We left behind sunny Piran and the feeling of Italy that we were so nostalgic for and made our way inland and after a while struggling with oppressive headwinds and relentless climbs, we entered our 26th country of this trip – Croatia.
The easy motorways of Slovenia were quickly replaced with smaller, more rural roads. Progress was slow, and the day soon dragged on into night. There were few free camp options in Croatia, however, we found something en route to the national park. It was just a small field, with some muddy access trails, but it was dark and quiet. As we’d arrived in the dark, it was a little hard to find a nice flat place to park – and also not get stuck in the surrounding mud.
Our bodies were slightly in shock, after having a beautifully warm day by the ocean in Piran, we were once again in frigid temperatures. It was only later that I learnt that this was one of the coldest places in Croatia, and snow wasn’t far away.
We awoke to a grey and miserable morning. Our bodies were tired, and we had the feeling of an impending cold hitting our bodies. The forecast showed clearer (though cooler) weather tomorrow. There was a free toilet, as well as free drinking water, so rather than push on to the lakes in a fog of poor health (combined with a literal fog), we opted to spend the day here in this muddy patch of Croatia, watching TV and drinking lemongrass and ginger tea – for the record, we were busy binging our way through The Crown, which is fantastic.
Amazingly, as predicted the weather today had indeed improved. The temperatures too had also plummeted, and we caught the glimpses of fresh snow on some of the higher hills in the area as we made our way towards the national park. That was once we managed to get out of the muddy access road onto main road. This had an additional challenge of being on a blind corner – and drivers paying no heed to speed limits. It took a few attempts, but we (obviously) made it out.
I thought being a little later in the season – and on a random weekday – it would be quiet. But, maybe the best I could hope for was it being quieter. The car park was overflowing, and there were queues of tour buses taking turns to drop of enormous groups into the park. I could only dread the chaos that must take place during the summer months. As seems to be common in many places, the parking was a fixed daily rate for campervans – instead of the hourly rate that cars are able to pay. I’m sympathetic to paying more for parking a larger vehicle (which I don’t wholly believe that we are), but forcing to pay for an entire day, and at a premium, seems a little unfair.
There was a 110kn (€15) entrance fee per person, however, it was only checked at one point during the day, and that was when using the boat to cross one of the larger lakes.
We flowed with the sea of tourists, and less than 100m after passing the entrance gates, we were struck by an incredible view waterfalls, lakes, cliffs, and of trees turning golden. At first glance, it was like something from Avatar, and not at all like the photos I’d seen. The crush of people surrounding us, with their phones and tablets held in outstretched arms were instantly forgotten – for a while.
We followed the concrete trail that wound its way towards the lakes below, along the wooden paths that hovered just above the waters of one of the lakes and right up to foot of the seemingly distant waterfalls. The waterfalls were far less impressive up close, so we didn’t stick around for long.
There were several options for hiking in the park, from short loops, through to full day treks. We opted for something in between, since neither of us were feeling 100%.
I know it’s hypocritical to complain about tourists ruining a place – when we too are tourists – however, I believe that we’re fairly conscientious of our actions and the surroundings. I don’t know if I’m being particularly sensitive, but having to dodge and avoid loud and chaotic groups that dominate narrow pathways was really killing my enjoyment. There were brief periods of calm between the calamity, and in those blissful bubbles of serenity, it was pure pleasure walking along the wooden paths that skirted the lakes.
The lakes are quite an odd phenomenon, and it wasn’t until I saw a sign explaining the layers that I understood that these waterfalls were, for a large part, created by the calcareous tufa deposits building up over aeons, slowly building walls for the water to cascade over.
There was a vantage that I wanted to see the lakes from, however, there were restrictions on flying drones in this national park – so I had to put those temptations of flying out of my head, and carry that extra weight in my pack all day.
We also chanced upon some rather dark caves/tunnels, which caused great confusion for continuity of trails, but it did break up the scenery a little, and cause a few moments of moderate terror walking along a slippery trail in darkness.
In all, we walked about 8km, following some of the main trails along the lakes, and then catching a ferry to the distant shores, saving loads of time and energy. The queue for the ferry was enormous, and seemed to be stationary for an exceptionally long time, suddenly four successive ferries arrived, and we were seated and off on an adventure.
The trip on the ferry was particularly serene. This is probably a combination of the near-silent electric motors, and the calm waters of the lake. The Autumnal colours weren’t in full force, but the subtle hints were really beautiful, especially while the sun was breaking through.
Unsurprisingly, once we reached the far side of the main lake, there were yet more smaller lakes, all being fed from waterfalls from other higher lakes. It was novel to see waterfalls (and I use that term loosely) falling from underneath a forest.
It was getting later, and we were much further from the main entrance, and as a result, the crowds were thinning and my enjoyment was rising. The waterfalls we were seeing now weren’t nearly as impressive as at the entrance, but the lakes themselves, with their green forests speckled with red and yellow hues, were the definition of calm beauty.
It did start to feel repetitive, with more of the same each time we climbed up to another lake. Our feet were starting to ache, and our stamina was nearly drained.
We might have spent yesterday resting, but we still had some way to go before we were back to 100% health. Rather than walk all the way back, we jumped on one of the included buses that shuttled back to near the entrance. This too was more chaotic than it needed to be, with no coordination or cooperation, and a mad push to get inside the less-than-frequent bus. Frustratingly to all involved, the third of the three carriages remained empty, with doors not opening to allow guests inside – I was incredibly fortunate that we weren’t queued in front of that carriage.
The bus didn’t return us all the way to our entrance, but to an alternative entrance to the park. From here, it was a short walk along the top of some cliffs, and the views were some of the day’s most spectacular. We saw a few people that had managed to climb out onto some cliffs opposite where we were stood, and couldn’t quite work out how they’d gotten to that vantage point – as I think they would be the best views in the park, and probably where most postcard views were shot from.
It was a little disheartening that some of the most impressive views are also the ones closest to the entrance. I’m not saying that we didn’t enjoy the walking, because once it quietened down, we most certainly did, but navigating erratic crowds on a narrow wooden bridge was something I could happily of skipped. And, once again, I dread to think what it’s like during peak season in July/August!
As a little bonus, the ticket machine treated us like a regular vehicle, so we only paid the hourly rate, saving a few Euro. There was still an hour or two before sunset, so we made our way back towards the warmth and the sunshine of the Dalmatian Coast. As we drove, we passed by endless farms and houses selling their spare rooms to tourists, as well as countless honey stands. Once again I was reminded just how busy it must be here during those summer months.