Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Balkan Extremes

Despite the not bad weather we were graced with in England, we were pretty surprised to get out of the taxi back in Montenegro (driver stinking of booze but had a vehicle large enough to fit us and our windshield, more of later) to find the air temperature up in the high 20’s and the sun laughing at my attire of hooded top, coat, scarf, jeans, boots. Hooray! Farewell to autumnal musings; here was summer again.

We’d only been back on the boat a few days when a contingent of bicycling Nottinghamites paid a visit. Dennis, Nez and Ian were on the final leg of their month long trip which had taken them from Bulgaria to gentle, friendly Macedonia, through hard-core Albania and finishing with the mountain marathon that is Montenegro. Had we not just been back to Nottingham for 2 weeks, it would have been utterly odd to have them on our boat but as things were, it felt completely normal to be with such like-minded souls. They were a lovely bunch of lads and welcome to return anytime.

However, their arrival coincided with a distinct change in the weather and we waved them off into heavy rain, falling temperatures and building winds the following afternoon. And then the weather went shit.

From mid to upper 20’s, the temperatures descended into the boat madness zone of, at best 10 degrees, at worst 2 degrees C! And it rained. And rained. After the first week, I held my head in my hands one grim morning pondering why I had reneged on my unequivocal statement last spring that I “would never do another Montenegrin winter”. Free marina berth and free offers of luxurious on-shore accommodation had swung it, I guess. But it’s all very well making those decisions on a sultry June afternoon. The crying wind, rolling black clouds and rain which only relents long enough for you to tie up your boot laces and open the companionway, no longer feature in your carefree Montenegrin dream.

So, what do you do when the going gets tough? You agree to go white-water rafting in the mountain wilderness of northern Montenegro. So a mixed bag of ages, nationalities and backgrounds from a variety of craft moored in Porto Montenegro, piled into a van, taking along two dogs for entertainment (and much needed warmth).

And to cut a long story short, it was a crazy thing to do. This began to hit home a little more as within two hours of leaving, what little we could see of the mountains (shrouded in thick mist and freezing rain) were white with snow. Not usual at this time of year, it has to be said. We descended into the high-sided canyon cut by the Piva River which looked oddly wide and full (Pluzine Rijeka) and didn’t see another vehicle for an hour despite the road being good. The reason for strange lake/river was revealed further along the road when we crossed a 220 metre damn, stopping to look at the breathtaking drop that was the canyon proper with its natural, mineral-green river, racing along far beneath us. At the confluence of the Piva and the Tara rivers, we arrived the Montenegro/Bosnia border crossing. It was 4 degrees C. The border guard smirked, “You go rafting??” then boomed with laughter. We now understand why.

The camp was situated on the banks of the glacial-looking Tara River, flanked by near vertical canyon sides, reaching at its deepest, 1200 metres. The wooden cabins had been built for summer climes and we slept fully dressed despite the heater, but they were quite cute and sent me into a romantic spin about my much-dreamed about/desired “wooden A-frame house in the mountains” fantasy. We had an evening of drinking around a big covered firepit which was top fun, despite the strange (but usual) interactions or lack of interaction with the local guides. In typical Montenegrin fashion, they chain-smoked, looked miserable and spent lots of time texting on their mobile phones.

The next day dawned even fouler than the last. It was 1 degree outside and trying to snow. Surely they wouldn’t take us out in this, we all secretly prayed. But they did. We donned the usual wet-suit, sodden and already freezing cold wet-boots, there were no gloves – and we piled in the back of the Land Rover. Already, shaking with cold and with one stop for a member of our crew to be sick (hangover – and it wasn’t me! Or Tim), we travelled yet further into and down into the Tara canyon. It is a far more remote and desolate place than the postcards suggest, particularly with snow edging the track.

Holding the icy metal paddle was a job in itself but once we got going, I thought we would warm up. But the needles of iced rain blew into our faces relentlessly, turning to snow blizzards less than 200 metres above our heads. We paddled, we shivered, we shook – the question “are we nearly there yet?” took on a resonance like never before. What should have been one of the most spectacular trips of our lives (and it would be if the weather was clement), became one of the most arduous. We couldn’t wait for it to be over.

To add insult to injury, the konoba (bar) at the end of our endeavour was closed and our bags had not been dropped off. So we waited, outside, for more than 15 minutes, now getting seriously chilled, before we could change (in full view of everyone, outside) into our dry clothes. No towels, no fire, no hot drinks. It was all very poor, to be honest. And potentially dangerous.

When we take people out sailing, we go to great lengths to make sure that everyone is having a great time. If the weather isn’t good (and we are talking a bit of rain here), we don’t go out, simple as that. We lose money. But we would rather do that than have our clients not enjoy themselves – let alone put them through actually physical pain. This trip should not have gone ahead in those conditions – the camp were on one hand, greedy, taking money when they knew there was no way that anyone could enjoy rafting in near-freezing temperatures – and it was potentially dangerous should anything untoward had happened and we’d had to stay outside for any longer than we did.

This is a real shame as the camp itself is potentially fantastic and we would like to be able to recommend it to people and go again ourselves – but are loathe to do so now under the circumstances. As such, I am not putting a link on here as I don’t want them to have bad publicity – or good at the moment.

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