A chance encounter brings a different kind of appreciation to the mighty mountain sitting behind Zadar - Velebit.
We are standing in line at the bakery on busy Zadar fresh market. The place is a highlight of it's own. Historically it has been a crossing point for all the organic farmers and producers that flock from the nearby villages to sell their crops. The vibe today reminds of centuries of trading on the worn out roman stones that lead to the market. Foody's heaven then, and today.
The baker starts a casual chat and we easily find a common ground. We are planning a 3-day hike to one of the highest peaks of Velebit mountain range. The trip that is her childhood memory. Sort of a madeleine moment that sparks a proustian flow of thoughts – 'I've done that trip many times. My father always used to take us when we were kids. Our grandpa always brought life stock there in summer. It was a hard hike, so my father can’t do it anymore. He is walking around the mountain villages instead. But I still do it today many times.'
Echos of that talk resonated as we started walking up the dried Mala Paklenica river. The route there is an intensive hike. There is even one section secured with a via ferrata (not that you’ll need a harness to do it), meandering through the high gorge. We reach the top of the gorge only to find out that we are at the bottom of another sequence of tall mountains with the peak far in the distance. Where ever you look there are hills and peaks above as well as behind and below.
If you look at the map you see that every little hilltop and even semi-valley in this area has a name. Old Croatian names (with plenty of consonants in a row) and old words cross isohypse lines on the map. It’s a proof of how active people have once been in these lands: mainly for summer pastures, and not so long ago, as we heard earlier that morning.
After two days of spending nights in bivouacs we reach the mountain hut where I get my hands on a book that incredibly accurately documents all human settlements on the mountains. Today it's modest stone houses, or just ruins. It tells of populations in villages going from 500 to 30. Baker lady must have been counted in one of those population counts.
I think of this isolated mountain area and I compare it to Austrian Grossglockner Haute Route – a road leading from Heidigelblut and valley villages all the way to the start of several ice glaciers. A massive road that ends with a big restaurant, large parking lot and an inspiring museum. A mountain route dag in the mountain as a cave to make it easier for trekkers. It appears to be about changing nature and lowering expectations of hikers. On the other hand, here at Sveto Brdo – the only thing you have here is a good map in the shop in Starigrad, a few markings on the way and a stone plate with 10 commandments carved on to it on top of Sveto Brdo (the name means 'Saint Hill'). Even that is more than what people used to navigate this beautiful area. It is comforting to know that climbing Velebit today has not changed much since the earlier times – good to know that you can walk in the footsteps of the baker lady and get a feel for what life in Croatia was, not so long ago.
Here's a few tips for doing this trip on your own.
There are several routes you can take up to Sveto Brdo. Most of them cross at Njive Lekine (a small flat area half of the way to the Sveto Brdo). Our route went from village Seline, up Mala Paklenica gorge, and then to bivouac Ivine Vodice. Next day we did the hike to Sveto Brdo and down back to Mountain hut Paklenica (due to rain). You can do a great hike from Sveto Brdo up to Vaganjski vrh and the finish in the mountain hike. Our route is very demanding physically. From start to bivouac it is 1200m altitude with quite a bit of rock hopping and some climbing in the gorge.
Every bivouac has a fresh water source. You need to get all other suppliers.
You can leave the car in Starigrad (near Dinko restaurant – climber's meeting point) and then hike to Seline where this ascent starts. You then circumnavigate the Paklenica national Park: start in Mala Paklenica and finish in Velika Paklenica.
2 to 4 day trip – depending on your fitness level
There are many routes crossing each other leading to Sveto brdo. Aim for bivouacs Ivine Vodice or Struge and mountain hut Paklenica.
Route planning resources:
Route track log from a Croatian mountaineering source available here: http://planinarenje.hr/kt/gorja/hrvatsko/juzni-velebit/sveto-brdo-vrh/seline-mala-paklenica-njive-lekine-ps-ivine-vodice/
In Starigrad (nearby the gas station) there is mountain gear shop where you can get a mountain map Paklenica 1:25.000. It is highly recommended.
‘Moving your limits’ isn’t necessarily about the highest mountains, deepest canyons or oldest ruins. But it is about great adventures. It’s about that constant pursuit of world’s secrets – cultural as well as natural. It’s about how we move in the nature and raise our expectations about each and every place in the world, moving our mental and physical limits on the way.