Day 3 in Bosnia and we decided to go up The Mountain - The Velež Mountain! Selmir (a friend from work who was back visiting his family in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina) had shown me a few photos from when they'd been up there at other times, and it looked incredible. The Highest Peak we were to climb (well drive), 1910m, I would find out later, that I don't think I've been up anything higher... yet! Selmir and his brother we making their 4th attempt to drive all the way up to the top... weather, snow and rocks had blocked their path previously.
The mountain was one of the many that surrounded Mostar... in fact Selmir's family had their house and holiday house at the base of it. From the bottom it looked magnificent - even some ice/snow melt clung to some of the crevices up the top.
I was worried... Mountains never look as high from the bottom, but once I'd heard the stories from Selmir about the lack of air and the scary cliff that you come to all of a sudden when you reach the top... I was worried. I very easily get pressure headaches and don't actually know how far I can go up a hill before the blinding pain starts. I was to tell my 'tour guide' as soon as I felt weird!
Amazingly this didn't happen... A mountain local we'd picked up along the way, Zuja, was our 'Tracker', an older gentleman with the term 'mountaineer' ingrained deeply into every wrinkle of his face and every whisp of white hair! He was also the local drunk and carried a bottle of Grappa up to the top with him. He climbed this mountain at least once a day and no-one ever really knew where to find him. We found him, luckily, at the pub... he was all too pleased to join us (of course the bribe of alcohol helped)! He knew this mountain like the back of his hand and we stopped along the way to pick herbs that he knew - if there was a helpful herb on this mountain - he knew about it and what it did! We stopped multiple times which allowed us to acclimatise to the air pressure, temperature and steady ourselves before we went on.
We stopped for lunch half way up, in front of a well that had been built by Zuja - we couldn't drink the water until it 'warmed up' - it was so cold, and would likely cause a headache. Across the rocky road was a steep cliff with a few sparse trees and tuffs of alpine grass, along with one of the many bright red signs along the way, telling us that the area beyond the sign hadn't been checked for Land Mines - like we would want to walk there anyway - a cliff of something close to about 60 degrees.
2 hours after we started, having driven up the 1900m peak, all in 1st gear (as it was so steep and dangerous), we finally climbed out of the car to something completely breathtaking, and that wasn't the air pressure - that happened to be very good that day, and none of us got altitude issues - the view was just something else... mountains as far as you could see, towns spotted here and there, soft white clouds broke up the harsh bright blue sky and what had been a 32 degree day at the base of the mountain was now relatively cold and rather windy.
Up the top was a building ruin, an old Hotel/hideout bunker for the Yugoslavian National Army (JNA - Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija)... which had been destroyed by the Serbians in the war. The ruins were apparently deep too - no one actually knew, but some claim it to be 15 or more stories below the surface peak of the mountain. There was even a helicopter landing pad and TV station tower that had been destroyed and lay rusting down one of the many crevices of the peak.
It was an amazing feeling at the top too - knowing that we were 4 people standing alone on this whole mountain - apart from the 5 motorbikers that had come passed us on the way up and had long since driven back down - probably because they'd ascended too quickly and hadn't looked well when they rode back down. We'd passed no one else (and nor did we on the way back). Selmir was right, one side of the mountain slopped away steeply, but still accessible but foot and car, while the other felt so close to vertical, it was hard to look over the edge. But up there, it felt like you were on top of the world! And then just like that, the wind stops... you hear nothing at all... no grasses rustling, no clothes swishing or hair whipping your face, the birds and insects even seem to stop for a second of complete stillness, and then the moment is gone and you're on top of a very high mountain again looking over the debris of war, interlaced with small alpine herbs and beautifully coloured flowers. I would happily have stayed up there for hours, I felt so in awe of the whole thing!
The drive down was easier and faster, but no less beautiful, and we managed to fill a full bag of herbs and Mr Zuja finished his small bottle of Grappa. At the bottom, we had a glass of our poison of choice: beer/wine/spirit to calm ourselves following the amazing experience.
It was like nothing I've ever done before - such an untouched wilderness, up so high, looking out over the world, with buildings long ago destroyed, and now giving way to the flowers and shrubs that manage to thrive up there.