Bosnia Herzegovina is one of Europe’s most underrated travel destinations for outdoor lovers. Christine Spiteri uncovers the equally enchanting and haunting environment that surrounds River Neretva, as it carries her beyond her comfort-zone in an unforgettable 24km rafting adventure.
If it were for me, river rafting would not have featured in the itinerary. Our Balkan road trip was already a whirlwind of adventure, featuring overnight cross-border train and bus journeys, trudging through the rain looking for a hostel which didn’t exist, and kayaking in the middle of a bay filled with jelly-fish the size of a human head: all I wanted to do on our last Monday abroad, was to sit in a quiet café and while away the time with a good book.
“I’ll get seasick,” was my sorry excuse. But I wasn’t travelling alone, and had to compromise.
And so, beneath patched up skies and a typical September drizzle, we rolled our way from Mostar to Konjic in a rented car. The early-morning sky started to open up as we drove out of the battered city and onto the spectacular highway. A chain of misty mountains, covered by tall trees huddled closely together, as if to protect the snoozing Neretva River, unfolded before us. The river, still like glass, was a mysterious alpine greenish-blue and a part of me, although hesitant, romanticised the idea of being on it soon.
Ner Etwa — “Flowing Divinity” — is what the Celts called her, and where the name ‘Neretva’ originally derives. The clear river is frigid all year round and twists its way down the Dinaric Alps for 210 km, flowing through Croatia for another 20km before finally meeting the Adriatic Sea. Our rafting trek was scheduled to be 24 kilometers long which, translated into hours, tallies up to an approximate half-a-day on water.
The packaged tour we booked catered for breakfast, lunch and also included transport to and from Konjic. We were escorted down to Bukovica, our starting point, in a Rafting for You branded van with the entire crew: a British couple and a professional Skipper, all clad in full-body wetsuits, boots, bright-yellow helmets and red life-vests.
Upon arrival, our Skipper threw the raft into the calm river and gave us a quick pep talk. We were instructed to sit in pairs on each edge, with our backs straight and feet securely fastened. His instructions were simple: “When I say ‘right’, you paddle; when I say ‘left’, you paddle; when I say ‘together’, all paddle!” And in the unlikelihood of falling off, “don’t panic – don’t try to swim, your vest will float. Any questions? Off we go!”
The river carried us gently downstream, along steep gorges, astonishing slopes and untouched scenery, the silence interspersed through the sound of the rapids. Light diffused naturally through the trees, reflecting the distinctive green that is so characteristic of the region; an ethereal layer of fog making it equally haunting and charming. I paddled absent-mindedly, taking it all in.
Rafting on Neretva was surprisingly relaxing. It didn’t require the same amount of upper-body strength and coordination in comparison to kayaking, as I initially thought. Our Skipper passed round plastic cups for us to scoop up and drink the water.
“River water, Class 1 purity,” he said. “Very cold, often 7 to 12 degrees in the summer months.”
We stopped at a pebbly beach and while our Skipper fired up the BBQ, we followed his advice to ‘walk on water’ and hike into the canyon, until we found a bridge.
“Don’t worry, Bosnian Bear lives high up in the forest, not down here.”
Waist deep, we waded through the nippy waters. It was hard to swim because the water is so fresh, and difficult to walk because pebbles are so slippery. But trampling down the path of uncertainty, at times against a current, proved exciting. I wasn’t nervous any longer, I stopped overthinking and just let go.
After almost half an hour and no sign of the bridge, we followed the chain of white smoke back to the pebbly beach. Our ćevapi were ready to be served. These minced-lamb sausages, tucked inside pockets of thin and fluffy lepinja (Bosnian bread), are so typical in the Balkans, we’ve eaten them almost everyday. But these were by far the juiciest.
Replenished, we hopped back into our raft, ready to take on the ‘rapids’ — instances where the river moved faster down mini-waterfalls, or adrenalin-packed descents. I waited for our Skipper’s instructions: “Right, paddle!” at which point we gave our all, until the current picked up and we were obliged to pull our oars out of the water and enjoy the ride. It felt like being on a rollercoaster with no seatbelt on. But after feeling the momentary thrill of surviving my first rapid, I couldn’t wait to experience the next.
In between the rapids, we floated deeper and deeper through the steep gorges, forests lined up high on top. We even stopped at a couple of jumping spots, but the cold waters numbed my ability to feel anything at all, so I sat at the edge of the crag, watching the others enviously.
Skipping the weekend crowds meant we had the river all to ourself. The five of us had the luxury of sitting together, but alone, cocooned in our own thoughts, savouring the natural beauty. Upon arriving nearer to civilisation, the rubbish picked up and the purest water became undrinkable.
Towards the end of our journey, my hands were numb, toes cold and teeth chattering — I was rowing for the sake of keeping warm. We had spent almost 6 hours on water and was more than relieved to dive into my thermal socks and fleece zip-up upon reaching land. Despite freezing in the world’s coldest river, this experience shook me out of my comfort-zone and exposed me to one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, without getting seasick.