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.
Last night they had been dropped here by the police. Their phones smashed and no provisions. Do I have some water? Yes, luckily, I had about 3 liters on me, can they see my phone to get their bearings? It had 2% charge, the screen as dark as the morning, I plugged in into my charger. The police had told them to head to the hills, to the Bosnian border to a refugee camp, but Bosnia is the opposite direction, I knew this, I showed them this. They had nothing, not even a sense of direction of where to go next.
I’ve heard it said before that ‘Well if they have smartphones they can’t be that destitute’... Well think about it, If you had to leave your home, where your friends and relatives had been killed, leave your house, your possessions, your life behind you, what would be the one thing you would take? A phone, for communication, directions, to contain your documents, it’s the single most important piece of survival equipment in the world we live in, and theirs had been smashed to destruction.
‘’Ok, wait here, this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to the village to get you some supplies, what do you need?’’
I rode off with possibly the biggest purpose I have ever ridden with, I was truly on a mission. My mind was reeling, what had I just witnessed, was I aiding and abetting, I don’t fucking care, these are human beings, they are thirsty, hungry, hopeless, helpless, and homeless. The least I can do is get them some basics to help them on their quest. The little village is a bit touristy, I stopped by a posh hotel, suitcases were lined up to be loaded onto a luxury bus. I see a lady walking along the side of the road, I pull up and in my best Bulgarian (as this is also a country of the Slavic language) I greet her “good morning” and ask where there is a shop. I get a totally blank look, I repeat my question in English, ‘I don’t live ‘ere.’ said the voice in an English accent, she was tourist, strayed from the hotel complex. And instantly I became aware of the gulf of difference between our choice of travel, she was of course oblivious to the dire need just down the road. I went into the hotel, through the automatic doors to the plush desk of the well-dressed and got a warm reception, ‘where is the shop?’
- There isn’t one here, you must go to the next town 16 kms away.
- Where do the locals go?
- To the next town 16 kms away.
Ok, I think I’m getting it
I ride like a demon to the next town, turns out it’s 16 kms away.
I lean the bike over hard, it’s the fourth time I’ve done this corner and its spectacular.
At a petrol station I gather food like a supermarket sweep and throw my credit card at the bill, strap it all on the back as best as I can. It’s excellent for my posture, sitting upright between the tank bag and the pile of cakes, biscuits, water and juice behind me.
Back to base and there they are, I’ve been gone nearly an hour, they rise to my exhaust note and I happily dispense all I have.
Now I have some questions and as they eat, they tell me their story.
They want to get to Italy, it’s a 12 day walk. I’m getting a ferry there tonight from Split, but that’s not really much help.
They have been in a refugee camp. The child is sick, they had the documents to prove they had entitlements to medical assistance, but they were on the phone, now smashed and useless.
One man tells me how much he likes the British royal family, he knows all the names. They ask me to take a photo, I’m so glad because I really wanted to but didn’t dare ask. ”Show me your phones”, I say.
Again, they check their bearings and with little more to offer I wave and say goodbye.
- Tell the queen hello. - says one of them.
- She’s not talking to me, - I say - doesn’t like my long hair.
It feels like such an insignificant thing I have done, what more can I do? I look over my shoulder and see them walking back towards the Bosnian border, with slightly more bags than they had when they were walking the other way an hour ago.
And I ride, into the dark day, over the hills and down to the coast, where skies are blue, the temperature is warm and the wealth is evident. It all feels like a murky wildcamp nightmare, the misery of the abandoned airbase, the oppression of the clouds, the dilapidated disused ugliness of some secret, cast behind an iron curtain now nothing but rusty war remains.
So here is a new war, a new disaster, not reported, as unseen as the mysteries of the tunnels. I do hope they find light at the end of theirs. It’s been playing on my mind ever since and I’ve found it’s something I can’t stop talking about.
However, I soon became aware it’s a conversation stopper. The German who stepped out of his camper van in the ferry boarding queue, awkwardly shuffled from one foot to the other as I told him what I’d seen that morning. And retelling my tale is not making me any friends on the road. I might as well be opening the conversation with news of the death of a loved one and how my wife just left me. I suppose that’s why the TV news ends with a simple and insipid story about a kitten rescued from a tittering branch. We can all focus on that, the chatter starts again and no one does anything about anything. However it’s not stopping me, it’s news, it real, it’s what I found on the road (well the runway actually) and I won’t run away from it. I’m not ending this column with a photo of a kitten, but some links. If this encounter has touched you like it touched me, here are some agencies that you can help with your time or a donation. And if just one reader clicks and acts I’ll feel it was worth my while.
OK for scrolling to the end here’s a kitten for you.