I left Kalinovik with a rucksack bulging with food. Unfortunately though, it wasn’t the right kind of food, nor was it enough for the six day journey that lay ahead.
I’d been spoilt in Kalinovik by a friendly couple, customers of the shabby bar that kept rooms above it where I could sleep for five euros a night. It had no curtains or toilet seats but the family owners were friendly and every time I went down to the bar I was plied with coffee and rakia. People kept talking about what I was doing, the woman who arrived sweaty and tired with a huge and heavy rucksack and claimed to have walked here from Kiev.
Kalinovik is a very small and empty town that lies at the base of the mountain range of Trescavica which separates the Republic from the Federation in this area. There was an army barracks here before the war, there were 2814 Serbs and 1314 Muslims living in the municipality. Now there are 1000 Serbs in the town itself – 1947 in the municipality and 57 Muslims – and the barracks are derelict. I walked through them on the way into the town, brick boxes, doors and windows long gone, open for cows to walk in through the doorways and find shelter from the sun. Names and dates were scratched into the walls of the sentry boxes. ‘JM 14 XII 93’. I wondered how many Muslims were left in the town by then, over a year after hostilities broke out across the country.
I felt the depressiveness of the place, all the young people were gone to the cities of Foča or Sarajevo, only the old ones left said the young man of the bar, himself only back to visit his parents for a few weeks of summer holidays. Those that were there were friendly though, and two in particular, Lyuba and Zbigniew, were keen to invite me over for a meal. They fed me twice, with much love and tenderness. Zbigniew was a transplant from Poland, arrived here 30 years ago as a military transfer and he felt the loneliness of always being a stranger, wanted to make me feel befriended, welcomed. They fed me pita – the word means pie and can contain a variety of fillings, meat, potato, spinach or cheese, all wrapped in thin pastry and oven baked. This one was meat and potato and came with a glass of yoghurt, plus a thin broth and bread before it. Lyuba packed me an icecream tub full of juicy pieces of pita and this is where the trouble started. When I told them I ate oats and raisins out on the road, Zbigniew went out to the shop, returning with a packet of chocolate cornflakes and about as many raisins as I’d eat in a month. They’d also given me a bag the night I met them, with apples, tomatoes, nectarines and a bar of chocolate. The bulkiness of these items meant that I struggled to pack the icecream tub into my pack. Everything has a specific place there, I only carry a 38 litre pack which means there’s minimal tolerance for excess.
I had a half day that first day, stopping in a church porch as black clouds gathered and rain spotted, to eat a layer of burek from the top of the tub, adding a tomato and a nectarine to the meal, just to take the weight out of my rucksack. It meant that as I walked up towards the final house in the village and was called in for a coffee, I allowed the man of the house to talk me into staying there, a rural bnb. Thunder was rumbling and I was heading for a bare mountain top, dangerous in case of lightning strikes, he said. I paid five euros for a bed and another five for dinner and breakfast. Dinner was soup and fried pieces of venison and courgette. There was another piece of burek on the side and I surreptitiously snuk it into my icecream tub, thinking of the mountain ahead.
I’d seen that there were villages marked on my route but didn’t know what they contained; shops or restaurants or simply clusters of farmhouses. In the end, I didn’t see a shop for six days.
The problem was that my food was heavy and full of meat, at risk of degrading in the heat. I couldn’t eke out this burek, I had to eat it all the next day, leaving it swilling around in the hot sun at the top of my pack would be a recipe for a bad belly. I had the last of Lyuba’s food for lunch, sitting in the hot grasses on the side of a steep climb, no shade to shelter me. I’d been bitten by a spider moments before lunch, an intensely painful experience as I danced around trying to knock away the pale bulge that had sunk needles into my toe, and I surveyed the white blotch it left behind as I savoured the juicy pastry with an apple to follow.
That night I came down off the mountain and camped in the open yard of a cluster of empty houses, the forests all showing skull and crossbones signs which warned of mines. Bosnia still has 1000 square km of uncleared landmines, 24 years after the end of war. Steep forested mountainside, where stock don’t roam, are the most difficult and last to be attempted.
There was a covered porch area outside a cabin, with a table and a couple of mattresses stacked against it. I put a mattress on the table and had an extremely comfy sleep, finishing the last of the meat and cheese pie, plus the extra pieces of breaded venison my host had given me as I left.
Now came the food shortage, I had partial packets of dried potato and rice, a stub of a piece of salami that was a week old, a small pot of pate and some sachets of mayonnaise. Enough for two ‘main’ meals. Then there was a partial packet of oats, dried coconut and raisins. Plus a packet of chocolate cornflakes. Enough for three breakfasts.
For snacks I had a couple of coconut chocolate bars, a 200g packet of peanuts and more raisins. Plus a bag of hazelnuts in their shells.
It would be sparse food but I wouldn’t go hungry. And so over the next few days I slowly followed the trail as it wound through the area of the Treskavica mountain. I’d come over the shoulder of it on the first day, climbing the peak of Lukavac and then followed the valley beside it as the land turned from Republica Srpska to Federation territory. The mountain would stay within view for the entire week, as I passed from east to west along its southern side. The path took me up steep climbs to ridgeway walks, through deep forest where large animals cracked sticks and growled as they fled from my panting. The path had me negotiating landslides, sheer slopes, pressed gravel roads, bilberry patches.
The first breakfast was oats, dried coconut, raisins and the final apple, with a spoonful of the plum jam I’d been hoarding since Plužine, waiting for the place to buy yoghurt that never appeared. I ate under the awning of the strange place, a cleared piece of land with three houses on it, shuttered and empty, a fountain in the middle that sprinkled all night, burst mortar shells balanced on the rim as decoration.
Gravel road that day, past the border between the two territories, marked by a huge memorial to the Muslim dead of the local village, the first place they could display it, a signifier of Federation land.
As the road turned to forestry track and began to climb the next mountain, up from 900m to 1500, I stopped for a late lunch, hoping, by eating at 3pm, to make the single meal enough for the rest of the day. I stared at the two inches of salami, smelled it. Purchased 9 days previously it had been sweating in my rucksack the whole time. It smelled fine and I couldn’t afford to be picky. So salami on a bed of reconstituted ground rice and instant mash, measuring out enough of each packet to leave one more share. Hydrated with water then salt and mayonnaise added for flavour. I smashed a few hazelnuts on a flat rock, ate those for dessert.
That night I took the peanuts out of my bag but didn’t feel like eating anything, thankfully. Instead I lay in the tent in the damp grass on the edge of the forest as thousands of flies crawled over the mesh, living in the watery places and starved of entertainment.
An early start at 6am, surprising after being disturbed by deer crashing nearby in the night. I only knew it as a stick breaker at first, coming closer to my tent. “Hey. What are you?” I said aloud to the night. The stick breaker crashed away from me with loud coughing barks and that’s how I knew it was a deer.
Regardless of broken sleep, as the sun rose I was ready, walking 90 minutes down through the forest and to the road that ran nearby, breakfasting on a rock at the beginning of the next climb. This time it was the chocolate cornflakes. I ate half the packet in a single bowl, enjoying the way the corn sat in my stomach, a filling but not bloated sensation. This was surprisingly good road nutrition, sugar and corn, the only problem being the bulk of the packet in my rucksack.
A huge climb ahead, 700m of ascent. I divided it by 10, congratulating myself every time I made another 10% of the climb, a way to bring the insurmountable within reach. Even with the small victories it took hours, the final section of the slope was an almost sheer bowl, partly shadowed even in the midday sun. It was a slope of innumerable small steps rather than knee high rocky heaves. I sweated and stepped, sweated and stepped, looking upwards for the next markers painted onto rocks far above me, eyeing each step smoothed into the earth by previous climbers.
Reaching the shade of the sheer rocks, where I’d wind around their sides and finally reach the peak, I stopped for a while and looked back to where the sun and clouds made patchy shadows on the billows of Mt Treskavica.
The achievement pause, where you let your breath calm, your body cool down, until you can bring your attention away from the buzz of muscular effort and let it swirl into the open view. Stillness of self, apart from the occasional scratching of a mosquito bite.
Small handfuls of peanuts, not too many at a time. Chew them properly, help your body to absorb their nutrition. Gulps of water to dilute the salt.
I walked the ridgeway, the mountain falling sharply away on my left side, 1000m down into the depths of Rakitnica canyon. I could see the village I was heading for, away over the other side of the deep crevice. Lukomir, the highest inhabited village in Bosnia. There was a restaurant there, apparently, and I’d reach it the next day.
A final meal of potato, rice and pate, a bowlful of salmon coloured mush. Calories, that’s all it was, a bowlful of calories. I spooned it in beside a fountain at the village of Bobovnica, a collection of ramshackle houses, tin walls on the barns, hammered out from flattened metal barrels. A dog came to sit beside me, eyeing me sideways, and then her charges filtered past. Small squat sheep, out for the day to graze. Their shepherd came shortly after, ragged woollen hat, home knit socks with trousers tucked into them, rubber clogs. He said a polite hello and stopped to wash his hands at the fountain before heading into the village. I ate three squares of chocolate and walked further down the mountain, away from the village, eventually finding a place to sleep in a long abandoned barn.
That was the final dinner, emptying the dust of the carb packets into my bowl, scrunching up the empty plastic to dump in the skip that served as the village waste disposal.
The next morning I ate my final breakfast, those delicious cornflakes again. In a bus shelter down at the bottom of the canyon, next to the bigger road. A couple stopped their car in front of me, I said hello but they only wanted to study the funeral notices above my head, smiling gently as we made eye contact.
Now there was only a climb of 8 miles to the restaurant at Lukomir. A thin and winding path along the steep hillside that dropped down to the river, hundreds of metres below. I had only peanuts and raisins left, stopping to chew a couple of handfuls when the path became too steep for steps and turned to clambering.
Eventually, at 2pm, I reached the village. A delightful combination of rural living and tourist destination – women in white hair coverings were setting out trays of onions to dry in the sun, while waving me over to inspect the knitting they’d draped over the fence to attract the curious visitors. It was a mixture of real wool and acrylic, the traditional thick socks and jumpers in plain cream, browns and greys were alongside brighter, more ornamental garments – longer socks with intricate repeated designs of checks or pixelated curliques. I smelled the jumpers for that delicious sheep aroma, but couldn’t quite bring myself to buy the mittens, even thinking ahead to winter.
The restaurant was calm, just a Chinese couple eating at the wooden cabins laid outside in the gentle breeze. Hunger hollowed me and I ordered soup and uštipici, not really knowing what size of dish would come.
In the end, I filled myself with thick chicken soup and bread, eyeing the plate of uštipici nervously as it came towards me. Bloated pillows of fried herby dough, served with cream and cheese. I’d been thinking of ordering a burek to take away with me, they were cooked in a sač oven, a wood fired barrel shaped oven on legs, in a purpose built arch outside the house. These fried bread pieces would do just as well though, I ate almost half, wiping up the thick cream, then packed away the remaining five along with the pieces of homemade cheese.
Away from Lukomir the valley widened. I faced another 30 miles of road before I could reach the centre of Sarajevo, along with 1500m of descent.
I ate the rest of the uštipici at 7am the following morning, after creeping into a deep hollow at the side of the road, hidden from anyone surveying the landscape from afar, unless they came to the edge of the dip. I heard the sheep going home in the twilight, two separate herds snaking their way over the land. The next morning, as I started walking, I saw them coming back, the shepherd up early, in order to spend all day in the grasslands, sitting and watching his solitary life.
There was a food shop at Babin Do when I reached this ugly sprawling ski resort at 10am, shocked by the towering buildings, the luxury on offer, but I was still full of fried dough and thought I’d get something later on. It was a mistake, all the names on the map turned out to be empty road and I faced down hours of painful tarmac in the unrelenting heat. At 3pm I finally reached the very edge of Sarajevo and, joy, a supermarket. I bought iced coffee, juice, a peach, a banana and a packet of crisps and sat down around the side of the building to eat them, much to the annoyance of the staff. They tried to move me on but I wasn’t having it, a mixture of hunger and painful feet meant I was going to sit there until I finished my food; fifteen minutes at most, despite their threats of ‘inspectia’ and ‘politsija’.
Finally I was there, a cheap hotel on the side of the busy main road. I still went to bed hungry, unable to sleep and staring at food recipes online as my stomach growled, but the next morning I was 500m from a popular bakery, filling my stomach with pie and yoghurt, ready to walk the final eight miles into the centre of Sarajevo and food abundance.