It’s hard to write about the hard days. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s easy to make them sound melodramatic, which cheapens the memory.
After a long walk to Ratkovo yesterday, we’d planned to take it easier today and go about 18 km to Duliba sklonište. We rose late and hung around the cave shelter reading and packing carefully. It was such a lovely place to spend time. Well-maintained and clean, with the faint scent of wood smoke from our fire last night. Still holding our warmth.
We emerge from the shelter and straight onto a track that is convoluted, in every sense of the word. It twists and turns, spiking up and down and around like a tree root. Jagged limestone erupts through the soil beneath our feet, sharp as a blade in some points and slick with water in others. For an hour and a half we make incremental progress along this trail and then suddenly, emerge into a lovely glade.
I can’t believe how slowly we’re walking. Perhaps it will ease up from here on?
The next hour and a half is spectacular, but certainly no easier. I’m beginning to feel that this wasn’t meant to be traversed with full hiking packs. Snow drifts still blanket some sections of track, making it hard to see (but easy to imagine them slowly melting away from the inside, drip drip dripping, forming their own caves and tunnels). We climb and crawl through the rock and ascend ladders to a beautiful place called Ljuksa, where the white rocks rest like a huge crown on top of the mountain. It’s incredible. And for the first time in a while, I feel like this is a place reserved for those who walk.
We have a planning document that we use to store information about the Via Dinarica offline, on the phone. We refer to it for information about camping regulations, border crossings, water sources, anything which might be useful. At the end, is a huge section titled ‘Track notes’ which contains a description of every section of the walk, plus recent comments from other walkers. We’ve gotten a bit lazy of late, what with all the road walking, and haven’t been reading them. But after three hours of walking, and having traveled only 5 km, I open the document, scroll to our section and skim through the notes:
“… attractive yet demanding hiking trail… very difficult terrain… extraordinarily challenging and hard… recommended only for experienced mountaineers.”
I wish we’d read this beforehand.
At 2 pm we have lunch at Dragutin hirc, the mountain hut we were supposed to have wandered past three hours ago. The hut looks perfect, a tiny refuge in the ragged mountains. It is closed, of course. It seems to be our luck that they always are. Even tonight, as I write this, we are camped behind a derelict hut, no longer in use.
If terrain was our first challenge of the day, round two was navigation.
There are some truly lovely moments of this track, especially when the trees close in and make a soft, dim light, where the trail markers seem luminous ahead. Rich, red lights, glistening in the distance, bobbing up and down as we follow little meanderings in the path.
But it’s nothing like that now. Instead, the markers past Dragutin hirc fade to a dull, burnt-red, as if the lights have been switched off. The trail aimlessly winds up and down the side of a slope, fallen trees half-crushed like eggshells across it. The sky has darkened considerably. I don’t understand why this route is so convoluted, and it seems futile trying to stay on it. We swarm around the invisible line, back and forth, side to side, like mosquitoes around an ultraviolet light.
Challenge three of the day, which has arguably been brewing for a while, is morale. Constantly being lost is exhausting. At one stage, we walk 200 m down a very steep vehicle track only to discover that we’ve come off route and have to retrace our steps. This is fairly demoralising and we spend a few minutes at the bottom hoping for some other option to appear. It doesn’t, and we walk back up the hill – only to lose the track yet again five minutes on.
The afternoon is rapidly slipping away and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that we will reach Duliba shelter. Instead, we set our sights on Stalak hut, which is 6 km closer. It looks like the route should head down to a road and stay on it, hopefully ending our navigational troubles. But we’re wrong – with about a kilometre to go, the route swings off the gravel road into seemingly nowhere; onto a track that on the map looked like a minor road, but in reality is almost nonexistent. Covered in wet weeds and nettles. Heading straight up a steep hill.
We don’t arrive at Stalak hut until after 6 pm. Plaster peels down its front and the whole place crawls with dust. The building, it seems, has been long since locked up and abandoned. Around the side is an old toilet with no door, backed up with weeds. There’s also a tiny concrete bunker with a dirty mattress inside. There’s a well, thankfully, but spray painted on the side is “not drinking water.” Oh. We reluctantly set up camp, not willing at this hour to make a bid for Duliba, another 6 km on. Perhaps yesterday we would have, but today I’ve become entirely disillusioned as to how long a kilometre is.
We set up the tent and heat beans for dinner. Sore and tired. We’ve traveled 16 km according to the GPS. It feels like much more and much less at the same time.
After dinner, I read the track notes further. It seems many people skip that last off-road kilometre, and take a longer route on actual, sealed roads. It makes a lot of sense. But it reveals a self-perpetuating issue: the tracks are poor, hard to find, barely walked, with chest high weeds – so no-one takes them. But because no-one takes them, the tracks become fainter, the weeds grow higher, the route even harder to find…
The rain holds off until just after dinner, when we’re warm inside the tent. Peace.
Start and end points: Ratkovo sklonište to Stalak kuća
Approximate distance: 16.5 km
Features: Ratkovo sklonište – Dragutin hirc – Stalak kuća