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Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 2

Posted: Sat Nov 03, 2012 7:59 am
by Michael J Spraggon
Hi everyone,

I'm glad you enjoyed reading part 1 of our travelogue. I will be posting another part every Saturday for the next 5 weeks, starting with part 2 today.
By the way, our thoughts are with eveyone on the east coast who was affected by the storm.
Balkans 2012 Travelogue Part 2.docx
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Part 2
Day 3: Prašnik Oak Reserve

After another very hot uncomfortable night we make an early start, arriving at breakfast before 7. There is already a large group of men in official-looking overalls finishing their food. It turns out that today they will be clearing landmines left over from the Croatian War of Independence (1991-95), a sobering thought as the area we are visiting today is also believed to still contain mines.

We continue southeast into the Nova Gradiška district in the Croatian floodplain, through several small towns and villages. Here we see the first real evidence of the war: house after house pock-marked with craters from bullets and occasional empty shells of houses with walls or roofs missing. 17 years after the war has ended there is no money to repair the damage and perhaps people don’t ever want to forget the past.

We arrive in the town of Okučani and ask an armed policeman for directions to the forestry office. There we meet Krunoslav Szabo, the District Officer and Katica Nuspahić, the forestry engineer responsible for coordinating the regeneration plans of forests in the district. As we leave the office I notice a bullet hole in the door frame. Later I ask Katica whether people were in the buildings during the fighting. “Oh yes. Everyone was going to work, going to school and carrying on as normal. It seems crazy now how we were able to do it.” We park at the end of a track on the edge of the reserve beside a memorial with flowers and a photograph erected by the father of a young man in his early twenties who was killed at this spot.

The Reserve itself is the last remaining 53 Hectares of the 750,000 Hectare Slavonian Oak Forest. Krunoslav and Katica explain that the water table has fallen over the last century due to changing climate and the creation of drainage dykes to allow agriculture. Beforehand the forest would flood every year but now invasive species such as Hornbeam are able to take over, preventing the regeneration of the oaks. The falling water table has also harmed the dwindling number of old growth oaks, which are now few and far between and in poor health. As we head deeper into the reserve we notice red marks on the trees. Katica says they mark the only safe route to avoid mines. Jeroen asks if we can walk to the sides. “Only if you like adrenaline” says Katica.

We finally arrive at the largest oak in the reserve. Jeroen measures the girth while Kouta sets up a tripod and takes photos. I decide to take a photoset for creating a 3D point cloud image using the technique explained to me by Michael Taylor, who had emailed me 3D image he had made of the Fetzer oak, a colossal tree in Mendocino County, California. It will be good practice for the much larger and more complex Oriental planes at Trsteno tomorrow. It involves walking in a spiral outwards from the trunk until I am far enough away to see the entire trunk in one shot. Katica assures me that the area around the tree is free of mines; as for the rest of the reserve: no one knows for sure. As I get further and further out she says to Jeroen jokingly “if he gets blown up it’s not my responsibility!” Well I think she’s joking…

We have lunch under a huge veranda at a nearby café, where we enjoy more of Katica’s humour. She says that Britain and Ireland are like the two old men in the Muppets laughing at the on-going show in Europe! As we leave the heat is building to over 35 degrees (95F). The heat wave will continue in Croatia for at least another 2 weeks.
Above: Katice, Krunoslav and the largest oak in Prašnik.

Soon we reach the Bosnian border point and our first experience of the tedium that is the modern Balkan border crossing. Actually there are always two borders: one to leave the previous country and the other to enter the next country. This means that after leaving the queue for the border you immediately join another queue. Is this because the man in booth #2 doesn’t believe that the man from the other country in booth #1 is doing his job properly? Do they not want to sit in the same room together? Perhaps he thinks that we’ve managed to acquire a suspicious cargo in the 400 metres of dusty track between the two booths? Whatever the reason, each man is in charge of the line between the ground on one side of his box and the identical ground on the other side. After all, it may look the same but how many lives were lost to make these countries independent?

As we head further into Bosnia we follow a river. Children are playing and swimming, we pass old style farms, antique tractors, even some horse-drawn vehicles. It’s an idyllic country scene which could have been anywhere in Europe more than half a century ago. The gorge deepens dramatically and suddenly vertical cliffs several hundred feet high are towering above us.

Now the road climbs up and over mountain pass with views of an arid landscape that wouldn’t look out of place in a western film. Eventually the road descends and we join a fast highway heading south. We’re clearly not going to make Trsteno by sundown (sorry, I’m still thinking about westerns and Gary Cooper!) and we don’t have any accommodation arranged yet so we decide to stop at Mostar in the Herzegovina region.

We find a motel right by the highway, a kitsch pink building with quasi-Greek columns at the front and a large sign advertising ‘Trendy. American Outlet’ It would not have looked out of place in Las Vegas. A friendly slim girl in her 20’s is serving at the café. She shows us to our rooms. They are modern and cheerful and above all: air conditioned! For the first time we well be able to sleep tonight. Breakfast will be served in our own private dining room nearby. And all this for 20 Euros!

Mostar is a medieval city built on two sides of a gorge cut by the Neretva river. Today it is a lively tourist spot with the focal point being the Stari Most, known as the Old Bridge. It was commissioned by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and completed nine years later as the widest man-made arch in the world. On November 9th 1993 in the Croat-Bosniak war the bridge was totally destroyed but an exact replica was rebuilt and opened in 2004. Every summer a diving competition is held with people much braver than me jumping 70ft from its central point to the water below.

After our meal we decide walk back across the Old Bridge and halfway across we meet a group of students. They are making a documentary and want to film an interview on the bridge. Jeroen volunteers me and they ask me what I think of the city and how I feel about Christians and Moslems living together in Mostar. It certainly seems to be working – there are both churches and mosques visible from most places here and plenty of tourists spending plenty of money.
The Old Bridge, Mostar.


Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 2

Posted: Sat Nov 03, 2012 9:20 am
by dbhguru

Another excellent episode. Boy, you've got us hooked. Something to look forward to over the next several weeks. Who would have thought of big tree hunting as filled with adventure, history, and culture? NTS trip reports will never be the same again. Please keep them flowing. You, Jeroen, and Kouta - what a team!


Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 2

Posted: Sat Nov 03, 2012 9:36 am
by Michael J Spraggon
Thanks Bob,

I think adventures and meeting interesting characters is inevitable on a trip like this!


Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 2

Posted: Mon Nov 05, 2012 12:22 am
by Chris
I can't wait till the next one!

Re: Balkans Expedition 2012 Travelogue Part 2

Posted: Mon Nov 05, 2012 4:32 pm
by Michael J Spraggon
Part 3 is pretty eventful...