WILD CETINA - CROATIAN ADRENALIN

National Geographic Adventurer, May 2008

“Are we ready?” I ask the boys one last time.
“We are, we are” they reply as if the task ahead of us is a piece of cake.
“Sorry for being a bore, but as I already said, once we reach the rapids, there’s no going back. After the Cetina enters the canyon, there’s no other way out and God only knows what’s awaiting us there!” Just watch out, be smart, everything’s gonna be okay… And just take it easy, the guys reply.
“What’s important is that we don’t throw ourselves in the water!” I continue boring them. “As long as we stay upright and keep our balance, the boat can’t turn over…”
Yeah, yeah, got it, we know that…

Acting cool, I take the stern. Somebody needs to take on that responsibility and I have the most paddling experience in the team, so okay; it’s probably better this way… Borna is in the middle and Marko is upfront. Marko, the least experienced one of us, goes to the bow. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes, I think to myself: forefront, closest to the waves, without any control over what’s happening behind him at the helm where his destiny is being controlled. Oh well; I’ll buy him a drink later on to make up for all his sacrifices and trust in us; I really appreciate that!

Also, this is his boat: a yellow plastic canoe. Whenever we would dock at shore, the site of that innocent, childish boat reminded me of the absurdity of our venture. Yeah, we are guys from the suburbs, and we prefer adventures in the style of Huckleberry Finn over tourist arrangements with helmets, life-vests, and logistics. Only that hard, cheap boat alone makes the whole situation so comical. It had served well when we had drifted down the tame, still waters of Lonjsko Polje a while back. But then again, you can even float in a pond using old car tires, kids seem to love doing that. In a barrel too, I suppose. But only crazy people go down Niagara Falls in a barrel… And you don’t go down the Cetina on a tire! Yet here we are, the three stooges, riding Ole Yeller … Team Huckleberry Finn, traveling in the local Croatian way.

The first five minutes pass nicely. We watch the roads disappear from site, the canyon narrow in on us, and the river speed up. Adrenalin slowly pumps through our veins, even though the silence and tameness of the landscape fill us with awe.
Calm before the storm! That thought had crossed my mind just moments before we heard a sinister “Shhhhhhh” from around the next meander.
“Okay guys, here we go, easy now!” someone shouts… The hell easy! The river grows faster by the moment. Ole Yeller doesn’t have brakes!

First wave to the left, second one to the right… That’s the rhythm; we just need to stay vertical when entering the waves and everything’s gonna be alright. Ole Yeller is rocking but we’re holding on… Not! Only a few seconds had passed since we had entered the rapids. At the third wave, I didn’t even have time to turn the stern, and everything began falling apart… As the boat continues spinning and falling off balance, the boys hold their positions, and remain upright. I’m proud of them. They fight to the end… What guys they are! Immediately after, the wild waters of the Cetina swallow us and swirl us around as if we are in a washing machine.

Good ole Huckleberry and his team don’t care about wetsuits. It just doesn’t fit the picture. It’s not stylish. The icy water slaps us sober. The spring had just melted snow in the Dinara mountain and it all flowed into the Cetina. Our first reaction is one of shock. Our lungs are so frozen, we can’t fill them with air as we surface. The second reaction is of mere survival. The water sucks us in and spins us about, showing no intention of throwing us to the shore. Instinctively, one would swim to the safety of the banks, just about ten meters away. Perpendicular to the direction we are moving in. Perpendicular to the force driving us exclusively in one direction – downstream. And under!

The river had swallowed us and spit us out. We can’t do anything but gasp for air and do our best to endure it all. We manage to cling to the boat that had overturned and endure constant collisions with it and with the rocks along the river’s bottom.

And then the boat starts sinking. We thought we had been smart when we had tied our luggage to the boat. But when that luggage became saturated with water, it started dragging the boat to the bottom, pulling us along with it…

During moments like these, you don’t think. You just fight, and are completely focused on what’s going on. We somehow manage to keep a grip of the luggage and the boat on a rope. Each of us holds onto his part for some 300 meters, until the river calms and gives us a chance to swim to shore. We count the bruises and scratches and conclude that, luckily, there are no broken ribs. Ole Yeller, however, is the only one that didn’t make it. It is ruptured in a few places. “Fricking plastic!” we curse while we wring our clothes on shore, frozen to the bone. “And how do we get out of here?” Thank goodness the Cetina made fools of us while we were still at the beginning of our bold yet stupid venture. Had we entered any deeper into that canyon, we would have had to return back up the river, at the mercy of that water. But now at least we could somehow manage to climb up the thorny macchia of the steep hills. This rescue action lasts until noon.

Huckleberry has capitulated, we all agree in the evening. We are finally dry in Tonči’s Tavern in Podgrađe. That beast of a river had made a mockery of us earlier that day, but then again, we had deserved it. Even then, on dry land, our hearts are beating at a faster pace. But at least we aren’t quitting. We are still more hardheaded than the rocky bottom of the Cetina.

“It’s time we grow up,” I admit to Tonči and announce, “We will continue with you and follow all the rules!” Tonči Jerčić is one of that region’s first locals to begin exploring adventurous passages through the Cetina’s canyon with a group of his local buddies. These people know the canyon the best and had matured long before we had. Now they share their practical knowledge through adventure-tourism packages with the tourist agency “Jut.”

The next morning we continue with them with a serious approach, as is appropriate for a serious river. We head off from Čikotina Lađa with rubber kayaks, neoprene wetsuits, life jackets, and all the other necessary equipment.

“We look like penguins, but this is not bad at all!” I yell to the boys in the other kayak. We ride the swift currents with just as much excitement as necessary to have a good time, while not endangering our lives. We jump down the little waterfalls, speed down natural slides, while ole bearded Tonči laughs at us the whole time. Such exciting but safe traveling down the wild waters of the Cetina allow us much more time to enjoy the divine landscape. We pass by old water mills and the pleasant grove Blato on Cetina. Then we pass under an old hanging bridge that had once been the only crossing of this river in the canyon, when it had been part of a merchants’ trail of long ago.

As we continue deeper into the canyon, its walls gradually increase in height, until they reach heights of over a hundred meters. Water fills the entire area, from one cliff of the canyon to the other. We enjoy the peace of this richness left untouched by man, all until the huge dam and power plant Kraljevec suddenly appears before our eyes. The electric power plant Kraljevec was built in the year 1912. Even back then, the Cetina was recognized for its exceptional potential for hydroelectricity. Afterwards, four more power plants were built, that nowadays provide 30% of all electrical power for the Republic of Croatia. For a long time now, environmentalists and specialists for energy have been battling over what is more important for Croatia’s greatest karst river, whose length stretches to over a hundred kilometers. Should it be used for its hydroelectric potential or should its unique natural treasures be preserved.

The only road that reaches the bottom of the canyon ends at Kraljevac dam, so there we exchange our gear, as part of the adventure package offered by Jut Agency. A guy from Jut’s logistics team takes our kayaks and paddles and gives us helmets and climbing gear so we could continue down the canyon by foot! A true water rhapsody then follows! The rampant water thunders as it gushes over boulders that had fallen from the steep cliffs. At each jump there are several ways to go.

“If you go that way you will end up in a siphon,” Tonči advises us. “And over here it’s a beauty! Just keep your feet in the air!” We then follow his lead. The current immediately pulls us, throws us left then right, and then spit us out in a calm little pool. I quickly realize that these guys are familiar with every bit and detail of that canyon, and know every current that flows, so we jump into every “washing machine” without hesitation. We pass numerous rapids, slides, and waterfalls, and amazing underwater tunnels under boulders. We are so absorbed in this water game that Tonči startles us when he stops to show us a little cave in the cliff and explains:

“Here’s where we used to come from Poljice for wild honey! There used to be a lot of wild bees in the canyon up until some twenty years ago. Beautiful cave pigeons and rabbits had also lived here, until farming in Sinjsko Polje intensified, resulting in the drainage of all chemical waste into the river. Nowadays, people are much more careful and conscious, so hopefully the bees will return soon. Uhh…” he stops for a moment, licks his fingers, and then clasps his hands, saying, “Wild honey from brambles is the best delicatessen the world has ever known!"

There are still many flowers here to lure the bees back. The fragrances of heather, sage, and myrtle enrich the scents of this canyon. But our daydream about wild honey is soon cut short when we hear a new piercing “Shhhhh”. We had reached Cetina’s greatest waterfall, Velika Grbavica, which is 45 meters high. We squeeze our way to the very top of the waterfall and enjoy the view of 10 cubic meters of water per second rushing down into the abyss and dispersing as tiny droplets in the air. “Can you climb or rappel here?” Marko asks Tonči when he saw pitons driven into the rocks right next to the waterfall.

“You can when 100-200 liters per second are gushing through. It would be suicide to do it now!” Tonči answers. “They were set for an adventure race some ten years ago, but they had an agreement with the power plant for a small amount of water to be let through. Two years ago there was a Czech guy that didn’t know that, so he descended. The vacuum that builds up underneath the waterfall pulled him, literally sucking him in, and the force of the water just finished him off. Divers found him a day later – stuck to a wall in the bottom of the egg-shaped lake, 20 meters beneath the waterfall!”

We avoid the waterfall by going through a hand-dug tunnel made and used by workers of the Kraljevac power plant. Then we continue by foot in the water and through the canyon. As we come closer to the last waterfall in the canyon – Mala Gubavica, the landscape becomes even more dramatic. With its whirlpools, the river had carved peculiar oval shapes in the bare rocks and steeply descended into the abyss. Water from the eight meter high Mala Gubavica falls into a pool formed from rock, and flows out only through its bottom, which is some ten meters deep, and continues flowing towards Lake Crnica. Even crazy guys like Tonči wouldn’t dare go through such a devil’s pass.

We circumvent the waterfall by rock climbing along the side, but to reach the lake at the bottom, we still need to descend some fourteen meters vertically down the cliff.
“Do you want to jump or do you want to rappel?” Tonči asks us.
Borna stands at the cliff’s edge, looks down the black water below, and says:
“If you intend to jump, don’t look down too long and wait, but just jump!”
As soon as he says that, he jumps into the abyss and disappears from our sight… Marko and I remain standing, looking for too long, so Tonči decides for us:
“Rappel!”
We swim along the narrow and deep lake to the end of the canyon where Poljička Valley starts, and where Jut’s logistics guy awaits us with his van.
“That’s it for today. Are you still alive?” he asks.
“Uh, too alive!”
“Then it’s time for taverning!”

What the hell is that, we ask Tonči while riding, safe and dry in new clothes, in the van towards the village Podgrađe. “Ah nothing, we have this old tavern up in the village so we thought if there is kayaking, canyoning, rafting, and God knows what else that ends with an ing, why wouldn’t there also be taverning? We coined that term and added it to the program for our guests, and they seem pleased with it!” We reach an old house made of stone where the women’s team of Jut’s logistics welcomes us with a platter of local specialties set on a large oak-wood table. After we made a toast with homemade herb brandy, I ask Tonči what is included in the taverning program.

“Guests pay about 20 Euros and can really feel at home here! You can have all the smoked ham, goat’s cheese in olive oil, salted anchovies, whine and brandy you want… so eat and drink as much as you please! If you call us in advance, you can even get roasted lamb!”
“And you watch over them or…?” I ask him but he interrupts me immediately.
“No one watches anyone’s plate. If the party is good, we stay with them, and if it isn’t, then we have nothing to do here… The guests are free and left on their own. Rooms await them upstairs, so if they want, they can even sleep over here!”

We make up for all the lost calories with a lot of delicious home cooked food, and the hosts honor us with their company late into the night. After we agree on our plans for the next intensive meeting with the Cetina the following day, we go to bed in simple old-fashioned rooms of the tavern. In the morning, Srećko Škarica, the owner of the “Cetina raft” Agency awaits us with rubber boats. Srećko knows the next 15 kilometers of the river very well, which is also one of the best and the most known stretches of river for rafting in Croatia.

Soon after getting started, we stop by an island with a forest and Srećko tells us, “The most famous poet of Poljica, Josip Pupačić, came here for inspiration.” He pauses, coughs a bit, and then enriches the sunny spring morning with a few lines:
“I know an island / Where golden birds fly,
Where a murmur from the distance sails / With the ring of a wild bell.
Upon it walks a willow, / Sings passionately a bird,
And dance slim poplars, / Sunny minarets”

We paddle for another twenty minutes down the calm river that meanders along the green valley. Then Srećko stops again, saying, “Okay, this was a good warm-up. And now, before we reach the action, you need to try something.” We follow him to the first house, where we meet an old lady who is just taking bread out from a traditional oven used for baking under layers of hot ashes. The bread is almost one meter in diameter!
“This is soparnik, my children, try it” she says.
“And this is my grandmother,” Srećko adds.
Soparnik is our specialty in Poljica. It is bread baked with silverbeet.” Srećko explains while his grandmother brushes the ashes from the bread and cuts it.
“Hmmmm,” Marko is impressed after tasting the first bite. “Good, good!”

After we eat it all, we continue, even more ready for the adventure awaiting us. We pass some nice rapids, and then hear the sinister “Shhhhh” again. The closer we come to the huge rapids, the queasier I get. Srećko, who is also our skipper, stops a moment before the current sucks us into the rapids and laughs, “Don’t worry, no one goes through there! Only the professionals dare into Oblačnik! But even one of the skippers died here six years ago!” He explains how these rapids were named Oblačnik (name is derived from ‘oblak’, which is Croatian for cloud) because during the winter period when the water is at its highest level, the whole stretch of rapids becomes so foamy that the droplets fill the air like a cloud. Nevertheless we are tempted to try going down the sinister rapids, but Srećko discourages us, “Believe me, the alternative is no less interesting!

The path that circumvents Oblačnik takes us through a beautiful cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites. At its end we pass under a curtain of water that pours down from the cave’s ceiling. We quickly sit back in our boats and Srećko seems to have read our minds, “There’s no going back now! Ready?”

We rush through the whole sequence of rapids that had been named either for their shape or for one of their characteristics. “Labyrinth”, “Elbow”, “Z”, “Ferrari”, “Javornica”, with each next rapid being more interesting than the previous one. We also pass through “Tisne Stine” (Croatian for “narrow cliffs”), an extremely narrow canyon between two 50 meter high cliffs distanced a mere 10 meters away from one another. It is known for a scene from the movie “Winetou” that was filmed here.

We reach our destination for that day, Radmanove Mlinice (Radman's mills), a perfect place to end an exciting adventure. The menu in that restaurant, situated in the pleasant ambient of the river's shore, includes some of the finest specialties of the Cetina; eels, frogs and crabs. But we decide to go with the classic trout and a pint of black wine. We raise our glasses and make a toast to the successful ending of a grand adventure, “Long live the Cetina!”