02-Oct-2007 -- (Story part 4 of 4) The story of the four last confluences in Europe continued from 45N 17E.
[30 September – 1 October] Like the previous confluence (45N 17E), this one was fairly remote, though on a whole other level. It was to require about 30 km (19 miles) of driving down tiny dirt roads: with my delicate rental car, and the problems I had on 45N 17E, there was reason to be a bit nervous. The confluence also presented the very real possibility that there would be no beaten paths leading to it in such remote wilderness.
The area was also suspect for having many mines, as there were many in the general region. This confluence was very close to the Respublika Srpska/Bosniak peacetime (and wartime) border, and there were signs that many battles were fought here. Though the BHMAC reacted unfavorably to my question, I had found out that, for a suspected minefield, it WOULD be safer to drive my car over it rather than walk. This seems intuitive, but with the accounts of roadside bombs in Iraq, how could anyone really know these things for sure?
In the approach to this confluence I decided to I slow my pace down a bit. I used the time to think about what I was getting myself into. I had already walked 80 meters (240 ft) on potentially explosive terrain, and I wasn’t looking forward to any more treacherous excursions. This was to be the very last point in Europe – something which both excited me and made me tense. It was the culmination of all that I had been doing over the past week, and, in order to succeed in finishing off Europe’s confluences, it had to be successful.
I decided to relax and see a little of Bosnia. I spent time sightseeing in Banja Luka, and while driving south, I discovered a beautiful walled city called Jajce. I spent the night and fully explored it the next day. The destitute, war-torn people were kind, endearing, and friendly.
It took me almost 2 days before I neared the region of 44N 17E. This one was further south and closer to the Adriatic Sea, so I figured the climate would be more Mediterranean, warmer, and drier. It wasn’t really, but the area had quite a different aesthetic.
I didn’t get to the dirt road turn off until about 5PM Monday, 1 October. The area here was bleak. The town Malavan, located at the turnoff, consisted of a few bare, isolated houses, some riddled with bullet holes and others that were mere remnants of what they once were – obviously obliterated by bombs. My map showed that Malavan had been planted with extensive mines and even casualties or fatalities had resulted from people stepping on the mines. I saw 3 to 4 people amongst the houses.
The terrain was prairie-like with low, yellow grass. A lone bald knob of a mountain ushered in the zig-zagging dirt road as if it were a key marker or sentinel. I drove a few minutes down the road just to see what it was like, but I turned back because it was to late to accomplish anything constructive.
The highway proceeded southwest and then back up northwest like a giant ‘V’ to get me to Livno, purported to be a charming town with attractive and historical sights. I stayed there for the night. I also discovered that there was another only slightly longer dirt road from just north of Livno that hooked up with the network where the confluence was.
[2 October] I headed out bright and early, having had an intentionally hearty breakfast, and with the car stocked with food and water, lest there be a repeat of what happened at 45N 17E, or worse. The road wound through the steppe-like terrain. A herd of horses grazed on a very high pasture next to the road. A rounded white-stone peak named Cincar dominated the landscape. Although I could see some settlements in the distance, I didn’t see a single soul for hours.
Amidst the prairie, the road took me through a few stands of red and yellow autumnal deciduous forest. Then through some conifers. Soon I was completely within conifer forest. It was in the forest that I saw numerous red skull and crossbones signs by UNICEF warning people not to proceed because of mine danger. I nonetheless proceeded on nearby roads that were apparently safe.
It was around this point that I started seeing some people – foresters and lumberjacks, often with giant logging trucks, cranes and bulldozers. Perhaps the previous ‘prairie’ had once been forested too, but had since been deforested.
Once I had travelled the approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles), I began to near the confluence with the road often turning to deep mud and pushing my feeble rental car to its limits. I thought I might only get to within 2 kilometers (1.5 miles) of the confluence, but the road hair pinned and brought me even closer. At 800 meters (2400 ft) from the confluence a massive logging truck blocked my way. I stopped and waited. Lumberjacks, who may have been on a lunch break came out and stared at me and my car strangely. All the other vehicles I had seen so far were trucks or jeeps, so they may have found it strange that a bright red Chevy pulled up to their truck here at this location deep in the wilderness. I felt I had no choice but to get out of the car and point in the direction I was headed.
The main lumberjack shook his head. “There’s nothing there. You shouldn’t go there. There are mines there,” he said in Bosnian or Serbian (I could understand enough with my knowledge of Russian). I brought out my map and my GPS, and explained that I just wanted to survey a ‘geographic point’ that was only 800 meters away. We laid the map on the hood of the car and he studied it for a long time. I re-explained everything, but at this point he was quiet and thinking. The other lumberjacks looked on.
“Well, ok,” he said. “You can go there.” That was it. He turned away and went to see that the truck was moved so that I could pass.
“What about the mines,” I asked. I had to run after him.
He turned, “Are you going to the top of the mountain?” He pointed to an inconspicuous, ordinary ‘hill’.
“The mines are at the top. The troops held that mountain. It’s ok where you’re going.”
Understandably, I was still nervous about walking off the beaten path. I rounded the corner to a meadow. The closest I could get was 650 meters (1950 ft) from the confluence. It was straight across the meadow and onto a hill. Was that the same ‘mined’ hill the lumberjack pointed to? It looked similar, but how could it have been the same if I had pointed in the direction of the confluence using the GPS and he had said it was ok? I tried to search for other roads that could bring me closer.
There were some very rough forest roads that didn’t seem to quite go in the right direction. I drove on a lot further, hoping for the road I had thought I had seen in the Google image. I veered further and further away.
I found another group of lumberjacks, so I got out of the car and asked them if the road would veer back in the right direction. This group of lumberjacks wasn’t as friendly.
There was one youthful but stocky and tall lumberjack who had the biggest smirk on his face. He laughed with a bullyish, who-the-hell-are-you-dumbass look. I didn’t understand him, but he had no interest in trying to answer the question or to help me. The other two lumberjacks were the affected part of the posse, and didn’t say much of anything. The tall one tried to make an object of humor out of me and my ‘stupid’ car.
“I’m just going to keep trying the road,” I said turning and heading back to my car. The bully blocked my way.
“Money, money,” he demanded, giving me the universal gesture of the sliding thumb and forefinger. I gave him an unapologetic ‘no’ and did a peel-off rotation around him and hopped in my car. Unfortunately the road was heavily corrugated, jagged, and soft from bulldozer work. I still managed to bolt away, my car sledding and lurching in the soft soil as they just stood there dumbfounded.
The road never veered back in the right direction, so I had to come back. I was hoping the lumberjacks wouldn’t be a problem on the way back. Upon passing them they stood there motioning a question to me. I gave them a thumbs up and dashed through without stopping.
I came back to the area where the original lumberjacks were and parked. Although there was only one very rough forest road going slightly in the direction of the confluence, there was only 650 meters to go. An official-looking man, possibly the manager of the operation, said there were no mines in the general area of the meadow in front of the hill. I just had a bad feeling about walking out across the meadow, so I chose the forest road.
Walking down it, skirting the side of the meadow, it looked good at first. Then it just kept veering to the right. I was now up on the hill but had only narrowed the gap to 450 meters (1350 ft). Here I was again - I had no choice: either take a leap of faith, and walk into the virgin, potentially mined forest, or give up on the confluence.
But again, what was the chance someone would have planted something in this nearly random stretch of forest. The lumberjacks seemed to think it was ok, for what ever value the word of Bosnian lumberjacks had. And I was also assuming this was not the mountain that was mined at the top (as far as I knew the confluence could have been near the top).
Oh god, here it goes. One step, two step, three… This was no 80 meters (240 ft) like the last one, this was a whopping 4 American football fields of walking into the forest.
It’s strange, the sensations that come over your body when you imagine that in one step you could be ‘detonated’. I swallowed with an achy feeling in my throat, and I got that icy sweat again. My breathing became short, forced bursts. I surprised myself by how shaky and clumsy I became with a sort of irrational anxiety.
I tried to walk on felled logs because I thought there might be less of a chance of mines there. I started nearing the top of the hill which made me uneasy. This was the longest 400 meters (1200 ft) I’d experienced.
And 400 meters (not 450) was all it was – suddenly I came upon a bright, open area and a slight plateau. It was an old, old forest road, completely overgrown. Was it older than the 10 years since the war since it was last used? I don’t think it could have been. If it had been that old, larger trees and bushes would have taken root and it would have been barely recognizable as a road. So, slightly more confidently, I marched down the road toward the confluence.
As a matter of fact the road led almost directly to the confluence save for about 6 meters (18 ft) up the bank of the road: a risk I didn’t think was worth taking for the prize of precision. This was it, the last confluence in Europe. I was filled with adrenaline, relief, and victory all at the same time – what a wicked, crazy feeling! I realize the craziness of saying this, but this had all been great fun!
A personal note: Obviously hunting confluences in mined regions cannot be encouraged. If for some reason one must go into a potentially mined region, please make sure to enquire at mine-clearing organizations and try to be as well informed as possible.