Paddle Power: Kayaking Croatia's Zrmanja River
This article was first published in get lost magazine, Issue 56
Far from the coast and away from the crowds, Shaun Busuttil jumps in a kayak and explores Croatia’s rugged karst interior along the emerald Zrmanja River.
I never planned on going first, but somehow I’m called into action before the others. All I need to do is steer my kayak towards the ledge of the raging waterfall and launch myself off the vertiginous drop.
I paddle determinedly towards Eon, my guide, who stands like a beacon beside the point of no return. As I near the edge, the air becomes charged with tension and the deepening roar of the approaching waterfall intensifies. But in the last few seconds I sense disaster.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when your kayak decides to spin out of control just moments before you launch off the precipice of a waterfall. It’s like old mate Fear waking up in a good mood and deciding to go bungee jumping— hairy, yes, but totally exhilarating at the same time. A little embarrassing, too— especially when your kayaking troupe is in prime position to witness the spectacle.
Thankfully, disaster never comes. Before giving the rear of my kayak a mighty push in the final moments before the drop, Eon straightens me up as I raise my paddle overhead. Seconds later I land under the gushing waterfall and a smile blooms on my drenched face. Paddling towards the edge of the deep green pool, forged by centuries of relentless flowing water, I watch as the rest of my group faces their fears and take the plunge, one by one.
Things weren’t always so dramatic. For the past 48 hours I’ve been kayaking a section of the Zrmanja River through a rugged karst topography of canyons, caves and rock formations inside the Velebit Nature Park in Croatia’s Dalmatia region. I’m travelling with five Brits, and as the only Aussie I’m determined to make my country proud on this three-day adventure of wild camping, raging waterfalls and class II and III rapids. This is Croatia with the adventure factor dialed up to 11, minus the heaving tourist crowds.
Two days earlier we set off from Zadar, a historic town on the eastern shores fringing the Adriatic Sea. Famous for the architecturally designed musical instrument Morske Orgulje (Sea Organ), its myriad Roman, Venetian and Byzantine ruins, and being Croatia’s oldest continuously occupied city (it’s been inhabited as far back as ninth-century BC), Zadar is most memorable to me for having a name that sounds like the punchline of a magic trick. From here, it takes a little over 90 minutes by van to reach our first campsite at Kastel Zegarski, and along the way we pass Croatia’s largest mountain range, Velebit, which separates Dalmatia from the lush interior region of Lika. We also skirt by a raging bush fire edging the main road. Eon explains that this region is unfortunately prone to fires, especially during July and August.
As our kayaking adventure officially begins the next day, we spend the evening at the campsite getting acquainted over barbecued chicken, rice and beer. The night sky is so clear and dark out here that it’s actually possible to see the soft glow of the Milky Way and make out celestial constellations and asterisms like the Big Dipper. The need for sleep eventually wins out though, and I retire to my tent in preparation for the 11-kilometre paddle downstream that lies ahead.
I wake to the rooster’s resounding crow at 4am, but only feel compelled to get out of bed four hours later by the aroma of coffee and a delicious spread of meaty burek (flaky baked pastry), locally made cheese and fresh fruit. I’m keen to load up on carbs and caffeine for the day ahead, which will involve an eight-kilometre paddle that should take us four to five hours. Having only just completed a 15-day cycling trip through the Balkans, I’m eager to get out on the water to make sure my arms still work.
Soon I’m putting on my canary-yellow life vest, donning my red helmet and stepping into my black neoprene booties after a short safety talk. The six of us are divided into three teams of two and allocated blue rubber double kayaks.
“We don’t use hard kayaks on the river anymore as they can destroy the area’s delicate travertine,” Eon says as we make final preparations. I’m paired with Ros, an accountant from London, and moments later we’re taking our first strokes downstream on the calm, green Zrmanja River under a thick canopy of fig, juniper and hornbeam trees.
It’s evident from the get-go that staying on course is going to be a challenge over the next two days. As captain of the kayak, I’m sitting at the back, and it’s my job to keep us paddling in the right direction. But despite my best efforts, what should be a peaceful paddle down the river erupts into a frantic and frustrating fight to reel the vessel back in line and divert impending doom in the form of crashing into poke-youreye-out branches or worse, other kayakers.
Thankfully, Ros is a complete pro at detecting even the slightest deviation and is able to synchronise with my strokes to bring the kayak back to its rightful position on the river. This back and forth is a constant theme throughout the trip. The threat of spinning out of control weighs on my shoulders, hanging in the air like a bad smell. One moment of distraction or a little too much muscle in a stroke and the battle to steer the kayak back on track begins.
Crafted by Mother Nature after the last Ice Age when sea levels swelled to more than 120 metres, the Zrmanja River and its estuaries flaunt a rich biodiversity of plant and animal life, including rare species of endemic birds and freshwater fish, such as the Zrmanja dace. The surrounding banks are also prime grazing territory for goats, cattle and sheep. “And snakes,” Eon says with a deadpan expression as we paddle through a flat bucolic section of the river. Whether he’s being serious or just pulling our legs remains a mystery.
Two hours of paddling later and we’re rounding a bend where the confluence of the Zrmanja and Krupa rivers begins and we dock our kayaks at a grassy meadow nearby. From here we’ll hike up to the eight-metre Krupa River waterfall for a splash and swim before returning back to our kayaks to sate our grumbling stomachs. As we clamber up the rocky path towards the falls, sunlight filters through chinks in the canopy and the general chatter slowly dissolves into silence until we reach the top.
It’s at this point that I must confess: I can’t really dive. My attempts almost always result in a red belly (and face to match). The others, however, can and do and it doesn’t take long before our swimming break turns into a faux spectacle reminiscent of the trial stages for the FINA Diving World Series. I’m happy to just bomb away and wallow in the 20-degree pool beneath the roaring waterfall, its contours arranged in a way that almost hints at design, its walls harbouring shadows that cling to the mossy travertine. But, somewhat inevitably, I’m encouraged to demonstrate my diving form – after all, someone has to represent Australia, right? And, just as inevitably, the result of my effort is a resounding slap in the gut and a reverberating crack that provokes pitying laughter from the crowd. Evidently, I still need to work on my technique.
After a tasty lunch of sandwiches, local cheese and fruit we’re back on the water. We paddle through lush corridors of Mediterranean oak and European nettle trees and float past grassy banks smeared with heather and water mint. It’s an incredible tapestry of colours and textures, occasionally lulling us into serene silence amongst the singing birds and the rustling leaves played by a gentle wind.
Further downstream we navigate tumbling sections of class II and III rapids, injecting an addictive dose of adrenalin into our veins. We kayak through rugged canyons covered in thickets of hardy vegetation and paddle past rock formations that resemble faces. And bits of faces—such as the karst monument jutting out from the water known locally as “Grandmothers Tooth.” Further on, we spy a trio of cows grazing on an island meadow made accessible by shallow water.
Eventually we reach our second and final campsite, perched on the side of the river just metres away from the roaring 3.5-metre Ogar waterfall. After setting up our tents and donning our swimmers, it’s straight to the falls for the ‘finals’ of the diving championship. We spend the afternoon swimming, chatting and jumping off the waterfall into the refreshing water. There’s no way I’ll be able to rank for a medal in diving this year. But that’s totally fine with me – I don’t mind coming back next year for another crack.
Breakfast is already on the table by 8am the next morning and a couple of the guys are walking back from a morning swim. I fuel up with strong coffee and a selection of pastries, muesli and fruit. We’re only paddling three kilometres today – the final stretch of the trip before reaching the village of Muškovci where we’ll de-kayak and have a celebratory beer – but I can’t help having seconds and thirds of the light, flaky cheese burek.
We still have some fears to face before the beers, though. Launching ourselves off Ogar waterfall – the last major obstacle of the trip – promises one final rush of adrenalin. We jumped and dived off it the day before, but today we’re taking it on with our kayaks. For safety reasons we’ll ride solo on this last major hump and go down one by one, and I’m called in to tackle the waterfall first. It’s true, I may not be able to dive, but I have no problems standing toe-to-toe with fear. Besides, all I need to do is paddle my kayak in a straight line. How hard could it be?