Zuza wanders over hopefully from his sad dinner of cold, leftover, re-hydrated mashed potato. He’s made short work of it, and, judging by the way he’s resting his chin on my knee, he’d like some more.
Sorry mate, that’s all we’ve got.
He gets the message, and slumps morosely over to his corner. This is no life for a dog. I wonder if he’ll still be here tomorrow?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I can talk about Zuza, I have to tell you about this morning…
I woke up freezing. Not wishing to repeat our mosquito-ridden night in the tent, we’d rented an air-conditioned apartment for a day, but perhaps we went a bit overboard with the coldest setting. Still, it was a better night’s sleep, and, following a last supper of fresh fruit and yoghurt, we set out on a long, remote stretch of the Via Dinarica. It would be five or six days to the next town.
Leaving Senj, I was struck by how quickly things changed. The old city was a warren of narrow alleys and peeling plaster, but just a few hundred metres on we entered a new area, full of developments and dust. Climbing to the top of the city, we took a last look out to sea before taking a gravel track up into the mountains. It was shaping up to be a hot day.
This part of Croatia is basically a mountain range that drops all the way down to the sea, with the peaks separated from the beaches by around 10 km. Our plan for the day was to walk up into the mountains diagonally – inland and upwards – to the mountain hut at Oltari. It was a pretty ambitious day, not least because it’s off the official route so we didn’t really know how long it would take.
Our track slowly swapped wildflowers for for forest and gravel for dirt, until, after a few hours, it felt alpine again. But alas, the track makers weren’t going to keep us there and, giving up a hundred metres of hard-won altitude, we climbed down to Sijaset kuća. There we found a father and son duo building a new table for the hut. The hut isn’t open, but that doesn’t stop them giving us what we now realise is an obligatory glass of wine. It’s refreshing in the heavy sun.
Using his son as a translator, the father tells us about the trails in these parts. The track we’ve been taking, he tells us, was built by an Austrian general in the time of Maria Theresa (1717 – 1780 for those of us not up on our Hapsburg history). It’s also, unfortunately, brought us the wrong way. If we want to get to Oltari from here, it will be eight hours of steep climbing. Far better, he suggests, is to backtrack a kilometre down the hill and head on a more oblique route which will only be four hours.
We sigh, and finish our wine. Backtracking is the worst.
I can hear barking in the distance. Looking around for Zuza, I realise he’s wandered off again, innocently tormenting the neighbours’ chained up dog with his presence. Usually he’s pretty well behaved – stays close while we’re walking, doesn’t chase small animals, never really barks – but he does like to explore.
Not for the first time, I wonder why this friendly dog has chosen to stick with us. We’ve passed plenty of other people today, but he never wavered from our side. I wish Ivy, my dog at home, was this well trained.
Anyway, I was telling you about the Loop of Despair...
It didn’t take long before we realised that backtracking may have been a bad idea. What the man at the hut neglected to mention was that his ‘fast way’ would involve walking down a valley and then up an incredibly steep access road to end up where we’d been about two and a half hours ago. When we saw the familiar track at the top of the ridge, we dumped our packs on the ground and had lunch, trying hard not to think about how much more energy we had last time we were here. We dub this the Loop of Despair.
To make matters worse, we forgot to top up our water supply at the hut and were now running pretty low. With a long way still to go, and no water sources in sight, we’d have to be very sparing with what we had left.
This is where you come in, Zuza.
Rounding the corner, a great big German Shepherd came flying towards us, by turns jumping up excitedly and then crouching and rolling over at our feet. Most of the dogs around here have been huge and barky, so it was nice to meet one so aggressively friendly. We pat and move on.
So does the dog.
A kilometre down the road we started to worry that this dog isn’t turning around. But then, we thought, this is his country, he probably roams around here all the time. Besides, we were preoccupied with figuring out how to get to Oltari before we ran out of water.
At kilometre four, we realised we had a problem. The dog just wouldn’t leave. It was nice, having him by our side, or waiting for us at the next corner, but four kilometres is a long way. What if he couldn’t find his way home?
By this point the heat was oppressive, and the air pressure was giving me a headache. Thunder growled in the distance, but never built up the momentum to break. We sat by the road in a tiny patch of shade, trying to find some way to contact the dog’s owners. The house he came from was actually Zuza Vacation House, but there was no number listed online. No email either, or website. We couldn’t even find a name. Eventually we settled on leaving them a Google review (five stars) and sending an email to the local tourist information agency, not expecting much from either approach.
The dog looked on from where he relaxed underneath a nearby bush. What were we going to do with him?
It wasn’t a question we could really ponder, as all of us, the dog included, were getting thirsty. We trudged on, trying not to drink too much of our remaining litre – a litre that had to get us the last ten kilometres uphill to Oltari.
Plodding along the endless road under the endless sun, I think we all started to go a bit mad. It was like one of those movie scenes where a character is lost in the desert, drinks cactus juice, and starts to hallucinate. I remember intently watching a dung beetle slowly haul a little ball of cow poo up an embankment, only to fall all the way down again when another beetle tried to hitch a lift. Later we heard a beautiful chiming floating through the trees. Thinking it might be a wind chime in someone’s garden, we tore through the prickly scrub only to find a lumbering herd of sheep staring sedately from the far side of a wall. No water here.
The dog was starting to look worryingly thirsty when we stumbled upon a dilapidated farm. Chickens and geese pecked around the rundown barns, and cows started vacantly from their paddocks. We held up our empty water bottles, and a woman by the farmhouse door ushered us over and filled them for us, filling a bowl for the dog as well. There was no common language, but we sat for a while, relishing the shade and the knowledge that we weren’t the only people mad enough to be out here.
Without the threat of imminent death by dehydration, the last few kilometres to Oltari were much more relaxing. We were up high again, with Parmesan sprinkles of limestone garnishing the rolling hilltops. We’d given up trying to send the dog home, and now when he disappeared into the hills I got a pang of worry – if he lost us now, surely he’d never make it back. At one point he managed to get stuck on the far side of a barbed wire fence, and, instead of going to the gap a few metres to the side, he ran straight through, getting hopelessly caught in the barbs. As I untangled his still wagging tail I remember thinking this is not an animal that could survive in the wild.
It wasn’t long before we made it to the locked hut at Oltari. No water here either, but some locals let us fill up and gave the dog some as well. By this point calling him ‘dog’ was becoming inadequate, so I dubbed him ‘Zuza’ after the guest house where we found him. All up, he walked with us for over fifteen kilometres today. I don’t think there’s much chance of him taking himself home, so I really don’t know what we’re going to do with him.
Zuza settles down for the night by our sleeping mats, rolled out under the awning of Oltari hut. We watch the sunset. There’s been no word from the owner.
I guess we have a dog now.