Saturday, 27 October 2007

STEPH Gabela to the hill above the White Lake 24/10/07

We wake beside the railway tracks with a chuckle about the earth-rattling roar of the trains in the night. I’m up before the sun to discover ice on the tent! And it’s still bloody freezing, our breath misty in the morning.

We pack wet tents and walk around the dawn, through Herzegovina’s farmland ringed with snowy mountains. Three times today we take the wrong road. It annoys Ben. I’ve discovered it doesn’t bother me at all. We’re walking anyways, it makes no difference this way or that. Not today.

We cross the border back into Croatia. Again I am struck by the incongruity of lines in the sand. One day you have neighbours up the valley. The next you need a passport to visit them. Clearly, someone living near the border with very neat handwriting is thinking along the same lines . . .

We walk along the river to Metkovic, a grey and grubby city that seems to offer not much at all. We are looking for the turnoff to a backroad, to keep us off the highway. The locals tell us the border is closed on this road. They do not like strangers, they say.

Neither Ben nor I is interested in taking the long way round, along the highway to Dubrovnik. We take the backroad, winding our way through charred hillsides ringing with chainsaws salvaging what little wood is left from the summer’s fires.

We walk and we walk. Metkovic in the distance is now white and red-roofed. I wonder what happened to the grey city. Our road meets another, not on our map. We walk on. At the top of a rise a silver car stops and a woman speaking easy-English asks if we need a lift. We explain to her and her trio of curious children that we are pilgrims and we are walking. She throws her name out the window as she drives on, an invitation on the wind.

We are hungry. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that Ben is under the illusion that towns marked on maps mean food. Today was no exception. We wander into Bijeli Vir, past ready for a good feed . . .

As is the way with miracles, the moment we decide to find the woman in the silver car we realise we are standing outside her house – that’s her car parked out the back.

Tereza made our day. She sat us down at her kitchen table and cooked us lunch. We swapped travelers tales. She and her children sent us on our way with a CD of Dalmation music and a bag of mandarins from their orchard.

Tereza’s gift is that she saw not bedraggled strangers, but travelers in need of a good feed and a rest.

Tereza saw the need and she responded unconditionally. I’m wondering if there is a greater gift one human being can offer another . . .

We walk on, following the road through small stone villages along the edge of Bijeli Vir, ‘white lake’.

This is a back road’s back road. Villagers sit in the sun passing time on small plots of land they’ve claimed from the water, laughing when they see us and making exaggerated gestures about heavy loads.

Tereza’s son pulls up in a car driven by his aunt. They need to tell us we cannot pass at the border. Theresa has rung her friend in the police office. The crossing is for domestic workers only, not internationals. They tell us to come back with them and Tereza will drive us to Metkovic. Ben’s not going anywhere . . . not returning to Metkovic, not taking the long way round; we will find a way at the border. I’m curious to see what will unfold. I can feel Ben trusting the mystery of the knowable unknown and I hold true with him.

We thank them and wave goodbye.

We continue around the white lake. Ten minutes later Tereza pulls up, adamant we must allow her to help. Ben asks about an alternative road through the mountains. She makes a phone call and laughs about our lucky day. A new road was carved into the mountains six months ago. The turn-off is a km short of the border.

We walk on, spirits high. It is a beautiful day. It is a pilgrim’s day. It is one of the best days we've had so far, out here in the wild places, just us and all that is right with the world.

We rest on the edge of the last village before the border, lying back on our packs in the last of the sunlight eating Theresa’s mandarins. We watch the sun dip below the mountain on the other side of the lake. We can see our road at lake’s end, high up the mountain face. We reckon we can make it to the top by dark.

The road is chalky-white and stony. The light fades fast. The lake reflects the last of the sunset. The moon rises at our backs, a great silver disc of light so bright we are casting shadows on the stones.

I stop and breath it all in.

When you are in a car, beautiful places are a moment; if you stop the car, a cluster of moments. When you walk, beautiful places are an eternity carved into the soul.

We’re excited when a small white chapel greets us at the top. It is locked. We think of the wet tents we’ve forgotten to dry out and hunt around for a key. No go. We pitch our tents on the white stones (amazing where you can pitch a tent when you have to!) and let them dry for a while in the chill night air.

It is a gorgeous night. We sit on the chapel steps, rugged up to billio, and eat bread, cheese, chocolate and mandarins for dinner. We can see the lake below. The village lights glow orange around the water’s edge. The occasional dog barks into the valley night.

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