It became apparent, when I got thrown out of Split, that I was slowing down, losing momentum. I hadn’t lost site of the goal, but the coastal way of life and my time in hostels had relaxed me. I was trying to make space to write, to move away from just cycling. It felt like I had come a long way already. Over mountains. Through great, snowy valleys, all the way to this warm, beached coastline in Croatia and I needed a break. Sadly though, I was too late. The hostel season was over, whether I wanted it or not and it was back to the road and to the tent and the audiobooks.
The Mediterranean sea was shimmering, still, calm, always. The greek hills, beige stoned, made the ground rocky and hard to camp in. It took two long, hard days to reach Dubrovnik, the most south easterly city in Croatia. I passed swamplands and crossed hills in the dark, far beyond the sunsets. I took to sleeping in Olive groves, struggling to find places to camp with the mountains to my left and the sea cliffs to my right.
When I left Split I’d passed through great white canyons, along a highway that ran above the coast. When villages and towns appeared a sign would point downwards and the highway would peel off onto a winding road that dropped for hundreds of metres. Every town lay at the harbour side, so, cycling through the nights, which were now beginning to set much earlier, I never really got to see any of these towns from high above.
Camping Near Towns
The first night had been an impossible one when it came to camping and one that I will never forget for fear of what happened to me. I was looking for a place to pitch my tent for what seemed hours. I was so tired. The coastal road was so tight and the towns almost joined to the next. There was never a forest or a set of fields or a plateau of any kind. Eventually, around nine, I found a clump of trees on the outskirts of a town. The only activity nearby was a bus stop, which had been empty when I’d rolled up through the bushes and behind some trees.
I pitched the tent. Turned down my lights. The noise of cars and buses stopping and people chatting far off came, but would always fade away. I listened to music until my eyes closed. Many times I have wild camped, even near towns, for months now, without any trouble. I had forgotten that it was not risk free.
I woke in the night, a sudden popping, a ringing in my ear. Dazed and tired I rolled over. Then I heard it, a crunching noise upon the grass outside. Animals? I thought. I froze for a second. Listening. I thought of pigs, boars, perhaps just rabbits. The shuffling happened again, further away. I unzipped the tent and shined my torch into the darkness. Nothing. The animals must have moved on. I lay back down and fell into sleep.
Pop! My ears were ringing again, this time my heart was pounding too. What was that? The patter of footsteps near the tent and the cracking of branches could be heard. Feet running. I held my breath, tried to channel my adrenalin to work in my favour, turned on the light again and leapt from the tent, shining the torch in all directions and even onto my own face, now bearded, with an angry look. Stones began hitting the ground and bushes around me, movement between the trees ahead, something I couldn’t see and then, a howling. Worse than an animals, a human howl, mimicking a wolf. I shouted into the darkness ‘Hey!’ ‘You think your funny!?’ ‘Whose there?!’ trying to exude some kind of power. Manic laughter echoed through the forest from where the howl had originated.
I stood for a few minutes then, realising that I couldn’t sleep here, I packed up my bags and tent quicker than I ever had done because what scared me the most was the fact that between the first footsteps and the second set I had fallen back to sleep for almost an hour. Whatever, whoever had been out there, had been there for an hour too, outside my tent, whilst I lay sleeping, oblivious. What had they been doing? Just watching me? Just sitting in the forest? That’s what scared me. Boys messing about wouldn’t have been such a problem. But this sounded like the work of one person. With my bags ruggedly strapped to the bike, I pushed back down towards the roadside. The last thing I heard as I cycled away from the town was another human howl, right from the spot where I had been pitched.
This put me off wild camping for a long time after. I still had to do it, but after that night it took me a lot longer to find somewhere to hide the tent, I’d be so paranoid, getting little sleep. All through Albania, Macedonia & Greece. It was so disheartening that people would derive fun, if that’s what it had been, from tormenting someone. What sort of world was this, I’d thought? But, in time, I began to appreciate the reminder it had given me, to be more conscious.
In the morning I woke in a new location, a safe forest car park, a kind of camping area. Two dots of light, pen sized, could be seen in the fabric of my tent, inches away from my face. They were holes. The popping sound had been my tormentor. They had stabbed through the tent as I’d slept.
The day after had been long. I cycled way beyond a hundred kilometres. So far down the coast, in fact, that the landscape changed entirely. From the dry coastal hills around Podgora to the wide, flat bog-lands near Rogotin and Podgradina. The marshes were a creation of the Neretva delta. The road ran through vast allotments built around the estuaries and up around the mountain basin that surrounded them. I cycled an extra twenty kilometres during the night to find what, on the map, was a camping site, but I never found it. It never existed. That was the night I found the Olive grove. I slept for a few hours. Hidden beneath the trees. In the morning I got away as quick as possible. I had been only a hundred metres from the farm house that owned the groves.
I never fully appreciate this part of Croatia. Some of it, the night before, had even crossed through Bosnia. I’d begun to pitch my tent up in that country, in a town, in an empty camping site, but each time I heard a dog bark or the footsteps of a passer by way up on the hillside, I’d freeze, scared. I’d moved on from there and re-entered Croatia. The final few hours to Dubrovnik had passed Water reservoirs and the ruins of castles, but I didn’t stop to look. I just kept on cycling to city, to the edge of Croatia and to a safe hostel where I had a bed and new friends around me and where the sun shone for four days straight. The wild was not some place I wanted to be for a while.