Whilst we were staying in the Montenegrin ski-resort of Kolašin, our itinerary included a jeep safari. It sounded good: “explore the Bjelasica Mountain Masif by jeep, travelling through mountain villages, forests, rippling rivers, glacial fed lakes and meadows covered with wildflowers”.
At breakfast it was raining and optimistically I said, “it’s good to get it out of the way now, it can’t rain all day”. How wrong can you be?
Milan, our young guide for the day, arrived on the dot of 9am in his very clean Nissan 4WD jeep. We set off in light drizzle heading for the Biogradska Gora National Park where we began our off-road adventure on a dirt track. Milan told us about the three mountains, which were all very different in terrain, shape, aspect and vegetation – put simply, one was a rolling plateau, another was jagged, whilst the final one had wide slopes. It was difficult to take it all in as we bumped up and down along rutted tracks.
We parked and walked a short distance in the rain along a grassy track, passing huge snails, to a tall wooden viewing tower. Although it originally had a roof, this had been destroyed by heavy snowfall. Having climbed 60+ sturdy wooden wet steps, we found views of clouds.
Because of the weather, the tracks were very muddy and occasionally Milan had to get out of the jeep and remove fallen rocks or check out the best route through a difficult stretch. The road was steep and the bends sharp and he frequently had to reverse to get around the hairpin bend. As we rose above the clouds, the flora changed, and the trees gave way to wildflower meadows, juniper and blueberry bushes.
Our next stop was simply billed as “the opportunity to taste local cheese”. As we approached, we saw a series of small wooden houses, Etno Selo Koliba Damjanovica, surrounded by what looked like dog kennels but were overnight accommodation for hikers. Originally these ‘kennels’ were used by shepherds and would have been on runners so they could be moved by horses. We were welcomed into the simple, but warm home of Soka where the home-made rakija, a national fiery schnapps like drink, was brought out even though it was only 10.30am. The low table was set with warm home-baked bread, a cows’ cheese and kajmak (a sour cream), followed by warm doughnuts, homemade raspberry jam and pine honey. Rather than leave a tip, we bought two jars of home-made strawberry and blueberry jam. We used the very clean facilities although they were up a muddy path and umbrellas were required. We also looked inside Number 4 ‘dog kennel’ which had a mattress on the floor and a small amount of space. However, it looked warm and cosy on this wet day.
Back in the jeep, the rain became more persistent, and as we climbed higher, we began seeing signs of snow and eventually drove through banks of snow over 1 meter high. Having telephoned our lunch order ahead, we headed up to a viewpoint, where the track ended at a telecommunications site, originally an army post. We successfully reversed over a high, snowy bank to turn around, but when we got out to walk to the viewing point, we discovered a flat tyre. However, we continued to the viewpoint where we saw yet more clouds instead of the lake below.
Returning to the jeep, Milan expertly changed the tyre with minimal help and 40 minutes later, we were heading for lunch in the filthy vehicle. Once again, we could see huts in the clouds, but it was very hazy. We walked 200m down a grassy wet bank to a large barn, where we found a group of Australian hikers warming up and drying their clothes around the fire. There were long rustic wooden benches and tables with one being laid for us. Lunch was a hearty vegetable soup, warm home baked bread, salad, baked peppers stuffed with rice and mince and potato wedges. Jam filled pancakes came out for pudding.
On our way back to Kolašin, Milan asked if we’d like to visit his mum who had just opened up her small, wooden shepherd’s hut for the summer. Once again, it was cosy and warm with everything including beds in one room. We were offered rakija, cold meats (which we couldn’t possibly manage) and sludgy Turkish coffee. With Milan translating, she told us how she makes cheese from the milk of her five cows and 15 sheep, which she sells to a local shop and friends. Out came a plate for us to try (it was like a creamy coloured mozzarella) and she showed us how it was layered and left to strain under a weight. Meanwhile more rakija was poured.
We eventually arrived back at our hotel at 6pm. We’d sadly seen very little but had experienced Montenegrin mountain hospitality at its best. We both agreed, it was the best experience during our 4- week trip. We left Milan to go through a much needed car wash!