Words by Elladee Brown
Photos by Leslie Kehmeier and Elladee Brown
The Zavizan-Senj mountain hut is part of a network in the southernmost region of the Northern Velebit National Park. While the Velebit mountains are not the highest range in Croatia, they are the largest. Our ride up here from Krasno was gorgeous and the road was surrounded by coniferous forests and stunning creeks and streams. The journey was quiet and calm with minimal traffic and maximum nature. And the birds! This region is home to hundreds of different species of birds, and the symphony of sounds throughout the ride was incredible.
Whether it was a conversation, an exchange at the market, catching a ride, or ordering a cappuccino, there was a level of earthiness to the people in Croatia that felt authentic and genuine. It was as though they haven’t yet been jaded by the influx of tourism. Life seemed harder in the backcountry areas; opportunities are scarce, employment is spotty, and the weather is even more seasonal than the coast. The average monthly salary in Croatia hovers around 600 Euros, and despite being the most recent member of the EU, they still deal in their local currency, the Kuna. We were shocked at how many buildings along the route had been abandoned, blown out or left to deteriorate. Some of the people we met said life was better with communism. "At least everyone had something." Not every local felt this way but we heard this sentiment on several occasions.
We left the Zavizan-Senj mountain hut with an excellent send-off of hot breakfast and a shot of rakia. We headed toward the town of Gospic, a former battleground for Croatian independence in the early '90s. The town had fought hard against Serbian forces back then as evidenced by bullet-holed buildings on almost every block. Gospic is also the hometown of Nicola Tesla and his memorial is located here as an homage to their local but world-famous hero.
We pulled into the first guesthouse we saw in Gospic but it was full. The owner was kind enough to call several places in town on our behalf, unfortunately everywhere she knew was booked. As usual, we were starving so she recommended a pizza place in town and we headed there to fuel up while we figured out where to stay.
Hell-bent on finding a shower and a warm place to sleep, Leslie found an apartment on booking.com. We committed to the place only to have our server inform us after dinner that the owner of the restaurant would like to offer us a free room in his building. The woman at the guesthouse had called over to tell them of our plight and to keep an eye out for us. We were so touched by the gesture. The generosity of this place was becoming a daily occurrence when we least expected it.
Bikepacking point-to-point is so much more than exploration and good views. It brings out the best in people. When there are no barriers like a car door, bus window, or all-inclusive resorts, you meet people face-to-face, and the connection is almost always positive.
The ride from Gospic to Sveti Rok would be one of our easier days on the trail. It had a bit of climbing but was tame compared to the last few days. Also, about 15 kilometers of the day’s ride went through a former land mine zone, and our route planning sources obviously advised finding lodging or camping well past this area. We headed toward the town of Sveti Rok, which would be the perfect landing spot for the night. But first, we had to travel along the sobering road with skull and cross bone warning signs all along the way.
Besides the solemn land mine zone, the surrounding land in this section of our route was beautiful, and we didn’t see a single vehicle or cyclist along this stark portion of the trip. Just forested groves, long grass, streams and silhouetted mountains in the distance.
Even though Leslie and I were riding this trip together, there were many times we'd have distance between us and we'd both just zone out and go our own pace. I love those moments when your mind wanders and you think about nothing but the beauty that surrounds you and the freedom of being on a bicycle. Ironically those moments of mindlessness are popularly sought out in modern-day culture. It's impossible to be inundated by anything but the task at hand. Bikepacking is a perfect reminder of how little you actually need.
Dark clouds brooded around us for most of the day but we managed to stay dry and rolled into Hostel Sveti Rok late in the afternoon. Surrounded by farmland, the hostel was situated on a small country road and packed with cyclists and bikes splayed all around the property. We arrived just in time and took cover under umbrellas on the patio as it started to rain. A happy but busy host welcomed us to stay and we asked her if there was anything vegetarian from the kitchen because we didn't see any such thing on the menu. “No problem,” she answered. “I’ll bring you something. It will be a surprise.” Her confidence was comforting, so we nodded and went with it. There's something beautiful about not having to make a decision, just eat what you get and enjoy being served as a guest at someone's house. Veggie bean soup and a big bowl of bread followed by cappuccinos and cake to finish it off. Perfect.
The next morning, we packed up our belongings and planned the day's ride that would take us from Sveti Rok to the much smaller town of Obravac. Packing and repacking our bags took some time each morning but it got easier with every day. Essential items should be handy and stay at the top of your backpack: This was something we figure out in the first few days when we realized our external chargers, NUUN tabs, rain jackets, or spare batteries were at the very bottom of the bag precisely when we needed them. Once we strapped everything in place on our bikes in the morning, we didn't want to undo or dig into these bags until the day was done and we quickly became experts at packing this jigsaw puzzle.
Our ride to Obravac was another slight diversion from the original route. We were making route decisions based on weather, distance to civilization, and time of day. And this day, the weather finally hit us hard after skirting storms and rainfall for the previous few. Just an hour into the ride and after a solid climb on a gravel logging road, it started pouring, spitting at first and then sheets. It was the day we finally broke out the waterproof shorts and with rain jackets on and hoods up, we forged ahead and kept moving, which is the best antidote to the cold and wet.
It was hard to tell what valleys we were heading toward with the thick fog and cloud cover but RideWithGPS kept us to the route. At one point, we were walking through a forest with no road or trail, phones in hand following the arrows. Thankfully, it plopped us out on a rocky double-track and away we went up and over the next hill, happy to be back on a visible route.
The wind was blowing hard and droplets of rainwater on our phone screens were a source of frustration but give me this kind of problem any day. We upped and downed our way through three more valleys in and amongst giant rock spires flanked by grassy fields. We could see the town of Obrovac from the last ridge and the highest point of the day. It looked downhill to the highway but for every steep descent was a corresponding climb as we made our way closer the pavement, food, and the centuries-old town
Obrovac was empty. There was barely a person in town as we rode in. Most of the buildings were abandoned, blown out, or deteriorated, but we found a small café to sit while we hunted down somewhere to stay. Then the rain really started coming down - perfect timing to end the ride and an excellent choice for a stopover and route diversion. Mission accomplished for a warm place to sleep that night.