By Jan Pravda
“Paddle free or die” was our maxim as we kayaked across the Croatian archipelago during the last week of May. Thanks to the Oru Coast’s sturdiness, we never even came close to dying…..but we saw the future unfold.
We were blown away by the sea, beaches, cliffs, olive groves, with the civilization blown off by the wind, waves, sunsets, and wild jackals’ cry. Free of the usual worries, we enjoyed freedom on the sea, no haggling in marinas, no hassle getting boats on and off, no hotel checking in and out. All the B.S. was gone for a week!
True, sometimes we worried if we would make it through the 2 m (6 ft) waves raised by the cold Bora (a gusty wind) descending suddenly from the mountains. True, we worried if we would find a place to land between the sharp coastal cliffs. True, it was a bit dangerous, but very healthy dangerous. It was so invigorating that after the trip, we felt really ready to kick ass.
It was this simple: we departed at 12:40 from Prague, landed in Dubrovnik around 16:00 and by 17 we were assembling the kayaks in the West Harbour below the ancient fortress. It took us some 15 minutes to unpack the boats, assemble them (to the astonishment of some bystanders) and put waterproof bags in the hulls. 30 minutes later we were off, paddling towards isle of Kolocep, against the sunset with the ancient walls.
The first night we spent on the isle of Kolocep, camping on a concrete slab 1 meter (3 ft) above the sea. Yes it took some getting used to sleeping so close to the rumbling darkness of the night sea, but we managed.
The next morning we cooked cereal breakfast in a foldable dish on a tiny fire from pine cones, took a short swim and continued to the island of Lopud, where we had an excellent local kebab called Cevabcici. In the afternoon we paddled to the caves on the southern tip of Sipan Island, but the waves were so high (2 m or 6 ft) that it seemed dangerous to enter the caves from the open sea, so we went to Sudurad, a small town on the island of Sipan and slept in an abandoned house some 5 m (15 ft) above the sea.
The next morning we went around the southern tip of Sipan, saw the arch cave, and then northwest along the 5 kilometers stretch of 75 meters cliffs, facing the ocean, battered by high waves without a place to land. We paddled all the way to the strait of Sipanska Luka, where we took a relaxing swim in the calm and warm water. What a relief.
After lunch in Konoba Tauris, we paddled further north in the quiet straits of Jakljan Island, reaching the southern tip of Peljesac, with its gargantuan rock and abandoned lighthouse on its southern tip. That evening was very quiet and dark, as there was no civilization, 100 m cliffs on the right side and 8 km of dark water on the left with silhouettes of the island of Mljet. We were paddling nervously not knowing where exactly we would finish, hoping for a beach, indicated as flat on the maps. Shortly after sunset, we landed relieved (otherwise we would have to paddle with headlights until we found something) on the most beautiful beach of the trip. No civilization, dragon teeth like cliffs above the pine forest and nightingales singing everywhere. We named it the Nightingale Beach, took a short swim, and got ready for bed. However, as we were falling asleep under the stars, a loud cry cut through the bay like a siren through the quiet night. It shook our confidence that sleeping out was a good idea. We could not figure out what it was. We knew wolves cried but this was more human like, wild dogs maybe, jackals maybe, or some very large birds? How about werewolves? Did we land on a werewolf beach instead? Waking up in sunlit bay was a relief. We cooked cereal on a pinecone fire, went for a swim and enjoyed packing until some Americans showed up on a big diesel yacht and filled the bay with loud talk about shopping and politics. So we took off paddling to Prapratno Peljesac.
In Prapratno we arrived very hungry, but there was not even a hot dog, only a stand with expensive coffee and a waitress knowing nothing of her customers’ needs, yet feeling entitled to charge for it - attitude somewhat characteristic of staff on this beautiful coastline. We resorted to our supply of energy bars and rested. A storm approached from the north and we were afraid of crossing the 8 km strait to Mljet. After talking to a local fisherman we gave up completely. The fisherman convinced us that the gathering storm could easily kill us ,and him on the his boat as well, in the middle of the straight. He offered us a ride to the town of Ston, across the mountains, and watched us fold up our boats while he waited, humming “very interesting, interesting.” He was the most helpful person along the entire trip. Jan later named him Baldo (after the fisherman with whom he and his mom stayed in 1974 visiting communist Jugoslavia). Baldo, thanks for the ride, and possibly for saving our lives. In Ston, we ate fish lunch, saw the fortress guarding Peljesac and the ancient salt mines,the most interesting infrastructure from the Turks and Venetians. The stormy weather stayed, so we did not try to push our luck (crossing to Mjet) and went back south (to later find out it was a wise move). South of Ston, we found a tiny dock under a pine tree, and went for sleep again with nightingales and the crying werewolves around. This time though, the reach of village lights made us feel safe - city boys in the wild.
After the rain stopped around Thursday at noon, we put on our Geotour yellow raincoats and paddled south towards the village of Broce and through the “dragon” straight at the southern tip of Peljsac. There we experienced our riskiest moment, as we were hit by bora winds and waves about 2 meters from our left. For the next hour or so, we paddled for our lives and kept thinking: Thanks to Baldo, we are not between Peljesac and Mlejt. When both of us were in the wave through, we did not see each other at all. We had no choice but to paddle fiercely to the coves of Jaklan Island where we rested (not relaxed) on a desolate beach near the eerie ruins of detention camp where, according to a monument, the Jugoslav army killed thousand of POW just after WW II. Hoping to end this cloudy day happily we paddled to Simpanska Luka, our favourite town. There we had the best Popara of the trip (in Konoba Tauris).
Friday morning in Luka was our most pleasant one, surrounded by blooming flowers (mint, rosemary, achillea, geranium and many others), a mild breeze, clear skies, and a good breakfast in Tauris. After a refreshing swim we paddled along thevery beautiful eastern coastline of Sipanska cove with old houses, palm trees, olive groves and mini beaches. We thought that this was our favourite coastline. Not too rugged, very friendly, and named it the Paradise Meadow (actually, Luka means meadow). Then we continued south along the wind battered eastern coast of Sipan (not too interesting, except for a few tiny beaches and an expensive restaurant directly on the coast) towards the small island of Ruda with an abandoned ”House of the Setting Sun." Here, we slept on the top terrace under a fig tree, but build a tent after the mosquitoes from the house started bothering us (they were not a problem anywhere else).
On Saturday morning we cooked cereal breakfast (on cypress cones for a change), we paddled to Lopud, had a drink, swam, visited the Lopud gardens (very beautiful but neglected, with its gigantic pines imported from Tuscany some 100 years ago), and continued along the western coast of Lopud where we explored caves and coves with beaches. We had lunch on Kolocep in Konoba Skerac (more spicy Popara, the one in Tauris was simple but better) and set out on our last stretch along the very sharp rocks of Grebeni (“Ridges” in English) north of Dubrovnik. There we got hit by very strong bora again, creating some 2 m waves. It was not pleasant, but we were within a visible distance of Dubrovnik so it felt safer. We landed in the Dubrovnik West Harbour around 18 pm, left the boats with the guys from the rental kayak shop and walked around the old town. Around 19:30 pm we decided not to break the habit of sleeping out, and with the sunset paddled to the rugged island of Lokrum where we had to fight surprisingly high and choppy waves while landing. We landed in the botanical garden and stayed there (as it was not reasonable to paddle back that night since the waves were above 2 meters and very choppy), under pine trees with 20 m/s wind blowing through them very loudly.
On Sunday morning, we were woken up by loud peacocks. Wealked around the botanical garden and paddled back to Dubrovnik West Harbour for our last breakfast in Konoba Orhan. After we washed the boat from the salt, and had our last swim we folded the boats under the big platanus trees near the Church of St. Durd between the restaurants - the absolute busiest spot in the town. Some people from the restaurants made videos (in disbelieve) of Jan folding the boat, but tour guides (as arrogant as they come) kept parroting their stories about Dubrovnik’s “famous past” instead of allowing their guests to see the future unfolding (and folding) in front of their eyes.