Neretva: /něreːtʋa/, Celtic= Nera-Etwa: ‘Divinity that Flows’
Okay, maybe I didn’t set off as early as I’d hoped. I took a while to gather myself at 5am and seemed to be dragging my feet, quite nervous about my upcoming undertaking. My second time ever on a Stand Up Paddle Board, in a country in which I’ve seen only one hospital, no ambulances and met no doctors; I don’t feel like this is because of a lack of accidents and illnesses…
I finally headed out of my deserted hostel, shrugging my two bags equating to 30kg with food, through Konjic, and their Friday market, down to the river running through town – I’d earlier scouted out the first place where the river was deep enough to paddle on. I pumped up Azra and realised how difficult it is to put her onto the water after attaching all my gear. So an hour after leaving the hostel I was finally on the water. People actually began gathering on bridges to watch me float by, possibly thinking I knew what I was doing, me thinking they’re probably going to see me fall in. They didn’t. I made it through the city and out into the open water that is Jablanicko jezero, a huge man-made lake, Konjic, at one end and a huge dam that I was avoiding at the other.
I had only planned for 20km today because it’s flat water, no flow to help me along. I thought I was being conservative, but I didn’t even think about what would happen if the wind blew in my direction. Turns out it did. As the river started to widen the headwind grew and grew, soon I was paddling slower and slower, finally forced to my knees to cause less resistance, and paddling as hard as I could just to stay still. I would paddle and paddle, not moving and then when the gust died down and all I wanted was take a 30-second break I had to keep paddling to gain as much ground (water) as possible. I quickly learnt that turning away from the wind on a lake isn’t a great idea as I got blown into the middle of the lake, 200m away from either coastline, where the water and the wind were roughest. I spent an hour just trying to get back to a coastline. By 10am I was exhausted, wet (having fallen in) and severely pissed off. I decided to stick to the shoreline, using the land as a wind block and if the wind got too strong I could find something to hold onto. What it did mean however was a far greater distance than blasting 20km through the middle of the lake. 8 hours later I’d made it 20km around the coast, still 5 km from my destination where a taxi would be meeting me at 19:30 to take me across the dam and past the 5km of dry rock where the river had been diverted underground on the other end. I’d stopped in a cafe and was just preparing to leave, I could make it as long as I paddled hard and the wind was good. The wind wasn’t good but I paddled hard all the same. Before long I was in actual fact moving backwards and after it took 45 minutes to travel 1km I knew I was screwed. I gave up and let the wind push me back the way I’d come. I phoned the taxi and told him my plans had changed, took a well-deserved bath in the lake, packed up and headed to the bus stop. I ended up being picked up by a taxi driver who’d given me a ride before and he gave me a free lift to Mostar. My new plan: stay the night in a hostel, leave half of my stuff there for two nights while I paddled a far lighter load from where I’d stopped back down. Easy right?
It’s 19:30, I’ve got an hour until sunset, but only 1,500m to paddle. I haven’t paddled at all today so it’s the only 1,500m I have to paddle. I was relaxing in the hostel in Mostar, Hostel Balkanarama which is inhabited nearly entirely by Scots. The brilliantly Balkan Saska owns the place but has resided in Edinburgh until now and recruited volunteers and artists from Scotland to help make the place beautiful and up and running. So it’s also full of some pretty brilliant artwork! It’s also her birthday so all her friends from home are here, Glaswegians and Edinburgers, it feels like home. On a side note: Ever been to a Balkanarama event in Scotland? Yeah, one and the same! It was such a perfect atmosphere (like every hostel I’ve found so far), that it was a struggle to leave. And when I finally did, I found myself with not much time to spare, standing on the side of the river in Jablanica, in the wreckage of a train bridge that was destroyed in WWII and is merely reclining down the valley into the river, starting to mold into the nature as vines and moss enclose it. The issue is the rocks that have also fallen in the last 20 years, mixed with the water from the dam meeting the open air at speed, in other words, white water. Not loads of it, maybe 20 meters, but more than I’d ever seen. I’m not sure why I was so scared. I had heard of people getting into trouble, and very rarely of people dying in such rapids, but surely these weren’t bad enough to do that? The issue was that I didn’t know. I have no experience whatsoever in any of this, so I just didn’t know. But I had to go, the sun was setting and my camp was down river on the opposite side. So with what was now a group of couples watching (I’d found a place to enter the river on what I now know is a prime make-out spot), I took a deep breath, then another, checked everything was in order, and pushed away. I paddled as fast as I could, as the Internet (the source of my SUP training) told me to. I chose my line, decided last-minute to kneel down, and forced myself not to close my eyes. In 5 seconds it was all over, I was at the other side of the rapids, still on the board, not dead, above the water, all arms and legs in their rightful place, lungs full of air, not water. What had I been so worried about?
The next challenge was to find where to camp. Google Earth had shown a place called Lug just round the corner and it looked easy enough to get to, but all I saw was cliffs. On the side of one was a small outcrop and a teeny tiny fishing hut built into the wall, with a ladder running down to just above the river which was clearly low. Knowing that there was nowhere else for at least 5km and I was 45 minutes away from darkness, I headed for the side, falling in once as I went.
Once it was dark I was lonely. Again, because well, I’m alone here, and it’s dark, there’s no TV to keep me company and my torch died because I didn’t think to check the batteries. I watched glow worms blink throw the air and listened to the water pass by and for some reason a peacock crying in the distance (for reasons I won’t go into I’m pretty good at recognising peacock calls).
There are three more hydroelectric dams between myself and Mostar which I have to cross in the next few days. The dams are a hotly contested topic in Bosnia. While yes, accessible power that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels is great, plonking thousands of tonnes of concrete in the middle of one of the world’s cleanest rivers is less great. In total there are four, there may be a fifth which will destroy one of the last pieces of beauty along the river, and they create lakes in between them, long river like lakes. On a map they look like rivers, but they’re not, they’re stagnant, but all I had was a map. No one’s ever travelled the entire Neretva and recorded it you see, not by boat and certainly not by SUP. This also means that the powers that be don’t give a damn (really not intended) about people on the river and how they a: don’t get sucked into the dam and die and b: get to the other side without dying as aforementioned.
For me this meant a struggle. I tried at the first dam to simply paddle up to the step on one sidewalk over and go down the lift at the other, I thought it perfectly reasonable seeing as there are no signs telling me not to (it’s amazing what the EU has done for health and safety). However, the security guard who was fishing as I paddled up seemed to have great issue and ran over to me yelling. Scared of men with more authority than me running at me yelling stuff I don’t understand, I jumped off the stairs back into the water, up onto my board and paddled back to a beach where I could climb out. From there I had a 5 kilometers climb up around the mountain the dam was built into, and back down the other side. Now 5km is easy, even over around a mountain. But when carrying camping gear and a fully inflated 12-foot paddle board under one arm in a storm, things become more difficult, mainly the wind trying to turn the board into a kite. But I got there, ‘Left Foot Right Foot Repeat’. It took an hour and a half and it hurt, but I made it. Once on the other side the guard came back, this time considerably calmer, and offered me a cigarette. I’m going to say it, Bosnia’s weird.
The rest of the day passed benignly, I paddled and paddled along flat water, mostly in the rain and a bit in the sun. After 30km I reached my next dam, although this one being far easier to cross… if you have a car/death wish. The mountain road which runs alongside it is as narrow as mountain roads seem designed to be, and there was no passing it with a board. So I found a local fisherman (they love fishing) and asked him to get me a ride, be it free or a cab. It turned out to be the latter. I ended up going back to the hostel early due to my own stupidity in not bringing the proper charging cable for my camera, and finding no point in doing this if I can’t document it, on account of you know, that being the point of this. I felt my ego deflated slightly, it somehow felt like failing to be sleeping in a bed. I’m hard on myself sometimes about this and I don’t quite know why.
So last night before I went to bed, Sergan who works at the hostel pointed out the rapids along the river (which I knew about) and told me about the people who’d died kayaking there (I hadn’t know about). Needless to say, I got a bit scared. In the light of the new morning, I’m very scared. I’ve said before, I’m inexperienced. This will be my fourth day ever on a Stand Up Paddle Board and my second time on rapids, but these are proper rapids, that go on for more than 5 seconds, and experienced kayakers have died doing. Until recently, people telling me this is a bit crazy has spurred me on slightly. I like the fact that this is something new and exciting and not a normal experience. Now I’m starting to think that this is all a big reaction to what’s been happening at home. Family circumstances stopped me going to Chile, made me stay within a flight of home where either I can get home or home can get to me easily so family has one less thing to worry about. For me, I’d been getting excited for my adventure in Chile for months and to be asked not to go meant that I had to replace that. I have a constant battle with my ego to prove something to myself. So I swung to an extreme, and I’m thinking I’ve gone too far. I was alone and out of my depth.
I get in a taxi and head to where I left off the day before, but on the other side of the dam and found a way down onto the river. They’d opened the dam above me slightly so the river was actually flowing, almost in premonition of what waited for me on the other side of the final dam. It was actually brilliant fun and a beautiful 10km down to the next dam, passing hundreds of nests of sparrows under a bridge, ducks that literally run on water (whaaaaaaaat?) and then the last big dam.
I got out and still fearing the Rapids, hopped on a bus the last 5km into town. It’s worth noting that when I say got out and when I say hopped I mean I got out, dragged Azra up the bank, deflated her, dried her, repacked my other gear, rolled up Azra, put her in her bag (not easy) and then slung her and my gear on my back and hiked 2km to the bus stop in the midday sun. Any walking around southern Bosnia is not easy with Azra in her huge rubber waterproof bag that attracts even more sunlight than my pale British skin.
21.03.16 Less Dithering More Rivering
So there are more rapids, I’m starting in Mostar today, under the Old Bridge with a bunch of people watching. I’ve made Ana who works at Hostel Balkanarama come down to watch me leave so I actually do. This morning I decided to walk half of my stuff down the river for 10km to a campsite and then come back for the rest, either by bus or by board, depending on what I saw of the river. I decided my fear comes from a lack of knowing, I didn’t have much time to plan this and I don’t know how the river works. Sure I can see it on google earth (my go to for planning hikes) but I can’t actually see how it flows and how to get out of it if I need to. So the best thing to do is what I do best, go on a walk.
The walk cut my shins to pieces from the thorns all along the side of the river, but it was the only route down that actually let me see the river, but what came of it was mostly that it didn’t look too bad, and the bit that did had easy exit routes. I bussed back to Mostar to pump up Azra. Not the most efficient way of reassuring myself, but it definitely worked.
I’m still scared though, the river is way higher than this morning and it’s way different when you’re about the step onto an over-zealous lie-low and paddle away from towns and people and land. But I did, once Azra was pumped up I would have lost too much face in front of the dozens of people watching with surprise (again with the ego). So off I went. I can honestly say it was the best fun I’ve had with a sport, ever. Again the rapids aren’t too hairy, and some I had to kneel for, but it is absolutely brilliant. I’m starting to understand why some of my friends adore kayaking so much. Through the first and second set of rocks with no falls, I start learning to spin the board, turning it 180 degrees so you’re facing upstream, standing in the perfect spot on the board and making it easy to stay still on the river as the water flows under you. I was so cocky I nearly decided to try and take on the really hard stuff, but I had this feeling that I shouldn’t push it. So I sped onto a bank, almost ruining a fishing group’s barbecue and hauled Azra out for the short portage across.
The 10km passed quickly, too quickly, the sun was setting and I skimmed a distance that had previously taken 2 hours to paddle in just 50 minutes past disused water treatment building, bridges, trains and fishermen. By nightfall I was in my tent grinning ear to ear but looking forward to my rest day the next day.
Today’s my rest day, I don’t need it but it’s nice to have. I’m camping on the side of the Buna river, which flows into the Neretva. I head up to Blagaj to take a look at the source which is a beautiful pool flowing out of a cave in a cliff and down streams and waterfalls. War was here in the 90s but now restaurants and a Dervish House is. The largest groups of British people I’ve seen so far are here. Also, it’s stupidly hot. I’ve got far enough South that the weather is getting mad. It’s not rare to see a few days hit 50 degrees in summer here, but people say the Buna is too cold to swim in. Pish. Once you’ve swum in Loch Lomand you can manage a river in Bosnia. Back at the campground, I go for a paddle and a swim, which apparently makes me talk of the town… someone actually swam in the Buna.
I also headed down to the Buna Neretva Canal, the point that the rivers meet, although not like most rivers. Here the Buna pours over a ledge and into a trough that the Neretva gushes through at speed, creating huge white swirling water. My plan is to start at the end of it tomorrow, avoiding death by drowning and all that.
23.06.16 Sans Paddle
I woke up at 05:00, not itching to get going really. I slowly pack up my stuff for the day, eat, shower and finally jump on Azra to try and paddle to the canal through the shallows of the Buna. I couldn’t it seemed, so I had to wade waist deep up one drop and paddle up stream up another to get to the other side of the river where I carried Azra over to the canal. It looked lower. Not slower, but the water didn’t crash so high. Fuck it, I might as well try. The water looked super fast but in a real good way to me at the time.
Climbing carefully around rocks and through fast flowing narrow streams leading off the canal I finally got to an eddy where I could get onto the canal. Around now I felt relatively unsafe but still sure I wanted to go. I triple checked everything, GPS coordinates of the next set of rapids, my helmet, my life jacket, and mainly my camera; I wanted to capture this. It took me two tries to get Azra into the flow. The thrashing water pushed me up against the walls of the canal and back into the eddy both times. Finally, I took a run up on a ledge, pushing Azra, and jumped on as the current took her. It was not graceful. Check out the video when it’s up. I spent a bit of time in the water, thankfully still holding onto Azra, and a lot of time prone to falling in, but mostly on my knees (no way I could stand up), and blasted through. It was incredible, I’m really loving the sport and I’m pretty proud of what I’m achieving in what is a loaded down and budget Paddle Board designed for calmer waters.
Brimming with adrenaline and confidence I pressed on, dealt with the other sets of rock obstacles and white water on my feet calmly, and just flowed super fast. After 80km of paddling simply to move at all, it’s wonderful to paddle to steer and go faster if you want, but you can just chill and move forward anyway. Honestly, this was what my expectation of the whole trip was. I passed Počitelj, a town with a castle, church and Mosque built into the mountain around it, I passed birds, fisherman, families and cities all while skimming through the water. After 4 hours I’d done the 32km to Metkovic, I was in Croatia, having possibly and unwittingly crossed the border without being seen. This was where I was meant to stop, but I had so much time ahead of me and only 22km, albeit on flat water, until the sea. I had to go on. So at 14:00 with 5 hours until the last bus back from the sea I pushed on. 22km on flat is slower and I wasn’t sure how much wind would be at the coast, or waves coming back up the river so I had no idea how slow that could be. I pushed on hard, far better and faster than when I started the week. It was hitting 35 degrees Celsius and in my black rash vest I was sweating like crazy, but I didn’t want to stop, apart from to periodically jump into the increasingly polluted water to cool off. I did 10km in an hour and a half. Feeling immensely capable now, I pushed on after a short break, with better rhythm than I had before, knowing I would make it to the sea and back to my campsite tonight.
Very suddenly the paddling got a lot easier, I lurched back having anticipated the resistance from my paddle but it didn’t come. I assumed I’d missed the river somehow, but when I looked down to see, my paddle was in the water. Well…the shaft was, and so was the head, but the head was disappearing into the water 10 feet behind me, not attached to my half. In other words, I was stranded in the middle of the flat water without a paddle, only 10km away from the coast. I kicked my way to shore, laughing. Of course. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. Fucking Sod’s law. It was 15:30 and still roasting hot, but I had to get back to Metkovic, so I packed up Azra, slung her on my back and sweated my way back to town along the highway. I tried hitchhiking, but let’s face it, would you pick up a lone guy, topless (no way the rash vest was staying on) carrying a bag the size of a dead body in the middle of Croatia? Exactly. Two sweaty frustrating hours later I got back to Metkovic, onto a bus and back to camp where I went and swam upstream in the Buna, not going anywhere for a while, letting my frustrations wash away. Beyond anything else, I was in serious need of cooling off. I’m heading to bed with a headache and a lot of grogginess. Sun/heatstroke maybe on the cards. I definitely don’t have a plan right now.