We didn’t plan to be stranded on a slab of volcanic rock that night. But unlike tourist cities that still hold a steady off-season population, Mediterranean islands are ghost-town dead in October. This occurred to us in a fashionably late sense, or in other words, as the catamaran sped away and left us docked on Croatia’s island of Mljet. And by the time I had convinced Jesse our best plan of attack was to rent crummy mountain bikes, venture off (illegally) into Mljet’s national forest, and as the sun was setting only then should we look for a spot to sleep… there was just no where else to go.
It was three days into our trip, and as we scoured the mini mart’s barren shelves for food on our ten-buck budget, Jesse questioned my “method” for traveling. Since rejecting the only room from the only hostess in this town, and insisting on camping in an unfamiliar foreign forest we’ve never seen, I was losing points as a logical European traveler by the minute.
“But it’s going to rain,” said Mario, a local baker who began following us up and down the street, trying to turn us off from the plan.
I looked at the cloudless blue sky, and back at Mario’s shiny round head drowning in an oversized pair of Terminator sunglasses. He had a few molars just recently pulled, hence the constant pill popping his hands were busy fiddling with (after I asked him, jokingly, if they were crazy pills).
“Oh yeah? Rain when?” I asked, throwing up my hands and giving a half smile. Jesse was lingering in the mini mart’s doorway, eyeing a potential dinner platter of apples, chocolate bars, bread and jam. If I had been paying closer attention I would have noticed Jesse’s flushed face, slight fatigue and sneezing. Instead, I kept wondering what was taking her so long to decide between grape and strawberry.
I looked at Mario and the row of rusty, rinky dink mountain bikes behind him. “How much for two of those bikes?” I asked. The only English speaker out of three locals, excluding two American honeymooners watching from a terrace above, Mario quickly became our liaison with negotiations. Unfortunately for us Mario’s suggestions took the side of his island friends, and it was a struggle to clarify we had no interest in accommodation.
“The old lady upstairs want fifteen euros for bikes,” said Mario, pointing to the round, elderly woman seesawing down the stairs with a cane. “Or you stay in her room for thirty euros… and you get bikes, free!” The elderly lady nodded as she plopped herself on the steps, the tip of her cane eye level to my waist.
They began speaking Croatian. I tried to talk over them, “Right, but just for the bikes…”
“Why you not want to sleep on bed?” Mario interjected, too wrapped up with his side conversing to notice I was speaking. “It’s nice room, good price, off-season price.”
“Off season price!” said the elderly lady, catching my surprise to see her chime in with some English. The American honeymooners had fixed a spot on the dock and were sun tanning. Jesse was still at the sidelines of my triangle consulting, indecisively juggling packets of jellies.
Mario and the elderly woman weren’t desperate for money. Holiday season had just ended and the accumulated pile of tourism gold was at its grandest. Confusion lied within the fact they simply didn’t get why sleeping in the woods was winning over sleeping in a bed. When the romantic concept of camping under the stars finally got through to them, well they still weren’t very convinced but at least the negotiations ended. Twelve euros for the mountains bikes, return tomorrow, no room.
As I turned to enter the mini mart Jesse was right behind me, empty-handed.
“Hey you sure this is a good idea?” she asked timidly, myself still blind to her symptoms of sickness. “I mean we don’t know this place, it’s getting dark soon, and I’m afraid we’re going to get lost in the forest without any food.”
Jesse had a point. And Jesse had also taken outdoor survival courses (I had not). And Jesse was also beginning to look a little sick. But in my mind it was decided. The bikes were in our hands, and I had bargained too much to be thrown into a cushy bed and breakfast with two American honeymooners. So I gave a pep talk on how backing out is for suckers.
“Dude it’ll be fine. Easy. We’ll get some food here, take off for the night and return the bikes tomorrow. It’s an empty island with seventy-two percent being a huge natural forest. We came here to camp, right? Let’s just do this.” She reluctantly nodded and stepped back into the mini mart, grabbing a fistful of jams as her voice trailed back that we need to hurry.
“But if you decide to come back when it rains, the lady said she has your room ready,” shouted Mario as we began biking into Mljet National Forest.
As the elderly woman with the cane had advised, we quickly passed through the entrance without stopping to pay. “And if they find you and ask for paper you say, ‘Oh! Sorry! I don’t know where it is! I am just visitor!’” she suggested.
So we whizzed past the Roman ruins gate from 6th century, then immediately were slowed by a steep uphill lasting a good five miles. Well, I thought, forest rangers won’t have a problem catching us now.
Luckily we managed to scramble off paved roads unspotted and pedal through Mljet’s scenic countryside. Streams from the Adriatic Sea had carved volcanic landscape with lagoons and saltwater lakes. We spotted a monastery from the 1100s resting on a mini island and accessible only by boat. About 500 years ago Mljet had a serious snake problem. The place was infested with slithery reptiles, which I tried to forget (and never told Jesse about) when we rolled out our sleeping bags on the big, flat rock.
“There’s no place that is, I don’t know, a little softer?” I asked Jesse. “You’re sure?” She shook her head; she had already scouted out the area. Sleeping by the path was a no for fear of being caught. Sleeping by the lake was a no for fear of falling in. Sleeping in a nearby soft-nettled area was a no due to the slant.
Jesse had taken outdoor survival courses, I had not.
So we laid on a rock that night made from a volcano that erupted probably some million years ago. Perched high above ground and bundled in our bags as dusk turned to night, we listened to the paddle of fisherman boats echo over the lake (because, to be honest, we were afraid they had seen us and were now going to come looking). We dozed in and out of sleep, softly waking to a bright moon and the white band of the Milky Way, or tensely jolting alive from catfight screams and howling hounds.
We would wake up early the next morning and bike until Jesse passed out from her fever in a van en route to the other side of Mljet. We’d treat ourselves to a room and at dawn the next morning take a car ferry to the mainland, only to unsuccessfully hitchhike and ultimately trek five miles into a tiny rural Croatian town called Ston. We would finally make it back to Dubrovnik and eventually to our destination in Kotor, Montenegro… needless to say we checked into a hostel.
(Jesse, for what it’s worth, I still feel bad for making you camp outside when you were shivering out sweat.)