I half expected Zuza to be gone this morning, but there he was, so happy that we’d finally woken up. A huge grin on his face, the back half of his body being wagged by his tail. Crazy giant German Shepherd. It’s one thing to chase after some hikers and follow them to the end of the street perhaps, but it’s quite another to follow them for 15 km on a hot and exposed track, then happily and loyally sleep the night with them under the veranda of a mountain hut, when all they have to offer you is some leftover re-hydrated mashed potato and an old yoghurt container filled with water. He’s a gorgeous thing, though. I think Callum is getting attached.
From Oltari we head off early, heading due south towards Northern Velebit National Park. Zazu (the name is somewhat flexible) gallops along beside us, into fields, through fences, up and down the track. Always waiting for us. Northern Velebit is a fairly important park, so I’m slightly concerned they won’t want us bringing in a huge dog, especially one with no collar, leash or real name.
It takes a good few hours to get to the National Park entrance. We climb about 600 m to reach it, which is sweaty work. The forest is humid and rocky underfoot. We buy our entry tickets after a few biscuits at the picnic tables and the man glances down at Zucchini. “Dog needs to be on leash,” he says with a strong Croatian accent. We explain that he’s not actually ours, we don’t know where he lives, we don’t know how to make him stop following us, (does he have any ideas?!). The man laughs, scratches his head, says no and waves us through. Oh well. On we go!
Another 4 km, and a lot more hill, we reach Zavižan dom, a hut which should be open. And it is! We celebrate with tea and coffee, then have lunch. Unfortunately our supply of rocket seems to have liquefied, so that’s off the menu (I later realise this is because the plastic storage bags we used were actually for cooking chickens in the microwave…). We leave it behind.
At Zavižan, we finally have an internet connection. Checking my email, I see the tourist office has actually replied! They have the name of the dog’s owner and their phone number. I am supremely impressed. I’m sure that dog recovery is not in the usual job description. Callum calls the guy up and miraculously it all links up and works out. It’s decided that we should leave Zuzu here; he will be collected after his owner finishes work. We are slightly relieved, but also a little heartbroken. The owner of the hut ties him up with blue string so he won’t follow us any further. It’s a tearful goodbye. We are so joyous and sad and distracted that we forget to fill up water and have to walk back up to the hut 15 minutes later (we don’t visit Zuza again – it would be too sad).
The next section, from Zavižan to our hut for the night, Alan, is highly anticipated. From 1930 to 1933, a mountain path called the Premužića trail was constructed through Northern Velebit to make it more accessible to regular people (i.e. not mountaineers) and encourage tourism. This path is a big deal here, mainly because even though it passes through a limestone mountain range, it has no real hills for 57 km of track. No hills! It has been described as a red carpet, a highway, an incredible feat of drystone wall construction and the flattest road in all of Europe.
It’s a fantastic track. I can barely imagine how much work it would have been to construct. It’s very nice to walk on too, most of the time. In some parts though, the limestone gravel is monstrous and awkward, and it’s more like walking through a ball pit than a track. Besides, the mood is a little subdued without Zuza.
I’ve realised recently that I mention limestone a lot. But it’s hard not to – everywhere we look, almost every day, this white rock gleams. The pale colour reflects the sun back in our faces, the sharp edges grate our shoes, the knobbly shapes bend our ankles back and forth from step to step. When the rock gets wet, it starts to dissolve and becomes incredibly slippery (Callum and I both have huge bruises on our bums, but I’ll spare you the photos). And, of course, it forms the beautiful peaks and valleys and caves of the karst, for which this region is so famous. A little piece of earth in Eastern Europe built on melting rock.
Halfway through the afternoon, we take a rest at a little sklonište called Rossijevo where we meet two Croatian guys, Tomislav and Goran. It turns out we’re both heading for Alan tonight, and onwards to Skorpovac tomorrow!
Tomislav gets out a small stack of booklets. At many peaks and huts in these mountains, a collectible stamp is concreted into the rock. Official booklets, like the ones Tomislav has, are available so that you can go around and collect them all. I think it’s a great idea! He spends a few minutes carefully stamping his booklet with the Rossijevo hut stamp. He’s brought along his own ink pad in dark blue, which I’m very impressed with. I wonder if I can take this system back to Australia… We say our goodbyes and finish off the walk to Alan.
Alan is a welcome sight when we finally arrive. The owner fills a bucket with warm water and we soak our feet. I stare blankly out towards the ocean for a while, and gradually realise that the solitary sheep I’ve been staring at is actually a statue.
We have bean stew and bread for dinner. It tastes amazing (anything not cooked by us is going to go down well at this point). We mumble contented good nights to Tomislav and Goran, who arrive a couple of hours after us, and go to bed. I try to raise some enthusiasm for a foot rub exchange, but Callum is barely awake enough to respond. I listen sleepily as parties come and go from the hut, and drift off to sleep.