Some Things are Scary: Kayaking off the Coast of Croatia

My blistered hands grip the kayak paddle as I point “red boat” towards the point of land 2 km away and across an open channel. The wind is hitting us from an angle and splashing over my spray skirt on every 6th or 7th wave. I brace my feet and legs and tell myself, “you’ve got this”, then I realize I am holding my breath. Yes, I am scared. Maybe we are in over our heads?  As the sun is setting we are making a final attempt to find a beach where we can land the kayaks and camp for the night. It is our second day out on a self-guided kayak trip near the city of Split, off the coastline of Croatia and we have been fighting the wind all day.

“The weather is unsettled this week”, the rental company warned us. “Keep an eye on Aladdin (a great weather app) and we will message you if conditions are too severe”.

Our proposed campsite for the night lay around an exposed point, off the island of Drvenik Veli. We attempted to pass around the point in the early afternoon and were forced back by high waves, winds and scary cross currents.  Perched on a small and rocky beach, with no place to pitch a tent or safely stow our boats for the night, we spent the afternoon waiting. Waiting for the winds to die down, as they usually do when evening approaches, so we could make another attempt. From our perch, conditions seemed to be improving, time to try again. As we approach the point, we are once again forced back and end up making the “safer” decision to head across the channel to Drvenik Mali, and a less conveniently located camp. It would mean we will have extra miles to cover tomorrow, but at this point it beats perching on the rocks overnight or risking serious consequences if we stick to plan A.  As I breathe through each paddle stroke, bringing me closer to our tent and a safe bed, I think to myself “how did I end up here again?”.

“Hey Rob, while we are in the Balkans we should look for a kayak tour off the coast of Croatia”, she said.

“Sounds great!”, he said.

“Oooh, looks like there are a few companies we could go with, out of Dubrovnik”, she said.

“Make it so Captain”, he said.

A few days later…. “Yikes it is crazy expensive”, she said.

“Oh well, maybe we can do some hiking or something instead”, he said.

“Yeah, maybe”, she said dejectedly.

Time passes, they do this super cool self-guided hut to hut cycling trip in Montenegro (see Cabbage Rolls and Coffee) but it is hot and the idea of being on the water is so enticing. She heads to google again.

“Hey Rob, there is a company in Split called RED Adventures” (cool coincidence given we ski live next to and ski at RED mountain BC).

“They rent kayak and camping gear, provide a route and phone support and help paddlers do a self-guided trip”, she said.

“That sounds perfect, let’s do it!”, he said.

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Day 1:  Beach at Split just before heading into the unknown

And so here we are.  Obviously, we survived because I am writing this blog! And in reality, many hard ass paddlers would think we are pretty “lame” to even be afraid in these conditions, but here is the thing. If you love the outdoors and are into adventure sports, pushing your boundaries and finding the “edge” of your comfort zone is how you improve your fitness level and your skills. The tricky part is learning where your personal boundary or edge is and making decisions to manage the risks while still pushing yourself to new levels.

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Our paddling route

We continued to battle the wind for the remaining 5 days of our tour.  Rising most mornings at 4:30 am to pack up camp and be on the water for a few hours of lighter winds. Stopping by early afternoon and waiting for the winds to die down in the evening and then pushing ourselves to try to make it to our next camp so we were not paddling in the dark. The islands off the coast of Croatia are beautiful, but safe spots to land your kayak as well as wild camping sites are limited, meaning high mileage some days and becoming adept at surf landings!  It also meant doing some “stealth camping” on private beaches and trying to sneak away at first light.  All in all, it made for a more anxiety inducing trip but it also added to the adventure factor.

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Calm seas headed towards Drvenik V

Looking back, despite the stress of paddling in unfamiliar waters, with difficult crossings and long distances between good campsites, I am so glad we did it. At the time, it felt as if we were missing out on enjoying the Dalmatian coast experience. When planning a trip, you start to daydream and develop an expectation for your adventure. I imagined paddling in warm Mediterranean weather with time to enjoy a beer at a little beach bar and swim in the crystal blue waters of the Adriatic. As is often the case when you have preconceived ideas, the reality is different than what you imagined. In my case, the trip was much more difficult than I anticipated, but I feel stronger and more accomplished for the experience.  Plus there were some really cool moments.  For example, discovering huge caves created by President Tito and the former Yugoslav army after World War 2. These massive caves, carved out of the limestone cliffs on islands off the coast of Croatia are invisible to passing boats and planes. Created during the cold war era, and now abandoned, they are large enough to hide an entire battleship or submarine. Paddling into one of these empty, dark tunnels is akin to being in a James Bond movie. With Rob in the lead, our kayaks slipped into the silent darkness. As I approached the end of the tunnel I felt a little creeped out until an eerie voice came out of the darkness ahead of me, “Well Bond, I see you have found my secret lair”, breaking the mood and cracking me up.

This trip gave me new respect for mother nature. On our final day of paddling, we had to cross the 5km channel between the island of Brac to the island of Hvar, where we would stay in a guesthouse and catch the ferry at Stari Grad back to Split. Once again the forecast was for strong winds in the morning. We set the alarm for 4:30am and were up, enjoyed our coffee and museli (literally we mix the instant coffee with the museli and add milk – a fast, easy way to get your coffee and breakfast with only one bowl to wash!) and packed by 6am. Just as we put on our spray skirts the wind picked up and the sky turned black. I saw a flash of lightning across the channel and started to count as I waited for the boom of thunder.

“One, one thousand, two one thousand… that was about 5km away”, I said to Rob.

Before I even finished the first count, at least 3 more lightning flashes filled the sky, with the final flash being amazingly bright and the corresponding thunder happening seconds after I saw the flash!  Yikes, we wisely moved from the tall tree under which we were sheltering to an area of lower bushes just down the beach from our boats. As the sky opened up, we realized our raincoats were packed away and, soaked to the skin, we ran for a small stone shrine to wait out the storm. Finally, the wind died down and the storm moved on, prompting us to attempt our crossing.  As we paddled out of our sheltered bay, a local sailer clambered onto his boat’s deck and begged us to stay put.

“After a storm, the winds will be very strong. Please. BE SAFE. You should not cross”.

We nosed out of the bay to be hit by wind and high waves prompting a retreat back to the beach and unpacking of the boats. Immediately after setting up our tent, the team at Red Adventures messaged us.  They advised that the best time to cross would be in 1 hour as there was a 3 hour window where winds would drop and we should be able to make it. We mulled over this information and decided to go for it. By now we were good at taking down camp and loading our boats quickly. Within an hour, we were ready to try again and indeed, the weather in our sheltered bay did seem to be improving. As we paddled by the sailboat once again, it was a moment of deja vu as our friend gravely advised us.

“Stay safe. Please be careful, the winds are very unpredictable today. You must be safe!”

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In a crazy lightning storm this shrine was our shelter

The lure of a shower and a real mattress (instead of a sticky pool floaty from the dollar store) pushed us out of the sheltered bay. The locals call white caps on the ocean “little sheep”. As we paddled into the channel we discovered some “big ass sheep” and once again carefully turned our boats back to the safety of the beach, accepting defeat to mother nature and providing some good entertainment for our sailor friend, I’m sure! Rounding the corner into the sheltered bay, we saw a small fire had been started by a lightning strike on the bank just above the shrine that sheltered us. Good golly Molly!

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Our campsite: taken down and set up again 3 times in total!

Down to instant coffee, some museli, a cup of pasta, a bit of cabbage, a carrot and a few tablespoons of mayo we mulled over what creative meal we could create with these ingredients and decided to hike to Blaca monastery, located 2 km inland from our beach. Maybe the monks will have food! The monastery, now a museum was very interesting and well worth the few dollars for a tour. The last monk to live in this isolated hermitage, a descendant of the Milicevic family, died in the 1960s. It was surprising to see a world-class observatory and a baby grand piano in this beautiful but extremely remote location.  In fact, the last priest to live here, Nikola Milicevic, was an internationally recognized astronomer. But best of all, they had local prosciutto, sheep cheese, bread, and beer. Jackpot!

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Monastery Blanca on the island of Brac

 

So what is the moral of this tale? Don’t be afraid to have an adventure? Don’t let your expectations of an experience prevent you from enjoying it when the reality is different from what you had imagined? Boundaries keep us safe but it is only by pushing against them that we are able to progress and reach new heights? Or maybe it should be, always listen to the locals. You decide and then choose your own adventure. Remember sometimes the retelling of the tale is the most fun of all.

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Lifted our boats up to the dock and ready for the ferry ride back to Split

I am published! Cool Beans!

I am excited to share with you the story of our journey from practice owners to volunteer veterinarians. I recently submitted this article to the West Coast Veterinary Journal and had my story published. Very exciting for me (I know, it is pretty small potatoes but pretty cool to see my words in print)! Hope you enjoy and please feel free to share!

I cannot figure out how to attach a link to the original article as the West Coast Veterinary Journal a private publication for members of the Society of BC Veterinarians. I am sure there is a way but my old brain isn’t so good with this shit.  Anyway, below the jpeg image of the article, I have posted my original submission which will be much easier to read, I hope!

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Will Spay for Food

The life you have led, doesn’t need to be the only life you have

                                                -Anna Quindlen

Knowing it is time for a change is easy if you listen to your heart. Actually setting the wheels in motion to make that change, is the hard part. For most of us, it is fear that holds us back. Fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of disappointment. It is far too easy to listen to that voice in your head, the one ruled by fear, instead of taking a chance and seeing where life can lead you if you are willing to make a change.

I love to travel and in 2011, had the opportunity, together with my then 11 year old daughter, to volunteer for 4 days with the Mexi-Can Veterinary Project in Jaltemba Bay, Mexico. This was my first international sterilization project and it planted a seed.  But how do you marry a career in private veterinary practice and raising a family with a desire to see the world? It isn’t always easy, especially if you live in a rural community and are married to another veterinarian with whom you own a practice. Our solution was to book locums and drag our kids around the world on family ”adventures”. Eventually, those children grew and left to pursue their own adventures, leaving us at home, running our business and a just a little envious of the exciting journeys they were about to embark upon. Perhaps this was the catalyst we needed.

In 2017 we decided it was time. Time to see where life might lead two middle-aged, vets if they were willing to sell their practice, embrace the unknown and embark on a new journey. Prior to the sale of our practice we had started to explore the world of international volunteerism and found, not only was there a huge need worldwide for veterinary volunteers, but we were we well suited to this type of work. We would return from each project energized, with a renewed passion for our chosen profession. To date, we have worked with the Equitarian Initiative, World Vets, the Canadian Animal Assistance Team and the Maun Animal Welfare Society, the Spanky Project and currently Carriacou Animal Hospital. These projects have taken us to Costa Rica, Ecuador, Botswana, Cuba and Grenada.

So what inspires successful practice owners to give it all up, to live on the road and work for free? It would be easy to stay home, keep doing what is comfortable and experience the world through yearly vacations and the discovery channel. In many ways, it would also be the safe path, but by doing so we would miss out on so many life changing experiences. And perhaps more importantly, we would miss out on meeting the remarkable human beings who have opened their homes and shared their lives with us. 

In Costa Rica, I worked with a group of dedicated equine veterinarians. Their goal “to sustainably improve working equid health by harnessing the passion and expertise of volunteer veterinarians”, appealed to me. Despite that fact that it had been 20 years since I had done any work with horses, the Equitarian Initiative volunteers accepted me, a small animal vet, without reservation. Perhaps, in part, because I provided some comic relief! I recall one spry, older gentleman who arrived with his very elderly horse for the free clinic explaining why his horse was so important to him. During certain times of the year, the river flooded, cutting off his access to town. His horse, however, could still cross the river allowing him to get to church on Sundays and maintain his contact with the community. The love he shared with his equine companion was just as strong as any we Canadians share with our pampered pets!

Working with World Vets in Ecuador, I marveled as over the course of a week a group of individuals with unique personalities, backgrounds and a wide range of ages became fast friends. The small town we were working in was well aware of our presence. Early each morning, as we boarded a bus to head to the campaign, local people would run up, dogs in tow and ask if we could take their pets to be sterilized. We would each grab a pet, bring it on the bus and head off with a few extra surgeries for the day. If you are traveling solo, volunteering with World Vets provides you with an instant group of like minded traveling companions, accommodation and the chance to experience a new culture while providing veterinary care in a unique part of the world.

In Cuba, we joined forces with the Spanky Project, founded by Canadian, Terry Shewchuck and named after his beloved dog. The Spanky Project arose from Terry’s love of Cuba and a desire to improve the lives of the dogs and cats he met during his travels. This group of passionate people works with the University of Havana veterinary school and local Cuban veterinarians to exchange ideas, provide much needed materials and medications and most importantly mentorship to the Cuban veterinary community.  Working with the students and enjoying the energy and enthusiasm they brought to the project was very rewarding. Many students commented that they would learn more about small animal anesthesia, surgery and recovery during the Spanky Project than they would in the university curriculum. Some of the Cuban veterinarians volunteering this year had participated in past campaigns as students themselves.  After being mentored by Spanky volunteers, they were back to give their time, improve their anesthesia and surgical skills and help mentor a new group of students during the 2018 campaign.  A great example of international collaboration and sustainability.

Botswana and the Maun Animal Welfare Society (MAWS) holds a very special place in our hearts. Rob volunteered with MAWS, through the Canadian Animal Assistance Team, in April and in November we both signed up for a 6 week commitment. Through their dedicated clinic located in Maun, as well as remote outreach clinics, MAWS provides free veterinary services to low income villagers across Botswana. Living in the MAWS cottage we woke early to enjoy a chorus of birds and cicadas as we prepared for the long day ahead. Working with very limited resources and supplies we sterilized and vaccinated animals until we were ready to drop. It took us back to our early years building our own practice and we came home each night, exhausted but happier than we had been in years.

The stories of how these animals arrive in our care humble us. We are reminded again and again of the resiliency of our patients and their will to survive, thrive and be happy.  There was “old girl”, who came to us after having boiling water thrown on her back for stealing eggs. During her stay at MAWS, we saw her fearfulness disappear and her sweet, gentle nature emerge. And little pup, who stayed with us after surgical repair of a preputial injury and within days was bossing around the adult dogs. Often amputation is a practical and life saving option in countries with little resources and nonexistent surgical aftercare. I fell in love with one amputee from a cattle outpost who had lost her paw after being caught in a snare. She arrived in skeletal condition but still running happily on the stump of her infected metatarsals! A proper amputation gave her the gift of a pain free life. Their affectionate nature and joyful exuberance in the face of such a harsh existence is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, in equal measures.

In a small village in Botswana, we met a young boy of 12 years who arrived at the outreach clinic with his dog and another small child in his care. He asked if he could stay with his dog during the surgery because, in his words “My dog is a good dog, but he is afraid and will be comforted by my presence”.  We advised him this was just fine and as we sedated and started surgery on his much loved dog Rob began to talk to him. The boy intently watched Rob preform and an ovariohysterectomy and explain what he was doing. When Rob paused, the boy looked at him and thoughtfully said, “So sir, I can see that what you are doing here helps the dogs and people of Botswana and for that we are grateful, but what I am wondering is how this benefits you”. Rob had a great response and said the benefits to us were not something you could see or touch, like money. He said that we loved visiting Botswana and think it is a very special place. We love the wild animals and by sterilizing the dogs and vaccinating them we were helping to keep both the dogs and the wildlife healthier. I could see the boy was both a little surprised but also proud that we loved his country and wanted to help. They then talked about the idea of “paying it forward” and Rob said that we were lucky to be in a situation where we could help the people and dogs of Botswana. He then said to the boy, “Perhaps someday you will remember us and how we helped your dog and this will remind you to help someone too. By paying it forward, each of us can do our part to make the world a better place”.

With any volunteer project there are also frustrations. At the end of a long day, we have asked ourselves what it is about this work that draws us in an keeps us coming back for more. The days are long, hard and we usually come home hot, tired and smelling of urine. We are practicing veterinary medicine with the most basic of tools to service the neediest population of pets. We often feel at a loss when it comes to making a diagnosis and we try our best to help and not harm. Our patients bleed easily and profusely during surgery, our clamps don’t clamp our suture is sometimes on a spool requiring our old eyes to thread needles all day and our scissors are as dull as the ones you buy for a first grader.  Yet we make do, we struggle, we laugh and at the end of the day it feels good to be “dog” tired and know we did some good today. If we are honest, we started this journey for selfish reasons, looking for adventure and escape from the stresses of practice ownership. But it became so much more. How do you tell someone how good it feels to help an animal in need and to see the relief and thanks on the faces of those you help? How do you explain the amazing ability to make friends and deep connections with a community that will last a lifetime in just a few days or weeks?

As a middle class Canadian, I live a life of privilege, compared to the vast majority of the world’s population. Working as a volunteer veterinarian has driven home this point and also made me realize how very little I need to be happy. I have discovered that what often appears straightforward on the surface, is actually very complicated. As a volunteer, it is important to critically consider the impact you have on a culture and the long term ramifications of your actions. This work has challenged me to be more resourceful, open minded and adaptable. But perhaps, most of all, it has taught me that there really is more good than bad in the world (despite what the media may lead you to believe) and if you travel with an open mind, an open heart and a big smile you will be amazed at where it will take you.

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Cabbage Rolls and Coffee, Can’t be Beat: Tales of Happy Wandering in Montenegro (Title credit: Eugene Levy and John Candy)

Nestled between Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, Montenegro is one of six countries which made up the former Yugoslavia. While small in size at roughly 14,000 square km and a population of approximately 620,000, Montenegro makes up for its small land mass with unsurpassed beauty and miles of unexplored lakes, mountains and rivers.  An outdoor adventure mecca teetering on the brink of discovery, we had to check it out.Balkan-Karte-Fotolia_Kartoxjm_78480771_L-1024x1024If you thought this blog was about the home of Yosh and his brother Stan Shmenge from Leutonia, I am sorry to disappoint you.  Go ahead and hit “escape” immediately. Don’t feel bad, I’ll never know you left. But if I’ve caught your interest, my thanks to SCTV and the infamous Shmenge brothers!

I have to give credit for visiting Montenegro to our awesome daughter, Hannah.  Living in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a student at UWC Mostar, our primary reason for visiting the Balkans was to spend time with this cool kid of ours. After leaving Carriacou Island in Grenada, we needed a plan and some adventure, while she finished up classes and exams.  Hannah loves the Balkans and listed off the attributes of several countries but qualified her recommendations with “I think you guys would really love Montenegro, its beautiful with lots of mountains and outdoor activities”.  After our conversation, I logged onto google and entered various combinations of “mountain biking+adventure+off the beaten path+Montenegro+bike rental” into the search bar. Each search eventually lead me back to a little website meanderbug.com. With enough pictures and blog posts to get us excited, I fired off the first email to this “Meanderbug” not realizing where it would lead. Within hours, Brit, the owner of Meanderbug responded with a warm and informative email. We corresponded over the next few weeks and it became obvious Meanderbug wanted to do more than just sell us a tour. Brit wanted to get to know us, to find out how we like to travel and to make sure that our time in Montenegro was unique and special. Our goal of finding mountain bike rentals in Montenegro suddenly morphed into a 19 day cycling adventure and cultural experience in the rural villages, katuns and mountains of Montenegro. An experience we would have never found on our own, without the help of Brit and Zana, the team at Meanderbug. To our delight, we discovered we were the first tourists to do a hut to hut trip via bicycles in Montenegro and we would be the “guinea pigs” for this type of trip. Luck for us, no “guinea pigs” were harmed in the making of this adventure! Check out this link https://meanderbug.com/mtb-adventure-cycle-touring-in-montenegro-trailblazers-q-a/ for a video about our experience and Q and A’s about being the first people to do a hut to hut cycling adventure with Meanderbug.com

As the details of our trip, across the globe in the Balkans, started to come together, the reality of getting ourselves from a small island in the Caribbean to Montenegro set in.  Following many hours of research on Google flights and Momondo (my travel planning go-tos), we found ourselves on a 2 day journey from Carriacou Island, to Grenada, Miami, Los Angeles, Moscow and finally Tivat, Montenegro. 

 

Thankfully I have a very relaxed travel partner, who happily agreed to my crazy itinerary in order to save a few bucks. However, after having to pay extra for luggage with American Airlines (my new least favourite airline) and then spending an uncomfortable night on the floor at LAX waiting for Aeroflot’s ticket desk to open (I couldn’t download our boarding passes for some reason), he was starting to question his choice of “travel agent”! We arrived in Tivat, tired and smelly but were greeted by perfect weather, the beautiful coastline of Montenegro and the friendly and informative  Jovan, our first host.

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Sleeping (not!) on the floor at LAX

Our first 2 days in Montenegro were spent at the Old Mill Farm stay with Jovan and his family.  Located on the Lustica peninsula near Kotor, we enjoyed beautiful views of Kotor Bay and private sunsets over the Adriatic while enjoying a glass of homemade wine each evening.

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Rob checking sitting in old guvo or grain threshing area at Old Mill farm stay
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Sunset on Lustica Bay

Jovan’s family has lived here not just for generations, but for centuries, and the family was proud to show us their 300 year old olive press and guvno (threshing area). Meals prepared by Jovans mother were delicious and our first opportunity to sample farm fresh Montenegro cuisine and olive oil from the farms’ own orchard. 

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Breakfast at Old Mill Farm

We spent these first days recovering from our jet lag while doing some hikes and exploring the old town of Kotor.

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Kotor Bay Montenegro
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1300 steps to Sveti Ivan’s Fortress (also known as St. John’s)

 After spending time along the coast of Montenegro we were excited to start our journey north towards the first mountain biking destination Berrane. We headed to Podgorica by bus, spending a night near Skadar Lake before continuing by train towards Berrane and Bijelo Polje. The train from Podgorica north to Berrane is the part of the Montenegro Express, traveling from Bar, Montenegro to Belgrade, Serbia. Brit arranged for a fellow traveler to alert us to our stop just outside Bijelo Polje. Lucky for us, as we would never have noticed the stop, a small, nondescript cinderblock building in the countryside which marked our stop. 

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We starting walking along the train tracks wondering if we were at the right spot. Within moments we saw someone in the distance waving vigorously and jogging towards us.  We were soon taken underwing by Dimitrije, our host for the night and a man with so much positive energy about his community and neighbors, that you couldn’t help but be infected. Dimitrije grew up in the area and loves the mountains and outdoors. For many young people in Montenegro, finding work in the rural towns and villages is difficult, resulting in a migration of young people to the cities, looking for work and a more modern way of life. Raising his own young children in Bijelo Polje, Dimitrije wants to find ways to help his community remain viable by supporting tourism and developing the infrastructure needed to find new ways to make rural Montenegro vibrant and attractive to the next generation.

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Dimitrije on right with his neighbors and Nedjo, Svetlana and twin sons

The next day we were excited to pick up our bikes and start riding. Our early 90’s Polar hardtail rental bikes, while far from the latest technology, got the job done and as we wound our way up towards Biogradska Gora National Park, we had our first taste of what mountain biking in Montenegro was going to look like. The day started on a quiet paved highway but quickly turned into a small paved country lane and then a gravel road or path. These gravel mountain roads, similar to what we would call forest service roads in British Columbia, made up the majority of our riding in Montenegro.  The quality of the road would vary from broken pavement to rough and rutted gravel, to our favorite, a hard packed two-lane path through mountain meadows. If you are expecting well maintained, buff single track you’ll be disappointed, as this just does not exist in any large quantity in Montenegro. The funding and infrastructure to build this type of trail system are not there yet. However, if you love to travel on two wheels, where the journey is often more important than the destination, you’ll love Montenegro.

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Riding to Biogradska Gora National Park

The next 3 days at Rakovic Katun in Biogradska Gora National Park were our introduction to Montenegro hospitality. In rural Montenegro, the traditional farming way of life involves moving families and their livestock into the mountain villages, called katuns, during the warm summer months. Livestock can graze on the abundant mountain meadows, saving stored hay and feed for the winter months. Here the way of life takes a step back in time. Katuns are simple buildings, with no electricity and no running water. Cooking is done on a wood stove and water is most often collected from the abundant mountain springs. The whole way of life is dedicated to caring for sheep and cattle, making cheese, tending a garden and preparing for the winter to come. It is a simple but harsh existence and much like the family farm in many parts of the world, this way of life is slowly disappearing. Staying in the Katuns, with the local farm families, is an effort to keep this part of Montenegro’s heritage alive. Companies like Meanderbug are dedicated to sustainable tourism that not only benefits local people and supports their way of life, but also gives tourists more than just a fun biking holiday. This type of travel forces you to slowing down, engaging with locals and gives you a deeper understanding of the culture and people of Montenegro.

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Rakovic Katun has been in our host’s, Stefan and Sanya’s family for many generations.  Stefan, a park ranger and Sanya, a teacher, live in nearby Berrane but spend their summers in the family Katun, hosting guests in two small cabins located on the property. We spent 3 days with the Rakovic’s and given Sanyas’ excellent English and Stefan’s developing language skills we had a great time getting to know them and learn a little about life in Montenegro.

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Stefan and Sanya Rakovic

Arriving in mid-May, there was still snow at higher elevations and after spending the last 4 months at sea level in the Carribean, the elevation at Biogradska Gora made itself felt.  We cycled to nearby Siska Lake and rested on our first full day and then set out for a 10 km hike on day two to enjoy the dramatic landscapes and beauty of the park.

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Hiking in Biogradska Gora
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Spring wildflowers were in abundance in Biogradska

 

From Biogradska Gora, it was an easy ride back to the village of Lubnice and a luxurious night at Three Springs Cottage before heading to the Konjuhe Village nestled below Mount Komovi and our next farm stay at Old House.

The next morning our hosts at Old House pointed us towards the winding and steep back road leading to Mount Komovi and with the help of maps.me, we found our way to the base of majestic Mount Komovi. 

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Rob poses for a photo with Mount Komovi in the background

   

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Rob riding towards Mount Komovi
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Finally, time for some fun downhill!

After all our altitude gain, we got to enjoy a long, fun ride downhill ride back to Old House and another delicious meal of homemade pita, cabbage roll and pickled peppers.

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Our next day of riding was to take us from Konjuhe Village to Prokletje National Park over a mountain hiking trail which was so overgrown and covered with downed trees, that we decided to turn back and get a transfer to the next Katun. A good decision as on the way back to Old House we were caught in a thunderstorm and were quickly soaked.  Our transfer to took us to the edge of Prokletje National Park and gave us our first view of the so-called “damned or accursed” mountains, the highest peaks in the country. Ditching the bikes, we spent the next day hiking in this beautiful park and were transferred late afternoon to Bajrovica Katun deep within the park.

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Hiking in Prokletje National Park
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Someone’s excited to get to the top (or perhaps just excited for lunch?)

Traditionally, families move into the Katuns during the month of May, depending on the snow melt and ability to access their homes.  Our mid-May timing made us the first visitors to many of the Katuns and meant we ran into virtually no other tourists during most of our trip.  Brit and his daughter Joy joined us for a few days in Prokletje National Park and at Bajrovica Katun and provided the transfers and support when our initial route was impassable. It was great getting to know them and enjoying their friendly, positive vibe and learning how Meanderbug came to be. That is their story to share not mine, but I will say how special it was to work with a company where we started as customers and left feeling like we had become friends.

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Elaine, Brit and Joy in Prokletje National Park

The next 3 days took us into an area known as the Katun Road. Travelling this remote and untouched area was like stepping back in time and was a truly unique experience.  After a long day of wrong turns and backtracking, we finally climbed to Cakor Katun. For me, this was the hardest day. As we made our way on a seemingly unending uphill climb, I said to Rob, “tonight there better be rakja and meat! I need booze and meat”. I was not disappointed as our host Gordana was an amazing cook and prepared perhaps the best meal of our journey. Two tired Canadians were offered not only rakja, but also homemade juice and cherry liqueur.

 

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Homemade rakja – Zivjeli!

Followed shortly by soup, cheese, homemade bread, roast chicken, crispy roast potatoes and grilled peppers.

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Gordana and one of her feasts at Cakor Katun

After our hosts left, we stoked the wood stove, had another glass of rakja and crawled under layers of heavy blankets to fall asleep in absolute silence and darkness, alone in our cozy katun.

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Enjoying morning coffee at Cakor Katun before the start of our favorite ride to Mokri Do Katun

It’s time for an aside about the food. Really, I should devote an entire blog to the food we enjoyed on our farm stays in Montenegro. Homemade, homegrown, simple, fresh and organic. Every host provided excellent meals. We were never hungry and it was obvious our hosts were thrilled that we enjoyed their food so enthusiastically. For me this was easy, I love to cook, love to try new flavors. Trying new cuisines and food around the world is one of the things I like most about traveling. I fall firmly in the camp of those who “cycle to eat” rather than “eat to cycle”. So you pretty much need to just put a plate in front of me and I will eat whatever is on it (one exception to this is liver and BTW what is with the obsession with goose liver in Hungary? Another story for another blog …). We ate well, we ate a lot and everyone loved watching us eat. Literally, our hosts would watch us eat, then after we were finished, they would eat. It was a little weird but part of the cultural experience. At Mokri Do Katun, it was a special experience when our hosts sat across the simple table and shared many glasses of rakja with us, a simple but tasty dinner and then showed us photos of their 7 daughters and grandchildren.

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Choose your breakfast drink at Mokri Do Katun – Coffee or Rakja?

Riding the Katun Road area was our favorite part of the journey. High mountain landscapes, shepherds with large flocks of sheep and route finding to the next katun made for a fun adventure.

  

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Where are we Rob?
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Oh of course, Vukova Stanina – I can’t say it, but this is where we are!

With no other tourists, it felt like traveling in our mountains at home but instead of a tent and some rehydrated food awaiting the end of a long day, there was a warm katun and a kind host.

 

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For me, the hospitality and warmth of the people Montenegro will stay with me long after the memories of the mountains and beautiful landscapes fades.

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New friends at Mokri Do Katun

Perhaps the best example of this is our experience while traveling between Cakor Katun and Mokri do Katun on the Katun Road. After getting off route and backtracking to find the right trail, we came across a small katun with a man working in his garden. We pulled out our map and stopped to point at it and confirm our location. Speaking little English, he gestured to his house and pretty much took Rob’s arm and pulled him toward the small patio. There he brought out 3 glasses and a bottle of rakja. After a drink, apparently, we could discuss location. Two young children and a baby came out of the house, followed by his wife, to meet the crazy people riding bicycles. I had a small package of cookies for our lunch so I pulled them out to share with the children. He and his wife disappeared into the house for a few minutes and returned with some bread and cheese, followed by pickled peppers, cooked chicken and steak, homemade juice olives and more of their own cookies! We shared lunch together and they pointed us in the right direction after refusing to let us pay for the meal. While they spoke some English, communication was limited, but before leaving I understood the wife’s request, “Facebook?”. If you happen to read this, thank you again, Jugoslav Lekic and family. Your hospitality made a lasting impression on us and exemplifies what makes rural Montenegro so special.

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Amazing hospitality from Jugoslav and family – Note the Canada shirt!

After leaving the Katun road area we made our way back to Berrane and Bijelo Polje ending our journey at Agape House and Community Garden outside Podgorica. Enjoying the company of our young and forward thinking hosts, we had a great conversation about the recent election in Montenegro, the political and economic situation, from their perspective and their successes and frustrations in making a positive change in their community. Warm and kind hosts, a cute, comfortable room and good conversation; we would have enjoyed spending more time at Agape House.

In fact, we were sad we didn’t have more time in Montenegro. Our 19 days were over too fast and we were truly sad to see our trip come to an end. If you like to travel off the beaten path, get hives from crowds of tourists and aren’t afraid of getting dirty or lost, then consider a cycling trip in Montenegro. The coast is beautiful and well worth visiting, but the secrets hidden in the rivers, lakes and mountains of this little Balkan country and the people who live there, are the real reason you should go to Montenegro.  Know you will be among the first to travel this way (if that matters to you) and leave with memories of a country and a people that will exceed your expectations. I know it did ours.

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Morning Fog fills valley below Cakor Katun