Kroatien – Paklenica

Another weekend, another trip. This time, I had planned a longer itinerary than usual as I had some special company – Chelsea, my girlfriend, was flying over from the US to visit for a week!

My journey began with an early wake-up and drive to our rendezvous point – the airport in Munich. Her flight landed around 8:00 AM, so I had to leave my apartment around 6:00 to meet her on-time. I had packed and intentionally deprived myself of sleep the day before so that I could get to bed early and not be too tired for the long drive ahead.

With the sun shining bright and early I took off on the autobahn, hindered only by the occasional spot of construction. Shortly before 8:00, I pulled into the parking near her terminal and got out to pick her up. I wasn’t waiting long when I received a surprise hug, just as I was checking my phone to get an update on her flight status.  I was ecstatic! While we had done okay with long-distance, not seeing someone for 4.5 months is bound to be difficult. We had been 6 hours offset with time zones too, which made the distance feel that much harder. We talked for a long while and took our time getting back to the car. It felt good to be reunited.

Eventually we got settled and I punched in our destination into the GPS – a small town in Croatia! The drive-time was about 8 hours (not counting the two behind me). With the open road ahead, we set out and were on our way. Chelsea and I spent the morning catching up, talking about stupid random things, and doing a bit of planning for the days ahead. She did great given the jet-lag and didn’t nap before lunch. We stopped at a small gas station near the Austrian border to buy a toll vignette (sticker) and again for lunch somewhere in Austria. I ordered Kasespätzle (a delightful style of cheesy noodles). Chelsea didn’t like it but I gave her credit for trying.

After lunch jet-lag got the better of Chelsea and she took a short nap (around 1.5 hours).  Naturally I took the opportunity to rock some music as we continued to drive. We had to stop again when we entered Slovenia for another toll sticker but otherwise had no major issues crossing through the small country. Exiting Slovenia we faced a controlled border, as Croatia isn’t in the Schengen zone (despite being in the EU- who knows!). Chelsea got an exit and entry stamp and was pleased. I received neither, I suppose because I had the German work-visa. Ah well.

With several more hours driving (and more tolls) we finally arrived at the apartment Chelsea had picked out. It was early evening by the time we arrived. Fortunately my phone worked, as we had to call the host to have the neighbor let us in. The apartment was fairly simple but we hadn’t picked it for its furnishings – the view was incredible and the location was convenient for us with easy access to hiking and other activities. It had a porch which was along the sea.

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View from the apartment

I was tired from the long drive, and Chelsea was tired from an even longer day (flight + car ride). We picked out a place nearby for dinner where I had some grilled fish, she ordered a steak but the waiter said they only had pork, so she went with a “cheese” omelette but did not eat the cheese. After dinner it didn’t take long for us to get to bed. We wanted to have a reasonably early wake-up the next day and had a lot of exploring ahead of us.

The next morning we went to get some groceries to make dinner. I also stopped by an ATM as Croatia is not on the Euro but instead uses the Kuna. We picked up a little chicken and some pasta (food that Chelsea will eat :]), dropped off the stuff at the apartment, and headed out for a hike in Paklenica national park.

After the shopping run, we got off to a bit of a later start than we had anticipated. Undeterred, we made the “smart” decision to pick out one of the longer and more strenuous hikes the park had to offer. Our planned route would take us through both main canyons in the park as well as traverse some highland between them. Our best decision of the morning was to buy a park map which proved to be invaluable.

Map in hand, we set off on our hike around 11:00AM. Our map informed us the hike would take 6 hours. The park entrance is the mouth of one of the canyons, both of which open up to the seafront. Climbers seemed to be everywhere near the park entrance, some scaling walls which looked easy and many others attempting difficult rock faces. Some of them looked really tiny, giving a sense of scale for the massive park. We walked through forested paths and began our own ascent up the canyon, winding back and forth along switchbacks to approach the far canyon wall. After an hour or two the trees started to break and we were treated to views of the opposite canyon wall as well as the canyon’s mouth spilling into the Adriatic sea and the small town of Starigrad which sprouted up around the park.

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Climbers, climbers everywhere!

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Near our lunch spot

We stopped for a picnic lunch with that nice view and enjoyed taking in the scenery. Afterwards our trail dipped away from the canyon opening, and we entered a new world: we left a scene of high cliffs, grey rocks, and the distant sea and found ourselves walking among grassy fields, small ruins of buildings, and dense forests. It hardly seemed like we were up high, though the flat ground was a welcome respite from our climb. There were a few intersections up between the canyons and we expect we may have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Eventually we found a path which began to descend into the other canyon. We had some more nice views as we went down, but the trail eventually left us right in the semi-dry riverbed. At first we were concerned we had lost the trail until we spotted another trail marker and found that the trail *was* the riverbed. We were tasked with climbing up rocks, scrambling, and making our slow way down-river to continue our trek.

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More canyon views
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Nothing  but trail ahead

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In the riverbed

The river-trail proved to be fun for awhile but as the afternoon wore on we began to worry about impending darkness. I’ll point out that Chelsea was more worried than I was, but we had some difficulty finding obscure trail markers and did not want to be outside after dark with loose footholds and unknown terrain.

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Maybe it’s this way?

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The scariest part was probably when we lost the trail completely and had to backtrack for about 10 minutes until we found it again. By then it was starting to get dark and we didn’t know how much of the trail we had left to complete. Chelsea was thoroughly stressed by now, and when I tried to make light of the situation I was shut down immediately – she was in survival mode, so I got serious and just tried to cover ground as quickly and safely as possible.

Just as the sun was setting, our trail flattened out and turned into a wide footpath. We didn’t know it yet, but we had made it. We were practically running along the wide easy path as we were not sure if more uneven ground followed it, and we wanted to stretch every last bit of daylight as much as possible. Before long we reached the second park entrance and realized we wouldn’t be dealing with any more tough terrain. Chelsea calmed down a good bit after that, and we took our time making a leisurely walk back to the car. By the time we reached the car we had taken around 9 hours. While we stopped for lunch and some photos Chelsea and I consider ourselves fairly good hikers in reasonable shape. Assuming we did the hike we thought we’d picked out, we weren’t sure how someone would complete it in 6 hours without being incredibly fast.

It was fortunate that we had bought groceries before setting out on the hike, as we arrived home so late that not many restaurants would be open. We were also lucky that I had decided to get two packs of Chicken, because we were both thoroughly hungry by the time we finished cooking dinner (around 11:00PM). After we ate, we slept, exhausted from a long day.

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Ready for rafting

The next morning we woke up a little earlier to head out for the day’s adventure: a rafting trip! The trip was a fun way to spend the afternoon – Chelsea and I had a small boat to ourselves and were free to maneuver on our own. I started off steering and got a good bit of well-deserved flak as I kept forgetting which way my steering motions would turn the boat. I was pretty bad at first but we progressively got more smooth as the trip continued. There was an 11-meter waterfall about halfway through the journey. They didn’t let us drop down the falls but had us get out to walk down and take a short break. The guides then let the rafts fall down the waterfall without anyone in them. Chelsea and I found a rock in the river the hang out and grab a snack we had brought with us.

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Not a bad place to stop for a snack

We switched places and Chelsea tried her hand at steering only to find it was not so easy 🙂 I switched her back and after a lot of practice I got fairly good at steering the boat.  We reached a 6-meter waterfall and were told that only one of us (per boat) would be allowed to ride over it. We both offered to let the other ride, but in the end I took the boat down the falls. It was exciting but not difficult as a guide made sure you went over the safest part of the falls.

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Up and over!

After the large waterfall the trip was fairly tame. We had a few more minutes of rowing and took the opportunity to swim. Or rather, I told Chelsea I would swim and flipped her into the water before she was ready 🙂 I jumped in afterwards to avoid retribution and found the water cold (40°F) and refreshing, Our guide took the chance to explain a bit of history of the region and point out some old structures to us before the trip ended.

After rafting we went back to our apartment without much of a firm plan. Wary to hike late in the day after the prior day’s experience, we decided to take our afternoon and do a bit of planning and just hanging out. We had each brought one nice set of clothes for a date night and decided we would do it that night because we had time to clean up and find a nice place.

We went to a steakhouse right near the water. I enjoyed the meal – I had a sirloin and some grilled veggies. Chelsea and I had done “dates” but it isn’t really the same over Skype, especially when we had to meet in my evenings which places our remote dates squarely in the afternoon EST. After dinner we went home pretty early with enough time to mess around with our cameras for sunset and night photography. We were able to get a few cool pictures before we called it a night:

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The next day was our last in the area. We had recovered from our first long hike and were ready to go to Paklenica again. This time, we drove the car up to a high pass and hiked from there, eager to get some cool views of the park. This hike was very different than the prior one – there was some scrambling and plenty of walking, but this area of the park provided yet another look at the surrounding landscape. Our hike was an out-and-back trip to two viewpoints. It was overcast and windy as we left the car to follow the road back to our trailhead. We started with a steep but short climb from the road followed by relatively flat terrain until we got to the rocky area. We started to go down into a small bowl of the rocks when I happened to discover the first branch in the trail which went out to the first lookout.

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The climb up was steep and at some times narrow. This, coupled with the wind, made Chelsea a bit nervous. There was one particularly troublesome section where you had to slide along a narrow ledge without much protection, but we both made it up. We ran into an older couple who seemed like rock climbers (given their equipment). Chelsea was more comfortable at the first peak but I opted to continue on to the “real” viewpoint on the second one. The wind was really whipping, adding to the excitement. One of the climbers leaned into the wind over a big ledge, suspending himself over the open air. They hiked down, leaving us alone at the lookout. We ate lunch, grabbed a few pictures, and enjoyed the wind and sun, taking our time before heading back down.

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She looks a bit lonely over there
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Views from the ridge

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From the first view we crossed the “bowl” formed by the rocks and began a second climb. This one was even steeper; chains were provided to facilitate hoisting yourself up the mountain. We were a little more sheltered from the wind here though, so I think the ascent was easier overall. The second viewpoint provided a full 360 degree panoramic view. Around 100 degrees was dominated by the Adriatic coast while the rest featured spanning peaks and canyons. At the top the wind was stronger than the last peak. Chelsea was blown slightly, and my camera suffered an accident (the tripod blew over despite being weighed down with our packs). We were worried the camera was irreversibly damaged, but fortunately a quick power cycle fixed things. The screen is a little chipped now. With love, from Paklenica.

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Up, up, up
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360 views!

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At the edge of the world!

We made our way back down into the bowl and worked back towards the car. We missed the trail again here, taking a brief foray into some woods until we realized we needed to turn back. We corrected our course and made it back to the car without incident. After the long winding drive down, we went back to the main park entrance to quickly grab a postcard and set off for our next destination.

Our trip had just begun, but we were already thrilled. The Croatian coast proved as beautiful and challenging as we could have hoped for, With much more to come, we couldn’t wait to see what else was in store for us. You, however, will have to wait for that. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben (+ Chelsea)

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