Graham Field: Runway of Runaways

One of the biggest bonuses of independent travel is when you come face to face with the real world.

I think we can get numbed by repeated images on TV news about international crises, tragic though they are, ultimately, they are just another image that streams across our vision and even if it does stir something in us, moments later another story or image produces another sensation and the semiconscious reactions amount to little.

I recently rode to an abandoned airbase just inside Croatia, right on the border of Bosnia, so close in fact that my phone wouldn’t let me use the free European data entitlement of Croatia, instead finding an expensive Bosnia signal. This doesn’t matter but I only mention it to show just how close I was to the dividing line between the countries.

I arrived late in the evening, it was almost dark. There is a tunnel with a plane shaped entry that goes deep inside the mountain, how deep? I’m not sure, more about that later.

I rode along the runway which was cracked and overrun with weeds, I recalled my wheelie school training and thought what an ideal place this would be to brush up on my technique. However, I was here to be low profile, under the radar, and wild camp, so I could fully explore in the light of a new day.

You might think a runway is not the ideal place to be out if sight, but the land beyond is known to have landmines, so I pitched my tent between some thin trees and my bike, then laid my blow up mattress on the hard tarmac. It was an early night and I pitched by the last of the natural light not using a headlight, as my philosophy is ‘if you are going to be sneaky, be really sneaky’. There were some lights visible from distant buildings, I’m not sure which side of the border they were on. And so, I went to sleep.

The worst thing about wild camping is the vulnerability I feel and although I’ve never had a negative experience it doesn’t stop my mind wandering and intense and restless dreams are inevitable. I woke with a jump from such a dream, there were headlights shining through my tent and the sound of a running engine right outside, shit. I’m so exposed in my sleeping bag, I decided the best reaction was no reaction, no car doors opened, and I lay still, the car backed up and went off down the runway. FFS was that the police, border guard or what? I opened the zip and looked outside, the car had stopped on the narrow road linking the two runways. I waited, then put on my jeans in case I had to get up in a hurry. It was hard to get back to sleep, I’m not sure I did. Then the sound of another engine, a van came driving down the runway, past my not so hidden camp site and met the first vehicle. What’s going on? I waited and I watched, I could hear distance voices and I stood around in the cool late summer breeze and considered my options, then both vehicles turned around and came screaming past me on the runway like they were drag racing. Now they were gone I checked my phone, it was midnight. But there were still lights moving over where the vehicles had been. People with torches, bugger this, I thought, and for the first time ever, in literally years of wild camping, I packed up. When the bike was loaded, I pressed the starter and went back the way I had come and left this scary abandoned place.

The village had guesthouses, but they were all closed now, I went to the main road, off a slip road into some trees and re-pitched my tent. It’s 1 am now, as I lay there trying to sleep my mind considered every possibility of what had just occurred, it came up blank and eventually rested enough for sleep to come.

The dawn was grey, heavy clouds hung over the hills, I packed up and went back to the base. I rode into the tunnel, there were uncovered inspection pits, crumbling concrete and bent and exposed rebar.

It was exhilarating but I realised it was close to another border, the line between brave and stupid. If I got deeper into this subterranean labyrinth and fell down a hole, impaled myself on some rebar or simply slid off and fell under the bike I could be there for a very long time. No phone signal, roaming or otherwise, and no one knows I’m here. Ideally, I would go in with another whilst a third waited outside but the lone traveler doesn’t have such luxuries. Intriguing thought it was in this pitch-black cavern there was no light at the end nor from where I entered so I turned back. I’ll have to be satisfied with a ride down the runway, so lidless and alone I rode back into the dismal grey morning and that’s when last night’s mystery all made sense. Walking towards me were several figures. As I got closer, they waved me to stop, three men two women and a child. It only took a second to see by their complexions and meagre possessions that they were refugees.