Monday, 12 July 2010

Camping in Bosnia (Republika Srpska)

For a change of scenery, we decided to trek off Bosnia & Herzegovina for a few days (camping not boating, seeing as they only have about half a mile of coastline). We weren't sure what to expect really and were pretty ignorant about the country as a whole. So the first thing we learnt was that BiH has been split into two parts: Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. Most of our journey took us through Republika Srpska which outside of the occasional small town, is pretty much deserted/undeveloped and the scenery is similar to Montenegro, though softer and prettier. And the roads are bloody great - no potholes, relatively flat and empty of other vehicles. And no high-powered cars being driven by testosterone-fueled dicks.

The scenery on entering the Sutjeska National Park was breathtaking. Similar soaring, steep-sided mountains and karst formations to that of Montenegro with razor-sharp peaks, trimmed with pines. We entered the only (Deliverance stylee) settlement in the area, Tjentjeste, and found the campsite. It should have been a pretty spot, along the banks of a fast-flowing glacial river, beneath trees providing much needed shade. However, the abandoned and burnt-out buildings (including the toilet block), the lack of any other campers and the presence of a picnic table full of around 100 empty beer bottles and a group of men - plus another 4 Land Rover's worth of Landmine Clearance workers having a BBQ gave the place an uncomfortable feel.

However, having driven for 6 hours and having no alternative, plus it being a great little spot for a tent, we stayed and ended up there for 3 nights.

It was a gorgeous area but utterly inaccessible due to the only 2 roads going off into the mountains being terrible, unless you have a 4WD. And believe me, we tried, having driven on uncovered road, up a mountain for around 30 minutes before finally giving in (and a good job too as not long afterwards, a huge logging train came down the single-track road in the so-called "virgin forest" - well, it is virgin forest - but not for much longer if they intend on logging it!). There is also no tourist info, no decent mapping and no obvious marked trails. Plus, and this is more worrying, there are still unmarked landmines around. So not the best area for trekking at the moment, it has to be said. It is just all so empty and weird. Not empty like Monte is empty up North - more kind of sinisterly empty.

Many bad things have happened there - both in recent times and during WWII. Thousands of Partisans were trapped in an area, only 5 minutes walk from the campsite, and pretty much starved out by the Germans, only some of them escaping via a mountain pass just above where we were staying. There is an impressive monument and 3300 Parisans buried there. More recent evidence of atrocity includes the many shelled and burnt out houses along the roads. We also got followed by a weird, quite insane looking fellow in his car up one of the mountain roads who, when we turned around and met him coming the other way, careered back down the mountain in reverse trying to get away from us then tried to block the road (I just stepped on it and drove off as fast as possible!).

This would have been all weird enough but there was a walker's tent on our site which looked lived in but there was no one there. After 2 nights of them not returning, I spoke to the campsite manager/(empty) hotel manager about it asking whose tent it was and what was going on, expressing concern that it didn't look like the guy had gone off for days (the tent had been left without a flysheet, stuff left outside, compass in his tent etc - which we put back inside as it looked like it would rain). We discovered he was a 21 year old French boy which worried us even more. We left a note for him in his tent when we left and again, I expressed concern to the campsite owner and emailed the French Embassy when we got home.

A few days later back in Montenegro, I got a call from the Bosnian police who had found my note. The lad had not returned. We spoke to the police again today (2 weeks later) and they have not found him, despite a full-scale search including support from NATO. So a seemingly tragic and grim end to a strange little trip.

Payback time

For most of May, we had a temporary crew member, Sam Pink Hair (who no longer has pink hair). This is how Sam ended up on our boat:

Back in the crazy days of 2006, whilst at an outdoor party near Nottingham, I split my trousers right across the backside, exposing bits I really didn't want to show. We were in the middle of nowhere and I was in big trouble, not wanting to spend the remaining x amount of hours with my bottom showing. I spotted a pink-haired young lass who had both a skirt and trousers, begging her to lend me her trousers, with the persuasive "I promise I will make this worth your while". She eventually conceded despite needing both items (she has a generous nature, i later learned).

Our paths crossed again months later and we became friends of sorts (and I returned her jeans together with a pack of vegan ginger biscuits and a bottle of plonk). There was a part of me that I recognised in Sam and I really hoped she didn't spend the remaining years of her 20's being a total waster and instead, follow her desire to sail the seven seas (starting with the ARC).

So, one thing led to another and as she isn't a total waster, she finally made it to Montenegro and I got pay her back for lending me her jeans.

It was a useful experience for us, sharing Monty B, as previously we had only had people stay for a couple of days. And it really worked - it was great. Though she is a very easy person to have around and share space with . It did make me realise quite how bonkers I can be at times though, and in turn has made me sort it out a bit. She left to join a yacht in Corfu that she found on the internet for new adventures. I was actually quite jealous which I know is totally crazy as of course, in reality, having my own yacht is infinitely better than sailing someone elses (which I have had proved this week, but more of later).

Saturday, 3 July 2010

The reason for being

Oh my god, it's summer and I haven't written about spring yet. So, to follow on from the previous post, we didn't win the sailing race. In fact, we didn't finish. Poor, I know, but there was next to no wind (as usual) and I reckon less boats finished

than didn't. Monty B became a floating pub, the foredeck team reluctantly balancing their beers on deck when the spinnaker required gybing, saying something about the wind strength.

Sadly, our master sail tactician, Tony has bought himself a 30 footer which is a true contender for future races so Team Monty B has been temporarily disbanded. If we don't stand a chance, I don't wanna play!

As a pre-season shake-down, we "did" the Montenegrin coast all the way down to Ulcinj and back.We gave ourselves a week but the whole thing only took 4 days in total (there and back!) and as there was nowhere safe to anchor in the constant westerlies, we overnighted in Bar marina (€45 a night for the most basic of basic but stunning views as it nestles in a natural bowl of towering, steep mountains). The anchoring issue is a real problem for anyone cruising Montenegro in anything other than calm weather. Bigova and Valdanos are the only properly safe anchorages and even then, not from all angles. Bigova is rolly in anything from the west, and as the waves rarely come in the same way as the wind, it can be uncomfortable.

Getting out of the Boka was just what we needed though and just casting off our lines each morning and trundling off to see what the day was going to throw at us was superb. The desire to just keep on going was strong, but duty calls and we had to return to Porto for work reasons.

The most notable part of the trip was on the last leg down the coast, sailing downwind to Ulcinj with the wind rising to the point that despite the hot sun, I put on a jacket as I was getting chilly (this should have given us a clue to the wind strength). Anyway, to cut a long story short, when we turned round at Ulcinj it was roaring (god knows how we hadn't clocked it) and all hell was let loose on deck as we hadn't reefed before turning and were massively over-canvassed. We jumped to it, reefed, locked away the dogs, sorted the boat out and tore off back up the coast.

The conditions were just on the edge of our comfort zone with most waves washing the decks and several soaking the helm and a slight anxiety that we were going to struggle to get in before dark as the winds were right on the nose and we had to tack all the way up the coast. But it was sunny and the water looked superb - it makes such a difference (compared to it being foul or dark).

Anyway, everything just fell into place. We'd reefed just the right amount, plotted our course and tacked efficiently, the helminig was exciting, we put the dogs down and didn't worry about them (they hated it) - we did absolutely everything right. We surfed down the waves as we entered the small, tricky entrance to Bar Marina, tied up safely and were utterly elated.

Finally, the last few years make sense. There are lots of reasons why we are still in Montenegro but something had always gnawed away at me: "we should be out there on the high seas, adventuring". Now it has all become clear.

We have not been hiding away in the bay for the last two years, too traumatised by our ordeal back in Dec 07 to anything other than poke our noses out on fine days, hell no! Well, maybe a bit - but more importantly, we've been learning to sail and properly handle our boat, in a relatively safe environment with help only a phone call away if ever needed (only once!). And two years down the line, I do believe that we are now fully equipt, experience, confident and competent enough to deal with most situations in a seaman-like fashion. Which was certainly more than could be said when we first got on our boat three years ago.

The realisation that we have grown and learnt so much whilst in Monte was a revelation and has made our reason for being here clear.