Travelogue Part 3 - Trsteno Planes

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Michael J Spraggon
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Travelogue Part 3 - Trsteno Planes

Post by Michael J Spraggon » Sat Nov 10, 2012 7:40 am

Good morning!

It's Saturday: time for the third installment of our Travelogue. This one covers the largest trees in Europe and an eventful road trip...
Balkans 2012 Travelogue Part 3.docx
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I hope you enjoy it.


Part 3

Days 4-5: The Trsteno Planes

Having finally caught up on sleep we’re feeling more energetic today as we head south towards the Adriatic coast. Due to the long crescent shape of Croatia and the fact that Bosnia extends like a finger southwards to touch the Adriatic, we have to cross the Croatian-Bosnian border no less than 3 times this morning, which means 6 check points and of course 6 queues! It soon becomes clear that our 10:30 rendezvous at the Trsteno Planes is not going to happen. We’re already late by the time we reach the coast road and our first glimpse of the Adriatic and the Peljesac peninsula running parallel with the mainland creating a perfect natural harbour.

The two Oriental planes at Trsteno, near Dubrovnik are thought to be the largest living things in Europe. We were still half a mile away when the crowns became visible. The larger of the two grows right beside the coast road on a plot of ground which is actually smaller than the area covered by its crown. There are cars parked along the roadside below its limbs on the north side. Every hour or so a coachload of tourists pulls up and its passengers spill out, take photographs and then continue on their way to Dubrovnik. There is a glass shelter on the east side and a side road leading to the arboretum on the west side. My role here is to measure the wood volume of this tree in a day…somehow.

Waiting for us under the tree are Nikolina Đangradović and Ivo Stanović, two officials from the Dubrovnik municipality. Nicolina translates as Ivo tells us the colourful history of this 500 year old life. Two hundred years ago when the tree was already a giant, Napoleon’s invading army were stopped by a huge limb which had been shed by the tree and was blocking the road. This gave the council of Dubrovnik time to negotiate a truce and save the city. Ivo points to various scars and wounds, souvenirs of a fire and a car crash. A huge scar on the side facing the road is where a limb broke off 5 years ago, killing a French tourist. Tree surgeons were called in soon afterwards to reduce the crown by 25% meaning that the original height of 48 metres is now closer to 40m, although there may still be as much as 200m³ of wood in the remaining trunk and limbs.

I knew that, being the only climber, measuring each major limb by hand in a day would be impossible. Michael Taylor suggested making a photo point cloud and has given me hugely detailed instructions on how best to take the photos. The aim is to take photos of every major limb and trunk from different angles with the same feature being present in 3 consecutive photos. There can be no blurred photos and the camera orientation must change very little from photo to photo. There has to be a scaling object of known dimensions in the photos at regular intervals. All of this will enable the software to stitch together the complete set of about 1000 photos into one 3D model from which the volume can be calculated.

I look up into the arms of this leviathan. Limbs at least 5 feet in diameter billow out in all directions from a massive trunk nearly 40 feet around, meandering in all directions. It’s immediately obvious that taking a coherent photoset at close range and with full summer foliage will need a lot of thought. I only have this afternoon and tomorrow morning to do what I can.

The gear I managed to fit in my pack is not really sufficient to traverse around between limbs of this size and I can’t risk getting it stuck in the tree so I decide to install a rope from the ground in two possible places on opposite sides of the tree. My revised plan is to take a spherical panorama every few feet during my descent, thereby capturing all limbs which are around me in every direction from a different angle each time. My scaling object is a red and white striped tape which I throw over a limb near the trunk. I get a rope installed at about 25 metres on the southwest side, far out from the trunk and go up.
High up in the southwest side of the tree. Trsteno Arboretum is to the right with the Adriatic beyond.

I stop just below the huge limb and take a moment to enjoy the view. The dappled sunlight on the mottled bark is like some kind of scaled-up desert camouflage. The tree is in its shedding phase and the slightest sea breeze sends dark slabs of bark the size of dinner plates tumbling down the tree leaving bright yellow patches in their place. On the ground the temperature is in the high nineties but up here the leaf mosaic offers almost complete shade while letting the warm air escape upwards and the breeze in from the side. This literally is the coolest place in Trsteno.

I start taking photos up and down the trunk, then following each limb in turn. They are all around me reaching out in every direction and I’m getting disorientated. Trying to not break the sequence I descend a few feet and keep going. Halfway through I reach a limb about 3 feet in diameter and stand on it for a rest.

Back on the ground, it is already late afternoon and Jeroen and Kouta have been measuring the girth (39.7 feet at 1.3m) height (133 feet) and crown spread (over 100ft) of the tree and also its slightly smaller neighbour. Michael Taylor in California should be up now so I call him for advice while Jeroen makes a photoset of the trunk from the ground. Unfortunately I can’t get through as there is a problem with his phone so I decide to repeat the descent from the southwest side and make it more coherent than the first attempt – the rope is still in place and we’re almost out of time today.

The evening is spent at a fish restaurant at Trsteno Harbour. Our table is by the water’s edge and we can’t resist wading about to cool down between courses. I get chatting to a couple at the next table with an academic air about them. They are both Oxford graduates and soon Kouta and I are embroiled in a debate about the semantics of German words. Jeroen is growing restless…

After a fairly pleasant night in our tents at Trsteno campsite, stocking up on the freshest vegetables from the back of a van and 15 frantic minutes searching for my lost wallet and passport (which I find at the bottom of my laundry bag) we are back at the tree. The only other limb I can shoot at without the risk of hitting a car or the glass shelter is on the north side. I’m not so focused today and keep missing as another coachload of tourists come and go.

Eventually my aim improves and up I go again. I’m getting into a routine now and things go more smoothly with this photoset. Before we pack up and drive through Bosnia to Montenegro today I go up one last time to take down the scaling tape and take in the scale of the tree. Will I ever be up here again? Who knows?
15 metres up on the north side.

We continue along the coast road, stopping briefly to look at the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik. It is crammed onto a tiny rocky island surrounded by a wall which looks as though it was intended to stop the inhabitants from falling off the edge into the sea as well as to keep out invaders. It appears to float in the harbour. A cruise liner is approaching – a floating city of the modern kind.

We decide to take the inland route over the mountains from here on. The views won’t be as good but it should be quicker. Another double border to return to Bosnia, this time with an overzealous official who keeps us wondering whether he will decide to search our vehicle and finally waves us on, but not without asking Kouta how much he bought the car for.

About fifteen miles further on we are asked to pull over by two Bosnian police officers. Both are armed, one is probably in his fifties, the other, in his twenties, is taller and slightly menacing with a crew-cut. Kouta is asked to get out of the car. The older officer asks questions while the younger one takes notes. Apparently the yellow board a mile back meant maximum speed 50 kmh. They give Kouta a choice: take the ticket to the nearest police station, pay the fine and drive back to give them the receipt or alternatively, just give them the money now. We are suspicious: it’s possible that we might reach the next border and be asked to pay the fine again because we have no receipt but we decide to pay now and keep going.

Through another border into Montenegro, with no more fines to pay. This small country is aptly named as before long the road begins climbing into the mountains. Dark clouds gather, the temperature drops and a few spots of rain begin to fall. It’s a welcome relief from the heat wave we’ve been in up to now. The wet road winds its way through the steep forested hillsides and under cliffs. In places we have to swerve around rock falls that have spilled out across the road and darkness begins to fall.

At this point Kouta notices the fuel gauge: 60km of fuel left! It seems that this mountain road is at least twice as long as the distance estimated by Google maps. We don’t know exactly where we are on the map but we are somewhere around the middle of this very long, meandering pass. Jeroen says that there will be a long climb followed by a descent before eventually intersecting a highway. There might be a fuel stop somewhere on that highway.

As we climb, the remaining distance on our fuel gauge drops faster than expected: 40km…30km…20km…10km… I’m already making plans for a night in the car, eating the last of the ‘Plazma’ biscuits and hoping that someone will come this way tomorrow and who could help us. With only 5km of fuel left we start the descent. Kouta takes his foot off the gas and we coast downhill. The fuel reading goes up again, reaching 40km but then dropping back when we level off.

We reach the main road, which is still up in the hills, at a hairpin bend. Up the hill to the left is Kolasin, our destination, but it is still a long way. There might be a petrol station along the road to the right in the valley but we don’t know for sure. There are two houses at this bend. A man comes out from the house across the road. Luckily he runs a car repair business and after some negotiation ‘Petrol Man’ agrees to take a jerry can to the nearest petrol station …for a fee.

An old man comes out of the house nearest to us, as does a scrawny cat with mangled, hairless ears, who takes an instant liking to me. The old man, points to a table and chairs on his porch; we sit down. “Pivo?” he says, asking if we want beer. We ask for 1 soc (juice) and 2 Cokes. “3 Cola” is what he repeats back. We give up and say yes. He goes inside and shouts back “Pepsi!” –oh well near enough!

When ’Pepsi Man’ returns we try talking with him to pass the time but he speaks neither English nor German so it is down to Kouta with his few words of Serbian to keep it going. However it soon becomes apparent that he speaks another language entirely but Kouta doesn’t know exactly what it is. There follows the most painfully drawn out conversation I have ever witnessed. As the cat chases moths, Jeroen and I are on the edge of our seats, rooting for Kouta. When Petrol man arrives back over half an hour later Kouta has managed to ask a total of 2 questions: where does Pepsi Man come from, and what is the best way to Tjentste? We still didn’t know the answer to either question for sure.

Relieved that we will have somewhere to sleep tonight we arrive at the small town of Kolasin. Jeroen has called the owner of our guesthouse and we are to meet him in the square. After the simple, traditional villages we’ve seen so far in Montenegro, Kolasin on a Saturday night comes as something of a culture shock. The centre of this small town could be a scene from a Mediterranean resort in high season. It is packed with teenagers and all around are bars and clubs belting out dance music. There is no sign of our patron so I try asking a group of girls if this is ‘The Square’. They don’t seem to understand and the music is very loud. A dog is now sniffing around behind the car while Kouta is trying to turn around so I try to pull it out of the way. The girls lose interest and saunter off. Now our patron has arrived and we follow him to the guesthouse.

It’s now about midnight. “Lydia!” he shouts “Pivo!” and his wife appears. Beers are brought out. None of us have eaten for a very long time. Jeroen points to me and says “he has climbed the biggest tree in Europe today and is very hungry”. “No problem! You want food? No problem!” Lydia brings out a fine spread of bread meats and cheese and as we fill our faces, Lydia talks to us in German and Mr No Problem chews the fat with Jeroen about politics and life under Tito in the 1970’s.
From this point on in the trip, whenever we are asked to do something we reply “No problem!”

Michael Spraggon

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Will Blozan
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Re: Travelogue Part 3 - Trsteno Planes

Post by Will Blozan » Sat Nov 10, 2012 8:42 am


Incredible story! These posts that weave natural history, culture, mishaps, adventure, and a climber's perspective are among the best postings I have witnessed on the NTS BBS. Thank you all for sharing these wonderful adventures!

I look forward to some numbers from the plane tree and hope you can post more photos.


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Michael J Spraggon
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Re: Travelogue Part 3 - Trsteno Planes

Post by Michael J Spraggon » Sun Nov 11, 2012 12:34 pm

Thanks Will. Shame you weren't there - we would have got both trees measured in that time but the car would have seriously cramped though!

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Re: Travelogue Part 3 - Trsteno Planes

Post by dbhguru » Sun Nov 11, 2012 2:51 pm


You had me on the edge of my seat. Truly great material. I forget that the borders of those Balkan countries create a nightmarish situation of border crossings.

It boggles my mind to think about a tree that stood silent witness to Napolean's conquests.

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 3 - Trsteno Planes

Post by KoutaR » Mon Nov 12, 2012 6:31 am

dbhguru wrote:I forget that the borders of those Balkan countries create a nightmarish situation of border crossings.

We had no actual difficulties at the border checkpoints. In fact, today it is more difficult to enter the US!


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Michael J Spraggon
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Re: Travelogue Part 3 - Trsteno Planes

Post by Michael J Spraggon » Mon Nov 12, 2012 9:13 am

Yes, having to do it all twice each time was more tedious than nightmarish.


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