Crashes & close calls cycling in the Balkans
Travelling as a family is nothing like travelling as a couple. Even the smallest members of the group are independent beings whose changing needs and capabilities have to be factored in as they grow. Parenting while travelling is a never ending game of weighing up situations, skills and risks, and figuring out how best to try and manage them. As we continue to do the kind of expeditions we did before we had kids, we’ve come to realise you can’t control everything, won’t always get it right and that some days things will go wrong. In the middle of our Balkan summer cycling adventure, after a night of nervy bivvying at a roadside shrine, I had a feeling this could be one of those days…
I don’t see the crash. Only the aftermath; abandoned bikes and a child lying by the side of the road. There is no screaming. Just an eerie calm as Stuart runs over with the medical kit and starts pulling out antiseptic and wipes. Matthew isn’t crying; that comes later, when the adrenalin stops coursing through his body.
But it’s soon clear he doesn’t need an ambulance. He has a cut on his leg and grazing to the knee that all looks worse than it is because of the blood, but it’s all patch-able.
“He was heading straight for that rock,” explains Stuart. “As a cycling crash it could have been much, much worse.”
Once bandages have been stuck in place, I try to hurry people back on to bikes so we can get to the nearest town, Neum. We need to eat, buy water and take a collective deep breath. Stuart double checks Matt didn’t bang his head. The boy is insistent he didn’t and there are no dents in his helmet. But Stuart isn’t easily reassured. “It looked like he might have hit it from where I was watching.”
Of course I just don’t know; I saw nothing. While Matthew is clearly in pain he’s also calm and coherent and says he’s still able to cycle. And so, slowly, we head off down the rest of the hill to Neum.
Shell shocked in Neum
Neum is a 20 kilometre strip of land that was given to Bosnia when the former Yugoslavia was carved up. It’s strategically important as the only part of Bosnia with access to the sea. That also means it’s Bosnia’s only beach, and that means it’s a cramped and crowded place. The long coastline of Croatia begins just a stones throw away yet everyone is holidaying here. Perhaps it’s because it’s cheaper, or maybe they’re all just very patriotic; whatever their reasoning it’s a weird place. Bordering the beach on one side is the huge Hotel Sunce with its shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, all part of the megalithic Sunce resort. Just across the bay there is a massive bombed out, bullet wracked hotel; looking like conflict only just checked out. In between are thousands of people clutching lilos and picnic bags. And buying fake sunglasses. Everyone here looks like a Hollywood cop in knock off Raybans.
A moment to take stock
We are shell shocked. We are sweaty and damaged, hungry and thirsty. We find a bar and drink litres of water as the time creeps towards midday and the temperature gauge rises. Stuart and I quietly discuss what happened. Did we make ourselves clear enough in our instructions for the ride down? At the top of the hill, just beside the border crossing into Bosnia we had checked the kids’ helmets and brakes, preparing them and ourselves for an exhilarating yet steep descent to the seaside.
“We’ll stop at the junction halfway down and just check everyone is ok,” Stuart briefed everyone, before setting off behind Cameron. Matthew soon shot past me.
“Be careful,” I cried, but my words were lost in his tailwind. Matthew shot around a blind corner, saw the junction and panicked, jack-knifing the trailer and falling off his bike. Was the road too steep for the kids on their own bikes? No worse than anything we’ve faced before. Don’t ask why HE was pulling the trailer; it should have been me. Could we have done more? Of course. We are parents. It was our job to do more.
More vulnerable than ever
It’s early afternoon before we head out of Neum. We stop at a bar halfway up the hill as we are already hot and thirsty again. We order double rounds of home made lemonade and down them in one. I pop over the road to the post office and feel the relief as the air conditioning hits me. It makes me want to get a job as a postmaster. I’d love to linger for the day but we have to hit the main road. Out of town and towards Dubrovnik.
The main road is the only route towards Dubrovnik and it’s busy one with no shoulder. The combination of heat and traffic is brutal. Drivers seem to see overtaking as a god-given right and an oncoming car as a challenge. Time and time again cars and coaches whistle past our panniers, uncomfortably close. We ride together, in a line. We have a system, Cameron leading, with me behind him where I can keep a close eye and be in shouting distance. Then comes Matthew while Stuart manages the traffic at the back using Hannah as a lookout. As we ride I scream warnings to Cameron to hug the side of the road and not stray out into the traffic, and shout congratulations when he manages to stay upon the straight white line that marks the edge of the road.
Horror in slow motion
People often talk about accidents happening in slow motion, and time stopping along with your heartbeat as you see the unthinkable happening. One moment we are pedalling along normally, and the next Cameron’s pannier catches a section of cliff side barrier, installed to prevent accidents. He ricochets off the sheet metal, shooting diagonally across the lane in front of us. On the opposite side of the road a coach approaches, fast, with another coach and a stream of traffic behind. My son is hurtling straight towards its giant wheels.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOO.” I wonder who is making that cry and realise it is me; a long sound that stretches into infinity. I know the ending to this story and it can only be bad. The driver knows it too; his face resembles Edvard Munch’s Scream as he leans on his horn in horror. There is nothing I can do. Nothing. But watch. And wait. And pray.
At the last moment, about a metre from the wheel, an angel intervenes. A divine force takes charge of steering as Cameron rights himself and turns back to the barrier and the straight white line. He pedals on, as though nothing has happened. Unaware that for a brief moment the clock, and my life, stopped dead.
A mile on and we pull up by a mussel farm, the first refuge we can find from the incessant traffic.
“Did that just happen?” Matthew whispers, as visibly shaken as after his own accident.
When is enough enough?
Cameron doesn’t want to discuss what happened. Perhaps he can’t cope with it. He plays around with Hannah as we have a family conference. Fishermen’s wives with rolled sleeves plunge their hands into piles of dirty brown silt as we talk through our options again and again. The coast road is dangerous and we feel we need to get off it. We can take a mountain road up a pass, but we are carrying limited food and water and won’t get to a town tonight. We can abort the whole trip, but what do we do with the bikes and how do we get to Dubrovnik?
We decide to ride extra defensively, still in a line, single file, but with Stuart managing the traffic even more assertively from the back. He and Hannah wave at approaching vehicles, forcing them to slow down behind us and overtake with more care. It’s aggressive and the drivers don’t like it. While some just wave back at Hannah thinking it’s a game, others get annoyed, beep horns and rev up. We ride a km or so at a time, stopping where we can to regroup and calm a racing pulse. It’s slow but we feel a little safer and more in control. Although it’s soon clear that with darkness coming there is no question of reaching Dubrovnik tonight and no option for bivvying at the roadside.
We stop at a petrol station to refuel and figure out a plan for the night. While Stuart and I scan the maps Hannah decides to try out Cameron’s bike. She says she wants to ride solo next year. But there’s no way that’s going to happen. NO WAY. EVER. We spend half an hour phoning around hotels to find a place to stay and eventually secure an apartment in Slano, some 20km away. As we make a dash into the fading light I can see Matthew struggling with his injury and the last of the day’s heat and hills. And feel ready to give the whole thing up myself.