Day 9 – Bosnia
Leaving my hotel in Bihac at dawn, I looked forward to my ride across central Bosnia on a main road, towards Sarajevo. There were two big climbs but the gradients were gentle and the road surfaces were smooth so it was a fairly quick day.
A good start was being able to stock up with four large and extremely tasty Byreks, for my breakfast and morning snacks. The version that I found contained meat. I’ve not eaten meat – other than at a couple of friends’ houses who didn’t realise I was not eating it – in the last year or so but I was prepared to be flexible about it on the Transcontinental. Not for McDonalds burgers and the like, but for any local dishes that happened to be made with meat and where there wasn’t a non-meat alternative. So the byreks and also my exquisite pizza in Italy were the two occasions I flexed on this trip.
My byreks looked like this one
It was interesting riding with plenty of reminders of the recent conflicts. There were a significant number of derelict houses and also bullet holes in buildings and frequent memorials by the roadside. A couple of times I saw signs telling me that I was entering Republika Serpska, the autonomous Bosnian Serb sections of the country. And at one point there was a large, silver cross on a hill close to the road, with 50-100 people around it, singing as part of what seemed to be a religious service.
I tried to find a picture of the cross as it was so unusual. The only one that google threw up was this one on a photo sales site (I looked into buying it but it was £40 per month which I can’t quite justify!). It’s not a great picture as it seemed bigger when I passed it.
For the most part the driving was fine, but there were one or two close passes: annoying, but not worse than a typical day in the Chilterns. It was clear that I was expected to make way for overtaking cars: a couple of times I would be riding along with a stream of traffic coming in the opposite direction, I’d hear a horn blow (but not know which vehicle had blown it) then a car would pull out, obliging me to steer clear of it.
The towns were interesting. European chain stores have not yet reached Bosnia but there was a typical mix of independents and some larger supermarkets, on the whole not so different from elsewhere in southern Europe.
After the last big climb, there was a long, fast descent which I was pleased to complete in the last of the daylight. At the bottom, I tried to phone Uta and found that my phone had been cut off. Apparently I’d reached the roaming limit of £36, and needed to make an international call to the UK, during office hours, to get it re-instated. I was pretty angry about this as, not only could I not call home, I couldn’t book a hotel or, if I’d come off on pothole on a descent or been clipped by a car, I might have been able to make an emergency call but wouldn’t be able to call my travel insurance company, the race organisers or anyone else! I stopped by a petrol station, connected to their wifi, and was able to call Uta via my work VOIP system to the extension I have at home. This at least allowed me to explain to her why I’d not called as arranged and to not worry if I didn’t.
Approaching Sarajevo, the Sunday evening traffic built up so, after a close pass from a horse box which was much wider than its towing vehicle, I was pleased when my route turned onto a slightly smaller road.
As the evening progressed, I started to think about sleep. I’d seen quite a few hotels so my plan was to ride until about midnight, then hope to see another. If I didn’t find one by 12:30, I’d then look for a bivvy site. At one point I spotted a bike with spoke reflectors already settled down for the night in the porch of a school. And then, in the town of Kisjelack, 25km short of Sarajevo, at about 12:15am, I spotted a motel with my name on it. As I checked in, the receptionist told me that someone else with a bike was already there. I dived in to the lovely, clean room, and hoovered up the last piece of byrek in my food bag.
Day 10 – Sarajevo and Durmitor
My route skimmed Sarajevo to the south, passing the airport, rather than hitting the city centre. However the traffic was already busy when I got there just before 7am. I spotted a 24 hour bakery and stocked up with byrek and pizza for the final pass to be climbed before the Montenegrin border. On restarting, my Garmin had frozen so – unable either to fix it via a soft restart or google how to do a hard one – I switched to navigating via maps on my phone.
Unfortunately what I mostly recall about the climb was having a series of Kafkaesque phone calls with 3 trying to get my phone reactivated. An extra torment devised by the fiendish people at 3 is their call centre plays the same sequence of songs each time you ring them and, as a result, I never want to hear Bruce Springsteen singing ‘Dancing in the Dark’ again. Finally I did get my phone switched back on and was hence able to fix my Garmin.
During one of my many stops for these technical glitches, Urs, who I’d met way back in the Jura, passed by and stopped to chat for a minute.
After a swift descent, the road entered a very beautiful limestone gorge – the Tara River Canyon – but it also had many twists and turns and a poor surface, so progress was slow, and the temperature rose. After the border, the gorge had been dammed to make a large reservoir and the views around it were wonderful, with a series of tunnels through the limestone to provide a bit of shelter from the sun.
Pluzine, the start of the Durmitor compulsory section, was a slight, but necessary, detour via a bridge across the reservoir. I got there in mid-afternoon – just as Urs was leaving and when the day was at its hottest – and stocked up with food and water for the 50km section through the national park.
This started with a series of tunnels, spiralling up inside a limestone buttress to take me on to the plateau above. I was surprised to see that there was a village up here, at 1500m. I climbed further, as the sun slid down, making for some wonderful light.
A valley below the Durmitor plateau in the fading, early evening light
After over two hours of climbing, I negotiated a series of hairpins to reach a summit and looked forward to the descent. After a couple of minutes of whizzing downwards, my spirits descended further, as I saw the road turn to the right, and head up, to a new, higher summit – at about 2000m. It took me another half an hour to reach it, just as the sun disappeared, but I managed to start the descent in at least dusk – with all my layers now on. It was fully dark when I made it down to the warm and cosy ambience of Hostel Highlander in Zabljak at about 9pm. It was very tempting to stay, but it was too early to stop riding, so I forced myself out into the cold and dark night and stocked up with cream-filled croissants – the staple packaged convenience food of Eastern Europe – to continue riding.
My thinking was that, while it was cold at Zabljak at about 1400m up, there was a further big descent to come so it would get warmer by the time I needed to sleep. And I preferred to do the descent now, rather than before sunrise in the morning when it would be colder. The downside was that I missed out on seeing the next bit of the Tara gorge, although the frequent tunnels, cuttings through the limestone and sounds of fast-running water hinted at my surroundings.
There were no hotels, or towns of any size, so, shortly after midnight, I spotted a lane, rode a hundred yards down it, to a patch of grass in the forest and unrolled my bivvy for a very quiet and peaceful sleep, admiring the stars in the perfectly clear sky.