Regina G Beach

The only constant is change.

Sleeping at the Edge of a Minefield

I spent Oct. 20-Nov. 21, 2018 cycle touring unsupported from Milan, Italy to Split, Croatia this post recounts part of that journey.

We woke up in Zadar on a mission to get Craig’s rear wheel trued. His road bike wheels had so few spokes and another one had snapped. He had replaced it and had done a pretty good job but there was still a slight wobble. The mechanic at first bike shop we went to didn’t get in until the afternoon. The second shop was booked solid for hours. We were just about to give up when we rolled into a third shop. The proprietor didn’t speak English, his shop was a mess with piles of parts, old bikes and new merchandise, but he came outside with a spoke tool and less than a minute later Craig’s wheel wobbled no more. He wouldn’t take our money and waved us on our way. His face and neck were badly scarred from burns. I tried not to stare, but I did wonder. Was he in some kind of horrible accident? Are these scars remnants of war? A house fire? Scalding water? An exploded bomb?

Can you find our tent? Hint: it’s on the left. After passing through a mine field we were happy to have a safe place to camp.

Can you find our tent? Hint: it’s on the left. After passing through a mine field we were happy to have a safe place to camp.

We were headed to Krka National Park but knew around noon that we wouldn’t make it by sundown. The miles weren’t bad, it was the quality of the road. Nearly none of it was paved and some of it was quite steep and full of big, jagged stones that liked to throw me off my rhythm. I repeated my mantra of “stay on the bike,” and “let the bike find the path.” I have a tendency to over grip and get in my head on uneven ground.

We stopped for lunch at a little market. There was a grassy area and park bench outside. Usually Craig stays with the bikes and I do the shopping, but he wanted to go in, so I set up our picnic outside cutting up the rest of the cheese and bread while Craig scoured the shelves. He brought out more meat and cheese, an avocado and a snickers bar, our favorite indulgence.

After lunch we were right back on the rocky trail. Shepherds with their flocks passed us. We rode through small villages with geese, turkeys and chickens. We passed other villages that looked like they’d been abandoned for a while. The roofs had caved in and the flora was growing though the floorboards. The sun was setting and we decided to start looking for a place to camp. There were no big cities, no hotels. We knew we were going to camp. We passed some good spots but the sun was still shining and we felt good. It’s always a craps shoot. Should we continue? Or should we stop here?

The unpaved roads were rocky and uneven but I got used to being off road on my bike with my gear.

The unpaved roads were rocky and uneven but I got used to being off road on my bike with my gear.

The villages were JUST close enough together to make us nervous about being discovered on someone’s property. In one village it seemed like all the men were gathered on a roof while all the women were gathered next door on the porch. Everyone was watching the sunset. We crossed a paved highway and the houses disappeared, even the bombed out abandoned ones. We didn’t see anything or anyone. The path continued and we thought it looked like a good place to look for a clear spot.

Someone had dumped an old couch and mattress. There was some litter on the ground. Craig said he would leave his bike and look for a flat spot. I saw a boulder coming up on the path and suggested we ride to it, lean the bikes against it and I would join him on the hunt for a campsite. It was a good thing we rode up to the boulder because just across from it was a sign. We couldn’t read most of it, but the skull and cross bones on a red triangle got the message across. “Mine Mines,” it said across the top. There are estimated to be nearly 35,000 landmines leftover from the Croatian War for Independence. Craig and I are no strangers to stepping lightly. We met in southeast Asia where in Laos and Cambodia there are deadly landmine accidents every year from bombies leftover from the Vietnam War. We weren’t about to take any chances and decided to roll on through.

There seemed to be a different magnitude to knowing this modern, western country was carpeted with bombs not 20 years ago. We didn’t see a soul. We just kept pedaling as it got darker and darker. We knew the brush wouldn’t be safe, but as soon as we saw land that had been farmed and tilled that we would be OK. It’s not ideal to cycle on rough terrain at night, but it’s even less ideal to risk life and limb driving metal tent stakes into a minefield.

This warning sign states that the area hasn’t been cleared and may contain land mines left over from the Croatian War of Independence.

This warning sign states that the area hasn’t been cleared and may contain land mines left over from the Croatian War of Independence.

We finally came to the edge of a farmer’s pasture. We couldn’t see the farmhouse and figured we’d have a pretty believable story to tell if anyone disturbed us. No one did. No one ever does. We pitched the tent in a grove of trees on top of sheep shit and soft grass. We made tortellini and pesto for dinner. It was do dark. The darkest I had seen in Croatia. The stars were brilliant in the cold air. I picked out the constellations I knew before settling down for bed. In the morning the mist rose off the grass and the sun rose over the tree line. It was one of the nicest campsites we had found. Who would have thought? Sleeping at the edge of a minefield.