Story about KORNATI

A JOURNEY TO EDGE OF CROATIA

Stretch of coast around Kornat is a group of densely scattered islands with barren, moonlike rock surface, little vegetation, high cliffs, deep sea and unforgiving weather. But, it is also a home for handful of families that own it.

Get to one of the higher hilltops on Kornat, the main island in this UNESCO protected national park and the islands spread forth like soundwaves surrounded by wrinkled sea that seamlessly dissapears in the horizon. Island lines overalap and it's hard to tell when one island ends and the next one begins. You can imagine the Ilirian pirate ships hiding here – the landscape has not changed much for centuries but people have been living here just as long.

I have come here years ago by kayak,curious to see this area that I've hard about many times. Ever since I come back every year commited to guide a limited number of travellers on kayaking trips through this inspiring archipelago. We are in Vrulje and staying with Ivo, a local fisherman and his family who owns a strip of the main island and lives here for 6 months a year.

Barren Kornat landscape.

Kornati National Park islands aerial image in sunset | Malik Adventures

Archipelago creates a maze of islands and reefs

Boat passing in front of Kornat main island in National Park | Malik Adventures

Stone walls known as 'suhozid', literally 'dry wall' in Croatian,traverse entire islands to mark different family territories and keep the goats and sheep from wondering away.

The village

Getting here is an adventure of its own. There are no permanent residents on the islands, so there are no commercial lines. Nearest village connected to the mainland is Sali on island Dugi Otok and from here it's a 2h drive away by a small boat. Alternative is getting a 3h ride from Murter on mainland, but that's a 6h ride for the driver and requires half day of good weather – which doesn't happen too often. There are big tourist boats that go to the area but they only get in northern section of the Kornati islands, turn around and go back to the mainland

Vrulje are the main settlement in the archipelago with no permanent residents.

I come out of a little refurbished fisherman house that sits in the middle of a settlement with 20 houses. All houses lean against each other, forming narrow lanes, with an occaionsl bench standing in the shade. Apart from a on occasional blue window, or a green bush. the street and the barren moonline environment around the village are dominated by whiteish stone color.

As I get out of the house I see three donkeys looking at me. It's a normal site early in the morning during summer months. They're searching for water. I cross the 2m wide lane to get over to the houses that are first row from the sea. Here I find Ivo, man in his 50s sitting in the deep shade leaning over a wooden desk in a small alley. Above him is one corner of a big white sail that spreads across the dock. He has put it up to create some extra shade for his ‘restaurant’. Basically it’s a couple of simple wodden tables scattered around a small lane and the dock. Ivo is looking to the side of the table, just past a little glass of rakija sitting in front of him.

United in the quest for water – donkeys meandering through the lanes of Vrulje

I come out of a little refurbished fisherman house that sits in the middle of a settlement with 20 houses. Each one with blue windows, forming narrow lanes and an occasional bench standing in the shade – all surrounded with barren moonlike environemnt.

“Good morning!”
I greet him and walk towards his table.
'Hello! Come over! You want one?' – He points to the little glass standing in front of him. It's 8:30in the morning, but for Ivo it’s midday. Normally he gets up before sunrise, which is around 4am and by now he probably just had his lunch – some prosciutto and cheese. He often grabs a bite after he comes back from his fishing trip.

Tome and Ivo sorting the early catch.

A rare sight in the Adriatic – a decent catch by small scale fisherman.

'Sure. Thanks. How was it this morning?' – I sit next to him and nod a good morning to Tomislav who passes by the table with a tray of freshly cleaned fish.

'It was good.' – A standard reply. Ivo rarely complains about his catch. He is one of the few people that are allowed to fish in this archipelago. Since it is a national park, the only fisherman allowed are people who own the land – like him. There is plenty of fish and very few fisherman. It very much reminds me of my childhood in the northern islands 60km north.Fishing tradition is slowly dying out – since we entered EU, local fisherman are no longer allowed to fish for themselves unless they pay a hefty sum of cash for a licence. It doesn't help that commercial fisherman are more numerous constantly reducing the fish base. It's different here on Kornati.

How hard can life be on an island?

'You've seen the beasts?' – he nods with a smile looking at a donkeys that turned around the corner wandering in the maze of small lanes.

'We have to give them water. They wouldn't survive otherwise.' – he turns towards the sea and rests his hand on the side of the bench. – 'They were owned by an old man in the next bay, a cousin of mine. He died and now there is no one to take care of them so they wonder around and in the dryest months they come to us.'

We talk about the animals and how life here was always a cohabitation with animasl. We finish the drinks, and Ivo takes his phone and pushes it around the table with his hand. It feel like the little machine is a big burden and a source of frustration, that he would like to avoid:

'...it's a very calm day today. It will be like this for days... ' – he snuggs keeping his worried look. This is normal weather for late summer.

'...but our water is running low. We'll need to call 'Bokanjac' – he says with a worrying grim refering to the the water carrying boat that supplies the islands with water and sells it at a premium price.

Getting water here is a political coup that requires a House-of-Cards-like intrigue to be certain you'll et your share. Captains of the water carier for this part of Adraitic are stretched between a douzens of islands to deliver the water. Ofcourse Kornati aren't their top priority – the trip here is long and there is only a handful of customers who buy the water, unlike in the northern islands which are more populated and closer to Zadar where they pick up water.

Getting water here is a political coup that requires a House-of-Cards-like intrigue tobe certain you'll get the water.

It also doesn't help that phone signal works arbitrarily. It works best on the nearby hilltop which is a half an hour walk, but occasionally there is no signal at all. That makes it hard to coordinate things today. Specially when people on the mainland (and don't we all) have a tendency to keep things open and finish conversations with 'we'll-talk-later'. Later the signal may not be here. Living here pushes you to seizethe moment – subtle budhist wisdom permeates everything here.

Morning catch - our food for the day.

Actually, it's not just the phone connection or the water - getting anything here is hard. You can't build anything because it's a National park and nearest civilisation is a 2h drive away. Bay is shallow not allowing most costruction boats to get even close to the village. That may hint why there are so few houses here, or why they are modest and small. Or why the boats are so polished and well mainted – unlike in other fisherman ports where they are left to decay and rotten – they are your only connection to the world. But Ivo and his neighbours still come here every year. While some come here to make a living, it is Ivo's decision to embrace an old lifestyle. He says: 'I have been coming here as a child and my whole family worked here. These are our lands. This is what we do.'

It takes years of practice to learn fishing posts are differetn for different times of the year. For an outsider going to an open sea and combing back with a tray full of fish with almost surgical accuracy may seem like a magical craft, but when Ivo talks about itit feels like science. He just quotes little bits and pieces of advice he received from his ancestors -as if he plugs into this big encyclopedia that explains how things work. The kind of book that has never been writen and is transfered from generation to generation through practice. You can't read an encyclopedia in a day or evena week. It took him years to master it. That's why it looks even more wise when my friends and fellow travellers come here.

I have been coming here as a child and my whole family worked here. These are our lands. This is what we do.

On waves, rocks and silence

Gunter, an architect from Olm and his family, who is joining me for this trip, workshis way down from his house to the dock and the tables, which have now been set up for breafkfast: locally made fig jam (by Mrs. Rosa living two houses away), goat cheese from Sali and freshly baked bread with smell of Tome's excellent espresso coffee. After breakfast we set out on our kayaks trip to the western end of the archipelago. It's a perfect kayaking day. Sea is flat like olive oil and the kayaks smoothly cut through the surface.

'All sides of the islands overlooking the open sea end with steep verticals that continue underwater to 90m depth.

We pass by Mana – island with 100m high cliffs. You hear nothing but paddles silently cutting through the water surface. Calmness is apsolutely stunning. It is amplified by the high cliffs that look down on us like ants in kayaks. Cliffs form an amphitheaterwhich normally enhances the sounds of waves crushing against the rocks. But today, they feel much bigger. Quietness feels louder than hot sun and the sharp rocks.

We continue paddling between the islands and we get to the Gospa od Tarca church. It was built in 16th century on the ruins of a much larger christian church that is thought to serve as a refuge to sailors who have anchored their ships in smaller bays, waiting for weather to calm down so they can continue their journey along Kornati. There is a reason why these isles have been underdeveloped for so long. The distance to the main trading routes and the mainland was just too big (imagine how a 2 hour drive with a motor boat translates into sailing in wind) and the islands served as a perfect fortification against foreign intruders – Kornati are 60km long bullwark that is divided from Dugi Otok by a small strait shallow enough to be impassable for any larger boat. Together they form a 120km natural protection from intruders.

Cliffs form an amphitheater which noramlly enhances the sounds of waves crushing against the rocks. But today, they feel much bigger. Quietness feels louder than hot sun and sharp rocks.

16th century church built on the leftovers of a larger Christian church – sailor refuge

The fortress Tureta, just on top of the hill above Gospa od Tarca, dates to 6th century (just before the Croats inhabited these lands) and is the only fortress that survives from those days on etire Mediterranean. All the other ones were torn apart and used as building material for settlements.Today, the fortress pays hommage to the importance of this edge of then Dalmatian kingdom.

When your life alligns with the pace of nature

Later that day in the evening we meet on the dock again. This little dock is like a living room. Ivo cleans his fish just by the sea early morning, then he moves further in by the wall to enjoy the shade during the day. In the afternoon, as we return from the kayaing trip, we lie around and lean on the stone cleat standing in the middle of the dock, having a drink and soaking in the last sun beams looking at sunset behind the horizon. We all move around and use this little strip of worn out stones which end on three sides with sea. Little dock - architecture at it simplest.

Delicious buzara is served with local variant of beens and potatos as a side dish. Ivo is a self taught cook, although it feels he occasionally taps into his 'encyclopedia'to get that little extra that make this food taste that so extraordinary. Fresh organic ingredients definitely help.

When we talk to Ivo and Tome we seem to have a lot of things in common, but a lot of things different. We talk about work, family, health and habits, but it seems that all their conversations and efforts are somehow attuned to the natural flow of things that influence how they run their lives.

Everything from when you get up, to when you go to Olive fields, or when you plant your garden – it is all dominated by weather, sunrise and time of the year. You listen to the wind to know when you'll go fishing. You use the dock the way sun allows you. Everything is simple but well thought through. I'd love to get a hold of that 'encyclopedia'.

In times when our planet seems to be in peril, we realize it's getting harder to keep a balance in life while staying connected and efficient all the time.

We talk about work, family, health and habits, but it seems that all their conversations and efforts are somehow attuned to the natural flow of things that influence how they run their lives.

''Sun shedding a slightly different light on the balance of life here on Kornati'

Here on the edge of civilisation, we see that a lot of things, which we take for granted, are hard - life has it's challenges and nature has a say in all aspecs of life. Nevertheless it seems people have stroke a balance and harmony that has been evolving for centuries. That proves that simplicity and wisdom evolve and get shaped just as the wind and sea shape the rocks and the cliffs on the islands. It gives hope that you can always find your balance – it just takes time and practice.

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