The mountains have vanished in swirling mist. Deep in the highlands of Bosnia and Herzegovina, peaks roll under a wet blanket of fog. Each step is a good faith effort to believe the summit is in blind reach. My hiking companion has a dying cell phone in one hand, eyes glued to a faltering map app. In the other is a Garmin with an inadequately detailed GPX track. In front of us the hillside drops off into pearly space.
The World’s Newest Long-Distance Trail
The Via Dinarica, one of the world’s newest long-distance hiking trails, spans seven countries, 1,200 miles, and thousands of years of history. This area of the Balkans—mostly in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia—has long been the border between the east and west. Its complex history fueled a war in the 1990s as Yugoslavia disintegrated and these mountains became places of strategic advantage.
This new trail aims to move beyond that. Mountaineer Kenan Muftić has spent the last four years scouting out routes in the region’s mountains. He and the Via Dinarica team have been hard at work developing the White Trail, which follows the highest peaks of the Dinaric Alps. Muftić’s goal is to create three distance trails spanning former Yugoslavia. The White Trail—comprised of old shepherd routes, existing trails through national parks, logging tracks, new paths, and paved roads—officially opened in June 2016, the same week we started walking. (Based on reports from hikers, the team announced in August that “although plenty of information for those daring the trail are available,” the route would only be considered officially open only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where work has been done to cut new paths.)
Muftić’s fieldwork is supported by the diplomatic efforts of American Tim Clancy, a Via Dinarica team member who came to Bosnia and Herzegovina with an aid group during the war in the 1990s and never left. By physically connecting people across this divided region, Clancy hopes to help conserve some of the last wild places in Europe. “We have a chance to preserve what much of Europe lost long ago,” Clancy says.
The Odyssey Begins
The first stage of the Via Dinarica begins in Postonja, Slovenia, where a gleaming white castle looms over a moss-streaked cave. The trail leads from the castle under train tracks, over a highway, and up a hill, where pavement gives way to gravel and thick pine forests close in. As the day heats up, what it means to hike across the world’s largest karst field finally sinks in: This spectacular limestone formation drains like a sieve—there is almost no surface water.
The first marked water source, a small hut with a plastic rainwater cistern, is off the trail on a small mountain. Throughout the Dinaric Alps entire towns live on collected rain. It tastes stiff with plastic and a smoky barbecued flavor.
We’re wondering where to pitch our first camp when a passing Jeep directs us to Jože Meze, who is puttering in his garden about a mile down the road. Meze worked here as a cook at a partisan camp during World War II, where he later built his summer house. Dimpled with a stub nose and pink cheeks, Meze says we can have water—but first, rakija. The homemade brandy is ubiquitous in the region. He bobs back with a liquor bottle, brimming shot glasses, and beer. The next day, the same Jeep driver again leaves us half a bottle of rakija for liquid encouragement at the top of the next hill.
A daily pattern emerges: our constant preoccupation with water, frequent confusion, and the incredible kindness of strangers. While many long-distance trails have become a kind of trophy, an experience to be collected rather than savored, the Via Dinarica isn’t about speed records. The trail stretches across rugged and isolated landscapes that give any other backcountry a run for its money, but it also crosses farmers’ fields and threads through villages. While logistics and terrain can be challenging, the deviations and obstacles often bring gifts like the golden comfort of honey brandy or a warm fire in a tiny cabin. The beauty of this project is in the in-between places.
Hunker Down and Wait
In the southern reaches of the Velebit mountains of Croatia, the wind begins to blow. The tops of the beech trees rustle, then groan. Scorching heat made the day’s hiking a thirsty affair, but now sweat is quickly turning cold. Nestled into the bowl of a little valley perched over the Adriatic coast, we stumble on an emergency shelter that hums with the energy of the coming storm. Though not yet full-fledged, the wind is strong enough that it’s necessary to grasp at rocks to stand upright, and using the bathroom becomes difficult when going in any direction means pissing into the wind.
This breeze has a name: the bura (or bora). Its name may stem from the Greek mythological figure Boreas, the north wind. It’s a katabatic wind that can start suddenly, whipping the Adriatic with devastating effect. Although bura occurs along many areas of the Mediterranean coast, the gales can reach speeds of up to 156 miles per hour around Velebit, where mountains sharply divide pressure systems. It’s one of the reasons emergency shelters are scattered throughout the mountains—once bura begins there’s not much to do but hunker down and wait.
The next day dawns calm and ruthlessly hot. A full day’s ration of water weighs nearly nine pounds—hopefully enough to get to the next rainwater cistern. Built in the 1930s, the 35-mile Premužić Trail in northern Velebit is a meandering masterpiece of trail work, winding past jutting limestone teeth and skirting thick pine and beech forest. But past the Premužić Trail and down the littoral slope of Velebit, the next section of the Via Dinarica runs through Paklenica National Park, a popular stop for rock climbers. In the mountains the political complications of the region take physical form. Though the violence is long over, the consequences remain.
In the nearby highlands of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), for example, the trail runs through Lukomir, the highest village in the country and one of the only Muslim villages in the area to survive Serbian attacks during the 1990s. Just a few kilometers away, the Serbian village of Blace was burned to the ground by Bosnian soldiers. Muftić is quick to point out there were crimes on all sides of the conflict—a reason why resentments linger.
Today, meadows have begun to reclaim Blace’s crumbling ruins, and flowers sprout over the tumbled concrete. On a Sunday morning, a one-room church bell tolls over the empty ruins, and a slow trickle of vehicles bounce over the open grassland as people arrive to attend service. The simple grace of the ritual is at odds with the visible remains of destruction.
Over the pass, Lukomir is not only still occupied but a tourist destination. The danger Lukomir now faces is one threatening rural populations all over the world: young people are leaving in search of work, leaving an aging population.
Conservation and Climate Change
Dušan Simović bursts into the room draped in the skin of a bear that he’s shot. Its splayed paws are the size of dinner plates, with claws the length of fingers. A tall, wiry man, Simović lives in the Treskavica mountains in southern BiH, and when we materialize off the trail above his barn, he invites us inside his smoky kitchen and dishes up deer steak, foraged mushrooms, and fresh milk from his cows. He laughs at our “lucky” hand-carved bear necklaces—a gift from an old woman in Slovenia. “For a real bear charm you need a real bear,” Simović says, cutting off one of the claws as a gift.
Despite longstanding fears over the decline of Europe’s large carnivores, a recent study in Science found that the brown bear population has actually stabilized. There are now around 17,000 in Europe, and reintroduction programs are working to reestablish bears in areas where they’d previously been wiped out. We encountered one such project, the PirosLIFE Catalunya Programme in southern Slovenia.
For years the Pyrenees have been dominated by Pyros, an alpha male bear who was live-trapped near Mašun, Slovenia, in 1997 and brought to the Spanish-French border. Today, about 75 percent of bears in the area are his offspring, and his reproductive prowess has earned modest fame. Scientists now fear that inbreeding will increase the risk of disease, so in 2016 a team returned to Mašun for Goiat, a second male bear that will hopefully introduce more genetic diversity.
Although the success of the Pyrenees program may be in no small part thanks to Pyros, large mammals also depend on the health of their ecosystems to survive. Because of historically isolationist policies, the Dinaric Alps are not as well studied as their neighbors, but they contain some of the last undisrupted forests in Europe.
We spend several days sloshing through these forests toward Sutjeska, the oldest and largest national park in BiH. At a summit near Prijevor we met Miroslav Svoboda, a professor of forestry and wood sciences at the Czech University of Life Sciences, who invites us into a small mountain hut for rakija. He is part of an international group that is investigating the health of some of the last old-growth stands in Europe.
Socks steam dry above the wood stove as Svoboda explains that we don’t know much about how humans affect the forest dynamics. As part of a team doing long-term monitoring of ecosystems in Velebit, Croatia, one of the few places in the Mediterranean where Norway spruce survives, Svoboda’s trying to fill in that gap. He hopes that by learning more about the health of these ecosystems scientists will learn how they are being altered by climate change.
The End of the Road
The final descent of the Via Dinarica spills into Valbona Pass, where trees and greenery seem to lose their enthusiasm partway up bare stone pinnacles. Crags hide small patches of last winter’s snow. While there’ve been few hikers on the Via Dinarica, the handful of people on this more popular summit speak half a dozen different languages—a sign that the universal language of hiking is returning to the region.
The Via Dinarica is a remarkable feat considering its political and geographical challenges, though, like any new trail, information about resources and routes are still being compiled. As some of the first through-hikers, we had the privilege of being alone in a stunning landscape—and all the hurdles that entailed.
Looking out over Valbona Pass, I finally begin to understand why, as Muftić says, those along the route have something in common. “We may have huge challenges from the past, but we must be together.”