Bosnia & Herzegovina
We had vaguely decided to travel through Bosnia in a relatively straight line from our southerly entry point. This plan changed not long after we had entered the country.
We turned a corner into a big supermarket car park. The first big shop we had seen for days. Near the entrance we were greeted by the sight of two equally laden touring bicycles with matching pannier bags to ours. A woman was sat on the floor outside the supermarket in cycling shorts and we introduced ourselves. We discovered that Becky and her boyfriend Scott, both from Manchester, had been cycling through Europe for 5 months, the same amount of time as us.
We asked if we could tag along with them for a while as we had no set plan and they sounded like they had some idea of fun things to see and do in this new and mysterious country. They had done their research! Which we soon realised was a fantastic idea.
We followed them to their apartment for the night and camped in the small garden. We cooked together and spoke late into the evening of equipment and countries seen and routes travelled. The following morning we went to the Kravica Waterfalls for an early morning freezing swim and a coffee. Haydn and I kept thanking Scott and Becky for letting us join them as we would never have seen the striking beauty of that place if it weren’t for meeting them. They had taught us a great lesson already!
After the blissful morning escapade feeling like genuine tourists, we set off with Scott and Becky for a hot, dusty days cycle to Mostar.
It was a dusk by the time we were cycling through the grey smoky streets of Mostar.
The sound of hundreds of nervous twittering birds coming in to roost for the night filled the air. They swooped and snipped into the trees around us that lined the streets. The trees were shivering alive with them.
I could feel in the air that this was a strange and magical place.
Most of the buildings that lined the roads were sat deformed, like bullet wounded faces. Punctured and pot marked with ammunition. There was a sadness, a brokenness that pervaded. The buildings were artefacts of definite, recent human destruction. Violence was heavy in the air, it was written on the walls in scrawled graffiti, bombed deep into the potholes in the roads and tearing at the crumbling buildings.
Very small children sat on the pavement in tattered, dirty clothes. A little boy held his hands out to us – at first as a wave hello, then swiftly cupped into an outstretched begging hand.
An old woman sat like a pile of blankets in an empty carpark with the company of a mangy, skeletal dog. Lengths of material wrapped all around her legs and shoulders like layers of bandages.
Rubbish was everywhere. Piles of it strewn over the ground beside the road. A large silver bin in a lay-by was overflowing and spilling out in a wide circle, like a giant waste shrine. A small dog was there scavenging with all her young pups, rifling through the junk for scraps to eat. They all looked up at us as we cycled past. Twelve hungry eyes looking up at us.
I had never seen anywhere like this before.
We cycled out of Mostar to reach the Warmshowers host that had accepted all of us. It had been a long hot day and a tough into-a-head-wind cycle. The four of us cycled in a line in the dark for two hours on the edge of a very busy, narrow and dangerous road with poor lighting. We tried to divert off this road and pushed our tired bodies uphill into a shanty town looking area of shack like buildings, rubbish and stray dogs.
By this time I was praying for a lovely host who welcomed us into their home, let us wash, fed our tired little faces and put us to bed. What a dream that would be!
We cycled passed the moonlit silhouette of an enormous landfill site that was filled to its capacity, jutting high into the sky. The darkness was slowly being pierced by the bright glow of the first pin prick stars.
From the darkness a smiling figure with a black scarf on his head emerged on a bicycle. He stopped and asked us in a Spanish accent if we were going to Bambi’s place. To my surprise Scott and Becky replied that we were. Images rushed through my mind of what a man called Bambi would look like. The man in the black scarf said to follow him and he would lead us there.
We finally arrived at 9pm, exhausted, at the hosts turning. We thanked our guide in the black scarf and he disappeared and we pushed our bikes down a long potholed track. The track opened out onto a field between vineyards on either side. There was a large polytunnel to the left and something that resembled an industrial fridge in front of us. I couldn’t see a house anywhere or even a building. A man and woman were working with power tools on some wood, with only the light of head torches to guide them.
The man came over as we approached and introduced himself as Bambi. He was very tall and had a kind, open face. We all shook his hand and smiled at him, I felt barely able to utter my own name I was so tired.
He pointed to an area of grass where two tents already stood and said we could go over there and set up. My heart sank but I tried not to show it. All I wanted was to eat my body weight in carbohydrate and then sleep for a long time in the warm.
We donned our head torches and set up the tent in the dark. It was freezing so we made a fire and sat huddled around it, eyes glazed at the prospect of now having to make dinner.
We decided to collaborate to make pasta and sauce as we thought it might speed up the process. Becky and I chopped with frozen fingers, Haydn and Scott got the burners going and stirred the bubbling pots. The Spanish speaking man in the back headscarf reappeared with food and a small kettle and asked if we wanted Rosemary tea. He was staying at Bambi’s too. He was from Chile and had been on his bicycle journey for 10 months, his name was Pablo. We all fell in love with him straight away and asked him to recount tales from his travels so far.
Bambi apologised for not joining us but said he had to finish what he was working on. Him and his companion kept working on their wooden project late into the night.
The next morning Haydn and I hitchhiked into Mostar for the day. The driver was a man with long grey curly hair tied back into a pony tail. His wife in the passenger seat was stylishly dressed in black with a neat dark bob and her ears, neck and fingers were adorned with beautiful jewellery. Both of them were smoking as we told them about what we were doing and they told us about Bosnian politics. Somehow the man got onto taking about Nigel Farrage and how much he liked him. The conversation quickly came to a standstill as Haydn and I weren’t sure how to recover from that one. The wounds from Brexit still fresh and saw.
Mostar was as strange as it was beautiful. It was as rich in culture and destroyed by culture as I had first imagined from our dusk lit snippet the night before. We wondered around the narrow streets feeling very claustrophobic amongst throngs of other tourists. Some of them payed toned, tanned men in tiny black speedos to jump from the famous curving bridge. The Stari Most, a beautiful feat of engineering, stands 24meters above the fast flowing Neretva River. The call to prayer echoed from the minarets and made us feel as if we had already reached Asia.
The Ciro Trail
Becky and Scott had researched a cycle route called The Ciro Trail which we decided to begin together the following day. We also managed to convince Pablo join us so there were five of us scraggly vagabonds on the road together!
Bambi kindly gave us some of his home grown produce to take with us on the trail and told us of his initiative to turn the disused plot of land into a self-sustainability project with the help of volunteers who stayed on his land.
The Ciro Trail was 160km of recently established trail that connected Mostar with Dubrovnik through the Bosnian wilderness. It mainly consisted of a long line of connected, simple gravel roads cutting into a stunning, surrealist landscape.
We spent a lot of the ride talking with each other in pairs, cycling side by side with one of the pack leading at the front. We asked each other questions of past journeys and past lives, dodging the large, green bodies of Preying Mantis that littered our path.
Metre long black snakes sunning themselves on the hot gravel darted into the undergrowth as we approached.
Haydn played music from our speaker and there was a real sense of adventurous camaraderie between us all. We were explorers in this strange and unknown land. Bosnia was new to all of us.
By dusk we were looking for a nature spot to place three tents for the night. We suddenly realised that this was more difficult that we had expected. Sneaking one tent in somewhere behind a bush is never too taxing but three is a little harder to hide.
We went through a strange secluded village. There was a large, open field next to some polytunnels. It was far from ideal but we were running out of options. Pablo and I cycled down a small track to ask in the closest house if we could camp in the field for the night. A toothless man came outside and shook his head, waving us away.
Two teenage boys waved us over as if they might help us and when Haydn got close, laughed at him and gave him the finger. Charming.
We continued our search.
We found a boggy, dissuaded field, hidden from the road outside the town and decided to camp there for the night. We woke early and set off again.
The landscape was incredible. Beautiful mountains rose up high into the pale blue sky and then appeared to be cut off by a levelling, completely flat valley below. It looked unreal, like the imagined beauty of a film set. Like a painting from memory rather than geographical reality.
Some areas seemed completely wild and left to nature. A few times we all stopped to look at the view and realised there was a huge fly tipping area in amongst the beauty.
We cycled up mountain sides and down again to find whole deserted villages – trees emerging from roofs. Stood abandoned and crumbling in the small valleys between two large hills. Perhaps they had been fled during the war and never repopulated.
We cycled past many signs on the side of the trail warning us about unexploded land mines.
By early evening we reached a large hotel that stood alone on the trail. We were all very hot and thirsty. On discovering that it would be €50 per person to stay in the luxury of a room, Becky and I fluttered our eyelashes and asked if it would be possible to camp on the unkept lawn to the right of the hotel. He looked at us with stern eyes and said no. So we sat and had a big cold drink to consider our options and the landmines. Then the manager returned and said with a huge smile, yes we could camp on the lawn for free and he would send a member of staff to mow the grass for us! What a change of heart!
End of the Trail
We filled up our bottles in the hotel and profusely thanked the owner for letting us camp. Then we set off for our last day of cycling as five.
The landscape maintained its wonder and mystery as we cycled the most beautiful section of the trail. It was a very hot day. There is something very painful about being incredibly thirsty and going to take a big glug of water to find it tastes disgusting. None of us had tested the water from the hotel. It definitely wasn’t good to drink. I became dehydrated very quickly, not wanting to drink anything other than small sips from the cloudy water in my bottle.
While cycling up a very steep winding hillside that day I felt something slipping while pedalling. Something wasn’t right with my bike. We pulled in and inspected the new wheel. We soon realised they had sold us a dud.
There was no cap in place to secure the hub and ball bearings inside. Without that cap the whole wheel was at risk from falling to pieces and being unusable. We couldn’t believe they had missed such a vital part from the brand new wheel that I had paid €50 for! We wedged it as well as we could and tried to secure it with gaffa tape. I tried to stay very calm and just prayed it would stay together long enough to ask a more knowledgable bike mechanic for advice.
We parted ways where the trail forked. One road to Trebinje and the other to Debrovnik. We shared big hugs goodbye and said we would all meet again. It felt sad to part after such a good time shared but I felt sure we would meet again one day.
Leaving Trebinje – Goodbye Bosnia
We stayed in a small, very cheap apartment in Trebinje for two nights to rest and plan our journey out of Bosnia.
We didn’t want to rush out of our apartment when we left, so we enjoyed our morning, relaxing and drinking tea and eating eggs. Unfortunately this inevitably meant that we were leaving towards the hottest part of the day. Leaving into this gradual increase on the temperature dial can be stressful but we had made that decision so now we had to deal with the consequences. We were on the outskirts of the town by midday and then faced a very punishing 500m vertical climb in only 6km.
Soon the sun was scorching our backs on the exposed road.
It was a very long road that we could see far in front of us bending around to the right and scarring a diagonal line into the mountainside. These kind of uphill roads are the worst mentally as you can see the torture before it happens. If you never know when the hill is going to peak, the hope is always there for it to end around the next corner. But if you can see a huge uphill line stretching steeply into the distance it’s hard to keep your game face on and not just crumble into a lay by for a mega tantrum.
This hill-road out of Trebinje, was the kind that trucks, old and new, would painfully whine up in first gear.
Climbing big hills on a push bike with 35 kilograms of gear has been one of the biggest mental challenges of my patience and perseverance to date. You have to learn to breathe into the gradient. Feel like you are absorbing the ridiculous steepness into your being with ease and let the hill know, gently but firmly that you will not be giving up. That you are not going anywhere other than up. No matter how long it takes, you will be there until the top. Yet, this cannot be a fight. If you fight, you will hate the hill and the hill will hurt you.
Acceptance and calm perseverance is the only way. You have to breathe into the burning of your hamstrings, abs and calves. Into the painful slowness of the endless climb. Into each determined, relentless pump of the left leg and then the right. Each revolution being a triumph. A slow heroic act in stages. Sometimes it definitely doesn’t look like that from the outside, wobbling and sweating, breathing like an asthmatic donkey. But you have to try to feel it on the inside. Just looking at the small patch of road in front that is slipping underneath your tires. That is all you need, over and over again. It’s the work going on inside the mind that is most important, keeping the sense of victory alive.
The heat and the climb made Haydn and I increasingly faint until we had to pull in and lie hunched on the ground in the measly shade that our two bicycles provided. This was a landscape bare of trees.
Below us lay a huge fly tipping waste site and the smell was thick in the air. I felt the urge to lick the sweat of my top lip and forearms for salt. We drank water with conscious cautiousness, the intimidating barrenness of the landscape blaring at us.
In that moment my mind was completely blank. Lungs gulping at the air, feeling like my whole body had turned into one giant heart beat. I felt like the animal pulse of the earth. Here was my purpose. To breathe. A realisation seared into me. This was the feeling of being alive. So alive you can think of nothing else.
A car revved slowly up the slope in front of us and two people gawped at us from inside, they beeped showing support and cheered out of the open windows.
Post for Montenegro coming soon …