Travelogue Part 6: the Perućica Forest Reserve

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Michael J Spraggon
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Travelogue Part 6: the Perućica Forest Reserve

Post by Michael J Spraggon » Thu Nov 29, 2012 7:28 am

This week's installment is 2 days early as I'm away this weekend. It covers our most intensive tree hunting of the expedition in one of the finest pristine forests in Europe.

Until next week...

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Balkans Tree Expedition Travelogue: Part 6 - the Perućica Forest Reserve

Day 10 continued: Sutjeska National Park.

Back in Bosnia once more, we arrive in Tjentište on June 28th, the 623rd anniversary of the most important date in Serbian history: Vidovdan.

On June 28th 1389 at the epic battle of Kosovo, Saint Prince Lazar and the Serbian army (which included armies from Bosnia and part of what is now Croatia) fought the invading Ottomans led by Sultan Murad I in a fight that would see both leaders killed and massive losses of soldiers on both sides. There were no winners in this battle but for the small region of Serbia who had defended itself against the giant Ottoman Empire, a loss of life on this scale was a devastating blow. This moment is thought of as the beginning of the on-going fight for Serbian independence, a fight which continued for five centuries. The sacrifices made at this battle and the legends that grew around it have become part of Serbian culture and the same unbreakable spirit which enabled them to defend their independence against a much larger oppressor remains to this day in the Serbian consciousness.

As we drive along the valley between steep forested slopes what strikes me is that there are very few buildings and even fewer people around. As we near our destination we pass a deserted triangular building with a glass front, mostly intact but with some broken or boarded-up panels. Jeroen says that this was the visitor centre when he came here in 1976 and 1985.

We pull up outside Hotel Mladost, another sloping modernist building in the old Communist style, run by the Sutjeska National Park. Unlike the similarly styled Hotel Zabljak in Durmitor, this building is far less obtrusive against the backdrop of the steep, forested hillsides. Apart from an elderly lady who is watching us from one of the balconies as we pull our packs out of the car, the hotel appears to be empty. The reception area has some 70’s style seating in the far corner and on the walls, in contrast to the sparse décor, there are poster-sized photographs of beautiful natural scenes from the park. One recurring image is that of a huge waterfall plunging hundreds of feet from amongst the trees.
Our rooms are on the third floor and tucked under the sloping roof, each with a large skylight. I soon join the handle of this skylight to the wardrobe near the door with a length of my tree-climbing throwline to make a Heath Robinson-style washing line as I am again running out of clean clothes. I have a shower before dinner. The water is slightly brown and there is no hot water. I decide that the best (and most cowardly) way to proceed is to apply the soap first and then quickly rinse it off in one quick blast, shrieking like I’m on a rollercoaster – I’m such a wuss!

On the way down to the restaurant we ask the man on reception about the water: he is confident it will be fixed by tomorrow. We order Wiener schnitzels and the local pivo (beer). Both are very good and the waiter is friendly (as was the man at reception). Maybe Hotel Mladost isn’t as austere as my first impressions had led me to believe. Afterwards I retire to my room for an early night but end up watching the film footage Jeroen has taken of my climb of Sgerm Spruce. It was little more than a week ago but it seems like last year.

Day 11

Kouta says he is feeling very excited this morning. While researching this trip, he had found a report from 1954 by the Swiss ecologist Hans Leibendgut of a 63m (207ft) tall Norway spruce growing in the Perućica Forest Reserve, where we will be surveying over the next two days. There are lots of uncertainties though: we don’t know his measuring methods or the exact location of the tree or if it is still standing after 58 years. If we do find the tree and it is 63m tall (or even taller by now) then it will be a monumental find, surpassing the current tallest Norway spruce in the world, the Sgerm spruce, which I climbed and measured only 9 days ago. I will definitely have to climb this one with a tape!

The national park is sending a guide to meet us at 08:00 in the hotel foyer. Vladimir, or Vlado for short, is the ranger for all 1434 hectares of the Perućica virgin forest reserve, and one of just 10 rangers covering the entire national park. He is, I think, in his late twenties, the perfect stereotype of the strong, physically robust, laconic Serb. Unlike many of his compatriots, though, he doesn’t smoke. He speaks only a little English and tells us that Miriana, our translator in our communications with the park so far, is on holiday. Before driving to the Forest Reserve, we go to the National Park Office to meet Mr Zoran Čančar, the Director of the Sutjeska National Park. Vlado shows us into the foyer. There is a row of photographs above a table. Each one is of an employee of the park who was killed in the Bosnian War 1992-95.

As we wait a constant stream of people come and go from the Directors office -he is obviously a very busy man. Finally we are shown in. Mr Čančar enters from a side door. He has a brisk intelligent manner and speaks to us via one of the attendant staff who can speak fairly good English. Our spokesman, Jeroen explains the purpose of our trip and we tell him about Professor Leibendgut’s report of the 63m spruce. Mr Čančar has not seen this tree but draws on a map some possible locations of the tree. Then on a blank sheet of paper he draws two long triangles and then a third triangle at right angles to the other two, before writing numbers beside them. Finally we realise what these hieroglyphics mean: they are the Three Sisters, the tallest known trees in Perućica. Two are still standing but the largest of the three has fallen and is decaying. The second sister was measured some time ago at 54 metres tall but the fallen sister was measured long ago at 62 metres. Could this have been Leibendgut’s tree?

The three of us and Vlado drive up the bumpy track which climbs steeply for a couple of miles up to a parking area high up on the ridge at Dragos Sedlo. The first place Vlado shows us is a viewpoint from the near vertical hillside, looking out through black pines and beech across the steep-sided Perućica valley in the morning sunlight. There, far below on the opposite side of the valley is the 75m (250 ft) Skakavac waterfall, which we saw in the pictures by the hotel reception.
The spectacular Perućica valley and the Skakavac waterfall (centre). L to R: Vlado, J, K

One of the mountains in this panorama is the Maglić massif consists of 2 summits, each in a different country. Veliki Maglić is the highest peak in Bosnia Herzegovina at 2386m, and Crnogorski Maglić on the Montenegrin side is just 2 metres higher. Vlado explains that every year hundreds of Serbs from several countries make the steep and difficult ascent of Maglić on the anniversary of Vidovdan. There will be many people on the mountain making this pilgrimage as we speak.

After taking us to a water source to refill our bottles (it’s surprisingly hot this high up), Vlado leads us down the hillside. The forest here is a mixture of beech interspersed with silver fir and to a lesser extent Norway spruce. Apart from fallen trunks and the steepness of the slope, the undergrowth is sparse and the going is easier than in Biogradska Gora. Soon Vlado points out two tall trees close together and a huge rotting trunk lying beside them: they are the Three Sisters.

The fallen trunk is clearly the thickest of the three. Kouta measures the two standing Sisters. One is only 47m tall and the other, which was reportedly 54m tall, has died back to 49.5m. The girths were 4.34m and 4.61m respectively. There were some other trees we had seen which looked like they could actually be bigger than the two remaining Sisters and we will measure these and others as we move further along the hillside after lunch.

Vlado and Jeroen measuring one of the remaining Three Sisters.

Picnicking on a fallen tree, we are becoming increasingly aware of the cloud of flies who have for some reason adopted Kouta as their leader. He was already popular with their Montenegrin relatives in Biogradska Gora but here he has achieved an almost iconic status and we make him sit on his own while we eat. Kouta has a theory that they might be attracted by the face moisturiser he uses but I think he’s just being modest.
During the afternoon we measure one spruce at 52.0m and another at 49m with a huge girth of 5.34 metres. Perhaps even more surprisingly, I find a thin silver fir of 52.9m (174ft) and another of 52.0m with a girth of 5.26m – I thought silver firs were supposed to smaller than Norway spruces!
The largest-girthed spruce we found in Perućica (5.34m).

By the time we get back to the car it is already past the time that Vlado should have been back at Tjentište. The drive back down the track into the valley seems to go on forever and incredibly I manage to fall asleep as the car rattles and bounces its way down the track. We decide to travel in Vlado’s company 4x4 tomorrow, as Kouta’s car still has to get us back to Slovenia.

We arrive back at the hotel at about 5:30. Vlado has called his wife to say he would be late but we all feel slightly guilty for having kept him from his domestic responsibilities, that is, until he says he’s going to stop for a beer on the way home. I’m not sure if he’s joking either.

There has been a lot of activity at Hotel Mladost today: the water is off and is being fixed at the moment: it will be back on later this evening, and a team of men have almost finished building a wooden pergola covering the dining terrace on the front of the hotel, which this morning had not even been started. Over our pivos on the side terrace, J, K and I watch one of the workmen walking casually across the wooden beams on the edge of the structure, 20 feet above the lawn carrying an electric saw which he is using to cut the ends off the new beams. He would make a good tree climber.

We reflect on the day’s tree hunting. Whilst we have yet to see anything like the 63 metre spruce that Leibendgut had written about, so far in the small area we have surveyed high up on the hillside we have already measured spruce and even some firs which were bigger than the remaining two of the Three Sisters, the biggest trees that the employees of the National Park were aware of up to now.

After dinner we go for a walk along the grassy flood plain beyond the hotel. Up on a hillside terrace is the Tjentište Monument – one of the stark, modernist sculptures commissioned by Tito in the 1960s and 70s. It resembles a pair of giant concrete angel’s wings and commemorates the battle of Sutjeska, which took place here in June 1943. The German-led Axis, consisting of 127,000 troops and 300 aircraft, outnumbered the partisan Yugoslav National Liberation Army by nearly 6 to 1 and completely encircled them on the land between the Tara and Piva Rivers in an offensive lasting a month. Tito was leading the partisans and was himself nearly killed, sustaining an injury to the arm.

Art of the Tito era: the Tjentište Monument.

Against all odds, starving and short of supplies, the partisans managed to break out and push the Axis back across Eastern Bosnia, with the same determination as their ancestors had shown 554 years earlier at the Battle of Kosovo. Jeroen thinks that the monument may be abandoned now but I climb the steps onto the terrace and am pleasantly surprised to find the steps leading up to the monument covered with bouquets of flowers.

Back at the hotel the restaurant is empty now except for the hotel staff. They are glued to the television. There is another Wimbledon match on. This time it’s Federer and he’s having a nightmare in his 4th round match: down two sets and a break in the third. While J & K go to bed, I join them to watch the great man claw his way back. At two sets all I decide to get to bed. Good news: the water is back on and it’s clear. The bad news: it’s still cold – but I’m starting to enjoy the challenge!

Day 12

The workmen are arriving to finish the pergola as we eat breakfast. I get a text from my dad: Federer won.

After a much easier drive than yesterday up the long mountain track, thanks to Vlado’s 4x4, we start as we had done yesterday morning: a visit to the water source and another, even more impressive viewpoint. Vlado points to a large white house at least a couple of miles up the valley. He says he can see Michelle Obama waving to us from the front lawn.

Today we set off in the opposite direction from the parking area, heading further up the valley to explore the area around the confluence of the Perućica and Prijevorski Rivers. A small path takes us down the hillside and we begin finding red ribbons tied to the branches of young beech trees. Someone has been marking their path, leaving a man-made trail in this otherwise pristine forest. Vlado is visibly annoyed. “If we catch up with them we tie THEM to a tree” he says, taking out a hunting knife and cutting the ribbon free. We continue descending the path and I help Vlado remove more ribbons as we go.

The slope levels out for a moment and Vlado points to an almost imperceptible disturbance in the undergrowth, and some mature cherry trees, which are definitely not indigenous to this pristine forest. This was once the humble dwelling of Drago, the old man after whom Dragos Sedlo, where we parked, was named. Jeroen remembers seeing the remains of this hut in 1985. It was long abandoned then but more of it remained. Now, nature has reclaimed this human’s attempt to create order and has all but erased any traces of Drago, except for the living evidence – the cherry trees which would have been the old man’s garden.

Vlado shows us some scratch marks on a trunk by the path. These, he says, were made by a bear. He estimates there are 100 bears and 40 wolves in the Sutjeska National Park but they would most likely stay out of our way so these marks are all we are likely to see.

Kouta begins to stretch ahead, aware of the fact that our visit will soon be over with so much more forest still to survey. Jeroen comes over to me and points to a fat and very tall trunk below us, far thicker and taller than the lesser trees around it. I too have been looking at this tree. It surpasses anything we’ve seen so far and I think of Leibendgut’s 63m spruce again. Jeroen measures it with the laser: 56.6m (186ft). However the top has been broken off and this tree would have certainly been over 60m originally. We scramble down the slope to measure its girth: 5.28m. This is now the largest tree known in Perućica at the moment in terms of height and volume.
Jeroen beside the largest known tree in Perućica (56.6m x 5.28m).

We catch up with Kouta again and cross the Perućica River, precariously on stepping stones. I untie the last of the red ribbons from a beech on the opposite bank. The path levels out soon afterwards and we sit down for lunch. As an experiment, Kouta has not put any moisturiser on today. The result: no difference whatsoever. All day he has been walking along with a halo of winged admirers, like a cartoon character in a daze after someone has dropped an anvil on his head. Again we make the Bluebottle King dine alone.

After lunch we are finding many spruces between 52m and 55m. Tree hunting on slopes this steep is surprisingly energetic as every time we measure a tree from the path one of us has to scramble down the hillside to help the man with the laser sight the base. He then does the same to measure the girth and take a photo of the discoverer by the trunk and then we both scramble back up again through fallen branches and trunks to the best vantage point to spot the next giant. Kouta teaches Vlado how to use the laser rangefinder and soon he’s measuring everything in sight. I can already see Jeroen and Kouta’s addiction to lasering developing in him! This is his office and thanks to our rangefinders we are finding trees bigger and taller than anyone had previously known.

On the land between the Perućica and Prijevorski Rivers we find the tallest trees so far: the tallest fir (54.0m) and tallest spruce (57.4m) growing close together. The spruce is exceptionally thin with a diameter of little over a metre. Jeroen also finds the tallest beech which is very well spotted, the top being almost impossible to pick out amongst a mosaic of leaves, lit from behind. It is 44.2m (145ft) tall, the 3rd tallest beech measured in Europe and nearly half as tall again as the beeches in the sprawling hillsides of the Chiltern Hills where I grew up and learned my climbing skills.

Kouta decides to head down the hillside to see what the land lower down holds. This will give us an idea of what we might find in the rest of the reserve in future visits. The rest of us cross the Prijevorski River on fallen trunks and find more trees around 55m tall.

I drop back and find a tall scraggly tree of 56.5m, the third tallest in Perućica so far beside a huge broken trunk, balancing 15 feet off the ground on its branches and spot another 56m tree upstream as I cross a small tributary. Vlado has taken Jeroen futher uphill to see a tall stand of beeches. They are now out of sight. I make a high pitched “woo hoo!” and seconds later hear a copycat reply from Jeroen which leads me to them. The beech trees are impressive, again much taller than the ones in the Chiltern Hills but not as tall as the tallest we found earlier.

We have now run out of time and have to turn back. We meet Kouta again. He hasn’t found a taller spruce or fir further down the hillside but has found a very impressive sycamore maple of 39.0m.

Walking back along the path between the two rivers I get a phone call from my dad. My neighbour’s wife has gone into labour and they also mentioned that some men arrived in a white van outside my house yesterday and had the patio doors open! Fearing I had been burgled I ask my dad to find out what has happened. During the next 20 minutes all kinds of scenarios run through my mind but there’s nothing I can do from here. Finally my dad calls back: It was a carpenter who had met my landlord to work on the French doors. My landlord had emailed me about it but I had no way of reading it out here. I can relax again!

As we get back to the car, Kouta’s popularity with the flies of Perućica is at an all-time high. The rest of us get in the car and in an attempt to lose his winged entourage, Kouta takes a run-up at the vehicle from several metres away, jumping in and slamming the door behind him. Only a few of his more dedicated fans have managed to keep up with him and we drive off, listening to Serbian folk music accompanied by the drone of tiny wings.

Our two days spent at Perućica seem to have lasted a week. We never did find Leibendgut’s legendary 63m spruce and I didn’t get to climb anything – there was far too much ground to cover for that. But what we did discover was that there are trees here bigger and taller than anyone had previously thought and we’ve covered only a tiny fraction of the reserve.

A giant double-trunked Norway spruce I found on day 2.

Back at the Hotel Mladost for the third and final time, we buy Vlado a well-deserved pivo. He has been a brilliant guide and hopefully our discoveries will also be of some benefit to the National Park. This evening the hotel, which has been empty so far, is packed with people of all ages, all smartly dressed. The celebration resembles a wedding reception. A large, kind-looking man in his 60’s with an air of authority about him is sitting at the table beside us signing books beside a young boy who I think is his grandson. People are coming up to him and shaking hands or hugging him with affection.

He turns to me and begins talking passionately about the book. Unable to understand a word he is saying but not wanting to interrupt, I gesture awkwardly to Vlado, who with the help of Kouta explains to me that this man was a former police officer who has written a book of twelve poems. During the Bosnian War supplies to the local hospital were cut off and the baby care unit ran out of oxygen. Twelve babies died. Each poem in the book is dedicated to one of those babies. Some girls in their late teens arrive outside the hotel. Had the twelve babies lived they would have been about the same age today. Now I understand the emotion and respect everyone is showing to the author.

My impressions of Sutjeska National Park are of a majestic, unspoiled wilderness, steeped in history and with an overwhelming scale and beauty…but with no one to see it. There have been very few tourists since the war and consequently there is no money, but the employees of the park and the hotel are working hard to restore everything to the way it was. I hope that soon tourists will once again come to experience some of the most impressive virgin forest in Europe. As a climber, I would quite like to come back and climb Maglić…

Michael J. Spraggon


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Re: Travelogue Part 6: the Perućica Forest Reserve

Post by edfrank » Fri Nov 30, 2012 9:18 am

Michael et. al,

Another fantastic report!!

"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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Re: Travelogue Part 6: the Perućica Forest Reserve

Post by KoutaR » Fri Nov 30, 2012 11:57 am

The spruce in the last photo is 56.35 m tall.


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Re: Travelogue Part 6: the Perućica Forest Reserve

Post by Chris » Sun Dec 02, 2012 2:56 pm

Michael J Spraggon wrote: My impressions of Sutjeska National Park are of a majestic, unspoiled wilderness, steeped in history and with an overwhelming scale and beauty…but with no one to see it. There have been very few tourists since the war and consequently there is no money, but the employees of the park and the hotel are working hard to restore everything to the way it was. I hope that soon tourists will once again come to experience some of the most impressive virgin forest in Europe. As a climber, I would quite like to come back and climb Maglić…
This question is addressed to all three of you and could apply to all the places you have visited. But has there been much "scientific" interest or study of these forests? I am aware just because there hasn't been much accurate measuring of heights/girths/etc... does not mean there has been other types of research performed. . I just get the sense that some of these places are kind of off the radar..... Does that ring true to you guys? Maybe academic forest researchers have (for reasons of location, familiarity, historical focus) worked on forest in western Europe?

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Re: Travelogue Part 6: the Perućica Forest Reserve

Post by dbhguru » Sun Dec 02, 2012 5:43 pm

Michael, Kouta, Jeroen,

Totally absorbing. Thanks again. I greatly enjoyed the images and couldn't help making comparisons to the bizarre tree forms I'm seeing here in Hawaii. Yesterday, I explored a small Grove of Hawaiian mahagony trees. I'll soon have images, but what a contrast to the pencil straight forms of the Norways.

How many species of trees did you encounter in that forest?

Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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Re: Travelogue Part 6: the Perućica Forest Reserve

Post by Jeroen Philippona » Sun Dec 02, 2012 8:18 pm


Indeed there has been done scientific research in these forests, but part of them has been published in Serbian language. At my report of Perućica I added a small list of literature, wich is scientific. Kouta has some reports and books, some reports can be found on internet. Compared to Western Europe there is probably much less study done. Because of the Yugoslavian war research since 1991 will have been much less than before. Especially the Perućica area is still very little visited by people from Western Europe, but perhaps the last few years there is done more research again.


In Perućica we mainly visited the central part at altitudes between 1000 and 1400 m, were the most tall trees could be expected. This beech-fir-spruce forest is poor in the number of species, beside European beech, European white fir and Norway spruce we saw only few wych elms (Ulmus glabra) and sycamore maples (Acer pseudoplatanus) and along streams black alder (Alnus glutinosa). Probably there grow some ashes (Fraxinus excelsior) also in these forests. At rocky outcrops and sunny, dry areas the forest consists more of black pine (Pinus nigra) and near the viewpoint west of Dragos Sedlo I saw hop hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia) and Turkey oak (Quercus cerris). In the forests at lower altitudes (between 600 and 1000 m, wich we only saw from a distance) grow two or perhaps three species of lime (silver lime, Tilia tomentosa and broadleaved lime, T. platyphyllos; perhaps also T. cordata, smal leaved lime; also several species of oak seem to grow there. Probably here grow also more maple and Sorbus species. Probably at wet locations there will be willows and at pioneer stages also birches and aspen.
So we did not see much more then 12 treespecies in Perućica.
Till now I didn't see reports wich give an overview of all treespecies in the forest.


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Re: Travelogue Part 6: the Perućica Forest Reserve

Post by KoutaR » Tue Dec 04, 2012 2:42 pm

Jeroen has forgotten a few species we encountered in Perućica. I would also have forgotten them, therefore I always write down the tree species I find in a park. In addition to those Jeroen mentioned we saw the following species: European ash (Fraxinus excelsior), whitebeam (Aria nivea = Sorbus aria), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), black elder (Sambucus nigra), wild cherry (Prunus avium), Heldreich's maple (Acer heldreichii), Norway maple (Acer platanoides), hawthorn (Crataegus rhipidophylla) and common aspen (Populus tremula). Thus, we encountered 18 tree species in the area we explored between altitudes 1030-1500 m:

Abies alba
Picea abies
Pinus nigra
Fagus sylvatica
Ulmus glabra
Acer pseudoplatanus
Acer heldreichii
Acer platanoides
Alnus glutinosa
Fraxinus excelsior
Ostrya carpinifolia
Quercus cerris
Aria nivea = Sorbus aria
Sorbus aucuparia
Sambucus nigra
Prunus avium
Crataegus rhipidophylla
Populus tremula

There are certainly a few more even at these elevations as we could explore only small parts of the area. Species richness should be higher at lower elevations with very steep slopes, with partly different species (like the lindens Jeroen mentioned), and at still higher elevations there should be again new species.


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