It’s morning again. We shared quarters last night with two pairs of hikers, each with big days planned for today. They pack and leave efficiently while the sun is still cool.
Our hike today is only 16 km, so we have the luxury of leaving a bit later. We’re headed for Dušiće sklonište, just outside the National Park boundary. The reason for the short distance is that after Dušiće, there’s nowhere to camp until the hut we plan to stay at tomorrow night, Crnopac, which is about 30 km further on. I don’t think we’re quite ready for a 46 km day. Awkward hut-hopping has been a feature of our hike in Croatia because of the camping regulations, but it’s about to become a whole lot more important – we’re entering landmine territory. This means that it’s sometimes not even safe to stray a few metres from the track, let alone nose around and find somewhere to pitch a tent.
Landmines are a remnant of the bitter conflict that played out in this region in the 1990s, when what is now the former Yugoslavia disintegrated in a messy, violent war. Of the minefields left in Croatia today, most persist in wild, remote regions, such as the forests and karst lands of Paklenica. We’re just brushing the fringes of the crisis today – a few signs here and there, a few memorials on the wayside, always for young men. As we head further south, however, we’ll be walking into areas truly thick with recent history.
Another reason today is short, in kilometres at any rate, is because we have the two highest mountains in Velebit to climb, Vaganski Vhr (1757 m) and Sveto Brdo (1751 m). We gained a lot of altitude climbing up to Struge yesterday, but we’ve got another few hundred metres up and over the first mountain, then up and over the second, like a great roller coaster.
But still, it’s such a short distance that the warm day gains a kind of dozy, dreamy feeling, which clangs strangely against the red skulls and crossbones that decorate these mountains. At the top of Vaganski, we lay down in a pool of grass and sunshine. The mountains are deserted. Callum has found us an online copy of Howard’s End, so every few kilometres we scatter our things on the grass and read aloud.
I think the slightly surreal feeling to this day also comes from the fact that this morning, I lost my necklace. It’s very special to me, the chain having been found in a small jewellery store in Darjeeling, and the wooden pendant from our time in Tain, in the Scottish Highlands. In the shape of a woman, carved from olive wood, it reminds me of the freedom I felt staying there. As I clutched my empty neck this morning, the world lurched slightly, a little jolt that reminded me that nothing is special or protected. How could I have lost something so precious? Surely it’s not really lost, is it? There’s not some great, internal protection against these things? No, there’s nothing. Really, nothing at all! And one day it will be much, much more than just a necklace. I feel childish and uncomfortable. Hence the added feeling of strangeness.
We meander forwards. Atop Sveto Brdo, our second peak, the weather changes. Clouds stream through us and chill the air. It feels much higher, wilder and more alpine than Vaganski Vhr, but in fact is 6 m shorter.
Although the warmth has gone, our dreaminess remains. We idle the last two kilometres down the hill towards Dušiće sklonište. I sing songs to keep myself occupied, and Callum occasionally puts in requests. I eventually demand one back from him, and that’s how we end up walking down the hill singing Advance Australia Fair… He doesn’t have much of a repertoire.
Dušiće is another quiet sklonište, settled in another small valley. A neat, well-loved one, like Stap. I feel so at home in these places, with their gnarled wooden interiors. There are two rooms, one for sleeping and the other a small kitchen. As I poke around in the cupboards, I meet some tiny residents! They snuffle around as we prepare for bed.
My thoughts are all jumbled tonight. Off kilter. I wish I understood more about the conflict that happened here. Alongside Howard’s End, we read a few historical articles about Yugoslavia, but it’s hard to ask specific questions – what happened right here? Why are there mines all over the ridge, here? I learn that these mountains may have formed part of the front in the Croatian War for Independence, but it’s hard to find any other details. Many of the minefields laid during the conflict were undocumented, so I’m not sure how much is even known. On our next rest day in Knin I’ll do some research. Right now, I’ll just have to settle for that.
Approximate distance: 16 km