Saturday, 10 August 2013

Into the Olympic Mountains - the Bjelašnica Massif in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Our flight touches down late and we're exhausted. A long day travelling. Oh, the glamour of being an adventure travel writer and editor. As we stumble through the automatic doors and into the public of Sarajevo airport, our guide, Lorenc, greets us with a warm smile that belies the hour. Soon the rain lashes the windscreen of our small estate car and we pull into Sarajevo long after darkness has descended. Our hostel is central, cosy and comfortable and, again, the welcome is effusive. We flop onto our beds, out kit bags left unattended in a corner. Lorenc waits for us outside, eager to bestow upon us the kinship of his city. The rain has eased, coating everything in a sparkling sheen of silk. It is a vibrant night, the youth of Sarajevo out in force and dressed to kill. It would be impossible to tell Croat from Serb from Bosniak. Even if I wanted to. Sarajevo is a heady and eclectic mix, as it has always been. In the old town, East meets West. Behind us, the Ottoman influence is clear and ahead, Austro-Hungarian. Both possessed of their own beauty. As we get to know Lorenc, we warm to him. I am grateful that Green Visions, the tour operator I am working with on this trip, have provided someone so balanced, keen, knowledgable and affable. We quaff beer for a while until our eyes are heavy and we can hardly stand. Would that it were the alcohol but it is just basic tiredness. Sleep comes soon after we lay down our heads.

The morning brings searing sunshine which dries the city. We head into the Olympic Mountains early. Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984. A decade later and the city would have already been under siege for two years. In the blink of an eye, joy turned to horror. As we traverse a winding road into the mountains, we see red signs with stylised skull and crossbones. Red tape marking pathways. Minefields yet to be cleared. It is a stark and almost unbelievable reminder of what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990's. That such a beautiful landscape should be pockmarked and scarred by shelling and that hikers should be concerned about foot placement because of mines rather than scree is a dark, miserable truth. A guide is not essential but advisable. At one point that day, on the peak of Obalj, sitting in the Bjelašnica massif at 1896ma Czech guide approaches us cautiously clutching a map. He seems embarrassed. Lorenc welcomes him and leans over the map and they chat in Serbo-Croat. The map is a print from the internet, one of the best places to get detailed maps for hiking in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The Austro-Hungarians created the basic trail maps in the area as they sought out precious metals and minerals to mine. Beginning in 1892, they marked trails the villagers were already using. The Yugoslav National Army (JNA) then created two sets of maps from these - 1:50,000 available to all and 1:25,000 maps which they kept classified. During the war, maps simply and inexplicably disappeared. Fortunately, some of the 1:25,000 had leaked into the public domain and were placed on websites run by enthusiasts. It was one of these the Czech was holding.

Seeing me express an interest, they switch to English. “This area you must avoid,” Lorenc says, pointing to the valley way below Lukomir where we are headed. “The bridge was destoyed so you cannot cross the river. And there are landmines around the trail.” The Czech guide nods but seems curiously nonchalant. Lorenc and I speak about it later and we both agree, we hope he took Lornec’s warnings seriously. It would be wrong to think of BiH as a place infested with landmines at every turn. But they are present. Mountains, and the trails leading through the undulating countryside, were military targets, tactically important to each of the myriad sides in the conflict in 1992-1995. The JNA usually marked the placement of mines as a would be expected of a professional army. Other factions did not. So many areas of countryside are still being cleared. Most are marked out with signs and fencelines. Some are not. All trekking benefits from local knowledge but, in BiH, it is essential. And the guides and support from Green Visions has been first rate, friendly and knowledgeable.

The hike up to Obalj was pleasant and only mildly demanding but the area surrounding us is magical. It is a heady mix of alpine pasture and sylvan forest and rugged, wild rock which reminds me of Scotland. We hike through fields from our base at Umoljani and into the pastures leading up into the massif. We are fortunate that Green Visions maintains a pleasant log cabin at Umoljani and it's here that we stay. We leave our kit bags behind, pull on rucksacks and head into the mountains. It's a wonderful day - the sun beats down but a warm, brisk wind caresses our faces. We talk throughout. I am keen to learn from Lorenc - about the area, its history and the countryside. He warns us that vipers sometimes stray onto the trails. Admonishes us to stand still and let them pass. I look carefully as I walk, but never see one.

Umoljani was almost completely destroyed during the conflict but sympathetic rebuilding has created a village which is pleasant and atmospheric deep in the heart of the mountains. It is an out of the way place, but there is an inn here, with beds, and the beer is cold. Burek, a local phyllo (or yufka) pastry tart with beat or spinach, is a staple and a Bosniak speciality adapted from the Ottoman recipe. In the Rakitnica canyon above, a dragon is said to have swept through and terrorised the village. Its tail can still be seen in the rock as we climb.

The views are breathtaking and the feeling of solitude is welcoming. We pass another small farming community. Tiny shacks with rusting tin roofs. The path is an easy one but, ahead, the Bjelašnica looks intimidating and high. Another group of hikers from Umoljani trek behind us, but even they cannot sway the feeling that this is a place few hikers know about. A jealously guarded secret. The ascent is clean but steep. A switchback path through forest and pasture. I catch the smell of thyme and mint as it drifts past but then it is gone. Like a leaf in the wind, I grasp for it but it comes and goes at it pleases, fickle yet delightful. We leave the forest and climb again. The grass is long and the walk, fine. We crest a small summit before we see Obalj ahead. In a depression, we sit and drink gazing across the Rakitnica valley. The Czechs are behind us. At the top of Obalj, basking in the warmth of the sun and drinking in the vista, we eat a huge lunch. Lorenc is not given to frugality when it comes to food. It is then the Czech guide comes to us.

When we trek down to Lukomir, the highest semi-nomadic Bosniak village in Bosnia at 1496m, we are greeted with smiles and a heart-warming welcome. Amid the cherry wood and tin roofs characteristic of Bosniak huts, we sit. We eat Uštipci, a kind of fried donut dough which is delicious and warm enough to have just come out of the oven. We talk to the villagers about what life is like and they tell us things have changed a great deal recently. They need more support from the government, they say. Life is hard, even now. The winters are harder than they have been for some time. Some villagers want to abandon the village in winter. Many agree with them. After a while, we take our leave and head out to the edge of the village where the view over the valley is spectacular. A forest fire has ripped through the mountainside across from us, leaving it bald and scarred. When the rain came and ended it, the line is still visible. A curious quirk of nature's capriciousness.

We traverse the skirt of the Bjelašnica massif and back to Umoljani, our base for the night. The sun paints the landscape orange and crimson pastel shades as we pass a mosque whose minaret has been gilded in tin. Initially to protect against damage from marauding militia, now to protect against weather. It glints in the setting sun as we pass. 

My trip was funded by the Usaid Firma Project, implemented through the Adventure Tourism Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ATA BiH). My particular thanks to ATA BiH Members - the Highlander team (more on them later), and Green VisionsDay one has given me much to think about. Many of the mountains around me still bear the scars of conflict and many still contain landmines. Even up here, the conflict raged. Yet the people welcome everyone. It's an inspiring ethos, when buttressed by commercial interest or a long, Slavic history of welcoming strangers. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been ruled or influenced variously by Eastern orthodox missionaries from Russia and beyond, Franciscan monks, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tito pulled it into the former Yugoslavia until its devastating collapse. Now BiH governs itself. And it's about time the government learned to tell people what there is on offer here. Some of the most wonderful hiking and virtually no one to have to share it with. Green Visions and the Usaid Firma Project, along with the ATA BiH are trying to do something about it in a way which unites cultures and regions and which is sustainable and responsible and I'll be back working with them later in the year.

Next post: the Via Dinarica!


  1. Great pics, and a fascinating report.

    I've been itching to find out what you made of your trip for a while, so this made interesting reading. I've not long since returned from a Balkan trip myself, and it's great to compare and contrast the experiences - and to find out more about the prospects and possibilities in this beguiling corner of Europe.

    I look forward to reading the remaining reports as they arrive.



  2. Thanks and glad you enjoyed it. Maglic and Sutjeska as a whole was very interesting so the next part will make fine reading.

  3. Delightful Maz. I felt as though i was walking with you. Terrific photo’s too.