Written by: Andy Hall (www.OutdoorAdventureConsultancy.co.uk)
Paddlers: Louise Beetlestone and Karl Midlane sorted most of the trip.
Photographs: Karl Midlane and Andy Hall
September 2012 http://joom.ag/F48X/p42
Know a country where it’s cold and wet in May, has green mountains, good rivers and the inhabitants speak a strange language and are fervently defiant about their larger neighbouring countries?
Certainly sounds like Wales but the title is a give away… Montenegro is a small country formed out of part of the old Yugoslavia in that bit of Europe above Greece known as the Balkans. Balkans sounds like Serbia, Sarajevo, Kosovo and wars and that’s certainly part of the area’s history, but Montenegro would like to be thought of as one of the National Geographic’s top 10 world-wide destinations. It gets that accolade because of its white beaches, undeveloped mountains and deep canyons. Add to that, a friendly population of only 678,000 and the fact they have only been independent since 2006 and you’ve got an exciting and relatively unknown destination.
For us the deep canyons had been on the kayaking radar for a while. We three kayak voyagers from North Wales, had paddled some great rivers in Europe and further afield and had heard mention of ‘the second deepest canyon in the world’. It sounded unlikely but had the sniff of adventure. Flights had always been the stumbling block, but a new Monarch flight from Manchester to Dubrovnik (in Croatia but close to the MN border) opened the door. Internet research produced a kayak guide, and the ubiquitous Deb Pinniger (thanks Deb!) gave concrete advice… so we booked for the 12th May to maximise snow melt.
Come the day, and we were met by balmy sunshine on the runway. Good start… not so in the car hire (see notes) but we did eventually get away with a solid vehicle, three burns on the roof and depleted wallets. The Croatian main road into Montenegro was one long dirt track, and we thought customs would prove a problem with Croatian car and British shifty looking occupants. No problem though, banter with the English speaking and pretty Montenegrin Border guard did the trick!
Next morning saw us in Podgorica crossing the Moraca River and soon heading up its spectacular canyon. The guide warned of some grade 5 and a ‘no-go’. The road here is high above the river in a limestone box canyon, with thunderous lorries squeezing under a succession of tunnels and overhangs. We stopped in the occasional lay-bys to check out the river and only succeeded in frightening ourselves… one particular tunnel with an angular concrete entrance and solar panels had a view below it of a very big stopper and tight manoeuvring.
We settled on our get out point below a scree and boulder slope to avoid the invisible ‘no-go’, and headed up river to find our access point just across the river from the Moraca Monastery… one of the country’s premier tourist attractions. Of course, by the time we had got on the river the sun had gone and the water was cold and grey, narrow but powerful… and many kilometres downstream in an unclimbable canyon was a huge and growing stopper! Good psychology for our first river!
Further down though, we were feeling more confident… tributaries had joined, we’d survived some minor epics, and the river had turned bright turquoise in the sun, with some stunning springs cascading out of the now sheer sided walls. But there was still that stopper… a little beach gave some time to plan a way above the nastiness and we saw ourselves through initial rapids, but then the river sight line disappeared over a jumble of huge rocks. These rocks were the life line we needed and Louise and I scrambled precariously onto one of them above the biggest drop.
It didn’t look good, and the road was at least 200 metres above us, and though we were all climbers, it looked hard…Lateral thinking was the answer, our brains had focused on the obvious chute with the stopper, but below was a steep twisting drop with no stopper. We needed a log, but there was none… but there was Karl! A description shouted across the roar of the water, and he was down in one piece! Minutes later and we were all together massively relieved and the rest of the river seemed a blast of play waves and chutes. I hitched back to the top with a madcap Serbian driver intent on Kamikaze, overtaking lorries on blind bends. Reunited, we were well chuffed with our first Montenegrin river and had sausage and chips in a rainy Kolasin to celebrate.
Next morning and it was obvious that it had rained all night; Kolasin is the ski capital of MN and it was so cold it was dumping snow about 300 metres above the town. Perhaps skiing was the better option but we decided to check out the river Lim, a watershed away over a backcountry switchback. Access and egress were more obvious in this wide pastoral valley (though we couldn’t see much of it through the swirling cloud and rain) and we got on in Plavsko Lake. Just as we left the lake, dodging the usual array of plastic bottles and other rubbish, an otter poked his head above the water to check out these strange visitors.
Big and powerful
We had seen no sign of rafts or kayaks since we had entered MN. The Lim was another grey cold river, big and powerful, reminding us of the Inn above Landeck, with the occasional uprooted tree jammed into the bank or floating menacingly downstream. And we were pleased to find that we had avoided a few gnarly pourovers as we floated past, more by luck than good judgement. Sounds fairly grim, and it was, but we enjoyed it for its power and speed.
A fair drive down the Tara valley ensued, gradually steepening from the town of Mojkovac to form the Devil’s Canyon. As part of the UNESCO biosphere agreement this part of the Tara is banned to paddlers and patrolled by rangers… but it does look good! Some 40 kms down this canyon is ‘the Great Bridge’ rebuilt after being blown up by an original builder turned partisan (and now national hero!) to prevent Germans from using it in WWII. Next to this, on the west bank, Miro of Zabjlack Tourist Agency has some lodges and a café. He speaks English, runs a big rafting setup later in the season, and can arrange the shuttle and can arrange the shuttle and National Park permits.
Even though the river here is only grade 3-4, we knew it was high and for 83 kms it goes through a deep inaccessible canyon. Apparently it is 1,300 metres deep, only 200m less than the Grand Canyon! Having done both, it’s stretching it, I think! Whatever, it was with trepidation that we little three floated under the ‘Great Bridge’ next morning, facing a marathon 50+kms to a rafting camp in Bosnia. The day was overcast but the river was bright turquoise and the waves were big and powerful, but not retentive (though you always thought the next one might be!) We saw vultures and eagles and imagined bears and wolves in the forested gorge. Spectacular streams fell into the river from either side in filigreed patterns, handing Karl an epic day with his camera. A couple of ancient rickety cable bridges defined the past life of people in the gorge, their descendants long gone to the city or to fight in the ethnic wars.
How far to go?
Not wanting to get wet in the cold curtailed our play action and after only a couple of stops we reached the ‘Encijan’ camp. Two raft guides welcomed us to their marooned existence, no-one else at their 50 bedded wooden encampment. Soon they had us drying out our wet gear and strained bodies in front of a raging wood fire. Later they fed us local dishes until we crashed early with stories of “much bigger rapids tomorrow” a mean threat that shortened my sleep! Next morning hot pancakes, dry kit and patches of blue sky welcomed us. Not to mention two hours of big waves.
It turned out to be the highlight of the trip, not technically difficult, but powerful turquoise waves in wave trains on virtually continuous rapids. The raft guides had counted nine rapids to the end of the river at Scepjan Polje; but we’d counted nine after 30 minutes! Maybe this section would still be good later in July/August, but we definitely stole it at its best. The get out on the Bosnian border bridge came too soon, but here we had to stop to pick up the prearranged shuttle back to our car at noon. Rare sunshine dried our gear as we pondered the ethnic cleansing that had taken place over the border not too far from here only 20 years before.
The return shuttle to the car gave us a view into the Piva gorge and the karst scenery of the Durmitor Mountains. That night found us back in our Kolasin room weighing up next day – on the river or climbing? The day dawned wet (again!) and so the upper Tara section of grade 3 from Kolasin to Mojkovac proved its worth despite the freezing temperatures. The following day dawned dry and we spent two days cragging and working our way back to Dubrovnik… but that’s another story. I would definitely recommend Montenegro as a paddler’s destination from Britain, the Tara is a world class 3-4 river and the Moraca is a canyon as spectacular as any other in Europe.
Thanks: to Palm, Pyranha, Surf-lines and Paddleworks for helping us with discounted gear.
Beaches: There is 293km of coastline with 117 beaches covering 73km.
Sunshine: Average 240 days per year.
Language: Serbian, but English is widely spoken.
Main cities: Podgorica – the capital, Kotor and Budva.
Time zone: + 1 hour GMT, + 2 hours in summer.
Visas: Tourist visas are not required, but work visas are required.
Area: 13,812 km2.
Flying time: 2.5 hours from the UK.
The name Montenegro: Means Black Mountain which was probably derived from the thick ‘black’ forests that in the mediaeval times covered Mount Lovcen.
Montenegro has always been a problem for cartographers as it is almost impossible to write all the letters of its name into the small space it takes up on the map.
Montenegro was declared an Ecological State in 1991.
According to the World Tourism and Trade Council 2004 report, Montenegro is the fastest growing tourist destination in the World.