01:00 AM, and I’ve struggled to get to sleep for the past 3 hours. Tossing and turning, rolling round and round in my own pool of sweat. The heat of yesterday still lingering in the air, my bed now 1029384 degrees. The temperature is unbearable. I have only one way to fix this, open the door next to me and leave it open till morning, braving the risk of intrusion. I’m lying down, contemplating this idea for only a split second, when yet another bead of sweat rolls down my neck. I snap up. Launch over to the door, slide it open and squeeze my eyes shut. Desperate for sleep, no matter the outcome.
8:00 AM, birds singing, waves crashing and the sound of cars slowly crawling over dried dirt wakes me from my slumber. Not the worst way to be woken up. Running my hands over my body I realise that keeping the door open last night worked. I didn’t suffer some horrific death or even bake alive, in fact, the whole experience was quite peaceful and refreshing. However, there were some consequences. I realise this as I graze over the multiple puncture wounds across my body. Presumably, these are from a swarm of mosquitos that must have invaded in the night, hungry and merciless. I feel their presence still now as the uncontrollable itching takes effect. My legs and arms soon covered in spots of blood as I dig deep for relief. An outcome well worth the hours of sleep last night.
I rise, noticing that Danielle has already beaten me to the packing, eager to get a move on. I climb around to the back of the car, splash myself with water, brush my teeth, get changed and move my makeshift bed to one side. Already as the morning pushes on, the spaces around us start to fill and people start to flood in. Front seats occupied, windows rolled down and Ed Sheeran blasting on the stereo, we execute the route to our destination.
Final stop Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Stupidly, I forgot to reset the sat-nav. Leaving us stuck following the same twisty slow paced roads as yesterday. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, well if time was on our side, but it’s not. The clock shredding minutes away in the place of seconds. Roads seemingly never ending. The sun stuck motionless in the sky. Whatever happens, happens. Today is our final day on this wild Croatian adventure and nothing will get us down.
After honestly what felt like days of driving through desolate open spaces and small minute long towns, we finally saw some progress. The dry, desert-like environment transforms into rows of magnificent green trees and wild grassy trails. Colours switching from rusty, yellow brown to a darker, vibrant pallet. We spotted teddy sized squirrels and look out signs for wild deer, appearing as it seemed out of nowhere. This must be it; the lakes must be near. As we drew closer and closer the salt in the air subsided and was replaced with a wave of freshness. We spun the car around, through the barriers, and up an off road hill to park. Large cars, small cars, vans, and motorcycles all scattered like bodies on a battlefield. This I assume is the car park.
I step out. Stretch my legs, crack my back, stand up straight, close my eyes and take a deep breath in. Listening to the water running and the birds chatting, it felt like we were camping. The sun blocked out by the woods defenses, the ground moist and unharmed, the whole place smelling like a garden centre.
We are here.
Without a direction to follow we stalk the couple in front of us. Watching their every move for the direction to take. It’s the only way. The forest so dense and consuming. Once the trees cleared and the dirt became concrete we found ourselves in yet another packed car park, directly next to the park’s main facilities. Coach after coach pull up, releasing its passengers into the wild. A stampede of tourists attack the stalls ahead, forming queues out of nowhere, leading nowhere. We briskly rush by, hoping to avoid being stuck behind. On the right, we spot the map. A large wooden board with various coloured lines scribbled from end to end. Our eyes skim over the route we want, a dark red line with the estimated time above, 3-4 hours.
Route F it is.
Our brisk pace is continued as we follow the signs around the trail, bending and turning. Passing people in all directions. This place is massive. We head stumbling down some steps, past the ticket point and out onto an open deck. It’s here we see another “European Line” form. The concept of queuing is clearly a myth, instead, people are spread out as far as humanly possible, moving in a cohesive formation, making it difficult to physically board the boat. I say boat, as the first section of route F starts on the opposite side of the lake.
We pile aboard like cattle in the slaughter house, people of all ages and all sizes fighting for space. As I take a seat, I closed my eyes, hearing sparked up conversations in different accents and dialect around me. It’s therapeutic. This boat right now contains so much culture, personality, and heritage, it’s hard not smile at the thought.
I’m proud to be apart of their experiences.
We stop. The movement of people dragging me off, flowing like a current. I break away from the crowd and look up, yet another service station. There are benches, food stalls, and even toilets. Fellow passengers already taking full advantage. Not us, we need to push forward.
As the day proceeds, we continue on our trek. The sun beating heavily down on our bodies. My eyes mesmerised by the views around us. The water here is so clear and so blue, like looking at a bottle of ice cold WKD, bright and luminous. The area surrounding us was seemingly untouched. We walked on concrete, gravel, dirt and even elevated wooden planks (which I was convinced would break under my weight). I’m so in love with this place. Sweat grabbing at my t-shirt, warmth radiating from my skin. We walked for hours, no days, no weeks (or so it seemed) until we reached the end. Signs for a shuttle bus straight ahead. Pushed on, with only the promise of rest. Steeper and steeper the trail becomes. Passing those trying to adjust to the physical strain this climb causes. Just a little further I thought.
The view at the top made the hours of hiking all worth while. It’s hard to describe how or what I felt in the moment when we reached the top. To look upon tiny people and tiny houses in the distance, everyone going about their own day. It was then I realised just how beautiful Croatia was, and how this adventure has shown me a life time of beauty. The memories trapped inside my mind like priceless artifacts. We stop, relieved and exhausted.
F, we have won.
The shuttle carried our lifeless bodies back to base camp, where we reluctantly dragged our feet back to the car. Consumed in the forest along the way. Doors open, bottoms on seats, sat-nav back on and off we head. Through the minute-long towns and twisty roads in which we came, passing over border control and off back into the place we now call home.
Slovenia oh how we’ve missed you.
Ljubljana is calling.