There I laid in my bed, naked, tired and sore. If you find that image disturbing in print just be thankful you weren't there to see it live. But thats how I found myself after a day of Canyoning.
I started my day at the same office where I was told “I guess you fit enough”. There I met my guide, a strong, square built man of about 250 lbs in his forties with a shaved head. He spoke Croatian and Russian but only a few words of English. I immediately thought that climbing, rappelling and dealing with rapids and waterfalls with a non-english speaking guide could lead to some confusing moments but then I thought, “This must be just one of our guides”.
We walked to his van, it was dented, dirty and rattled even on the smoothest roads in Omis. I climbed into the front seat and automatically reached for the shoulder strap. He didn't bother with a seatbelt. My shoulder strap rested over my throat instead of my chest and it was not adjustable. As we drove along I inspected the vehicle more closely and came to the conclusion that the strap was were I wanted it to be after all. If I survived an accident in this vehicle there wouldn't be much of me left so a quick cervical break might be more humane.
We picked up the other clients at a campground, there were only four, a family from Holland with two teenage girls. They spoke English, Dutch, German and French but no Croatian or Russian. They were a well traveled, adventurous family but also struggled to communicate with our guide and soon stopped asking questions. He turned on the dusty CD player mounted in a hole cut into the dash and from the speakers came the voice of Willy Nelson singing, “On The Road Again”. The CD was a collection of Country Western and American Folk Music. Our van grunted and jerked as it struggled up the 8% grade from the sea to the mountain tops. The road narrowed, the black top disappeared and the rattling rose a few decibels. Then we stopped in a small village to pick up the gear and meet the other half of our guide team.
The second guide was very different from the first. He was thin, spoke english and had an old surfer-dude appearance with long unruly sun bleached hair and a dark tan. He helped us get kitted out with wet suits, safety vest and helmets. Then we all jumped into the van and rattled on until the road ended at the edge of a cliff over looking the river.
At that point it became clear that the big guy was to be our only guide and surfer dude was here only to drive the van home. We stuffed all of our gear into the lower half of our wet suits then secured them to our backs for the hike down the steep rocky hillside to our water entry near the base of a dam. In the process we saw another Canyoning group. They looked like a prep school team compared to our ragtag ensemble. We had different colored helmets, mismatched wetsuits with the logos mostly peeled off and multiple patches, tears and worn spots. The other group was fitted with new, matching wet suits with a racy logo running down the right leg and matching bright yellow helmets. Their leader was a thin, young lad with a bright smile.
But during our descent to the river I noticed how sure footed and confident our guide was with the rocks and ropes. For such a big guy to be a climber is unusual and all the ones I've known that size have been trained in the military. In the water he was equally comfortable. For his size and age he was incredibly acrobatic being able to do flips off of low rocks and free climbing ten meters to a ledge then diving in.
Floating the river, diving through waterfalls and bouncing through rapids was my favorite part of the day but like everyone else by the end of the trip my fingers were sore and bloody from being rubbed raw by the rocks. The trip also included a fair amount of hiking, climbing and crawling through caves to get around the non-swimmable areas.
We climbed above a 40 meter high waterfall, then onto a canyon wall about 30 meters above the pool at the base of the falls and thats where the trail abruptly ended. Our guide slid over the edge, disappeared for ten minutes then reappeared and attached an end of a rope to the side of the wall and told us with hand gestures to slide over the edge and follow the rope. I looked down and saw that he was standing on a ledge about twelve inches wide which wasn't an issue but sliding your butt over the edge to get your foot onto those twelve inches required a leap of faith which the mother of the Dutch family found especially difficult.
But we all faithfully followed his direction and then truly arrived at the end of the trail. At that point our guide said, “jump ok”, and directed the two teenagers to a ledge 15 meters above the water. It was unclear if he was joking or was actually telling the girls that it was safe to jump. The parents had friends that took the trip a few days earlier and knew that their kids jumped but they were still unsure about the idea. Then a conversation began in Dutch between the parents and children that ended with the youngest girl stepping off the ledge and out of sight.
If you spend time around high dives you quickly learn the sound of a good dive and the sound of a bad dive. The sound of the young girl hitting the water 15 meters below made a “bad dive” sound. It was confirmed by our guide, “Not good dive”. That was followed by the girl crying out in Dutch then in English, “oh that hurt so much” and then she started uncontrollably sobbing. At this point she was still out of sight so I moved closer to the edge and looked down at the girl floating in the water crying, finally she started moving her legs and swimming toward the shore. The guide smiled and said, “She ok, just stress, she ok”. That was followed by the older sister jumping in which sounded much better and the guide remarking, “That good dive”.
Ironically he recommended that the adults not jump, “too risky”, and to rappel down instead. That sounded right to me. But it turned out that he had only one large climbing harness and three small ones. The father went down first and sent the harness back up for me. I went down last and it wasn't until I was near the bottom that I realized I was rappelling directly into the water, not onto land. The guide pulled up the rope then jumped in.
By the time I swam over to the opposite bank the teenager was cuddled up with dad and the crying had stopped. She did complain of a headache and her teeth chattered due to being chilled but compared to the sound of her “bad dive” she looked pretty good. After only twenty more minutes of swimming and hiking we were cheerfully greeted by the long haired partner.
We stripped off our gear and jumped into the van for a ride to our catered lunch. This van rattled much more than the first one and we were driving deep into a rural area of Croatia where improved roads were non-existent. As the ride became bumpier and bumpier and we started passing white stone houses with no roofs and crumbling walls the dutchman smiled, rolled his eyes and looked at me as if to say, “Where the hell are we going?” The ride finally ended at the only small stone structure with an intact roof.
The longhaired fellow announced this was his place and it was over a hundred years old. No one doubted him. Then he said, “But it was not built as a home for people, it was built for sheep”. But today the sheep are mostly gone and he plans on developing the area for tourism. He began by fixing up the sheep barn where he now makes and bottles his homemade wine. Then he started catering lunch for the canyoning clients to whom he sells wine and CDs of photos that our guide takes with a basic waterproof camera. I told him I was impressed with his ambition and entrepreneurship. He said, “You’ll find forty year olds like me throughout Croatia. They call us 'the warriors' because we fought in the war twenty-five years ago. Like your guide, he was in Croatian Navy, he was Marine.” Our guide came walking up wearing a US Navy t-shirt and I said, “I knew you were military”. He smiled and replied, “Yes, I was sailor. American sailor and I trade shirt”.
Canyoning with the Croatian Marine may not be the right fit for everyone but I really liked the guys and surfer dudes wife provided us a delicious lunch. Most surprising was how good the wine was, it was one of the best I've ever tasted. So canyoning with the Croatian Marine was full of surprises, fun, adventure and a little pain. Based on this experience I would rank canyoning as my new favorite water sport plus I like the idea you don't need a boat and I guess I’m fit enough.