As in Slovenia, Croatia’s wild camping regulations are somewhat restrictive: if I were to boil them down to a single word it would be “don’t”. And no matter much sense it makes in a country whose economy is based in large part on people paying for their accommodation, and which, besides anything else, is still sprinkled with landmines, it does make me a little sad that we never get to sleep out in the wild.
On the other hand, we do get to visit a lot of very idyllic mountain shelters (or sklonište, remember?). The mountain range we’ve been following since Senj is more properly known as Velebit, and, due to its popularity with hikers, it’s absolutely saturated with sklonište.
We’ve stayed in quite a few now, and are getting to know the range. Some are just basic shacks, with a fireplace, a sleeping platform, and, if you’re lucky, a loo. Others are a little more elaborate. For instance, the newly built Ždrilo sklonište, where we stayed last night, was decked out with a sink, lights and even a wall socket. Who says the wild has to be wild?
Maybe it was the unfamiliar amount of comfort we woke up to, but it certainly took us a little longer than usual to get going this morning. We said goodbye to the nifty little world of Ždrilo sklonište, and to the two Croatian hikers we shared it with, and clambered stiffly down the steep, boulder-strewn slope to rejoin the track proper.
Once there, we quickly ran into a junction. Turn left, said a painted rock, and you’ll reach Šugarska duliba in four hours and ten minutes. Turn right and it will be an extra half hour. This was bad news for two reasons: firstly, because our GPS was saying the official route was to the right along the long route (of course it was), and secondly, because Šugarska duliba was only 8 km away – if it was going to take almost five hours to walk eight kilometres then chances are the walking would be tough.
Kicking ourselves preemptively, we sighed, and went the long way. And yes, it took almost five hours, though it turned out to be quite beautiful in the end.
Panting our way up the side of a mountain, we caught sight of Šugarska duliba perched improbably on an exposed ridge. Our second hut for the day was going to be even fancier than the first. Built by the same architect as Ždrilo sklonište, Šugarska duliba is a converted shipping container, with huge windows at either end offering panoramic views over the Velebit mountains. Like Ždrilo, it has a solar panel providing power and a pump operated tap. It’s sleek, and comfortable, and feels like a work of art. But somehow I felt a little less at ease there than I did at Ždrilo: where Ždrilo was a masterclass on economic use of space, Šugarska is full of unused corners and useless features, like the ornamental ladder that leads to nowhere. Flies get trapped inside and buzz hopelessly against the giant windows, far from the door.
After lunching on packet pasta tortillas, we decided that we were going far too slowly to make it to our original destination, Zavrata sklonište, and settled on the more modest goal of Tatekova koliba at Stap, just nine kilometers away. With that decision our day lost all urgency and our hiking sort of fell apart: no matter how slowly we walked we’d probably get there before nightfall.
And so we trudged on, passing through undulating terrain that hid steep-sided valleys inside the steep-sided valleys, like some hellish hiking fractal. When we finally saw a sign that promised we’d reach Stap in just fifteen minutes, we could have kissed it with relief. Perhaps we’ve just grown used to the easy kilometres of road walking, but today the distance came slowly. We were exhausted, and still almost ten kilometres short of where we’d hoped to end up.
But Tatekova koliba, the little hut at Stap, made up for everything. It’s nestled in a serene little valley, with lumpy limestone peaks surrounding it on three sides, and views out to sea on the fourth. It’s the kind of valley I dreamt of finding as a kid, a place I could explore and make my own.
The hut itself is nestled in amongst the trees on one side, and it too is perfect. Patched up and rustic, it really feels like the kind of place that someone has loved. There’s candles to light up the dark interior, and we even find a sack of wine and some fish-shaped crackers.
This hut is everything Šugarska wasn’t. It’s simple, it’s old, and it’s rundown, but it feels like part of the landscape. Both huts are great in their own way, but I think I’ll sleep better here.
P.s. Today, as we walked through a rare point of phone reception, we got a text from Zuza’s owner (remember that big golden dog that followed us for twenty-five kilometres? Of course you do.). He assured us that Zuza is home safe and sound, and that his real name is Yellow, which, in Croatian, translates as Zuta! This may go some way to explaining why we was following us…