Many people had told Pine and myself, that Bosnia of all places, was a land of diverse natural beauty. While it is a very challenging ride for me with many stiff climbs, a traveler is rewarded with seemingly endless beauty at every bend in the road. From high mountain peaks enveloped in cloud and fog, steep valleys, tree lined slopes, terraced orchards, swift running rivers and streams and exposed rock on the mountain sides for added interest. Bosnia, you are indeed a natural beauty.
Some of the most amazing and scenic panoramas begin as you drop off the steep mountain slopes, switchback after switchback, a constant downward decent into the long narrow valley that bosoms the city of Jajce ( pronounced ;yayyeetsee ). The city, once a fortified city, and now a Unesco site. Jajce, sits at the rocky confluence of two major rivers. They meet at the foot of a ragged and time torn limestone mountain spire. The Pliva river runs thru limestone country, so it brings with it that gorgeous clear aquamarine blue color. The Pliva, meets and folds quite unwillingly into the Grannice river, which is the faster and murkier river, together they swirl and eddie under the rock face of the mountain spire to become one fast moving waterway coursing towards the ocean much further south. Confidently perched at cliffs edge, high above the torrid waters that swirl at its feet, sits the huge rock walled edifice that was first Jajce. Started by the Romans in approximately 1275, it has been in usurpers hands as often or more than it has been within Bosnian hands. The modern day city of Jajce, lay spread like a floral apron around the steep hillsides and rocky outcroppings that makeup this scenic region. Houses cling too stone hillsides like barnacles to a boat. Streets meander like worm trails up the mountainsides at pitches that would make most of us tremble. Locals pass over these roads on scooters, bikes, horse and wagon, not to mention roto-tillers. Passing each other on single lane roads with but inches to spare and hundreds of feet to fall, all with a smile and a non-chalant wave.
Leaving Jajce, by way of a tiny backroad with good surface, we make our way towards Sipovo. We are traversing the valley floor and following the Pliva River, so the ride is a perfect basket, bottle of wine and your favorite sweetie with you type ride. The road seldom climbs, it undulates as if alive under your bike tires. Twists and turns that keep you awake are punctuated with brilliant blue water splashing over a rock strewn waterfall. The next bend in the river reveals a vibrant green hillside being reflected in a tranquil blue surface, no rush, no harried pace here for the moment. Justrelaxandtakein the beautythat only a “CREATOR” could have imagined as a place for us to enjoy and see his.great works firsthand. Wild flowers enjoy thier day in the sun, along side thier more pampered urbane brothers. Whitish limestone spires and crags festoon the steep mountain sides, when the sun shines, adding a dazzle of light to the uppermost peaks. This is the Pliva expierience, and worth any bucket list inclusion.
Tiny back roads escort me both up and away from the tranquil and serene ride I have had for last day or so. Its time to cross the Cerenmica mountain range, so strap your climbing shoes on, cast off all extra wieght unrequired (like sin, we dont need to bring anything extra on an already difficult passage). We settle into a rocking swaying type motion, each leg, each muscle in its turn adding power to the stroke and transmitted thru that tiny metallic chain…..and up up we go. No dizzying hieghts, not leg breaking pitches. Just steady climbing, breathing measured as if by metronome……….these are the disciplined and autonomous responces of a well trained athl………what the heck, where did he come from!!!! Huge, whitish, fur covered….and more teeth than six citizens from Arkansas…….the road is looping back to my left, the cars are few, the dog likes human flesh……Hannibal Lecter without a collar. My feet are both atop my cross bar, Iam squirting water from my water bottle at him (secretly wishing it was gas and I had a match…..I will pray about those thoughts later, right now I am looking for a match). I barely have enough speed to stay upright and moving forward……its uphill. Feet are down and grab another few strokes as he rounds my bike to the other side. Dang he is big…….oh crap ( confession, I actually said worse), here comes his compatriate. The second dog, much older, but no wiser. Fortunatley for me, was to deaf and crippled to place much effort in his territorial defense……he laid down on the road and barked. It strikes me that the younger far more aggressive dog took notice realizing that I was niether tasty nor a mortal enemy and his own effort may well have been a little over the top……..decided to stop the chase and just bark and growl at me. Which is fine as I was busy praying…… first Mike……with just a few curse words slipping out incase they may be the only words he understood. Just around the next bend, which now places me directly above those dogs……I started throwing rocks down at them……lol, na, just kidding. What I found was thier summer job, about 6 sheep and 2 simmental looking milk cows.
The Cerenmica’s, once topped, wander and meander for quite a few miles. Up here, bare rock escarpments give little ground to plants desiring to grow. Its a hard fought battle for what ground will sustain life is decidely occupied by tree or scrub brush, what grass does grow is in hummock form, and tall as if struggling to find room to do so. This peaceful meander comes to an abrubt end, as you near tbewesgern edge of therange, and here God has decided tojust throw you off theedge in near roller coaster fashion, pell mell we go with shirt tails flapping in the breeze as wecorkscrew our waydown into a surprise. Somewhat of a geographical annomoly in this Bosnia that I have come to know……..a huge valley vista waits me at the bottom. This is a valley of some actual size, very Montanaish in scope and perspective. Mostly farming, but in a very small scale fashion. No big tractors,nor combines rolling. Rather for the most part it is very small hands on, labour intensive farming. But its good to see non-the-less that Bosnia has valleys of this size and type. Sheep dot the lanscape, like puffy clouds that fell from a sky scene at a highschool play. Cattle, mostly a crossbreed milking variety, while not as abundant they are scattered across the rolling valley floor.
A military base sits right in the center of the valley floor, right along side thestraitestflattest widest piece of paved road I have seen in Bosnia to date……looks alot like a runway to me folks…….just sayin is all. I pass fenced in dense stands of thick pine trees, cement poles, razor wire……these as are unruly trees I can tell. There are about 3 of theses huge fenced tree compounds, stillnot sure of thier purpose. Downthevalley I go, nice and flat, bike is wbizzing along and its late afternoon, about time I buy some grub for the evening. A con ersation enzues as I exit the little grocer, just a curious passerby asking or gesturing questions mydirection. I tell him my direction, show him my paper map……..he smiles and makes the sign of a bomb going off. Whiskeytangofoxtrot I thought. Down the road I go, and stop in the next small village to talk to some folks digging the potatoes that will sustain them thru the co ing winter. In not so many words, these folks, 3 of them. Tell me much thesame thing…….be ware of bombs. On we go, its getting late afternoon already. Rode the next 10miles looking strait up……I ain’t the village idiot……I know which direction bombs come from. We are climbing, a little stiffer climb this time around, and as these Bosinian mountain roads are inclined to do, we are meanandering all over and still climbing……..dang mother nature calls and as only God can do it…..all Igotta do is take a leak. TMI here- there I stand with my water spigot out and staring strait ahead………and it dawns on me all at once…….I am staring right at a red sign tnat says DANGER MINE FIELD and a skull and cross bones acompanies the warning. Duh,now I get it!
What I find myself in the middle of, is the largest active field left in Bosnia. Not the only one, as I will find out as well. Roughly 40 miles long and 20 miles wide. It takes up quite a swath of ground, which is now rendered useless for anything. And, that is also why I have been seeing so many abandoned houses and farmesteads. It all makes sense now why the folks in the last few villages were concerned for me…….they were worried that I would dig up thier potatoes early by stepping on a mine. The meandering mountaintop road finally draws to its conclusion, we put closed behind us the largest mine field, we begin our descent in earnest. Its late enough to be well into dusk, I am dogged it has been a long day. Spotting a tiny side road the meanders off behind a hand stacked rock wall, I take refuge in amongst some struggling fruit trees to settle in for the night. I cook with one tent flap open as the rain arrived almost the same time that I did.
What happens over the next 3 days convincesmethere isa hell, and if we are pahing attention, we get to catch glimpses of it here on earth as a warning. This is nought for the faint of heart or weak kneed. So, if you fall into one of those 6 cattlegories then you should head for the kitchen and make quiche or something. Just warning you, have tissue at hand if you stay with me on this…….I went thru plenty of it.
I awoke to brilliant light piercing my tent, the sound of birds thrilled to have clear skies thru which to fly, the noise of sheep eating, a dog walking thru tall grass, and a shepard lighting a cigarette. This was one of the brightest sunny mornings I had seen in quite sometime. Ate my breakfast, packed my camp and was early to the blacktop. Sunshine, its makes somany things look so very different from cloud covered skies. What a treat to see the vibrant colors, unmasked, unchecked. Stopped in Livno, just todouble checkNd buy. Few supplies I was very low on. Doulble checked on borders, and where to cross. All good. Arrive zt base of the Graninca climb about 11am. Long, steady, switchback infested climb of about 7 miles at posted 8 percent. When you top the climb you pass thru Bosnian customes…..he passes me thru after looking at my passport. We wind around for. Few miles then plunge off the Croatian side for almost 10 miles at 9 percent. What a glorious ride down, cant quite see the Adriatic from here. The Croatian fellow checks my passport, tnen says no…..you cannot cross here……this is for Bosnian and or Croates only. YOU HAD BETTER BE JOKING. No, no joke. You must go back up you cannot stay here. I am ticked…..I would have fought the ear biting boxer I was so mad. Back up I go, thinking the worst possible things a grown man can think. This side is a longbrute of a climb on a loaded tourer. I was dangerously low on water…..like about 4 sips was it. As I pass the Bosnian border shack, he simply smiles and waves……..oh, dont you know how many ways I wanted to torture his cat……..as I rode by smiling……..thanking Jesus for a civil tongue and humility at this moment. Down we go, 56.7 miles per hour……I totally thru caution to the wind.
Somewhere along in here, I am stopped trying to figure out how to take a picture of myself planking on a tank……when a truck with Mason driving, pulls over. Observant you are thinking, that I spotted that tattoo of the eye inside a triangle/pyramid on his left shoulder…….but not the case. I. knew by instinct and training that he was a Mason, because the back of his truck was full of bricks. He offered to take the pictures for me. Then a conversation began about my direction of travel, very dangerous, and he made that internationally recognized sign language symbol for BOMB. You know, make the noise, throw both hands high over your head…..that symbol. Yes,another mine field lay in my path. He was so concerened for me that he called his daughter of about 15, so she could explain to me what lay ahead. Small new gravel road, do not step off the road it is not safe. Maybe 15 miles and you will be thru the mine field. By the ten mile mark, I was done and camped in a tiny hay field that had been freshly raked. Slept like a baby.
Got up the next day to verydense fog, unbelievable. I stuck my left hand out and it was immediatly gone…..I feared forever. I sat and thought awhile about what I should do next. Throwing caution, and my right hand to the winds of chance, I sent the right in search of the left. For but a moment I thought I may have acted a little to quickly. Finally they met up, you should have seen that left hand. Talk about happy to be found, he couldn’t stop wringing the right out of pure gratitude. From that point on, we done everything in teams and pairs. Both hands, both arms, then both legs etc…..the last outwas my butt, he usually works alone. Down the road we go, fog lifts slowly like a bad act in Vegas, taking to long to let us see whzt is taking place. Mountain tops poke thier heads out thru cloud and fog for but brief moments. Trees whiz past, actually I whiz past trees, and they attempt to show thier true colors. POOF, like thatand I am flat.the sidewall ripped right out on my beautiful Schwalbe rear tire. Bad news gets real bad, the mistakes of confidence can be fatal. There was nomorespare hanging on my back rack, gone home with Pine. My spare tub, went the same place. Foolish as it sounds, I made those choices myself.
Two options lay infront of me. I could head back to Livno and look for tire and tube. Having already been thru the place I didn’t like that too much. Or, I could start walking and hitch a ride to the next town Grihovo some 15 miles ahead. Started walking, pushing the bike, big rolling country not too bad really. No one would stop. Made it to Grihovo and asked around about a back tire and tube, even offered twice to buy a well used one…..no go. Had a coffee, asked who was headed to Strmice…….no one. Would anyone like to hire out and drive me to the top……no one. Ta heck with it, I will just start walking, and its up,up, up we go. Its marked at 9 percent, and rolls on for about 11 miles to the crest. It was indeed a majestic piece of mountain range with an awesome view, but my knees and hips wefe on fire……..still no one offered a ride, not one. The rain began just after the crest and stayed with me till well after bedtime. Its almost 12 miles down off the Adriatic side, and steeper than the initial side. Hsnds were more tired than the legs, from squeezing the brakes on the way down. Crossed the CroatianBorder, rain dripping off every place on my body. Begzn mywalk down into the valley below. Carried on, walking alo gside a clear blue stream…..and boy howdy did I stink. So, I stripped off right there and bailed into that stream. Colder than blazes, buck naked with nobody around to witness it. I didnt want a bath as bad as I wanted to be picked up for indescent exposure……and a free ride to Knin. It was not to be, God was at work on me. We walked about 10miles and had to call it quits. Too pooped, too wet, too frustrated…..and not yet thankful enough…..I realize now.
Bad meal of what little I had…..after all, I was easily going to be in Croatia by now, at least in my mind. Got a pot of river watdr boiled for tea, made some coucous with lemon and raisins and called it quits for tne day. Up early the next day, packed in more heavy pouring rain. Everything I own is totally soaked now and we only have 10-12 miles toget to Knin Croatia. Walked every step of it, no one would stop no matter what I did. Stopped infront of a local vulcanizer, he sent his son downthe street for a new tire and tube for me. I, in the meantime went nextdoor in a cafe and exchanged what money I had from Bosnia, then came back out to find he had both tire and tube………and the price matched exactley that which I had just exchanged. He literraly handed me the tire and tube, loaded his son and a freind in an old car, after locking all his doors…..he turns to me and says “the rest is yours, fix it yourself”. And so I did. While sitting there wondering what it was that I should learn from all this…….for me, I realize its humility. I could probably use that lesson doubled. Knin, we had spit roasted pig, and a motel room where we began drying things out again. It has raied hard most of the time I have been here.