There was a feeling as we cycled out of the city on a Triestine truck-packed road that we were ready to shed the European civilisation we knew too well. Ready to shrug off traffic-jammed-megga-polluted roads and dive headfirst into the unknown. We were ready for the wild. Or as close to wild as the Balkans could provide.
We cycled up the very steep streets of small villages on the outskirts of the city. The last of eastern Italy disappearing under our wheels. Up and out over the rim of the bowl that Trieste sits at the base of.
Cycling up from sea level is never usually easy but the two hours it took us to cycle out of Trieste were more exquisitely ridiculous than we had experienced before. A few times both of us had to dismount and push our weighty steeds up what felt like the side of a building. Using all our might, arms crunched uncomfortably and backs stretched straight out. Pushing horizontally forward, jaws clenched, staring down at the cobbles, unable to appreciate the quaint beauty of these bastard vertical villages.
Unfortunately we were only in Slovenia for all of about two hours and then after a couple of check points, crossed over into Croatia. Later we learnt to feel very frustrated by that decision. Every other cyclist and their dog, which we encountered from Croatia onwards, said that Slovenia was cycle-touring heaven! The beauty, the wilderness, the roads, the friendly people, the brilliant camping. The list went on and on. And as we left behind the sniff we’d had of Slovenia to enter Croatia, our wheels first revolved through a country in which wild camping is actually illegal. Gulp.
That day cycling through three different countries felt like moving through a long forested doorway. We had travelled through the porthole. We had entered Narnia and were very happy about it too.
That first night we camped not long after the Croatian border on a craggy hillside covered with big rocks and thick wild grasses. Dark clouds had rolled in and low rumbles of a brewing storm rippled through the wide sky. We followed a rocky old farm path off to the right and suddenly realised how alone we were. Very few cars passed on the road back behind us but we still shrank behind the low bushes for cover when one did. Not wanting to look suspiciously like two people who might be about to set up a tent. Despite this it was a wonderful feeling, the knowledge that the two of us were nearly completely alone in a wild landscape. It was like when having been at a party for hours you suddenly realise that you have a moment to yourself, a content solitude, to just sit and look at the stars.
The next morning we set off very early, still feeling that unspoken nudge of anxiety about the illegality of wild camping. The day was heavy and much colder than we had been used to in the past weeks. The same dark grey sky was there to greet us when we emerged from our tent, as had been there when we set it up the night before.
We cycled through wilderness for the entire day. Just the road, the scraggy-rock hillsides, the forests and us. Big magic lies in being alone in the wild. This was my first long drink of that magic on the journey so far.
The Curious Incident of the Bears in the Nighttime
The second night we camped in the Croatian wilderness we were welcomed in style by some surprisingly terrifying noises.
At sunset we cycled up away from the road that we had been following all day. We took a narrow road uphill that cut through the wide scraggy-spike-bush and rock-punctured hillside. The light was fading rapidly and we needed to find a place to set-up. We left our bikes on the side of the narrow road and wondered into the thorny maze of bushes and rocks. Not an ideal camp ground but the best option we had. We both ventured into this strange scrubland in search of a flat, tent-sized patch of ground, preferably invisible from the road. We walked around and around, keeping one eye out for the bikes and one out for each other all the time. Attempting not to get snagged by the lethal spike bushes. Most of the bushes longest tendrils were not much taller than head height but it was a strange environment that evoked the nightmare of being lost in a spiky maze forever. Finally we found a place that was just about passable. We tried to push the bikes towards the spot and around the assault course of undulating ground, rocks and bushes but our bags or bodies kept getting caught on the thorns and wheels stuck at awkward angles. So we took all of the bags off the bikes and carried them to the spot, each time trying to find the least spiky route to get there. As I set the tent up, Haydn pushed his bike and then mine to our camp-spot with great difficulty and many expletives.
We had just managed to set everything up and zip ourselves in for the night as the light faded from the grey sky and it began to spit with rain.
Then it began to pour.
We heard the electrifying howl of wolves through the rain.
By now we knew the familiar howl of dogs at dusk. This was different. We looked at each other, nervous but thrilled. That was a real sign of the wild.
We listened to the rain ease off as we both sat snuggled up in our sleeping bags, reading. Then a noise in the distance caught my attention. It was a fast, seamless, rhythmic drumming. A sound you feel in your chest. Powerful, quick compounding of earth. It was far off but coming closer. I couldn’t work out what it was. Then I sat up. It was horses. It was a herd of wild horses.
I remembered back to a few hours earlier when I had seen dung all around the thorny maze paths surrounding our tent. Suddenly I realised which animal that dung belonged to with this sound drumming through my chest and getting louder and louder.
I turned to Hayds. What do we do? They’re getting closer. They’re galloping. Do you think they’ll see our tent? Should we get out?
The hooves were getting louder and louder, closer and closer every second. Soon they would be on us. Funnily enough in that moment of panic I wasn’t worrying so much about how mangled our bodies would be after a herd of wild horses had trampled us. I was thinking about our poor flimsy tent, our little home. It wouldn’t stand a chance.
The drumming was so loud now they could only be meters away. They were nearly on us. We both shouted out and clutched each other, putting our arms over our heads in a feeble attempt to protect ourselves and each other.
They thrummed past the outside of the tent. Right next to us.
We stayed in our curled up positions for a minute and then slowly, embarrassedly untangled ourselves.
When we were just drifting off to sleep later that same evening we heard another noise. I sat up on my elbows and froze. I sucked my breath in sharply and held it. That was a noise I had never heard in nature before. My whole body was a mass of goose bumps. It was the strangled raw call of a bear. It couldn’t have been anything else. Half grunt, half roar. Then moments later a slightly different tone called back. We were listening to two bears having a conversation. It was unbelievable.
I immediately fumbled for my phone and looked up if there were bears in Croatia. The Internet told me that,
There are three kinds of large wild beasts/animals living in Croatia – wolf (Canis lupus), lynx (lynx lynx) and bear (Ursus arctos). Wolf and lynx have been protected by law since 1995, while bear still remains hunted and legally killed as a part of hunting tourism.
So it was bears. My mind raced from how far away they were, to again how thin the tent was and then rested on what we’d eaten for dinner. I had eaten tomato pasta and cheese but Haydn had mixed a whole tin of tuna in with his and the tin was still sitting just outside the tent. I jumped to wash the tin out and bury it deep inside our small rubbish bag. We decided it was best to leave the whole bin bag hanging from a nearby tree so that if a bear came, he could rummage through that and hopefully not our tent.
Discovering that hunting bears is still seen as a sport in Croatia and encouraged as a tourist activity shocked me. While cycling we saw many watches and hunting hides. I was tempted to practice my hand at a spot of arson but it was so rainy, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. It makes me so upset and disturbed that people still hunt such glorious beasts with no justification other than amusement and the grotesque photograph of them smiling over a huge splayed out, bullet riddled carcass. Where is the glory in that?
I was so moved and felt so honoured just to hear their call.
Why can’t that be enough for everyone?
Thunder & Lightning
We descended towards Rijeka the next day. By the time we reached Rijeka (a city NOT made for cycling) it was pouring with rain and we decided to find a hostel to shelter in for the night.
We found a funny one on a main road that was on the third floor of a tall apartment building. Haydn ran up to check that we could leave our bikes somewhere safe inside. We locked them up in the large entrance area and lugged all our gear up the three flights of stairs.
It was a small and stylishly themed black, white and red hostel. We were shown where we could sleep in separate bunks and store our many bags, cook food and take a shower.
It always seems that it’s only once you’re inside a clean, well decorated, sophisticated seeming establishment that you notice quite how disgusting you are. Let’s just say it was really, really good to have a shower. I think layers of me literally washed away down the plug whole. Never to be seen again.
We sat down on the communal sofa once we were washed and dressed. A young German man was sat there with a big bandage on his left leg. We asked what had happened and it turned out that he had been cycle-touring like us. His sat-nav device had led him through private farmland and he had been badly bitten by a dog. He had to cancel his six week long planned trip and fly straight back home, as the bite was so bad he could no longer cycle. Haydn and I sat in anxious silence for a moment. This dog situation was real. They could be really dangerous.
They were all out there, being trained to be guards and chained up and mistreated and we were cycling around everyday on the most renowned dog aggravation device – the bicycle. Brilliant.
We stayed at the hostel for a few nights as the rain just continued to pour down. So far Croatia had welcomed us with rain, rain and more rain. Along with the rain there were ‘orange’ thunderstorm weather warnings and flash flood warnings on the news. So we decided to delay trying to cycle out of Rijeka and avoid camping in this mad weather.
There was no one we really connected with at the hostel and we were too tired to make a huge effort to get to know people. As rude as that sounds, we weren’t feeling much fun or much like chatting. It was during one of the evenings at the hostel that we realised how much we missed our friends. The simplicity of just calling a friend and going out for a drink to catch up was not possible now and it’s always what you can’t have that you miss the most with these horrid little contrary human brains.
We sat on the top step of the dark central spiral staircase of the hostel building. It was a Saturday night. We rang some friends in Berlin who were luckily all together. We wanted to pretend to ourselves that we were having fun so we drank beers and smoked a few unsatisfying cigarettes, feeling lonely and pretty tired but cheered by seeing familiar faces and trying to talk, in spite of our frazzled minds and the very intermittent Wi-Fi.
We managed to escape from that hostel in Rijeka in a dry weather window.
Leaving Rijeka smelt like tuna and cigarette smoke.
It rained some more.
Pedalling But Not Moving
I discovered while pedalling up a very large hill that I had an issues with my bicycle. I was pedalling hard uphill and I felt something slip. My feet were moving the pedals round and round but the movement was not pushing the bike forwards. I was staying stationary and then I was slowly sliding backwards. I had that wobbly feeling that you get in the base of your stomach. Like when a lift jumps downwards too quickly. That sinking, butterflies, lurching feeling. I jumped off and shouted out to Hayds that something was wrong. We stopped and he pedalled around for a while on my bike. Nothing seemed wrong to him. It was pretending to be fine in his care like a vindictive child. Great. We set off again and it pretended to be fine for a while until we reached another incline on a scraggy hillside path and again I pedalled into thin air and nothing happed. No traction.
I described it again to Haydn and we could only assume that my old rear hub was disintegrating and sometimes the ball-bearings were slipping out of place causing the pedals to have no effect on the back wheel. It jumped between being fine and being useless.
Oh dear. We needed to get a new rear hub, probably a whole new back wheel as soon as possible. It was really just a case of praying and blind faith.
It’s going to get me to the next biggest town, it will, it will.
At some point that day the clouds did part and we got a gorgeous blue sky, perhaps it was consolation for my sick bike.
Scariest Dog in the World so Far
Cycling along a forest path listening to a Grayson Perry podcast and day dreaming about painting and making things. Something we both missed.
I shouted out something stupid like: ‘Isn’t it quiet!’ or ‘Finally no cars!’ or something to that effect and then heard a vicious snarling bark coming from somewhere below us. It was the bark of a very big dog. And it sounded very angry. A man shouted a command at the dog in Croatian and we heard fast movement. Earth and leaves being moved. We were still pedalling forwards but in seconds a gigantic dog was chasing just behind us. Barking and snarling and foaming at the mouth. It looked insane. With an enormous white-grey matted body and electric blue fixated eyes. I shouted and put my legs up onto the top tube of my frame. I just wanted my legs as far away from that crazy, probably rabies infected dog, as physically possible. Ironically this now meant that said dog was gaining on me. Haydn screamed at me to keep pedalling. I looked back and saw how close the dog was. I threw my legs down and my body forward, pedalling as fast as I could. My legs burning, bum off the seat. Even faster than when I had tried to beat Haydn in a race once. Thank god it wasn’t uphill. Thank the sweet beard of Zeus it wasn’t uphill. Or the dog would have won.
Neither of us looked back for a while, streaming fast along the silent road.
When we knew we had definitely outrun it. We stopped panting on a big rock looking out over a staggering view. I couldn’t even see it. I felt so angry and scared that this would ruin the trip for me. We would never know when an insane rabid dog was around the corner and we had no idea how to defend ourselves.
I sat on that rock in silence. A swell of something rising inside me. I had to have a weapon. I had to have a way to protect myself. I had to educate myself.
Running out of Food
Soon after the dangerous dog incident we came across another problem. The mountain wilderness of northern Croatia was very beautiful but we hadn’t planned for there being so few villages and so few shops. We were down to our emergency dried soup sachets and a few strands of spaghetti. The wild was exciting but also held new challenges for us that we actually weren’t at all prepared for. We finally reached a town later than afternoon but all the food shops were closed. We went into a small café and asked why the shops were all closed. It was a Sunday. And that is why it’s a good idea to keep track of the days of the week, even when you’re off adventuring in the hills of the Balkans.
Senj to Gospic
From Senj to Gospic was one of the wettest cycles of our trip so far. I had never been more soaked to the bone in my whole life. Every inch of me was sodden and by lunchtime it felt like my skin and my clothes were indivisible –all one cold, saggy, soaking mass. The rain was so heavy and so persistent that it felt like we were on a film set, stuck in a rain scene, which leads to a dramatic flood.
The rain had been so persistent all day that we decided at about 3pm to stop in a small town and find a hostel nearby. We found a cheap place on Google maps called Magsik Hostel, which was apparently on the high street. We followed the directions to the pin on the high-street but there was no hostel to be found. We cycled round and round getting more and more confused.
We ventured into a café, shivering so much it was hard to speak. We asked for directions. The barman was very kind and offered us towels to dry ourselves with. He gave us free hot drinks and his friend told us that the Google pin was wrong and that the hostel was actually 10km away. We tried to warm up but with no success so decided to go to Lidl to replenish our dwindling food stores and then do the last 10km once we’d eaten something.
Walking around Lidl, our shoes that felt like those goldfish bags you get at the funfair.
While squishing around Lidl I bought my secret dog defence weapon! We were looking for pepper spray but surprisingly Lidl didn’t stock it, so I went for a red can of Old Spice deodorant instead. I gripped my new weapon into the phone claw mounted on my handlebars. It fit perfectly and was as accessible as it could be for the lightening fast grab-spray action I needed it for.
We had read up on dog management for cyclist and the veterans said that the best thing you can do is stop cycling, dismount the bike and act like you mean business. If you keep cycling they’ll keep chasing. This sounded like logical advice but in all honestly the last thing I had felt like doing with our last, very frightening dog chase, was getting off my bicycle and standing face to face, or shin to tooth, with that beast. So I decided, as a back up, I would get an aerosol spray to dissuade an advancing hound from getting too close. It wasn’t long until I needed to use it …
That 10km cycle was one of the longest 10km of the cycle so far. The rain felt like it was filling me up. Making my body heavy and slow. My muscles were cold and exhausted. Out of the distant rain ahead I could see the lights of a car overtaking on our side of the road. But there was a solid line of fast moving traffic to the left. I couldn’t quite work out what the driver was doing. Surely they weren’t going to overtake all these cars at once and with us cycling head on towards them on the right side of the road. The driver didn’t seem to be slowing down or pulling back into their lane. The car was getting closer and closer. Could they not see all our bike lights through the rain? Suddenly Hayds screamed out for me to get off the road. He swerved into a ditch on the right of the road and I smashed into the back of him. The car whipped past still on our side of the road. Haydn shouted out at the car, already in the distance. If we had stayed cycling where we were he would have hit us head on. I looked down. My front right pannier bag was hanging off. Fuck.
The Hostel Majsic, in Otočac, was a very strange establishment. We arrived at the building, which stood alone, on a very straight, long road. We walked inside the main door. It was dimly lit and around a low semicircle bar, fifteen men sat smoking and watching a raised television. The interior furnishings were like a 40’s casino and looked like they hadn’t been renovated since then either. The air was thick with smoke and the brooding silence of the men felt quite threatening. Lots of them were wearing full army camo outfits with haircuts to match. Maybe these were the men who shoot bears. They all sat drinking bottles of beer at 4pm on a weekday. It felt like they had been drinking for a while. The very thin, pale receptionist showed us to our room. It consisted of two single beds, a tiny television, an ashtray and a tiny en-suite bathroom with a shower, toilet and sink. The ceiling was lined with a faded pink glittery paper. It was pretty basic and odd but I was just overjoyed to be out of the rain.
We realised that we had to sort my rear hub out. So we tried to hatch a plan. I luckily spotted a picture of a friend of my parents pop up on Instagram. The location said she was in, Vlore, Croatia. So I immediately sent her a message to explain that we were only 80km away from Vlore and would she like to meet up with us somewhere.
She invited us to stay with her and her husband Jim, in Split for two days at the end of their Croatian swimming holiday.
On the way to Split from Knin we passed Lake Peruća. We turned a bend and suddenly a colour I had never seen in nature before was seeping out before me. Down way below the road held in the dip of the land was an azure blue lake so bright and deep in colour that it looked artificial. We had to keep pausing on the narrow, dangerous road, as it was such a mesmerizing spectacle we didn’t want to rush past it too quickly.
Near Knin we passed through a landscape that looked like it was straight out of an old Western. With wide desert like plains and rising majestically out of them were high, flat topped mountains. It felt very surreal cycling through a landscape that I would never have imagined to be in Croatia.
After a few more days of up and down over some hillier ranges we made the decent to Split. It was a busy road and the gradient was so steep that sometimes I was quite scared that I couldn’t break with the weight of the bike and myself with just four little, old-fashioned, rubber pads. I tried not to descend too quickly with my brakes firmly held down but a few times the cramp in my fingers spasmed and I nearly swerved out of control.
We arrived at Ruth and Jim’s holiday apartment, in the centre of Split, in time for lunch. We were disgusting. Sweat was pouring off us and we probably smelt awful after days of not washing properly. Ruth and Jim were very polite not to mention this and it was such a treat to be greeted by two familiar, beaming faces. They bundled us in the shower and we sat and ate. The apartment was a small slice of heaven and they very kindly let us sleep on the sofa bed. We had two days of lake swimming and exploring the city and being treated like heroic explorers. Two days spent being the kind of tourists we didn’t usually get to be! Treated to delicious food and in wonderful company. The blissful weekend slipped by very quickly.
There was a real fiasco getting my rear hub fixed. But after traipsing around the city all day we finally found a bike shop which sold us a new rear wheel which Haydn fitted in the basement of the bike shop. It felt painful to pay £50 for a new wheel but I didn’t have a choice, if I wanted to keep cycling. At least Haydn knew how to do the labour so I didn’t pay for that too.
We said heartfelt and very thankful goodbyes to Jim and Ruth who had brightened us up endlessly. Travelling further along the coast and then back up into the mountains after a town called Omis.
Outside this town, we spent a very wakeful, panic-stricken night by a seemingly deserted river, in what turned out to be the local dogging spot or drug pick-up point. Car after car came and sat with blaring music and lights on not far from our tent. They came and went all through the night. Until one pickup truck came and the lights were turned off and a man got out with a head torch on. He walked over to the tent and looked at it for a while. He then walked over to a small building behind us and unlocked a door. We could hear him rattling chains around inside. Haydn was frozen, eyes glued to the tiny mesh gap of the window, unable to see anything from this angle. We were both completely silent and terrified. What was this guy doing at 3am? The man walked back over to the tent, chains jingling, illuminating us in our vulnerability. He walked back over to his car and threw the chains in the back and drove away. We both sighed with relief but couldn’t go back to sleep.
For the next few days we headed parallel to the coast, straight towards the boarder with Bosnia.
We were not sad to be leaving Croatia – it hadn’t treated us particularly well overall, with the endless rain and dangerous animals and even more dangerous drivers. It had been a time of learning. And we would find that we would need all of that knowledge and more for the next part of the journey. We were ready for Bosnia.
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Trusty Old Spice
The lovely Ruth & Jim