We’re three weeks in to the Via Dinarica, and in many ways it’s just getting easier. My boots have softened, my skin has tanned, and, with all these mountains, I’m the fittest I’ve ever been.
But if the physical challenge has lessened, it’s only so that a mental challenge can take its place.
I really noticed the change yesterday as we reluctantly packed away our gear to head back into the mountains. Lingering over an early breakfast of scrambled eggs and mushrooms, Kris and I looked at each other wearily. We’d taken a rest day, but we didn’t feel rested, and neither of us was looking forward to the impending hike.
“You know,” I suggested, “we could just take another rest day…”
An excited smile slowly grew on Kristen’s face. “We can do that, can’t we! This is our holiday!”
And that was that. We wolfed down the last of our breakfast, giddy with the scandal of it all, and went back to dozing in the sunshine.
This was something new for me: I’m often not really in the mood to start hiking, but it’s rare that I’m dreading it. Actually that’s not true. I often dread it, but not so deeply, because I know that, no matter how miserable it seems in the moment, my brain will somehow turn it into a fond memory. This is what Kris calls Type 2 Fun* – those experiences which are horrible at the time but which reveal their value in hindsight. For example, the kind of experience where you might think, “this is horrible, but it’s going to make a killer story.”
But I’m discovering that long distance hiking is a little different: the lows aren’t things like a giant hill or a rainy lunch; they’re less tangible. Like boredom, or apathy, or homesickness. Like the desire to read a book, or questioning the value of hiking at all. Unsexy challenges that are harder to recognise as they’re happening. They’re the ones that get you, and I think that, yesterday morning in Starigrad-Paklenica, we were taking a break halfway up the hill of one of those challenges.
But that’s enough metaphysical waffle.
Our second rest day soon passed in a flurry of relaxation, and, by the end, I was getting a bit antsy to be hiking again. Starigrad-Paklenica is a nice enough little tourist town, but on a stormy Tuesday right at the start of the season we were just about the only people there, and it felt a little surreal. All along the beach front, empty bars blasted 80’s hits to the ocean.
We slept well, and set off early the next day on the easy, if steep, climb up Velika Paklenica canyon. This is a popular area, and the path is so well made it almost felt like a theme park, complete with gift shops and restaurants. Three-hundred metre limestone cliffs towered to either side, with rock climbers dotted on the crags like watchful gargoyles.
At the ten kilometre mark, we found ourselves at the last of the restaurants, and decided to treat ourselves to an early lunch. Walking in to the ramshackle Ivančev dom, we were greeted enthusiastically by the hut manager.
“Dobro!” he said, and then, noticing our blank smiles, gave, “Guten tag,” a go.
“Hello,” we replied lamely, admitting our ignorance of the local language. He nodded, smiled weakly, and gestured us to a table overlooking the gorge we’d just climbed through.
When he came over to take our order, all of our experience ordering food in Croatia seemed to leave us. Usually if you say the word “vegetarian” the waiter will chuckle knowingly, and bring you some collection of grilled vegetables not listed on the menu. But today it didn’t seem to work. We use all our gestures, and our smattering of Croatian words to try and get a vegetarian meal, but… well, you can see where this is going. Despite our best attempts, the manager soon returned with a spread of bread, salad, Fanta and… bacon-flavoured bean soup with curls of pork belly. Sigh.
As a lifelong vegetarian, I’m not very good at digesting meat, so the spoonful I had was enough to make me queasy, and I called for a post-lunch siesta just a few hundred metres from the hut. A sign said we only had three hours walking left, so we happily napped in a meadow for an hour as my stomach recovered. Some gummy dinosaurs helped.
I could have happily napped the day away amongst the wildflowers, but by 3 pm we really had to be going. The final ascent to Struge was steep but spectacular, with views that crossed the narrow trail of the Adriatic. After a final gravelly ridge, the track opened to a pleasant green valley nestled between the mountaintops, though there’s nothing to tell you it’s up so high except your own tired legs. And tucked into a small grove is the pointed roof of Struge sklonište.
It’s a tidy little hut, with a gorgeous handcrafted ladder leading up to the sleeping platform where I sit now. I still feel a little restless, and a little weary, but up here, in the mountains, it’s a lot easier to remember why we’re doing this.
*Kris tells me this idea is from a short film she saw once starring Alex Honnold, called Sufferfest. It seemed appropriate.
Croatia, Stage 16 (Part 2 of an alternate route via the coastal town Starigrad-Paklenica)
Start and end points: Starigrad-Paklenica to Struge sklonište
Approximate distance: 23.5 km