Bosnia: Sutjeska National Park – the roadtrip begins

Primeval forests and an oversized memorial

tl;dr: we arrive in the wilderness, get lucky with our car – unlike others – and get an overdose of majestic mountains and memorials.

So far we relied on public transport for this trip, which worked surprisingly well considering the low expectations I generally had about service quality. Nonetheless it is now time to turn this into an actual road trip. From Germany we booked a Volkswagen Golf in Sarajevo for 11 days – and got a Polo, which was basically the only thing on the whole trip that didn’t work as planned. In the end we loved our trusty car, that kept going when bigger and better vehicles dropped dead on the road.

nationalpark-sutjeska-bosnia-1344

Goodbye Sarajevo – hello Mountains

After some initial confusion at a blocked road at the city limit we are all happy to leave the developed parts of the country to turn our attention to the more pristine sights of high peaks, dark forests and endless skies. We are finally in the possession of a good guide book about BiH ( Bosnia & Herzegovina) and decided to check out the Sutjeska National Park close to the montenegrinian border, crowned by Bosnia’s highest peak Maglic (2387m above sea level). Part of the park is the specially protected forest Perućica, that is considered one of Europe’s last primeval forests.

Local leaflets always speak of the last rain forest and I’m still not entirely sure whether this is a translation error or a fact, although it did rain every day we spent in the mountains and roughly at the same time as well. The layer of soil in these parts is very thin, so the mountains are not very good at retaining water. The predominant species of trees are conifers and beeches, both growing to impressible sights of up to 50m. Summers are hot and humid, winters cold and harsh with a lot of snow, so the houses have all steep roofs to let the snow easily slide off before crushing the houses under its weight.

The space for agriculture is very limited and no one has the money to buy machinery, so hay stacks are being built like they used for the last couple of 1000 years

The space for agriculture is very limited and no one has the money to buy machinery, so hay stacks are being built like they used for the last couple of 1000 years

After a drive that somehow took twice as long as anticipated we arrive in the village of Tjentište, according to Wikipedia the biggest settlement in the park, which is hard to believe, because it consists of maybe 15 private residences, a restaurant with a little shop, a medical facility paid for by the German foreign ministry that looks like it hasn’t been open since they attached the sign and a giant concrete swimming pool that looks like a lake on Google maps. A little down the road is a rather huge hotel and camping facility in beautiful architecture that was so common in the socialist 1970s. Of course no one at the reception speaks a word of English but but thanks to Aleks the Bosnian in our group they can not only convey the fact, that they are fully booked which is a bit surprising, but that we should ask at a restaurant up the road.

The mountains in Bosnia and Montenegro were somehow smooth and rugged at the same time.

The mountains in Bosnia and Montenegro were somehow smooth and rugged at the same time.

Lucky for us, the restaurant’s neighbours had the back of their house turned into a small hostel, with a separate room downstairs thats occupied by a couple and their daughter and upper floor with two dorm-like rooms with plenty of space for us and our stuff.  The food in the restaurant is cheap and good as well, a small shop beside it caters to everyday needs of tourists and locals alike and has an everpresent entourage of middle-to-old-age men sitting in front who are constantly bantering and cracking silly jokes.

In a way this feels like a second beginning of the trip, a lot of things are different than in the cities we stayed so far; first off there is absolutely no possibility to even consider turning down the offered home-made Slivovic – not that we want to, secondly no one speaks a word of English – or Italian or any other language I tried, and thirdly we are finally and truly surrounded by beautiful nature. The mountain panorama in front of our house is breathtaking, the air so clean my sick city-boy brain worries about health risks breathing it.

nationalpark-sutjeska-bosnia-1022

Our landlord turns out to be a former bodyguard for high politicians who had enough of this stressful job, so now he works for the National Park’s mountain rescue service, flipping the border between Bosnia and Montenegro, flying helicopters, driving one of the most badass offroaders I’ve ever seen, catching trout in 5° cold river waters and other soothing activities. We don’t even blink anymore by the time he tells us he survived a plane crash – for this guy it all seems perfectly natural.

Spomenik for the The battle at the Sutjeska

We start our next day early with a short hike to a giant memorial – a Spomenik. They are huge modernist sculptures that were erected in the 60s to commemorate important battles of the Marshall Tito’s partisans against the German army in World War 2.

nationalpark-sutjeska-bosnia-1043

These Yugoslav fighters gave the Wehrmacht not only constant headaches but actually challenged their supremacy. In May 1943 the German leadership learned the location of a huge contingent of “rebels” lead by Tito personally, so they decided to end this threat once and for all. With over 130.000 soldiers and 300 fighter planes they attacked at the Sutjeska river (there is even a movie about this with Richard Burton as Tito: “Sutjeska – the 5th offensive“). They closed in on the partisans on the Durmitor-range (our next stop) but under heavy losses, killing between a third and half of his soldiers, Tito managed to break the siege and led the remainder of his troops to safety. Even though they disabled Tito’s capacity to effectively wage war against them for the moment, this battle was considered a moral win for the Yugoslavs and a turning point in the war, because not even with everything at their disposal the Germans were able to beat this enemy for good. Looking at the countryside around me I can easily imagine how hard it would be to fight without knowing the terrain, without support from the locals, the enemy forever disappearing in thick forests and steep mountain valleys. Accordingly the local Spomenik is HUGE, like giant wings sprouting from a small hill in front of ragged mountains, they are a threatening sight, but at the same time their sheer size exudes calm, like they’ve always been here, always will be. I could just as easily imagine they were left by some mysterious alien race as a puzzle for us to solve. Sadly it will remain the only one we encounter, at least the only one this big. There are others and someone took a trip to photograph them all and there is a collection of them here 

The last bit of trail we walked to get to the lake was so beautiful, I seriously felt like playing in a movie.

The last bit of trail we walked to get to the lake was so beautiful, I seriously felt like playing in a movie.

Looking at the map we find a small mountain lake at the end of a valley across the border with Montenegro that looks like a worthy destination for a “short hike”, there even is a “road” leading “close” to it. Of course, just because Google knows something, it doesn’t mean it’s a road. I still hear myself saying “Well, we’ll be fine, if the road stays like that”.

It’s like I pushed a button. Immediately the tarmac road ends and is replaced by a rocky dirt track. Adjusting our estimates regarding the time of arrival, I slow down. And because I can’t keep my stupid blabbermouth shut; I do it again “Ahh, this is not so bad”. Shortly after that, nay the track gets even rockier, I reduce my speed by half again and soon we start to see oil tracks where less careful drivers ripped open their cars’ undersides. We decide our car needs a name so we can talk it through this ordeal. After some deliberation we christen her Kati and clutching the steering wheel with white nuckles I start crooning – whether to her or myself I cannot say. My pessengers focus their ecouragement on my person and try to hold on to their breakfast. After an hour or so, we park the car at a small clearing close to a rather scary vantage point on top of a 300m drop into a valley that looks as if no one ever set foot in it.

The towtruck is there :-D

The towtruck is there 😀

Sharing the parking space is a tow truck (autoslep), honking his horn. At this point we stil think he is looking for a friend, but soon afterwards there is fresh oil track on the ground, still glistening wet, so we’re not really surprised to run into a couple and their new and beautiful – and dead Skoda station wagon, which by that point bled the last of its oil onto the road. We stick around to help get the car on the tow truck and past a lorry carrying treetrunks, and it’s really hard not the think “I’m so glad it hit them and not us”. the rest of the drive passes without further incident but with a lot more care and even slower than before.

nationalpark-sutjeska-bosnia-1321

Finally the trees break open and a truly majestic panorama opens up, dominated by Bosnia’s highest mountain Maglic. We park the car and for the next 15 minutes we alternate between a photo-frenzy, exclaiming our elation in a rather meaningless way (“wow” “It’s so beautiful” “Will you LOOK at that”) and speechless awe. This place is like someone composed it, with a small plain, where horses graze in the foreground a vertical cliff behind that and dramatic clouds giving the endless sky just enough structure we don’t loose ourselves in the blue that seems purer and bluer than before.

Like a giants shoulder this outcrop of Mount Maglic protruded into the valley, horses grazing on top, a smooth island in this world of sharp angles.

Like a giants shoulder this outcrop of Mount Maglic protruded into the valley, horses grazing on top, a smooth island in this world of sharp angles.

The track that starts at the parking space leads down an easy decline, only sometimes leading over fields of broken stones where recent rock slides sliced open the mountain like a scar. If you look at these rocks closely it becomes apparent that that must be pretty common, they are run through with tiny cracks that collect liquid, in winter these tiny crevasses freeze and crack open the rocks. After a while the descent gets steeper leading us to a valley floor that has us in awe once again. Flowers and buzzing insects are everywhere and a small path meanders through a perfectly flat meadow with grass and thistles reaching as high as my breast. Once again up for maybe 100 vertical meters through dense forest and over slippery white stones that look like they belong on the bottom of a river, and we arrive at our destination; a crescent-shaped valley with a clear mountain lake hemmed in by walls so high and steep, it’s clear this is a deadend, which explains why there was just a sign announcing the border. There is a hut operated by the Montenegrinian alpine Club and some campers, but it still feels pristine and deserted, so we decide to ignore the algae at edge of the lake and take a dip. After involuntarily swallowing some of the water we decide to fill our canteens with it because it’s so tasty.

This is one way to cross the borer between Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro (Crna Gora ~ black mountain). In other places you may wait a couple of hours, and border guards will almost always be more interested in your car than your persons.

This is one way to cross the borer between Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro (Crna Gora ~ black mountain). In other places you may wait a couple of hours, and border guards will almost always be more interested in your car than your persons.

On our way back we the sky darkens and the rumbling of the nearby thunderstorm is so loud, long and threatening that we really ask ourselves if it could be rockslides and not thunder. Well we are cured of that notion pretty fast, once the rain begins, which is spooky enough. Thunderstorms in the mountains are never to be taken lightly, so we take shelter under a massive tree and wait for this one to pass. In the end our “short hike” took 5 hours plus 3 in the car but we’re all happy with this first exploration of Bosnia’s nature. After another dip in the icy cold water of the pool we all gorge ourselves on meat, fish and pancakes, have some more drinks with our landlord and one of his friends and fall in a deep slumber to prepare ourselves for the next stage of our roadtrip.

The end of the mountain valley on the Montenegro side of the border with the lake was just as beautiful as we hoped it would be.

The end of the mountain valley on the Montenegro side of the border with the lake was just as beautiful as we hoped it would be.

 

This is part of a six-issue series from a roadtrip through Bosnia and Montenegro in August 2016:

, ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *