Once Kotor disappeared from view, we headed across the mountains (yes, yet again) via what looked like a simple route that cut a corner, avoiding Podgorica. The reality, of course, was slightly different – and the simple route was a series of non-signed meandering back routes that went up and down, round and round. We thought we were probably on the right road, but there was one easy way to find out – pick up a couple of hitch-hikers… An older couple of locals waved hopefully at us in the middle of nowhere, so we stopped for them – their huge beams and effusive thanks reflecting the almost total lack of traffic we’d seen. Yes, it was the right way – and they were heading to the town which marked our junction with the main road north – great, little scope for us to get lost!
By the time we got to the main road, though, it was clear that our intention to stop off at the Ostrog monastery briefly then head on up to the Durmitor National Park in one day was more than a bit ambitious – especially since the van’s engine seemed to be running far hotter than normal. We really didn’t want to miss out on Ostrog, either. We thought it was going to be a hunt for a half-way decent wild-camping spot, or the guide book mentioned what sounded like a nice restaurant in the village just before the monastery – maybe we could persuade them to let us kip in their carpark in return for eating there? We clearly weren’t the first with that idea, as the restaurant was marked with a large camping sign… In we trundled, and yep – camping no problem. Pay now. Please. No, now.
We handed over a crisp €10 note, and were pointed to the restaurant’s main car park, with firm assurances that the toilets were going to be available overnight. We parked, fiddled about with the van for a bit to try to figure what was happening with the cooling system – the fan switch seems to have died, a nice cheap and easy job – then headed in to the restaurant. Roast lamb, roast potatoes and a carafe of house red – very reasonable price indeed.
Unfortunately, though, the restaurant staff didn’t seem to have got the message about the loos being left open – and as soon as they closed the restaurant down, we were sat in a fairly expensive car park with no facilities at all until the morning. Hmm. Not what we really wanted or expected. Hiho.
Traffic up to the monastery started early, so we barely lingered past relief o’clock before we followed them up the hill. Ostrog’s Montenegro’s main target for pilgrimages, founded by a seventeenth century monk by the name of Basil. No sooner was it open for business, than he started to get a reputation for miraculous healings. His selflessness in the healing stakes may have been a bit over-enthusiastic, though, as he died only four years after opening for business… Still, it was enough for Basil to become Saint Basil in short order. The monastery itself is in a truly astonishing position – slapped into the middle of what appears to be a sheer cliff face, clearly visible from miles around. As well as that upper monastery, there’s a newer lower monastery – absolutely heaving with people coming to pray for health or give thanks for a recovery. So busy that we took one look and headed straight up the cliff face. There’s a footpath which follows a reasonably straight route, crossing and re-crossing the roadway as it lurches from hairpin bend to hairpin bend. We might not be particularly pious ourselves, but it would have felt a bit wrong to drive straight there…
When we finally arrived, we felt in need of a bit of a miracle cure, and wandered for a look-see. The first thing you notice is a couple of huge army-style frame tents, with stacks of mattresses and blankets by them, accomodation for those on pilgrimage. After popping in to a small cave, black with soot, hot and fragrant with many lit candles – not quite Fatima, but not totally dissimilar, just on the right side of critical conflagration mass – we joined the line of those heading for the atmospheric and beautiful main church, a tiny room hewn into the rock face, accessed by doorways that had me bending almost double. As we entered, we realised that this wasn’t really the right place to just pop into for a peer around – a priest was blessing everybody in turn, as they bowed towards a large and ornate box. As the line inched forwards, we realised that the box was actually a coffin – and that the bowing was praying to the ornately dressed corpse of St Basil himself.
The dilemma – do we try and pass as Orthodox pilgrims, mimicking the elaborate crossing-oneself ritual and risk being immediately spotted as fakes? Or do we just try to fade into the background and dip out of line as we slink out as quietly as possible? We figured the latter was the safer and more respectful option.
Back down at the van, we headed off towards Durmitor. The road seems to have been thoroughly upgraded in the last year or two, replacing the old one’s “parlous state” with “many monstrous potholes” which the guidebook warned us of. It’s a cracking route, though, winding across mountains and past yet more piles of lingering snow.
Once we arrived at Žabljak, we picked a campsite for no better reason than it was the closest to the Black Lake, one of Durmitor’s main beauty spots – a huge figure eight surrounded by soaring mountains and thick pine and beech forest.
The first hot shower for a week was definitely enjoyable… From the campsite, we could quickly and easily pick up a trail down to the lake shore, then circumnavigate it along a decent path – well, apart from the bits where we needed to paddle through waterfalls, anyway. The local bears and wolves kept well out of our way, but a woodpecker seemed to barely notice us as we stood at the base of his tree – rapt as his golden-striped head banged back and forth against the trunk.
A social whirl quickly engulfed us, too – no sooner had we arrived than a pair of cats trotted over to say hello, with one quickly getting her paws firmly under the table, while the black tom wandered around ceaselessly, constantly squawking like a Siamese as he did so. Maël and Morgon, from Brittany, arrived with a friendly big fluffy dog who wasted no time in flopping on the floor outside our van so he could smell our cooking and give us big pleading eyes – the cat, curled up on Ellie’s lap, growled gently but didn’t seem too bothered.
A phalanx of German bikers had arrived, and were wasting no time in dragging huge great logs and chunks of wood over with the intent of a bonfire. The campsite owner saw no problem in this, and it didn’t take much persuasion (a beer seemed sufficient) for him to get his chainsaw out to help prepare the branches for burning. It’d have been rude not to join them, wouldn’t it? And so, with the French, we sat around until late in the night as bottles of various spirits were passed around and the chat flowed in multiple languages. Just the thing when you’re being collected at half nine for a morning’s white water rafting down the Tara canyon, Europe’s deepest and bested globally only by the Grand Canyon, eh?
When we’d phoned one of the rafting companies at random, we’d been told that “a friend” might be able to take us out the next morning – and, before we knew it, it was a done deal. Our request for a direct phone number for this “friend” was rebuffed with “he doesn’t speak English”… We felt like ringing around a few more, but it all seemed a bit rude to say “Thanks, but we’ll let you know”. What could possibly go wrong?
In the event, I don’t think it would have made the slightest difference who we’d actually booked through – all the companies seemed to publicise the same section of river. When we got to the base station, it started to look as if everybody was just a sort of loose collective of individual rafting one-man bands, doing whatever for whoever. With our heads only just starting to clear, we were sat down for what we presumed would be the formalities and safety briefing. Nope, it was time for a welcoming glass of Rakija. Then it was time for the wetsuits. We were the only people present, so had the raft to ourselves…
After another short van ride, this time with the raft tied to the roof, we arrived at the start point, and manhandled the raft into the water whilst being thoroughly greeted by a dog almost as shaggy as he was enthusiastic – Ellie’s comment that he looked a bit like a camel wasn’t far off, although she didn’t particularly return his enthusiasm – especially when he tried to play-gnaw her hand. Not a smart move, so soon after her previous mauling.
We were off. The raft captain/driver/pilot/instructor’s English seemed to be on shaky ground once he got beyond the paddling commands that he quickly ran through with us, but that was probably enough. He seemed a nice bloke, anyway. It wasn’t long before we stopped for a quick photo-break (we’d been given a waterproof bag to put the camera in) at the base of a real foaming torrent coming in from one side. A quick trek across some rocks and through some trees, and we had an amazing view of water swirling and leaping and generally being far too active.
Back into the boat, with a suggestion from the captain to just clip the camera’s case straight to my life jacket – thanks, but I’d feel happier with it in the waterproof bag. As we neared the amazing Tara bridge, I wished I’d taken him up and put it somewhere easily accessible – then we hit some swirling rapids, and it seemed the right decision after all. The paddling instructions became louder and more frantic as we headed straight towards a large rock in the middle of the river. BANG! We hit it, square on. The bow of the boat pointed skywards, and we thought we were going swimming. We landed right way up, somehow, and the captain explained “Only two in raft is problem” – there just weren’t enough paddles to give us the power to fight the current effectively. Oh, well.
Down the river we continued, passing by the picturesque monastery of the Archangel Michael, with the clouds gathering overhead. Then a few drops of rain started, and before long we were wetter from the sky than the river. A crack of lightning was very quickly followed by a massive, rumbling, echoing drumroll of thunder. Then another. We paddled to the side of the river, and sat under a sheer cliff to give us a bit of shelter. Another crack of lightning, followed instantly by the sound of splintering wood, and it started to hail leaves, branches and kindling from way above us. Time to get away from that bank, sharpish, in case there was some big branches – or even a trunk – following. Once we were safely out in the middle of the water again, I glanced back, just in time to see our captain crossing himself repeatedly and enthusiastically…
Before long, we spotted the minibus parked up by a muddy little beach, and the run was over. We dragged the raft ashore, and started to realise the intention was for us to get changed here. Ellie was a bit reluctant – sure, all three blokes (the captain, the bus driver, and another guy as muscle for heaving the raft about) were pointedly looking the other way, but it was still a bit public… No choice, though, and before long we were drily clothed again, with the creaking and protesting minibus being pointed up a ridiculously steep and narrow muddy track for what seemed like miles to the road and back to base.