29-Sep-2007 -- (Story part 3 of 4) The story of the four last confluences in Europe begins with 44N 19E and continues at 45N 18E.
[28 September] I spent the late afternoon continuing on to the 3rd confluence, the northwest one. I drove on roads that skirted Bosnia’s northern border with Croatia while I remained completely within Bosnia’s Respublika Srpska. Though the first two confluences had been fairly easy, I expected this one to be much more difficult in terms of absence of well-worn paths for avoiding landmines.
As I proceeded down country roads streaked by the long shadows of the trees that lined them in the late-afternoon’s bright orange sun, I was not quite prepared for what was about to happen. The border town of Gradiška was the last town of any size I was to pass before heading out into remote countryside and distant mountains. I figured there was still enough light to drive all the way to the mountains, where I could do some initial reconnaissance to see what was involved in this remote and mysterious confluence. It was about time to know how much trouble I was in, and how over-confident I had gotten by my first two successes.
Although it would be dark by the time I finished doing the initial reconnaissance, I was intent on staying the night in Banja Luka, Bosnia’s second largest city. The problem with this was that I had to cross over the complete remote mountain range by unpaved road at night.
According to maps and Google images, this confluence was several kilometers into the mountains near a stream. I had asked the BHMAC if it was safer to walk in streams to avoid mines, to which I received a resounding ‘no’.
As dusk approached, the country roads took me toward the mountains where there were fewer and fewer houses. Finally I came across the rocky road that led into the mountains. The road led into a forest, where there was some kind of a ‘danger/warning’ sign in Serbian. I drove into the forest for a few kilometers along a fairly well-graded road, which was, in places, made up of what seemed to be ancient cobbles.
Finally I came across the highly anticipated stream which should lead to the confluence. Amazingly, a tinier, rougher road skirted the stream, heading toward the confluence. This was indeed a welcome discovery which would reduce potential walking in mined areas.
I drove up this road, all the while anxious about my poor, low-ground-clearance Chevy Aveo rental car. I crashed the underside into a few jagged rocks and tilted its flimsy wheels to extreme angles. I passed an old deserted cabin, a bit of an eerie sight on such a remote road. I managed to make progress on the road, at least up to a deep trough scoured out by a running stream where I parked. Now walking with the GPS, I was happy as the road closed in on the point: 200 meters (600 ft), 190, 180… I could get to within about 170 meters (510 ft) of the confluence.
It was just about as good as one could expect, but the confluence was still on the other side of the stream, on a steep hillside. It was now too dark to ply through the thickly vegetated hillside to figure out how to avoid mines. Although I was encouraged by the confluence being so close to the road, I was well aware there had been a mine accident in a seemingly random place 10 km (6.2 miles) from here, and apparently a mine had been cleared from the lookout at Lisina, at the top of this cluster of mountains. I was going to have to come back tomorrow and hope for the best.
However, the unintended new adventure of getting to Banja Luka to stay for the night was just about to begin. I began to cross the mountain range on the chalky road. It was now pitch black, and there wasn’t anyone else out here. The road wound into hairpin kinks high into the mountains and deep in the forest.
Once at a plateau, the road came down into increasing muddiness. Then there was some freaky person in the dark, and an enigmatic white horse. Then the ultimate evil - a fork in the road. I traveled many kilometers down the increasingly heavily wooded road. It finally turned into mud so deep, I thought it would be dangerous to proceed. I was forced to go all the way back to the fork.
This time I followed the other road, kilometer after kilometer. It was now between 9 and 10 at night and I was ‘lost’ deep in a Bosnian forest. The road curved and twisted, and had some scary parts with jagged rocks, but I gassed my rental car and forced it to heave on, determined to reach Banja Luka. Finally, although my ‘last-chance’ road had become a bit more promising, I confronted a dreadful truth: I had reached a dead end, with no way out. What was I to do now? There were only two roads to the fork.
I figured there was nothing I could do but go all the way back through hours of horrible mud and deep woods. That is, all the way back to Gradiška, the border town. It was the only decent-sized town within reach that would have a hotel, but it was hours away.
Hitting a dead end at around 10:30 at night seemed like the worst that could happen, but it wasn’t. Just a few hundred meters down the road, the car felt a little strange. I got out, took a look at it, and noticed I had a flat tire.
Stressed and anxious about being stranded in the mountains, I struggled to change the tire in the mud while what sounded to be owls and wolves surrounded me. At least I had stocked up on water and food, and, as remote as it was, I probably would have survived.
I made it all the way to Gradiška with some kind of a ‘bicycle tire’ on my front right. I found a hotel by the wee hours of the morning.
[29 September] The actual attempt.
I slept in a bit, but I think I got out by 10 AM on this bright sunny morning. First on my list was to fix the tire. Strangely enough there was a place called the Taxi-Bar Hotel nearby: an unusual combo of hotel and mechanic. The tire, I had discovered, was totally gauged out on one side. It was beyond repair so I had to buy a whole new tire. The rental car, which had had a few dents in it when it left the agency, appeared to have several other new dents and thrash marks. This would surely spell trouble upon bringing the car back.
I drove all the way back to my familiar mountain stream – only this time it was bright and sunny. As nice as the day was, there just wasn’t any beaten path or animal trail leading anywhere near the confluence. I found an old forest road several hundred meters up the valley, and some old matted-down areas extending off of it. There was bear scat, so giant feet would have certainly set off anything pressure-sensitive, right? My definition of what a beaten path was became looser and looser. I checked everything – there was nothing. Should I walk into the virgin forest? I sat there for what seemed to be hours thinking about it.
I studied the maps. At least, it appeared that all of the people blown up by mines had been in areas near dwellings and settlements. But the woman at BHMAC said foresters had walked on them, too. What were the odds that someone would plant a mine in this very remote stand of forest, far from anything? Probably very low.
I would be breaking my vow. What else could I possibly do, go back to BHMAC and ask for a mine detonation crew to walk me across 80 meters (240 ft)? I imagined pointing out the hillside to a heavily armored crew with helmets and bomb-proof suits.
Could I drag local people over, and could I trust their judgment? That might add another day of dubious outcome and strange stares. Were there any other options? How much do I really love confluence hunting? All adventures have randomly striking dangers, right?: avalanches, landslides, crevasse falls – why would mines be much different? The shadows grew longer as I stared at the hillside.
Decided. I was to make an 80 meter ‘walk of death’. This was not Custer’s last stand, but a Russian-roulette style stroll through the forest. After all, though I didn’t agree with the approach, Andrej Mihevc made a similar ‘walk of faith’ at 43N 18E in southern Bosnia.
But, you ask, why “80 meters?” 170 m – 80 m = 90 m, that’s not the confluence. I decided to minimize any possibility of something happening; increase my odds of surviving, so I shot for what was in spec by the confluence project: within a 100 meter (300 ft) radius. But with a 10 meter GPS error, I would have to shoot for getting to within 90 meters (270 ft) of the confluence.
I crossed the stream and then struggled up a very steep hillside of thorn bushes, spiders, and ticks – as if THEY were going to scare me at this point. Getting up the hillside was a combination of walking and climbing. I figured if I stepped on a mine, it would all be over before I even knew what happened. My heart pounded as the adrenaline seemed to cause a cold, clammy skin even though I was sweating. Then…
I finally made it to an 89-meter-away point. I could see where the confluence was – across open, leaf-strewn patches blotched by speckled light filtering through the forest. It would have been easy, and it was tempting, but I stuck to my rule. Nevertheless, still a 100% success.
Upon leaving, I had an idea. There was a road blocked by a tree branch near the top of the mountain. Of course I didn’t try it, but this MUST be the way across the mountain range – there had to be a way. I drove over the limb and followed the road as it wound to the top of the mountain. There it was - Lisina, a 976 meter (2928 ft) high peak with a radar station where the mine had been cleared. From there I made it to the city I had wished to reach all along – Banja Luka.
44N 17E, the next and now the very last confluence left in Europe proved to be even more remote and trying. The pressure was on and the danger was real. Challenged but anxious I headed on. The adventure continues…