Backpacking in Bosnia

I loved the Peaks of the Balkans trail which I did last October, so having done some research I have decided to section hike the Via Dinarica – an extraordinary 2000 km trail that starts in Slovenia and passes through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and on to Albania. I have a week and am planning to hike the bulk of the Bosnian section of the trail from Blindije to Maglic.

Wizz air did me no favours. I stayed at the luxurious holiday inn express at Luton to be sure I’d get my 8.30 flight (it was on a rail strike day) and I woke up at 5.30 am to a cancellation text. There was no flight to Sarajevo for days, so a bit of Googling and even some random consideration of other locations, I figured out I could get to Split (in Croatia) in the evening and get someone to drop me off at Blidinje (yay for Samer at green visions who came to my rescue in this and lots of other challenges). That problem sorted. My lovely driver Nedim and his girlfriend Vanya met me at the airport in Split, took me over the border, and dropped me at the mountain lodge in Blidinje where I had booked a 12 euro dorm. As was to become the standard procedure, the amassed group of Bosnian hikers offered me a shot of rakia, told me it was too dangerous to hike alone and too hard for me to make it, and asked where my husband was in quick succession. This theme never stopped – Bosnians just don’t hike solo, and unheard of for an old lady to be out by herself. What did amuse me was their presumption I wouldn’t make it :-),

Stage 1 Blidinje to Jablanica through the Cvrsnica – 35km, 1800m ascent

After a decent night with no snoring in the dorm, I made a quick breakfast outside and headed off at 6.50. First up a relatively well marked but non existent trail up to the summit of Veliki Vilinic. The trail is not well used and pretty hard to see on the ground, but the markings on the trees are abundant. It was slow going with lots of crawling under fallen logs but I didn’t get lost. I only saw one shirtless guy that I passed before the ridge

After the Vilinic summit I started meeting day hikers in abundance. I popped down to the spring near the Vilinic hut to make lunch and fill up with water – just as well too (more on that later). It was hot, so I was meandering and I even stopped for a 30 min lie down at the lovely and tiny crvenjak lake. Then I went to see the rebels gate on the way up to Drinjaca summit.

After the Drinjaca summit the tourists and the trail petered out and there was a lot of bush bashing and precarious paths followed by a horrendous scree slide down to Plasa hut. I was hoping for water at the hut – but I couldn’t find any when I followed the sign post ‘voda ’ though I did fall down the side of the hill. Oh well – no bother – there are two more springs further up the trail. But sadly after walking the 4K to check them out, they were both dry. So it was 6pm, I was 15km from a town, and I had 1 litre of water. Nothing to do but to force march it to town. It was a grim steep tree fallen slide down the first few km with lots of slippery leaves and flies, then an 8k stretch on a gravel road, then 4km on an actual road by this time I had my head torch on. I got to the hotel at 9.50pm and drank a whole bottle of mineral water. My feet were a bit of a mess from the longer than planned day with a heavy pack. The restaurant was closed so I cooked up a dehydrated meal in my room and passed out.

Stage 2 Rapti to Boracko – 34km

After yesterdays trials I figured out I better carry more water, and I also figured out that huge chunks of the via dinarica have not much trail and/or lots of road walking – the downside of a cross country trail is they inevitable have less than lovely ‘join up’ bits.

So having done my research and texted the wonderful Samir, I decided to skip the first part of the next section, and get a ride up to Rapti to climb Velika Kapa and then overnight at Vrutak hut before continuing to Boracko Jezero via Jezerce Hut (thereby cutting out a 26km road walk from Rujiste to Boracko on the official trail). It was a good call. However it was a hard uphill as I wasn’t confident there would be water so I drank 3 litres before I left and I carried 7 litres – making my pack weigh in at about 17kg – ouch – quite something in the 35 degree heat.

The hike was delightful. I didn’t see anyone all day except one loud group of guided hikers. It was way too hot and I should have had sunscreen or long sleeves. I took a few breaks squishing myself into the shade of the few scrubby pines. But the view from Vrutak was worth it. There was plentiful water in the cistern, so I drank with abandon – tea, hot chocolate, coffee and more tea and read a book. I slept with the tent doors open and the view was lovely even at 3am.

I was up at 5.40 and had a leisurely breakfast, finally heading up the hill at 7am. The next 12km were absolutely one of the best hiking sections ever (even if you had to stay on some bits of the trail to avoid landmines). The views of Zelena Glava, amazing rocks, lots of flowers, green meadows, it was pure hikers bliss. I saw three people all day – in one group – and they also thought I was nuts for being in the mountain by myself but couldn’t give me much I’d a reason for why I shouldn’t be alone :-).

I stopped for tea and cookies at the Jezerce Hut (which also had water) and then meandered through lovely forest and high valleys until reaching the 4wd road to Boracko Jezero. The next 8k was a hot but largely shaded and uninspiring forest road. But the 4K after that was soul crushing, there was no shade, it was 35 degrees and the sun was relentlessly beating down on my head. I succumbed and stuck my thumb out and hitched the last 5k to the lake to the Herzegovina lodges….. am very hot and sunburnt…. and grateful to Samer and Alma for picking me up. Elmir and Gogo gave me a very warm welcome at the Hercegovina Lodges and I had a lovely shower and washed my clothes. They cooked me an enormous dinner and I had a long sleep

Rafting down the Neretva

I was feeling pretty busted by the time I arrived at Boracko, and had figured out that I had a chest/throat infection which meant I was hacking and coughing half the day. I was over heated and tired so decided to stay two nights in Boracko and have a lazy day rafting down the stunning Neretva river – good call.

After a huge Bosnian breakfast, I was picked up by the lovely Bakir from the rafting company who already had a van full. I met the lovely Lamia, Isra, Mariam, Lana and Muaz. The first four are kick arse surgeons in training from the UK (and originally Iraq, Bosnia, Pakistan, and Jordan), and Muaz is a mere mortal like me working in online.

We had a wonderful day – the rafting was relaxing and the river was super clean and fun to swim in. Bakir cooked us a lovely lunch of Cevapi/Kebab in bread, and we meandered down the river. But the real highlight of my day was talking to my raft mates, who were able to ask all my nosiest questions about Muslim women (which I never get to ask women direct in Iraq, Yemen or Pakistan as they don’t speak English and I don’t trust men to translate). We had wonderful chats about being underestimated in life (given appearance – goodness only knows how a hijabed woman who is 5 foot gets treated when she shows up to see a patient – but apparently no one ever expects her to be the surgeon), the dearth of ethnic minority role models and our obligation to give back. The five of them were incredibly inspiring – smart, thoughtful, funny, committed. We chatted so much I think our guide would have failed us for failing to respond to most of his paddling commands – but he thought we were hilarious. I can see the four surgeons kicking arse for years to come and i look forward to seeing what they can achieve

BH9 Boracko to lukomir – 32km, 1970 m ascent; onward to Umoljani -8km

I left Boracko at 5.15 enjoying the cool breeze and walked 3km along the road before getting a hitch to skip the final 3km of road walking. The first van that passed stopped and had four men all drinking beer – it was 5.40am. The put me in the middle in the back and the chap next to me both patted my bare knee and also got his Fanta out of his lunch box to give me for the trail. I couldn’t figure out if I was more offended by the lecherous knee pat or that he thought I was too dumb to have enough fluid in my bag. (The fanta, however, was delicious after 1000m of ascent up the hill. )

They dropped me off at the Neretva river and then I wandered through easy wooded trails up and down to cross the Rakitnica river – it was stunning and part of me wanted to just stick my tent up and stay there for a week. Alas, instead I started the tough grunt up from the river to Dubocani on a pretty sketchy ‘path’ along the Cepa ridge. My vertigo is worsening with age, as is my agility. And there were moments on this mornings walk hanging on to tree branches and rocks with a vast expanse of nothingness below when I wondered what the f@ck I was doing up here, but I sure as hell didn’t want to go back down the way I came. The markings were rare and there wasn’t much of a trail on the ground. Sometimes the markings seemed to indicate you should walk off onto mad ledges (and in that case the mad ledge was actually the trail). Amusingly there were two sections with three metres of cabling to hold on to – I have no clue how the trail planners decided those 6 metres were the place to deploy cable versus all of the other gut wrenching, vomit inducing sections I had passed over. Fundamentally though, I think good for me to tough it out, and I know there will always be sections of the trail that scare the crap out of me, and that I will almost always get through them.

Anyway, I held my nerve and made it to Dubocani and then grunted further up the hill to the spring near Vradanski in the sweltering heat. By this time it was 11, I was making good time and I was baking and everything I was wearing was soaking wet with sweat. I went looking for the marked water source with no luck. But I had some 3G, and a fellow hiker had posted an update on this trail section yesterday giving the coordinates of the spring (80m away from where it was on the map). I had to squeeze in to a cave to get the water but it was blissfully cool. 2 litres of cold water, bread and cheese, a coffee and lay down in the shade with my feet up for an hour and I was restored

The next 6k to Blatacko lake were relatively uneventful and the lake itself was dry. Then the final 8k ended up taking about 3.5 hours – more of the sketchy stomach churning drops and unclear markings. I arrived at Lajtna Basta pretty knackered with the mentally taxing effort of trying not to fall down into the canyon, after ten hours of actual walking (but I had three hours of lunch, tea and shade breaks) and received a delightful welcome. It’s basic but clean, four rooms, sharing one loo and a shower. I had a cider, a shower and a got a hello from each of the seven members of the family who work there. I ordered a ‘small’ local cheese pie for dinner and I managed to eat a third of it. I was in bed by nine with the window open for the cool mountain breeze and fell asleep listening to the sound of the sheep bells .

It was a blissfully quiet night with the odd murmur from neighbours and I woke up from time to time and enjoyed the view of the stars out the window. I was awake at 5.30 but no Bosnian will give you breakfast before 8, so I lay in bed and read a book. Breakfast, however, was my idea of heaven – fried bread, cream cheese and jam – a coronary disaster but bloody delicious, and washed down with Bosnian coffee.

I headed out at 8.30 to Umoljani, and it was already hot. Todays path was an easy marked trail with no terror involved at all – just gentle views across the Rakitnica canyon to the other side. It was sweltering so at the first (and sadly only) stream I crossed after 40 mins, I took my T-shirt off, soaked it in the water and put it back on – instant air conditioning.

The rest of the trail was an easy meander, I was hoping to see water in the Studeni Potok stream but it was not to be. I passed through the lovely hilltop hamlet of Gradica and then wandered to Koliba Umoljani where Samer met me to drive me to Tjentiste as again am skipping a few sections of less than lovely trail. We arrived at 2pm and I spent the afternoon sorting plans for Maglic and swimming in the pool.

Summit of Veliki Maglic – 20km, 1400m ascent/descent

Maglic is the highest mountain in Bosnia and a popular weekend haunt for hikers – in part as there is a lovely lake and a decent hut which Milosh (the hut man, border guard, forest ranger and bar tender) keeps well stocked with beers. The trail head at Prijevor where the ascent starts is at the end of 26km of bumpy and rutted 4wd track. I asked Milan at the hotel if a transfer was possible and he said I could ‘rent’ the postman’s VW for 35 euros. Oddly, the postman couldn’t bring the car to me, so I had to meet him at the abandoned Petrol station at the turn off to Prijevor – a 1.4km stroll along the road at 5.15am. The car had no plates – hence the reticence to drive it along the main road. She also had no lock, no wing mirror, no functioning lights and not much in the way of brakes or a starter motor or suspension. However she did the job and was quite a fun bumpy ride up the hill. When I got there I parked her facing downhill as noticed the Postman didn’t turn her off when he was showing me the ropes and adjusting the seat with a screw driver. I was therefore very suspicious of the starter motor so I was ready to roll start her (something I had to do with my first car for three months when I couldn’t afford to replace the starter motor), but as it turned out later a bit of gas pumping and a black cloud of smoke and she got there

I didn’t pass anyone on the way up but the trail head was crowded with vans and tents. Most people summit the ‘short way’ and come down the ‘long way’ past Trvnovacko – but I had no helmet or harness for the cable sections on the shorter route so went the long way up and down. That proved to be a bit of a blessing as I didn’t see any hikers on the trail until close to the summit about four hours later. Counterintuitively, the trail descended 300m and passed through a lovely flowery meadow before climbing back up to 1650m at lake trvnovacko where I officially entered Montenegro. Milosh checked my passport, took a euro for the park fee, I said hello to the assembled hikers who were breakfasting on beer and sausages and kept on going. The next couple of hours was a sweaty grunt, quite a lot of steep uphill and scree and unbelievable humidity. It was grateful that side of the mountain was still in the shade, the few people I saw coming up that way in full sun when I was on the way back down looked like they were suffering. I stopped for coffee and biscuits about half way up and amused myself by trying to remember to take photos of the flowers

The summit, from this direction, isn’t too challenging and I got there about 11.30 and then turned back, this time having to weave through large groups of hikers bunched together with a guide at the front and the back. They are pretty cute groups – some of them even wear matching T-shirts. I got through the worst of the scree on the way down and then stopped for lunch with an epic view of the lake. Tip for hikers – add a pack of potato chips to a dehydrated meal, and it gives it tonnes of crunch – my real turmat cod curry was top class.

Descending to the lake – it appeared half of Bosnia had moved in – there were people of all shapes and sizes sporting speedos and swimming in the lake. I stopped at a quiet bit and took my shoes and shirt off and got in for a paddle – it was bliss. And then a wander back down the hill and up again to the car – managing to get about 100 sandfly bites in the valley. I bumped downhill in the trusty VW – returned her to the postman and walked back to the villas. (The postman btw told Milan he had never seen a woman drive that car so confidently – he doesn’t know what kiwi roads and cars are like 😂😂)

That’s it – an epic holiday, and I will need to come back as I would still like to hike around Zelengora and also raft down the Tara. I would highly recommend Bosnia for a small but perfectly formed hiking holiday. I would, however, investigate which routes to do, and skip the dull parts if doing the VD

Tjentiste, July 2, 2022

More information

Detailed trail guides for the Via Dinarica here, I also bought the Bradt guide, but you don’t really need it. I organised transfers through Green Vision, who also met me at Sarajevo airport with a gas canister for my stove. Samer came to the rescue multiple times during the trip to help me out. They then drove me from Tjentiste to dubrovnik airport. I can’t recommend them highly enough

I booked accommodation as I went no problem except for tjentiste – which I assume was problematic as it was the weekend. All the routes are on my strava

Note this blog is typed by my thumbs on my iPhone – expect typos!

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