Three days of doing research, hibernating inside a 7€ a night hostel in Zagreb, Croatia had given us the time to plan our next weeks adventures. We had been living off virtually no other expenses, having stocked up on food coming from Hungary and now were on the move again. We planned to visit Plitvice National Park, an amazing area with dozens of cascading waterfalls, collapsing into unimaginably blue water of which was only accessible via a ferry or bus. Once in, timber boardwalks just scrapping the surface of the the water lead around corners and white cliffs of rich green vegetation. It honestly looked amazing. The problems; entry was 22€ each, accomodation was booked out, (and well overpriced) camping strictly forbidden being a national park and forums told of such crowds one felt like they were inside an amusement park. We however, had a plan to see it for free and have it with nobody but ourselves!
Standing on a crowded local bus with our backpacks taking up most of the isle, we waited the 25minutes it took to reach a small restaurant in the suburbs of Zagreb. Following hitchwiki.org advise we walked down a small lane then across a carpark to where it opened into a bustling highway. Seven lanes of slowly moving traffic took turns entering a payroll booth before continuing on west towards the coast. It was from here, standing just beyond the booths on a small patch of grass that we stood holding a sign saying; Plitvice. From our location three lanes could easily see us however due to holding up traffic, only the closest had a space to pull over. 45 minutes of sweating in high twenty temperatures, no shade what so ever was ended when a toot from the furtherest lane and a nice BMW has pulled to the side, only just leaving enough space for cars to pass from behind.
Our second suspicious narcotic dealing driver picked us up, a mid 30s Croatian guy driving 700km in a day to make meet a friend before returning. He was really friendly however, saying multiple times if he were not in such a hurry he would happily take us to Plitvice. Talking freely we missed the highway exit from where we needed to change roads however it was no problem as he told us there were more roads, further south which lead to the national park. Before long we were standing at another toll booth, off the main highway and holding our sign for the next lift. Again we stood with the clear skies sun beating down upon us, resulting in us using our umbrella as a source of shade. The guys working at the deserted booth were friendly enough to keep refilling our drink bottle but they continuously would tell us it was not possible to hitch a ride. Almost agreeing after waiting over two hours, the only cars driving by were locals going to a small village or full family vehicles. This route the Plitvice seemed to be the much less used and as it mostly turned out, as we were about to give up and walk back to the freeway, our first Italian plated car pulled over.Inside were an extremely funny, poor english speaking and somewhat lost Italian couple. They were heading to a campground in a town just before Plitvice and with the help of our phones GPS locations, we found ourselves being dropped 4km from the entrance. It was now 5pm and having started at 8am it was one of our longest and hottest hitchhiking days. Deciding to begin walking, the second car driven by a happy Korean couple stopped and dropped us at their hotel in the parks entrance village. Our day was far from over however. We walked to the second entrance, avoiding the main area and followed the road which busses operated along to drop people where they may begin the boardwalks. It was an easy 3km stroll however as the days light was almost at an end, we hurriedly rushed. We managed to make it to one of the more popular boardwalk sections, following its more slowly now and appreciating the park empty. Finally the sun began setting and we hurried off track to find a location to camp.
We noticed a small dirt track leading up through the forest, seemly used for a toilet location however continued further up the mountain until completely hidden. Sun setting it began getting dark and we paced around trying to find flat ground. To no luck, we began pitching the tent on the side of the hill as it was too dark and we were beyond exhausted. Putting our belongings into the tent and them rolling to the bottom, we easily agreed it was our worst location for the trip. Vegemite rolls were for dinner and with out bags at our feet to try stop the sliding, we eventually fell asleep.Six hours later our alarm sounded. 5am and ready to explore the park we quickly performed our memorised morning routine and ventured back to the boardwalks. The sun began to rise and we explored the park from the furthest point first, perhaps a bad idea for when we returned closer to the entrance where people caught ferris to, it was already filling up. From this point, the boats full of people are dropped from entrance 2 into the park and can option for another boat the the first entrance area. We lined up (already at 8am, an hour after the park opened) and waiting for the boat however once it came noticed they were checking tickets, something we were told they did not do. As a result we had to walk the boarder of the large lake, blessed as it was a beautiful and peaceful walk. Once over to the other side, the boardwalks begin again and it follows another series of larger waterfalls to the first entrance. It was 9:30 by this stage and the walk was in a single file, having to even stop in some sections as the masses of people try and coordinate the 1m wide paths. Most feelings of being in nature were obscured and we hurriedly made it to the first entrance and out of the park. We were happy to have experienced at least one side of the park free of people, and because, it had cost us not a cent!It was only a 5 minute wait to be picked up by a tourism mini bus and then dropped 15km away at a campground just outside the national park. With the entire afternoon at our disposal we both collapsed in tiredness, laying on the grass under tree’s shade, drifting in and out of sleep. We were stoked to have experienced Plitvice Lakes National Park empty, and to have spent no money in doing so!
(38km walked, 200km hitchhiked)