintained, the junctions between them are in the image of this first difficulty: an approximative and theoretical line on a GPS map, but a lot of willpower is needed to walk through the thorns to make it a reality. At this stage, I finally turned to the VA Facebook organisation for help. It was at this point where the expedition really turned memorable.

If I started walking for myself, I clearly finished for the community.

Last Summit on Velebit and the Path Ahead

At the very core of the Via Adriatica is in its Trail Angels. A term coming from the long American trails, referring to the people who help the weary walkers out of pure kindness, but it takes on a whole new dimension in Croatia. Gathered in a Facebook group of 4,500 people at the beginning of my trek, 6,500 at the end, these generous souls bent over backward not only to help but also to really support the walkers, starting by encouraging them. Tatjana, a member of the group, gave me the best advice: start publishing photos and stories of what I was experiencing. The generosity started right away when a member offered me accommodation during a storm and then even walked with me a bit. 

If I started walking for myself, I clearly finished for the community. When you’re sweaty from dawn to dusk, your feet turning into blistering meat and you start over again every morning, doubts quickly accumulate. Especially when the first mountains, the Ucka mountain range,  took shape,  and I realised that the terrain will be stony, technical and sloping. An explosive cocktail for my unstable knee which twisted at the top of a steep ridge in the nature park. I limped the rest of the way and hid my tent in the park where camping is forbidden, unable to go further and get out. The next few days were difficult, but online support was becoming more and more present, and if I felt like I could give up I clearly was the only one. I started to doubt that I really doubted myself, so I continued. 

Unfortunately, my knee twisted again on a peak as I was starting to pick up the pace. I found myself in the deserted ski resort of Platak blocked for two days in a mountain hotel. My knee doubled in size as I enjoyed my first real bed. I made the decision to abandon the Via Adriatica to go north on the Via Dinarica Green, an international path made of forests, flatter and less technical. At least I thought so. Finally, I came back to the VA after a few days spent on a path even less frequented and practicable, and refused at the Bosnian border because of Coronavirus. I missed the support of the VA  group, and despite my fragile knee I decided to come back. My decision was greeted by a large volley of likes.

Karmen and her “Monster” pack

This summer we were three walkers attempting the entire trail. Audrey was a 24-year-old American of Croatian origin who started one day before me and swallowed the kilometres without stopping despite a gigantic bag. A legendary machine that was the muse of the group, people taking pictures with her when they met her on the trails to proudly post them for her. Behind me walked Karmen, a 45-year-old mother always smiling and who seemed to walk two days in one. A rocket. Personally, the cocktail of a weak knee and a general disposition not to push too hard made me one of the slowest walkers on the Via Adriatica. My appetite for socializing around beers or the local alcohol, Rakija, and my inability to say “no” didn’t help. Each of us made ourselves known and our adventures were followed like the mountain saga of the summer. Srecko, the creator of the Via Adriatica, confessed that he always had the idea of turning the Thru-Hikers, the name of the crazy walkers tackling the entire trail, into rockstars. Mission accomplished.

I got back into my rhythm, walking until I got tired and pitching my tent randomly along the way. I stuffed myself with pizza when I passed through town and got ready to take on the three big massifs of the trail: the Velebit, Dinara, and Biokovo. The first is the wildest, the second the highest and the last the most dangerous. The advantage of the mountains is that the trails are often very well marked and maintained. The Velebit starts with the Disneyland of trails: Premužić trail. 57 km of breathtaking beauty along this rocky and devastated landscape that can be walked without equipment. I used to be alone in the world between cities, as no one walked in the mountains during the week, and the Via Adriatica takes exclusive paths. The sudden rush was a shock. I also got lectures from older hikers because I dared to walk alone in the mountains. You should know that in Croatia there are hiking schools, and the first thing they teach you is to never walk alone under any circumstances. And to take a tarpaulin and rope with you, just in case. And Rakija. Just in case. The concept of ultralight has a long way to go and I have often been regarded as a lucky fool.

The southern part of the Velebit was definitely wilder and I was caught up there by Karmen, who was walking behind me. We decided to walk together for the next 6 days as we would spend our nights in the same mountain huts. She taught me a lesson in humility in spite of herself. She was far from being faster than me as I imagined, but she was just unstoppable. She had to finish her trail in time for her children’s return to school, so she walked from sunrise to sunset, without stopping, without a day off. Her bag, nicknamed “Monster” after the book Wild, was bigger than her. A tinkered-up ’80s aberration, it reflected all her equipment that she had assembled without budget by asking her friends for help. I was loaded with the best, most expensive and lightest equipment: my bag weighed a maximum of 15 kilos with the food, hers weighed 22. I felt bad for her on the climbs where she was breathing heavily while I was on the run, but she finessed me on the descents where I feared for my knee, and above all she didn’t take real breaks. A rocket with whom we laughed about our worst day in the rain and fog, a positive spirit that contrasted with the sad character I had become. And I will be eternally grateful to her for being there for the worst event on the trail: the minefield.

…where wild carnation flowers and the red skull with crossbones signs “Attention Mines” bloom

Mine Field
Suddenly, A Mine Field Appears

Thirty years ago, the Balkan War left behind an unknown number of mines that have yet to be cleared. A reality for hikers in the region who know the rules, something new for a city boy from the West. The trail passes directly through a mined area, off the paths. While it’s true that I didn’t do much research work before starting the hike, discovering the daily walk every morning, information is still too scarce on this trail. This mined section is not indicated anywhere. Fortunately, Karmen, who had met the creator of the Trail in Zagreb, had the information. Apparently, there was a 6 meter-wide corridor (19 feet) running through the minefield that has been de-mined and safe to walk, in this area where no other trail gets lost. Sadly it was completely overgrown with vegetation since the end of the war, where wild carnation flowers and the red skull with crossbones signs “Attention Mines” bloom. 6 metres is narrow, and invisible through the tall grass and dead trees. All the more so as no sign warns of the existence of this corridor. Just when you think you found it, it turns out to be impassable. This section only lasts a small kilometre, but crossing it exhausted me as much as tackling the whole Velebit, the largest chain in Croatia: I can accept the risk of a bear or wolf encounter, but no hike justifies the fear of jumping on a forgotten mine. 

Did they indicate a live mine or a possible mine? A safe zone or a very dangerous zone? Were flags on the ground there on purpose or had they fallen on their own?

We made progress slowly, sometimes deviating from the corridor, willingly or unwillingly, realizing we went too far to come back. The zone is marked with many small wooden poles topped with red or white plastic flags. Trying to find logic in these symbols while in a minefield was stressful to say the least. Did they indicate a live mine or possible mine? A safe zone or a very dangerous zone? Were flags on the ground there on purpose or had they fallen on their own? A “minefields for dummies” book would have come in handy there. In my head filled with war movie wisdom, I asked Karmen to stay 15m away from me, in case a mine blows up one of us could call for help. Later I found out that the jumping [bounding -Ed] mines used there could kill anybody within 100 meters (330 feet), it was a foolish precaution anyway. After a long and terrifying climb, we reached the end of the signs, sat down shaking and shared a sip of my emergency Rakija. We survived, maybe only our fears, maybe a real possible disaster.

The next day, as Karmen left me to swallow 30km on the way out of the massif, I took advantage of a rest day at a Trail Angels’ to swim in a river. Feeling clean again was an ephemeral pleasure that lasted 500 meters in the Croatian heat. From there, the Via Adriatica left the coast to get closer to Bosnia, and Knin marks the middle of the route.

The landscape was still changing, and losing sight of the sea which coloured every point of view from the beginning was disturbing. Dinara made up for this with a high altitude route of astonishing ease and beauty, the stony tears of the Velebit giving way to gentle steppes that taunt the flattened valleys below. The mountain huts were numerous and in excellent condition, the trail was gentle and reassuring. The Sinjal peak at 1831 meter (6000 feet) reminded me that I didn’t need to climb so high for the rest of the trail. I breathed, imagining the hardest part behind me and redirecting myself towards the coast. Naive me.

Stunning pictures from the Via Adriatica trail (courtesy of Via Adriatica):

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Biokovo was waiting in ambush. The most dreaded mountain in the whole country. A Polish hiker who had disappeared there 3 weeks before was still missing. Every year, several people die in the aridity of its rocky slopes. The heat of the sun is reflected from the rocks and the wind dries up the hiker. I carried 3.5 litres of water and it was suggested that I increase it to 6l for Biokovo, but I preferred to stay light. At this stage of the trail, I had already faced the vegetation so many times that I didn’t even stop to clear the path: I went in headfirst and let the superficial cuts bleed, I had walked so many stones that the crampons of my trail runners bought during a stop in town were smooth, and my legs had overcome so many summits that climbing almost didn’t leave me breathless anymore. I swallowed Biokovo with disconcerting ease without ever having to use my 3.5 litres of water. I surprised myself, I relaxed. Still as naive as ever.

Strangers asked me for selfies, my ego never felt so swollen

At the end of Biokovo, the presence of the Trail Angels intensified and I rarely slept in a tent. My debonair attitude on the trail and my slowness had earned me a nickname: Pomalo. In Croatian, it means “chill out bro”, a real philosophy of life. I was even recognised on the trails and in the street. They bought me Rakija in advance, which I found in a dormitory along the way. Strangers asked me for selfies, my ego never felt so swollen. However, my mind was still as lost as ever and on days of solitary walking, I brooded. But my selfies were more present than ever in the Facebook group and the number of fans was growing every day. The dichotomy is interesting to experience.

The end of the trail was by far the hardest part, punctuated by long straight lines on asphalt or gravel roads. One day I even pushed up to 30 km (18 miles) of walking out of sheer boredom and the need to reach a town to buy a beer for the evening. I got checked by an undercover cop who thought I was a migrant. This was not the first time nor the last time this would happen. Being tanned and bearded, walking alone, made some people suspicious, even if they were only an extreme minority. The Trail Angels still did a remarkable job right to the end and the view from the last summit (Sv Ilija, which was the generic name of any Croatian summit at this point) gave a little twinge in my heart. On the hiker’s journal, situated on the last summit of the VA trail, I left my last babble, and I read with pleasure the last words of Audrey and Karmen who had already finished. 

Mackelmore yelling “Downtown” into my headphones, I saw the Montenegrin mountains in the distance unveiling like the end credits of a movie

2 Months Later, I arrived at the end of the Trail
2 Months Later, I arrived at the end of the Trail

I spent my last night hidden in a field on the edge of the town of Gruda. I took my coffee and my burek there in the morning. The day before, another Trail Angel offered me accommodation, but for the first time I refused. I needed to be alone one last time. This last day was short, and I walked for the first time with music in my ears. It was a surreal feeling to be at the actual end of such an extreme 70-day adventure. 2.5km before the end, there was a seasonal bar where I was joined by strangers who followed my story on Facebook, and who offered me a drink of course. I walked this last section a bit tipsy, half dancing, Mackelmore yelling “Downtown” into my headphones, and I saw the Montenegrin mountains in the distance unveiling like the end credits of a movie. I arrived ecstatic at the Fort that marks the end of the journey, found a way on the rocks of the shore and sat facing the sea. Physically, it was the end of Croatia, it was impossible to walk further. I finished the little bottle of Rakija that I had been carrying with me since the beginning, smoked a cigar and got lost in my daydreams. I had finished a trail that I had known nothing about and I felt fantastic. Then the mosquitoes attacked and brought me back to reality one bite at a time. 

I didn’t leave Croatia directly, I went on a farewell tour to see my trail angels again, party, and meet the organisers in Zagreb in person, including my guardian angel Hrvoje who accompanied me every day, even planning where I would sleep. The whole Via Adriatica project is run by volunteers. The path is not finished, clearly some sections are good concepts that are at odds with reality, but the benevolence of the community makes up for this. 

Passing over Dubrovnik

You feel strong and proud to walk the Via Adriatica in Croatia, and even people who have nothing to do with the Via Adriatica open their arms and homemade spek. Go for a walk on the Via, but allow 3 months: you probably won’t need it, but you will have time to appreciate this wonderful humanity.


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