My thighs were too warm.
One soggy step after another down the steep craggy path leading to the river at the valley floor. The three layers of black neoprene were starting to swelter as the sun beat the small band of us from above. The wet-shoes let every rugosity press hard into the soles of your feet. Twenty minutes later we emerged from the rocky woodland, lowering ourselves backwards along fixed ropes to the shore of the water, 200m downstream from a hydroelectric damn. The fetid atmosphere underneath my wetsuit was banished as I joined half the group by jumping in to the cold current without a second thought. I glided, pressed against the surface by my buoyancy aid, listening to the safety briefing while Sarah sat relaxed on a rock to my left. The tree canopy lessened its hold of the sky as we drifted, back-flipped and plunge-pooled along the deserted river, awed by the imposing rock walls above. We’d climb up and over the contorted and cavernous sections of rapids using the chipped rock walls on our left. Throughout we were grateful for our neoprene as the occasional stab of cold would disrupt the warm water in the wetsuit.
Sarah and I left the rest of the group high above the valley in a network of rock tunnels that had been carved a hundred years before. Our English compatriots followed the dark tunnels ever onwards, while we followed the ochre rock through makeshift doors to an overlook, 100ft above the flat but fast-moving water below. Our English compatriots weren’t on the extreme caving. We were. Ladies first.
The belay was bolted, so within a minute the river guides were ready and Sarah’s 3-point body harness was clipped into the system and adjusted tight. Then she went to the edge.
Sarah doesn’t do backing down from a challenge – and believe me I’ve tried. Whatever you put in her way she’ll ride with reluctant courage, through to the other side and emerge with a big grin. But it always starts the same – poorly disguised stress etched into her face. She was wearing that face now, and it was priceless – justification enough for the extra we spent for these abseils. Eyes wide she grabbed at the rope in front of her as she started backing towards the edge letting the rope take her weight. She protested there was too much slack in the rope, making it hard to sit down in her harness. I empathised with her, there was a little too much slack to be comfortable but the guide insisted she was ok. After another gingerly attempt she gave up and leaned back over the edge, dropping a couple of feet into space before being slowed by the rope. Her eyes went wider and a little yelp escaped from somewhere. I never told her that the guide wasn’t using his belay device (a Petzl Gri-Gri) properly, choosing the easy life by ignoring my background in climbing. Nobody likes a smart-ass though do they. With the rope free I was clipped in, proceeded to throw myself backwards over the edge rather than fight for a tighter rope and was lowered down the huge vertical face and into the water below. The current was teasing me down-stream, so I unscrewed the carabiner quickly and swam over to a wet Sarah, perched on a rock at the far side of the river. She had a big grin on her face. I was proud of her.
We carried on canyoning until the water petered out into a wide clearing before disappearing down a number of much shallower streams into the surrounding woodland. We glided lazily to the bank and trudged wetly up a short path to the road where a van was waiting to take us back to Split.
Back at the Harbour we grabbed a bite to eat, went back to the apartment to change and headed out on another snorkelling excursion, to a small finger of land on the south coast below Marjan hill. The water was clear and the waves were choppy as they met the banked up rocks that formed the peninsula. With the occasional mouthful of water came the sights of huge shoals of tiny fish, camouflaged crabs and bigger bright blue finned creatures. Tired from our earlier activities the snorkelling stints were mostly short (aside from my sole excursion, following the flat slabby rock of the sea bed as it plunged away into the blue abyss) and the effort of hauling over sharp rocks under the constant bashing of the waves was evident in the streaks of bright red blood dripping from a number of cuts and gouges below my knees. Perfect for jumping back into a salty sea. Sarah had a couple of red slices of her own, but lucked out in her choice to prefer sunbathing.
Walking back, passing the harbour, there was the distinct smell of shit that we pinpointed to the water. The smell didn’t get any stronger. It’s location was belied by the floating, fragmented toilet paper drifting inland from the anchored cruise ships. We moved on to find a better place for some supper before crashing out the last night in Split sat outside our apartment.
Another bright morning, another coffee and pastry from down the road. Before leaving we went to finally take some photo’s of the place we’d been staying in for two days.
Back on the bike, after half an hour manoeuvring the bike around a car blocking us in the apartment courtyard, I took a few kilometres to re-learn how to ride. Time and time again my faith in my ability to ride would plummet after only a couple of days chilling out, but as it happens, it’s just like riding a bike. Besides, I couldn’t leave the city is as bad a fashion as I’d arrived in – unless I returned to the car-park and knocked off their barrier again. We’d be fine.
The route would take us north east, into an increasingly undulating interior before cutting north west through the countryside and smaller towns. Two hundred and fifty kilometres down the road was Plitvice lakes national park, the largest in Croatia and of much reported beauty. The route was a bit convoluted, so we stopped a few times to check the map and enjoy the scenery we were rolling through. Getting away from Split the roads started to looked patched. It didn’t affect the riding but I spent ten minutes grinning into my visor thinking the patch jobs looked like snakes – black marks wriggling along the tarmac. I took my phone out to get a photo while I was rolling but couldn’t get it back in my pocket as we approached a corner. I palmed it off to Sarah to hold until I could pull over. Looking back less than five seconds later I saw her hand open wide without a phone in it. With hindsight it’s funny scene but at the time, as I jogged back along the road into oncoming traffic, I was less amused. She was right about it being my fault though. I’d seen how clunky she was with her gloves on before.
Then the roads really did start going to shit. And a little dangerous. This was the first time we experienced Croatian road-works since trying to get to Mostar. They became more mountainous in their climb towards Plitvice but sections, sometimes 5-10 miles long, had been dug up and surfaced with large, heavy white gravel that couldn’t support the weight of the bike without shifting unnervingly to either side – our tyre digging in deep. Traction had also gone with the tarmac and every shred of concentration was needed to keep the bike going at a steady pace, ironing out the low rpm jerkiness in the throttle (badly integrated emmissions control) with plenty of clutch work. A section of tarmac would follow a steep ramp, lure you into a false security before dumping you abruptly back onto the white gravel under hard braking. Sketchyzz.
But we got there, passing signs for the park and cruising through tall forests that dappled the light hitting the tarmac. The park entrances were still heaving with people and coaches milling around wooden shacks despite it being around 5pm. We stopped at the second entrance and asked for directions for camping. Conveniently down the road.
Waved in by the owners of Bear Camping we found a spot at the far end of the site and pitched out tent. Sarah went off to get some water and talk to the owners while I organised my way through our panniers. She returned with a mischievous look on her face and a shot glass of water. “Aha, very funny.” I struggled to see what solace my thirst would find at the bottom of that shot glass and wondered ‘where she’d even find a shot glass?’.
“Try it.” Sarah handed it over. Hmm, maybe this wasn’t one of Sarah’s hilarious tiny water pranks. I sipped, the scent burning my nose before the liquid hit my tongue. Well, it wasn’t water.
“What is this?!” I pushed the tip of my tongue out of my pursed lips in a concentrated effort to un-wrinkle my face.
“Plum Brandy.” Sarah looked pleased with herself “The owner makes it. I drank mine while I was down there but he didn’t want to be rude and not offer you one.” It didn’t taste like plums any more than it did dragon fire. There may have even been asbestos in it to help it get into your bloodstream quicker.
“That’s disgusting.” I put the barely touched plum brandy down on the ground, remembering to accidentally kick it over later, while Sarah looked down at me unimpressed. I came under some flack for barely touching it – I’m sure my honor as a man was challenged while Sarah stood beaming that she’d bested me at drinking – but there was no way I’d try it again. If I wanted to drink potentially dangerous fluids I’d tear off a break hose and go nuts.
We spent the rest of the day buying supplies for Sarah’s cooked dinner and sitting in the grass as the dusk took hold. I was sucked into writing blog posts on the tablet and wasn’t being a very attentive boyfriend – Sarah tucked herself away with a book. Tomorrow we’d start early as we’d like for a roam around the national lakes park to see first hand what all the fuss is about. #highexpectations.