For Kris, sleeping in the tent is a way to really be a part of a place. The smells, the sounds, the grass poking up the sides – it’s all right there, around you.
For me it’s a bit different. With the tent set up, I find it easy to forget where I am. This patch of space, this green-lit world, is not carved out of whichever field we’ve ended up on; it is a bubble that we take with us everywhere we go. When the door is zipped up, it doesn’t matter what’s outside. This little patch of nylon is ours, and so, peeling open the door each morning is like looking through a portal to a land which, while familiar, always looks markedly different in daylight.
Today it’s a good view. It was dark when we arrived last night, but now I can see the wild flowers, sprinkled like specks of paint. Around the field stand clusters of pines, and looming high above is the great bulk of Ploćno mountain, his crumpled surface hiding pockets of snow that have somehow lasted until late June. Must be cold up there. Ploćno looks like an incredible climb – there’s a path indicated from our campsite, though there’s so many cliffs I’ve no idea how it gets to the summit – but we’re aiming for other mountains today. Or rather, we’re aiming for Veliki Vilinac, which is a different peak of the same mountain, Čvrsnica.
A few hundred metres along the road is Masna Luka monastery, which is our first point of call. It’s a Sunday morning and the bell tower wants to tell the world, pealing for about five minutes every fifteen minutes with it’s pair of bells. It’s one of those noises that could be beautiful, but right now it’s a little distracting because we have a problem: there is no trail. Where there should be trail there is just an unmarked field of waist high grass. We split up and explore a little, but it doesn’t seem promising. The bells toll again.
This wouldn’t be the first time the GPS tracks have failed us, so we turn to the ever useful comments of previous hikers, who, it seems, have also had some troubles at this very point. In fact there are so many comments it takes us a while to realise that they’re all saying the same thing: the GPS track is correct, and if you follow it blindly for a few hundred metres the track will appear. And miraculously it does. As we make our way up into the loose foliage behind the monastery, we hear the bells toll a final time from the slopes below us.
It’s been a bit of a slow start, but it feels good to be going. Despite the unmarked start, this track is excellent. It weaves up slopes and around mountains, with long sections laboriously cut through dwarf pine thickets or shored up from the scree. Someone has gone to a lot of effort to make sure we avoid those dreaded unnecessary downhills.
We can afford to take it a fairly slowly today, and we do, stopping every now and then to soak in the incredible view. We’ve been really luck with the weather – not too cold, not too windy, not too hazy – and the mountains pile on top of each other for miles in all directions. It really is a beautiful part of the world. With their luminous green fields and limestone crags, these mountains are more reminiscent of Slovenia than nearer Croatia. Perhaps it’s because we’ve drifted inland again.
After an early lunch of stock-cube-flavoured polenta (we forgot to pick up extra lunch stuff, so we’re eating leftover dinners instead) we reach the summit of Veliki Vilinac, at 2113 m. Somehow the view is even better here – we can see the swooping peaks of Vran which we climbed yesterday, and Ploćno, by whose base we camped last night.
Signing the log book we’re alarmed to see that there’s already been fifty people to summit today. Fifty! There’s a mountain hut just a few kilometres away, so hopefully it won’t be inundated with other hikers. We cross our fingers and hurry over the peak, and down the ridge on the other side.
We turn down to the hut just as a big group is making their way up (good sign). There must be about twenty of them, and they burst into joyous song at the top of the ridge as they wait for the rest of their tour to catch up.
The hut, Vilinac kuća, is perched high up on the mountain slopes, just a hundred metres or so lower than the peak. In fact, this is the highest altitude mountain hut in the country. It’s only small, with stripy corrugated iron walls and smoke billowing from the chimney, but it looks cosy and friendly, so we hurry inside.
Stepping through the door, about a dozen people turn to face us. I’m paralysed for a moment, but then one of them asks if we’re planning on staying the night.
“Yes,” we reply, looking around the bursting room. “If it’s not too full.”
The man who asked us seems to consult with the others. I’m getting the sense that this is one big group and we’re intruding a little, but then he turns around. “It is okay. You can stay.”
We sit down, and the man, whose name is Alden, gives us the lay of the land. Everyone here, he tells us, is part of Vilinac mountain club – this is their hut actually – and he is the secretary. In addition to the people in this room, there’s another ten kids upstairs. Usually Vilinac kuća is only open by appointment, so we’re lucky to find anyone here at all.
Alden is the only English speaking member of the club, and I get the sense he’s trying to fill us in on all the information before he heads home – he can’t stay the night due to work commitments. He seems a little nervous, and I get a vague sense of foreboding, but my fears are assailed by the offer of food from one of his smiling friends. In this part of the world, it was only a matter of time, and so Alden leaves us happy munching on battered eggplant, cheese pie, and bread with jam and butter.
We go up to our room and nap for a while, before making dinner outside as the sun sets.
It’s getting pretty cold by the time our pasta is ready, and as soon as one of the club members spots us out here we’re ushered into the warmth of the kuća.
Stepping inside, it is nice in here. They’re obviously having some sort of feast, with piles of bread, meats, and cheeses covering the table, as well as a few more courses in the oven. Despite our own fairly large meals, it isn’t long before food is being pressed into our hands left, right and centre. We try home made cheeses, pastries and delicious peanut baklava, as well as the food we had earlier. Clearly, we had forgotten the first rule of eating in the Balkans: don’t take much food at first, because you’ll be offered mountains more later.
Nobody speaks much English, so we mostly just smile and nod as they chat around us. That is, until one man bellows across the room “Alcohol? Drink?” We nod, and are quickly handed glasses of peach schnapps, as well as fourth helpings of eggplant fritters. We’ve managed to convey that we live in Sydney, and so it’s become the toast of the night, with cries of “To Sydney!” making up for any lack of common language.
After a couple of hours we manage to refuse more schnapps (no easy task) and head up to bed. We’re just getting comfortable when the singing starts downstairs.
Oh, does it start.
For hours they sing merrily, not stopping until after 3 am. Somewhere along the Via Dinarica we seem to have left the Western music tradition, because the songs they sing all sound much more Turkish – except for Despacito, that is, which knows no boundaries. The teenagers have all long gone to bed, leaving their parents to howl the night away. This is clearly how it goes: climb by day, feast by night.
It’s been nice to stay here this evening. The happiness of the club is infectious, and you can tell they really enjoy being up here. I’ve been a little perplexed at how all these big, usually locked huts get used. But, seeing the warmth and camaraderie of the club downstairs, it makes a little more sense.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Stage 30
Start and end points: Planinarski dom Masna Luka (Masna Luka mountain lodge) to Planinarski dom Vilinac (Vilinac mountain lodge)
Approximate distance: 11.5 km
Features: Planinarski dom Masna Luka (Masna Luka mountain lodge) – Masna Luka monastery – Čvrsnica planina (Čvrsnica mountain) – Veliki Vilinac (2113 m) – Planinarski dom Vilinac (Vilinac mountain lodge)