You can’t beat a good night of bivvying out for heightening the senses. Especially an unplanned one. With kids. By a small roadside shrine. Not far from a police border control. After you’ve already been warned you may not be allowed to pass. But what’s a family to do when the sun goes down and there’s nowhere else to camp?
When stars fall down
‘What would happen if all the stars in the sky fell down?’ asks Hannah.
I could do without contemplating such apocalyptic thoughts and shuffle uncomfortably on my Thermarest, trying to stop bones grating on the cold stone floor beneath. As the heat of the day drifts into night, a cool still settles on us as we lie side by side in our bivvy bags waiting for sleep. But rest doesn’t come easily. Not here, beautiful as it is.
All a jitter
I’m jittery. Tense. Anxious. We hadn’t planned to stop here, but as daylight faded it was obvious we weren’t going to make the top of the climb before dark. And that’s when we came upon the roadside shrine, with its five person sized stone patio. But it’s not sleeping outside the tiny chapel that’s making me nervous; it’s the fact we speak no Croatian, have no permission to stop here, and don’t really know if we’ll be allowed to cross the border in the morning.
We’d been stopped earlier by a wiry Croatian man who somehow managed to convey the idea that the Bosnian border post at the top of the hill may not be open to foreigners. But faced with a choice between continuing or backtracking 40km we figured the only way was up. We just didn’t realise how far up.
“Look Dad, another shooting star,” says Cameron. It’s the third portentous slash in the sky.
“Too late, you missed it.”
I know how she feels. It’s not easy for her; she hasn’t got her glasses on and her sleeping bag is pulled so far up she can’t see beyond the baffle. As for me I’m too busy worrying about being spotted by locals to be stargazing.
A motorbike buzzes uphill. Its headlights catch the shrine, our bicycles, our sleeping bags.
“Shhhh, lie still everyone.”
Each passing vehicle triggers a mental rehearsal of what I’ll do if they stop to investigate. It may be a quiet backroad, but it’s not quiet enough for me.
After the motorbike, a car. Then what sounds like a cyclist, heading downhill.
“That’s good isn’t it Dad?” says Matthew, “It means cyclists can get through.”
But of course the cyclist is probably not a foreigner.
“What would happen if all the stars in the sky fell down?’ asks Hannah.
At last there is silence.
I am up before the sun, woken by a moped in a reverie. All around me my family sleeps on.
‘Welcome to Bosnia” Cameron mumbles from his slumber, turned back from the border in his dreams.
I don’t remember dreaming. I don’t feel like I’ve slept, yet I can’t remember beyond six shooting stars.
Six shooting stars. I’ve never seen six shooting stars. Is that what happens when the stars in the sky fall down?
With the breaking of the sun comes the shattering of the peace as an engine labours uphill and pulls up at the shrine. Suddenly I am awake enough for the whole family. I do my best to make it look like we are packing up and moving on, sweeping around the detritus of sleeping kids to load bags onto bikes.
A morning visitor
The car stops and a dishevelled man beckons me to the window with a flick of his head and a summoning stare.
“We’re just leaving,” I mime in my best English. “It was dark, we had to stop and sleep,” I explain.
No toilet,” he says pointing to the shrine. “No toilet.”
Do I look like the kind of guy that’s going to use a shrine as a toilet?
“No, no,” I say definitively and find myself making the sign of the cross in a strange attempt to reassure him that I understand the sacred nature of the space we have been sleeping in.
He revs his engine and shakes his head. Behind me everyone is awake now and sitting up.
I turn and make an announcement.“Listen everyone. No toilet.”
And with that the man is gone.
As the sun rises over the mountains I am filled with a sense of peace, stillness and relief. Morning has broken. The night is over. I may not have slept but we have all survived and the journey can begin again. Down on the mirrored lake below a tiny boat casts first ripples on the water. I watch as they sweep gently across Jezero Kuti and land softly on the shore.
‘How many earths can you fit in a sun?’ asks Hannah as she climbs onto the tandem.