Tara and Durmitor, Montenegro

The roadtrip continues

TL;DR: The Tara is the biggest canyon in Europe, rafting in August isn’t dangorous but the water is super-cold. Lots of enchanting weather and Durmitor looks like Rohan only more beautiful – plus I’m scared of heights.

One of the few things that we actually planned on doing right from the start was to go rafting in the Tara canyon at least for a day. I must admit I was as ignorant about the Tara as I was about everything else in the former Yugoslavian republics. I turns out it is the 2nd largest canyon in the world eclipsed only by the grand canyon.

tara-montenegro-2100

Off to Montenegro

Well, but first we had to get there from Sutjeska and find a place to stay. Googling for “rafting tara” I find a camp that seems perfectly located on the confluence of the Tara and Drina rivers. The drive itself is unspectacular although we share some laughs as we are stuck behind a tow-truck with a guy in his car, looking backwards at us, while he sings along cheerfully to some unheard tune from the radio. Once on the other side of the river we start to see roadside ads for more rafting camps than we can count. We start to realize, rafting in this area might not be as “insider” as we thought. In fact, aside from Dubrovnik this is probably the most turistically developed area we have seen so far. At the actual checkpoint to Montenegro they are way more interested in our car than our persons, so we show them every single piece of documentation we have for the rental. Even before the current refugee crisis Montenegro has been a majour transit-country for all things illicit; people, drugs, stolen cars, counterfeit goods. Travelling mostly in the European Union it’s easy to forget that there are still real borders.

tara-montenegro-1994

The camp itself is just stone’s throw away from the checkpoint and it is just as beautiful a location as I imagined, looking at the map. About a dozen wooden cottages devided in four compartments with two beds each dot a small plane above the rivers with a restaurant overlooking the confluence. We secure accomodation and decide it is time to cool down in the river while we wait for supper. A short hike takes us down to the river. The Drina holds a lot of water, so the Tara is a bit damned up at the confluence. The river is pretty tame and safe to swim, while 50m further on actual whitewater guzzles and roars. And it is BLOODY cold. So cold that none of us can take it for more than a few seconds. Around three a torrential downpour leaves the whole area in a gloomy fog that slowly drifts along the river banks and rises from the forest. This will happen nearly every day while we’re in Montenegro, creating a sort of climate I have never experienced in Europe. For a while we just sit there and let the clouds waft around us, feeling content and very far away.

Definitely the best background I ever enjoyed shaving myself. Rafting camp at the Tara river.

Definitely the best background I ever enjoyed shaving myself. Rafting camp at the Tara river.

Rafting the Tara

Early next day we are issued an impressive set of safety gear; helmets, life vests and neoprene suits. Thus equipped we feel quite adventurous and excited, ready to go on our expedition. We are bundled in two jeeps and drive about an hour on a bumby dirtroad, constantly overtaking other rafting crews with boats on their roofs. When we finally arrive at a bend in the river, the four of us are teamed up with two other couples and a guide, who doesn’t speak English and of course doesn’t wear any safety gear. I’m starting to think that all the stuff is just there to create a false sense of danger and excitement.

geared like the pros

Geared like the pros, Carmen, Aleks and myself in our explorer-outfits.

Our guide gives us a profoundly basic set of commands to follow; right, left stop. Most of the time the river flows swiftly but relatively tame in its narrow bed, giving us ample time to enjoy the scenery. Steep wooded slopes with white rock showing here and there rise 100s of meters above us. Only from time to time the flow quickens and the pair sitting in the front becomes thoroughly drenched with the icy waters, but never does it feel in any way threatening, so after a while our guide allows us to take off the helmets at least. Although our co-paddlers make less an actual effort than just a show of dipping their paddles, we quickly start to overtake other boats. Carmen is constantly urging us on to paddle faster.

This is about as exciting as it gets rafting on the tara in August.

This is about as exciting as it gets rafting on the tara in August.

After about 90 minutes we stop to jump of a small cliff. I am extremely uncomfortable with heights but peer pressure leaves me no choice and I literally and figuratively jump in the deep end. In the end, the worst isn’t the height or the fear before the jump – it’s the water. Even though I wear a thick neoprene suit, I gasp and shudder and hyperventilate. Getting back to the boat against the current requires some effort, all the more so because swimming in a life jacket is actually a lot harder then without. Of course I jump a second time, this time deciding to let myself drift a couple of dozen meters downstream to the other side of the river to let myself be picked-up again.

Like in actual rain forests uring our time at the Tara and Drina it rained every afternoon, although these rafters don't seem to mind.

Like in actual rain forests, during our time at the Tara and Drina it rained every afternoon, although these rafters don’t seem to mind.

 

About an hour later we arrive back at the camp, exhausted and happy. In total we covered a distance of maybe 15 km in 3 hours, In May, when the river is swollen with snowmelt, the same journey can be done in just 45 minutes. And even that can be done without real training, but then three guides help steer the boat. If you want, you can ride the whole canyon in a three-day-trip as well.

Durmitor – Middle Earth in Montenegro

The next day, we decide to cross the Durmitor national park to the other end of the canyon, following a suggestion of a Croat couple we met a while ago and to spend a couple of days in a Camp in Razvršje (don’t bother trying to pronounce that correctly – you won’t).  We follow the Drina upriver before turning east and uphill. The weather takes a turn for the worse  and when we reach the high plane of Durmitor there are clouds everywhere around us, robbing the world of all contrast, until the sun breaks through unexpectedly. Sometimes we are in the middle of a rainfront, sometimes we see the rain coming down far-off like a curtain. From time to time flashes illuminate the eerie scenery. There are almost no cars and houses, occassionally we have to stop to honk some cows or sheep off the road, which gets increasingly narrower. I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful it was and my pictures don’t even come close to the magic of the place. It’s like we are in a different world. If you asked me about the most amazing places I have been to, this would definitely be one of them.

Durmitor National Park, peaks rise to well over 2000m while the plane is still some 1500m

Durmitor National Park, peaks rise to well over 2000m while the plane is still some 1500m

Arriving in Razvršje/Zabljak we follow the instructions of Google maps up a rocky dirt road, which turns into a pretty embarrassing little episode, because our tires start to slip and smoke on the wet stones. So, three of us get out of the car, we go to the base of the hill and accellerate real fast to gain momentum and with a lot pushing and cursing in the rain, we finally crest the hill – only to come up at a regular road. We hope that no one has seen us and decide to not trust Google Maps any longer. The camp is fully booked, but the propietor calls a lady nearby who rents out three small rooms in her house. This turns out to be a very lucky turn of events, our hostess once again welcomes us with a bottle of 11-year-moonshine and allocates us two cozy rooms with a view over the valley and distant mountains in the east.

The shining anyone? Abandoned hotel in Žabljak.

The shining anyone? Abandoned hotel in Žabljak.

Zabljak itself has clearly seen better days. Once one the biggest skiing arenas in Yugoslavia today many houses and hotels are empty and beyond repair. Nonetheless there are quite a lot of people, mostly hikers and mountainbikers from other eastern European countries but some Germans and Austrians. Just like in Sarajevo we get the feeling that this is a destination with an enormous potential for tourism if only more people would know about it. The infrastructure is still more or less intact, quite some people do speak German or English, but very few western tourists find their way to this part of the country. One reason is probably the fact that it takes a while to get here. Not everyone wants to go roadtripping if they only have two weeks of vacation.

The black lake or Crno jezero close to Zabljak in Montenegro

The black lake or Crno jezero close to Zabljak in Montenegro

Black lake/Crno jezero

The next day, we take a short hike to the nearby black lake or Crno jezero, which offers a stunning mountain panorama but is somewhat dissappointing. So naturally we get lost on our way back, we are so attuned to daily excitements by now, that our subconscious leads us to believe it is a good idea to find our way cross-country over the hills in densely packed woods with a lot dead trees over which we have to climb. Do I really have to tell you that it starts raining and thundering? Well, long story short, we get back safely but drenched and cold and ill-tempered. But we are consoled with another bottle of moonshine – strictly therapeutic, to fight of the chill, of course.

The cemetery in Žabljak on an elevated meadow overlooking the town and an impressive mountain panorama. Officers of the Yugoslavian army often have the communist star on their tombstones. Behind the peaks is the tara canyon

The cemetery in Žabljak on an elevated meadow overlooking the town and an impressive mountain panorama. Officers of the Yugoslavian army often have the communist star on their tombstones. Behind the peaks is the tara canyon

Temperatures have seriously dropped overnight, it still drizzles and we long for summer, so we pack up and make off to the coast. The brother of camps owner operates a zipline over tara close by, bridging 800m of canyon at a height of nearly 200m. Since my first experiment fighting my fear I let myself be talked into doing that. My travel-mates keep telling me, I don’t have to do it, but I feel I can’t chicken out again, after all, I would be the only one not going. But I insist on pairing up with Carmen for moral support. My knees are weak, my hands are shaking and when spoken to I just mumble something incomprehensible. We are issued sturdy harnesses that are attached to wheels on the steel cable and when we lift our feet the off the plattform we actually sit quite comfortable. And then, without further warning the breaks are released and we zoom over the  cliff. Well, zooming maybe isn’t the right word;if one reads or hears the word zipline one imagines breakneck speeds – like Batman abseiling himself from some Gotham tower. In truth the speed is much closer to a light jog then a full run and after a few seconds I regret sitting behind Carmen, which makes it so much harder to film. I realize, that I’m actually enjoying myself. The scenery is breathtaking and I vow to keep on challenging myself in this way. Since then, getting rid of my fear of heights has become something of a project, and in the time since this trip I have taken my first rollercoaster ride and sat in an 80m high chain carrousel over night-time Copenhagen.

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

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