The border crossing sat a hundred meters in front of us. A sceptical Bosnian security guard stood guarding the middle of the road eyeing us confusingly. Perhaps it is an odd sight to see three backpackers walking across a border. Wait, it definitely is! We, a group of three now that our good friend Johl had joined the team for a week, walked along a mountainous small road, one of the least used border crossing to Croatia I would assume. We had hitch a lift with Aussie and Irish couple Riley and Holly having met them the day before and by coincidence were travelling the same direction; Dubrovnik. They dropped us to walk across the border and was waiting further down the road as something about their insurance may not cover so many passengers plus there was the fact we had no seat belts. Not that normal laws generally apply in Bosnia and Herzegovina..
As we approached the officer he abruptly asked where we were from. Already having our passports ready we replied Australia and with a slight chuckle and not even checking our documents, he waved us through. That was easy! Next step, dealing with the Croatia border control. We stood lined up with some cars in front and behind. It would have been a peculiar sight for the local drivers! Everything ran smoothly and after a some freshly added stamps we were walking down the road and around a corner to where Riley and Holly waited.
Their accomodation for the night took them an alternative back route around the old town so only two minutes after continuing with them we were back on foot. The winding mountain road was seemingly deserted and having thought we were making it entirely into Dubrovnik, stood a little dumbfounded. It was 6pm and with only one hour of sunlight left we felt a little worried. The best option we decided was to walk and hitch to the main highway 4km down the mountain. Halfway the sun began to set and as we came across a earth removal factory with space for a car to full in we enthusiastically stuck out thumbs out smiling at a passing car. It stopped! An early twenty year old driving a brand new BMW greeted us friendlily and although he could only take us to the highway, saved us 20minutes of walking. Thanking him, there was luckily a bus stop at the intersection and as the final touches of light disappeared over the horizon the three of us stood in the headlights of oncoming cars.
Dubrovnik was only 5km away and despite this we waited anxiously as headlights passed continuously. We had read hitchhiking in the dark can be difficult, and even more so with three.. 45 minutes later a minivan pulled over and a tourist guide coming back from a days work stopped. He dropped us on the highway above the historically famous old town of Dubrovnik, only a matter of navigating the brutally steep small roads to reach our hostel in the centre before we could officially say we made it. By 9pm we had checked into our budget braking overpriced hostel room, the only option we decided possible to photograph and experience the tourist plagued old town at sunrise. Due to Dubrovnik’s popularity, every option other than a 1hr walk away was booked out, resulting in us staying at a 30€ a night hostel and sending our budget into negatives. Something we were going to have to correct.
The next morning we were awake at 5am and out exploring the city. Other than the commute of local workers we seemed to have the old stone streets and buildings to ourselves. As tourists began to emerged beyond 7am however we ventured away from the city walls and into the surrounding suburbia, trying to chase a vantage point to eat watermelon and capture the city. After countless climbed stairs and some how finding the exact location we had hoped, photos were taken, almost an entire watermelon consumed then we were back within the walls of the city, checking out of our hostel and heading to some cliffs to jump off which can be found on the west side through a tiny door opening, an arrow and sign stating “ best cocktails and sunset” to guide the way.
It was not long however that we had to leave the wonderfully historic city and retrieve our bags to then walk back up another incredibly high number of steps in 34degree heat. Standing back on the highway at a bus stop to hitchhike further south, the three of us became two ago. Kayla walked away to find her hostel for the night somewhere in the hills (cheapest option) as she had been surprised by her family with a birthday flight to Greece to meet her oldest sister! The next day she would fly to Santorini for a week while Johl and I would keep the hitchhiking trip alive, still continuing as a “we”.
Doubtfully, two dudes stood with their thumbs out in the hot Croatia early afternoon heat. We began to think perhaps we had not left enough time as our goal was to reach the town of Kotor, Montenegro. Memories flashed back from the night before of being told by the Croatian girl who ran the hostel “You will not be able to hitchhike in Croatia. The people are too afraid and it is dangerous”, however these were soon dissolved as a local man traveling to the closest town before Montenegro, happily picked us up. He was a bus driver who ran the main highway route to Dubrovnik and said everyday he saw hitchhikers and felt helpless as he could not pick them up. Luckily we, caught him on a day off!
Dropped at a bus stop in a tiny town 10km from the border, we now stood holding a sign saying Montenegro. It was an hour wait before a blue van pulled in and jumping out exuberantly, a retired Austrian and free spirit, Gilbert, greeted us saying “I am from Austria, the one without kangaroos!” He was making his way to Albania indefinitely as because he had all the time of retirement, simply went with the flow. An hour and half of winding roads and his interesting travel chat brought us to the town of Kotor. Gilbert had been to Montenegro many times and as we had no plans for the nights accomodation was persistent on finding a camping spot together. The uncertainty of where to camp and with darkness soon approaching we said goodbye however and opted to find the cheapest hostel in Kotor. The town is situated inside old fortress walls, very similar to Dubrovnik however a quarter of the size and not directly on the water. Immediately inside we were engulfed by a crowd of tourists and despite the heritage of beauty the old town reflected, it felt overcrowded. The cheapest option was a 10€ a night dorm and followed by a quick cooked pasta, we were in bed quite early.
A 6am rise gave us an almost empty climb to an equally quiet fortress. We beat the heat and crowds as we took our time exploring the many fort walls and routes as they wound step by step to a ruin medieval castle. From the top it gave an unbelievable view over the bay of Kotor, almost resembling a much dryer Norwegian fjord. We slightly spied our direction for the day, a road following the coast, then walked down by the hundreds of people now coming up. Checking out of our hostel we stopped by a local butchers, buying a cevapi (read about them in the previous Bosnian post) for 3€ then began our 9km walk. Not a single cloud sat above us and we joyfully strolled along a quiet road with old historic building to our left and concrete jetties flowing out to the clearest water on our right. After an hour of walking then having lunch at a small town, a bus stopped in front of us and we chose the easy option, a 70c ticket and lift to the tiny town of Donji Stoliv.
There we found paradise. Only a roads width from the waters edge, an old local couple, whom spoke no english, allowed vans/cars/caravan and tents to use their front yard as a campsite. The only facilities were two outdoor showers, two toilets and a large troff for cleaning dishes; all that one could ask for! Quickly setting up our tent it was not long before the days walk was forgotten when diving into the crystal clear salt water. Later that afternoon vans began crowding into the small front yard and soon it completely filled. Beside us a blue Austrian plated car now sat and shortly after we met Philipp and Helena. That night the four of us sat down by the waters edge and courtesy of Johl, had beers in hand. Philipp and Helena were on a road trip to Greece, planning to windsurf along the way. They both studied medicine and were some of the most genuine people met so far. They spoke from their heart and when they later decided to stay another night as we planned to, we were excited to chill in the new found paradise together.
Sun and the increasing heat was what woke us the following morning. Straight out of the tent and into the ocean was more than enough to wash away any remaining tiredness. The days plans were to climb to an old church we had seen when hitching the ride to Kotor and from the other side of the bay. Ironically, our very destination was at the waters edge below the church so going to explore it seemed fate. Asking the two Austrians if they wanted to join, Philipp was quickly changed and ready to go. The three of us followed the only small road leading upward and before long it became an overgrown gravel track. The steep climb had a dense growth of trees growing over head, shielding all views of the bay however as old houses began to emerge and we saw the remnants of a deceased village, the foliage broke away and we suddenly could see views over the water and dotted small villages along its shore. Continuing up steps now they lead directly to the church and although it had a padlocked gate, we easily climbed over and into its courtyard.
The view from the church was amazing. We could see the entire north west side of the bay, around all nooks of where the bay wrapped into hidden inlets and tiny villages inhabited these shore lines. The church also, unsure how regularly it was used, was made entirely of stone and almost camouflaged into the thick vegetation around. We had split up and were taking photos when we heard Johl yell out. Running over he had lifted a large stone paver thinking it looked like an entrance to an underground tunnel. What actually lay inside was the entire skeleton of a human. Laying beside these was also a large black snake, curled neatly beside the human skull! Our discomfort from what we saw came from different sources; opening a grave and seeing a skeleton felt sickening to us Australians while the snake scared the hell out of Phillpp. Studying medicine he was fascinated by the skeleton. The tomb was hurriedly closed and feeling terrible for accidentally disturbing the dead, we climbed back over the gate and landed on the other side. The moment our feet touched the ground, suddenly the church bell began to ring. It was a much faster walk to the bottom..
The rest of the day was spent lounging around our found paradise and regular swims. In the afternoon we were given the opportunity to borrow a canoe from an elderly German couple having helped them lift their old fibreglass canoe from the water as the concrete jetty was slippery the day before. We paddled it 2km to a famous island in the middle of the bay where a historic cathedral and church lived. As always I felt blessed in the kindness of strangers and felt so many experiences of this trip would not have been lived if it were not for their generosity! When evening had returned the four of us once again by the oceans edge, talking easily. The Austrians offered us a lift south the next day and given the isolation of this found place, and the fact they were legends, we happily agreed.
The next morning we were packed and had payed our 5€ per night campsite fee. The weather was once again turning it on and Johl and I jumped into the back of the Austrians van. The van did not have any additional seats rather their bed which folded up into an inclined lounge seat. It was by the far the comfiest ride we had experienced, even if it had no seatbelt. Legally this did not matter, we were in Montenegro! Johl and I had plans to possible stay in a 40km away large town named Budva however passing through the large city and seeing countless tacky billboard signs and large apartment buildings, we felt as if in Bali and easily decided it was not for us. Philipp and Helena were happy for us to continue and another 20km down the coastline we stopped to look at another potential nights stay. We walked down a steep winding road to the famous island of Sveti Stephan. Being an extremely expensive private resort, the area was very controlled, having private beaches and areas everywhere. Again it did not compare to our previous location and we continued on.
Montenegro is a tiny country and it was only 45 minutes of driving before we were at its final town, Ulcinj. Philipp had read about an amazing windsurfing beach, the longest on the Adriatic coastline and we ventured past the town to explore this. On arriving, again billboard began emerging and we discovered a very strange place. With names like Miami and Florida Beach, people had set up many camping sites the entire way along this 12km beach. Amongst the pine trees which dotted the beach line we saw an endless amount of rubbish and amongst all of this people had tents set up. Finally deciding on a campground to check out, we explore the beach and while it was past peak season, the entire beach area was covered in empty lounge chairs. The sand was a grey/black colour while the water equally matched. It was an incredible comparison to the previous two nights of paradise and we stood by the van contemplating what to do for some time.
It was reaching 3pm when we crossed the Albanian border and into an unknown country. Having done some research on where the most beautiful coastline was, we headed straight for the very south, 400km away. The journey took us through an array of poverty and, poorly assumed, uncertainty. To simply drive through a country can give a prejudiced overview as we sat back in the comfortable familiarity of the van, judging what we saw. Unfinished buildings, pollution, extreme rubbish, fires, little road laws, terrible roads and large groups of males were all common sights and our first impression of Albania. Later we learnt it is terrible to access a new place based on other countries. A place is unique for its individual values and our initial views do change! but for now, it only gets more “interesting”.
Night had taken all light from the day and a new 130km speed limit highway was what lead us to the city Vlore. We drove along the lightless motorway and had it not been for a car in front putting their hazard lights on for a warning, we would not of noticed the tiny 20km speed limit change sign and perhaps not have made it since suddenly a large speed hump appeared. This then occurred a further 3 times! As we entered the hectic busy city at night both cars and people flocked everywhere. A large street fight with police began erupting to one side of us and people began blocking the road. We slid through a gap and were happy to be following a quieter coastal road, now on the look out for a campground.
Getting worried as building by building we found nothing. The city of Vlore was over 15km away. Our days sights had filled our clouded minds with uncertainty and it was a relief when we saw a lit up LED sign stating camping. We followed a road down to a large gravel carpark area and asking at an empty restaurant, was given the price of 20€ for all of us. There were only 2 other camper vans. Finding a patch of overgrown weeds to offer some comfort in comparison to the endless gravel, we set our tent up then sat down on the pebble beach and watched an incredibly thunderstorm somewhere over Italy in the distance.
Later awakening inside our strobe lit tent, we checked our phones at 2:30am and both listened as the distance thunder, now felt on top of us. It’s continuous second apart rhythm made our decision to abandon ship! We quickly packed up and sought refuge in the nearby restaurant. We lay our matts in a found toilet block room, fully inclosed and roofed, then easily fell back to sleep in exhaustion as heavily rain began. Some hours later we woke again, Johl yelling we were flooding. The heavy rain had somehow leaked through the door and we now lay in a puddle of water! Retreating farthing into the toilet block, now inside a cubicle, we re-set our bedding up and despite it being wet, fell back asleep for the remains few hours before light.
We were awake again by 6:30am and the owner of the campground, having known our troubles as we sat weary eyed outside our Austrian friends van, offered us into his restaurant and for free coffee. He was an exceptionally nice guy and our first verbal encounter with an Albanian. Not as scary as we had imagined! Before long the four of us were back into the van driving south. Having checked the forecast it was meant to rain for the next week and rightly, it did. We past some of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen, completely clouded by heavy rainfall. Our trip took us to the very southern point of Albania where in a small town named Ksamil, we arrived at night again. We found the only opened camping ground, sitting inside a small dense concrete jungle of a town with collapsing and half built buildings everywhere. The ground was ran by an extremely lovely family, very fond of Australia. Heavy rain continued and as there was no option to set up a tent we asked the owner if there were any rooms available. He made a phone call and a man came and picked us up, driving to his apartment building were we had a hotel style room for 10€ each. We were just happy to be somewhere dry!
The next day the sun occasionally came out and we made a trip to a near by natural phenomenon. The blue eye, a spring spilling out of a large hole in the ground and having such force it created a small eruption of water. It was the beginning and source of a crystal clear river and despite its 6 degree temperature we all swam. Later were were back in Ksamil, now camped at the site with Philipp and Helena and walking to the nearby beach, set up a hammock they had and enjoyed the remaining sun of the day. Later after we had cooked a large curry together, again sat watching a coming thunderstorm and prepared an additional tarp the Austrians had for a roof over our tent. We went to sleep expecting the worst and sometime early in the morning the heavy rained and aggressive wind hit us, ripping the tarp free.
A similar morning woke us to a wet ground, however thankfully, all our gear was dry inside our friends van and our matts had kept it off us. Rain continued in patches for the rest of the day and between intervals we packed up. Time had sadly come to say goodbye to our Austrian friends and being back to two dudes, we walked to a nearby bus stop and caught a 70c lift to the nearby large town of Saranda. We checked into a hostel which sat on the 8th floor of an apartment building and finally having a decent nights sleep, woke up to all you can eat pancakes and the time came again, too meet up with the other half..
Thank you Philipp and Helena for an epic road trip down Montenegro and Albania! It is for sure, some of my fondest memorise and you guys are great humans!
(126km walked, 584km hitchhiked)