Rambling South: crossing the Balkans on foot

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. ‘Walden’ – Henry David Thoreau

I first read these words when I was 17. Now a few years later, here I stand alone in the town of Razdrto in Slovenia. I’ve decided to hike across the Balkans on the Via Dinarica. Less than 100 people have been recorded to ever complete this trail. Ahead of me stretches 1300kms of trail I intend to walk. I have my backpack and nothing else. Before I took my first steps, I tried to formulate in my head why I was here. I desired to experience life, to really live before getting caught up in university and adulthood. I just had to stop thinking, thoughts of what could go wrong or what it would be like. I just had to walk. Place one foot in front of the other. And so, I took my first steps on the Via Dinarica. A month and a half later I would take my final steps.


Within 15 minutes I was lost. The weight of my backpack making me look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. 6 days of food, my tent, sleeping bag, 4 litres of water, and a few bits ‘n’ bobs. The bare amount to keep me alive in the wild. The first day was filled with excitement, every moment something new to experience, something new to see. I spent my first night sleeping on the porch of this kind woman’s house. There was a certain restlessness about my first night sleeping out on this trail. Thoughts of home; thoughts of comfort. But my excitement for this adventure triumphed. Those thoughts were left behind on that porch as I set off the next day.

Days went slower. Wake at 5am, walk till 6pm. A whole day being completely conscious. No distractions to take you away from the thoughts of your mind. As you walk you have nothing to do but think. You notice things you would never have before. It felt like I had opened my eyes for the first time in a while. Walking becomes this meditation. The rhythm of your feet stills your mind. Every day I wake, eat, walk and sleep. That is all. That was my life. Everything you feel, you feel intensely. In a day I would go from crying from happiness to feeling cripplingly lonely. There was no mediocre. Never have I gone days without seeing another human. It’s a strange feeling knowing you have talked to yourself and trees more than an actual person. So yes, I was walking along having conversations with myself. I may have looked insane, but I felt like I was doing something right, that this nomadic existence was how life should be lived: simply.

After a few days I felt like I was getting somewhat used to life on the trail. My legs felt stronger, I walked faster. I felt comfortable in the mountains. On the fourth day, all that changed. I turned the corner of the trail and there a few metres away a mamma brown bear stood. Her cub behind her. People tell you when you see a bear to hold your ground and make yourself seem intimidating. I knew all of this but that’s not what happened. I stood facing the bear, my ears filled with the sound of my heart beating. The feeling of pure fear. In anticipation of the bear charging me, I turned and ran away, screaming. Over my shoulder I saw the bear do the same. I then dug a hole and answered the call of nature. That night I cried myself to sleep. Why was I here? I have people waiting for me back home and here I was in the middle of Slovenia almost getting killed by bears. Still the next day I packed my pack and continued along the trail.

Walking was not the same after that. The woods were no longer a place of peaceful reflection and beauty. The paranoia. The dread. Every sound, every rustle put me on edge. Every second filled with fear. The darkness of the woods would darken my mind. This misery lasted a while. I would not stop for breaks; I would not smile. I hated the solitary. I kept walking.  As I walked, I would sing to alert any nearby bears of my presence. I spent days singing the chorus of ‘Bare Necessities’, every second I was awake.

I reached the end of Slovenia. It had only been a week, but it felt like I had been walking a month. I spent my last moments in Slovenia talking to this couple by the border at their house. They were chopping wood in preparation for the -30°C temperatures of winter. They knew of the trail and had welcomed hikers before me. They spoke of how one needed to be in solitary to truly figure out one’s problems and how nature heals all. I walked up along to the road to the border crossing. Amidst queues of cars, I walked up to the crossing. The people manning the border look baffled. They searched my backpack for drugs and asked what on earth I was doing. I explained I was just on a walk, they called me crazy and then waved me goodbye. The first steps on Croatian soil felt pretty darn good.


A few days into Croatia, I was resupplying in a town when I bumped into this long-haired Irish man. He was hiking the Via Dinarica. I would no longer be alone. I didn’t understand anything he said when we met. His Irish accent was thick. But for a bit of company, I’d risk him being a serial killer. We set off together. In the rain we climbed this mountain, talking of philosophy and civilisation. We pitched our tents near the peak and revelled in its beauty together. I slowly grew used to his accent and grasped that his name was Jake. He used to be a night-time security guard until he got fired for losing the keys to his building. This man was bonkers. But no one is normal who sets out on a walk like this. We would end up walking together for a month. He is now a dear friend.

We continued through Croatia, across the Velebit mountain range. The sea to our right was a pleasant constant. Vast white jagged rock covering the land. We slowly became a vision of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Some nights we would stumble on a mountain hut, with other local hikers in. These nights were spent drinking moonshine and dancing in a celebration of life. One night we met ‘Obelisk’ – a big mountain man jumping around in his boxers, and his long-bearded friend carrying a machete on his belt.

Everyday walking felt more normal. I grew to accept this nomadic existence. More and more my happiness lay in the satisfaction of my basic needs. On average we would find one water source a day. The bliss of quenching dehydration. During the heat wave it would reach 40 degrees C, the water we were carrying felt like it had come straight from a boiled kettle. By now my feet were destroyed. Bruised and battered, blistered beyond belief. The days continued to be an emotional rollercoaster. The heat would beat down my mental walls. I would have heat induced visions of talking to those I love. But I desired to be free and not a slave to one’s emotions. To move through space and be a master of my thoughts. Every day I would suffer, but I would learn.  The joy of sharing; sharing experiences with those you know or complete strangers. The pleasure to be found in simplicity. To have all your stuff on your back, you realise what you truly need. Every step I took brought me closer to my goal. One step at a time is what this journey was made of. Just as each step counts, each minute we live counts. All we have are minutes.

One month has passed since I started. My body is now used to walking a marathon a day. I am a wanderer. The mental battle persists every day. Jake and I have walked the length of Croatia and we hit the second border crossing into Bosnia. The joy of finally being done with Croatia. On the other side of the border, we stood thumbing to get to the nearest town by the trail to resupply. We got a hitch. An old bloke drove us along, smoking his cigarette in his car talking to us in Bosnian. We just nodded along. It was weird to be moving so fast. The landscape whizzing by, so much to see just gone. With so many crime documentaries nowadays it’s easy to forget the kindness of people. Not all strangers want to hurt you. You have to give it a chance otherwise you will miss out on interactions with people who affirm the good of humanity.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia was a fresh start. The temperature was cooler, the mountains bigger and the berries juicier. Plains of beauty, peaks every day. Sleeping amidst this beauty under the wonder of the stars. It somehow felt wilder than everything before. One thing was clear: this trail wasn’t going to get any easier. We climbed mountains over 2000 metres, crossed mine fields from the war and slept in our tents listening to the howls of wolves.

We were climbing this ridge in the afternoon. We got lost on the way up and spent a few hours bush-whacking our way to the top. A storm hit when we were on the ridge. Hail pelted down; thunder so loud it felt like someone was firing a rifle next to my ear. We took cover under some bushes. Our options were either to push on across the ridge or backtrack down to where we were. We flipped a coin. Back the way we came it was. Bent over with our backpacks to the sky we ran along the ridge, lightning strikes hitting just a few metres away. My vision was blurred by the rain on my glasses. Golf balls of hail hitting my skin, thunder blasting in my ears, lightning streaking across my vision. As I ran, I prayed to God for the first time in 8 years, tears streaming down my face. Never have I felt so small and powerless. All my life civilisation has protected me from the true force of nature. I was truly humbled. We ran down 900 metres in elevation in 30 minutes. I thought that was going to be the day I died.

Something changed the following week. I became obsessed with thinking of the end. Each day I would push and break my body to get closer to finishing. I no longer stopped to eat berries or stop to look at a flower. I was no longer present. I thought of seeing friends and family, I thought of hot food and a bed. It was relentless misery. Once you stop enjoying the trail, walking day after day becomes a horrible burden.

Halfway across Bosnia Jake decided to quit. A strange feeling. I watched him walk off along a road trying to hitch to Sarajevo. We had laughed and suffered together. He had kept me going many times. Without him I doubt I would have made it this far. And so back by myself I picked up my pack and set off. No longer with the company of Jake’s throat singing while we walked.

A few days later I was sitting on the trail when I heard 3 voices below. I jumped up in excitement. They were speaking English. They finally came into view, and I stood there waving and screaming at them. Turns out they were hiking the Bosnian section of the trail. There’s a saying amongst long distance hikers: ‘The trail provides’.  With them I fell in love with the trail again. I chose to let go of my obsession with reaching the end and made the decision to stop at Montenegro.  I wanted to get back to why I came out here in the first place. To appreciate the wild, the sounds and the smells. I grew to be happy again. The mountains and forests were beautiful again. It had been a few days since I smiled. I’d fallen back in love with this life. We continued on the trail together. I embraced everything the trail had to offer. I spent nights hunting with this Bosnian hunter. When you walk into his house you are greeted with the pelt of a bear he shot outside his house. While I walked through some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, I also met some of the most beautiful people.

Montenegro grew closer and closer. And with that so did the end. It was a lot to process. No more bathing in mountain lakes or the beauty of birch forests. No more waking up to the sounds of the mountains. This life on trail was one of beauty, of pure consciousness, of pure existence. And it had felt like a lifetime. There was a growing sadness knowing I was leaving this to return to normality. I desperately tried to appreciate everything now. I knew it would all be gone soon so I clung to every moment.

The end point was going to be the summit of Maglic – the tallest mountain in Bosnia. We spent the night at the base and woke to storms. The storm would stay for a week. We couldn’t go up the mountain. So, my journey ended there and then. There was no big end or realisation. That was it. I pictured this victorious summit to complete this journey. In many ways it felt like I failed. When I look back, I don’t think of the end. It’s all in the journey. There were many times I had forgotten this but now I know that it is the truth. The end or destination never mattered; it was the pathway. I walked over 1100 Kms. Over a month of hiking. I came across 5 bears, the most poisonous snake in Europe and wildfires. I ate cold food for days on end and slept exposed in the wild. Now it was done. It was like living in an underwater world and then suddenly resurfacing back on land.

It was brutal, painful, lonely and scary but ultimately it was the most transformative experience in my life. I’ve never felt so alive. Thoreau was onto something. There is so much I could not put into words writing this but it’s a big world and the simple act of walking may just be the best way to see it.

All photos by Thomas Russell

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