Throughout my stay in Croatia, I had not yet seen the open sea. I spent my days by the Adriatic shore, but the western horizon was always dotted with distant islands. So after my three-nights stay in Zadar, I took the early morning ferry from the port of Gaženica to the village or Brbinj on Dugi Otok.
Blue waters and plastic beaches
If you’re standing on the pier in Zadar, you have a panoramic view on Ugljan Island (where I planned to cycle next). Behind Ugljan, there is the island if Iž. Behind Iž is Rava, and behind Rava is Dugi Otok. And behind Dugi Otok, there is nothing but the Adriatic Sea. Dugi Otok, literally Long Island, forms a 40-km long, thin stripe of land located 20 km offshore Zadar. Except for its two extremities where the land forks into peninsulas, the island is never wider than a few kilometres, and it has only one road. From Brbinj, I planned to cycle all the way to the island’s north-western tip, and then back across the entire length to the Telašćica Nature Preserve, which faces the Kornati Islands National Park to the south.
Dugi Otok was greener than Pag. Actually it would be more correct to say that Pag was yellow, whereas Dugi Otok was green. There were pine, olive and fig trees naturally growing on the roadside. The figs were getting ripe, and sometimes it was almost possible to just grab them while cycling. The road was not flat, but the ridge-line sections were well worth the climbs. There was little traffic as compared to Krk and Pag Islands, so the drive was actually really enjoyable. Landwards, the view extended on a sea filled with islands of all sizes, and to the Velebit Mountains in the distance. Westwards, it was the open sea, a half-panorama of flat blue horizon.
I cycled down to the Veli Rat lighthouse, were I spent a couple of hours chilling down. The water was incredibly clear, letting the seafloor be seen even five to ten metres below the surface. Fish gathered in schools of hundreds or perhaps thousands, floating undisturbed under the oblique rays of filtered sunlight. I think I never saw that much fish in my life before. I took a walk around. There were inlets with a shade of blue that I thought existed only in magazines, and a geographic curiosity, a land bridge, like a two-sided pebble beach, connecting to the last island-like tip of the peninsula.
Unfortunately, like many other places I had visited in Croatia, the coastline around Veli Rat was also littered in plastic. If one stayed around the camping and the bar, one would perhaps not notice. But spread about the trees behind, there were literally truckloads of plastic. There were plastic items of all kinds and sizes, ranging from bits of plastic bags to large plastic boxes used on fishing boats. Some trees had already begun to grow on top of the plastic. If geologists from the future wanted to date 2020, they could just search the ground for a layer of plastic, I thought. Plastic bottle? 2020. Plastic buoy? 2020. Plastic-eating fish? 2020. The great human age of plastic.
After a long break, I cycled back towards Brbinj and then further south on the island’s main road. I was getting used to cycling in the heat. With long clothes and a slow pace, the uphills did not feel as bad as during my first days in Croatia. On the southern part of the island, the landscape became progressively dryer. I cycled down to the small coastal village of Luka to buy food. There were kids playing in the harbour and old men sitting by the tiny grocery store, apparently just watching bike tourists passing by. Luka was the first village I visited in Croatia that did not feel like a touristic hub.
There was a small camping, but I did not need a shower and somehow just wanted my own little beach for tonight. So I cycled a bit further south and then down a steep road to a beach I had seen on the satellite images. The actual beach ended up to be about one by two meters wide, which was just the size of my tent. The rest was a muddy gravel shore that appeared to flood at high tide, as indicated by the thin line of plastic detritus following the olive garden walls. The sea was shallow and full of urchins, so that I did not risk a night-time swim. Not the best wild camp ever. But exiting news came in. My friends Amandine and Loran were on their way to Croatia (the fast way, not by bike) and ready to meet me two days later.
On the cliffs before the crowds
The next morning, I woke around sunrise as usual, but noticed that the light was different. A weather phenomenon that I had not seen in a while. Clouds. The clouds brought a very welcomed couple hours of freshness. I cycled directly into the Telašćica preserve and up to the top of the Dugi Otok Cliffs, where they drop 150 m vertically into the Adriatic Sea. The road was steep and narrow, but I met only two cars. There was a slight breeze at the top, and the Kornati Islands where visible to the south. I then moved on the the end of the road, which was closed to cars, but had a few pedestrians walking the last kilometres to a small bay with a few restaurants.
The Telašćica Bay was very quiet, and restaurants closed although it was almost ten. I had very little water left but took a walk along the cliffs, and to Lake Mir, whose waters are even saltier than the sea due to underground connections and evaporation. For most of the walk, I was completely alone, but when I returned to the bay, I was suddenly faced with a continuous flow of tourists carrying large shopping bags and beachside items. I could not believe that so many people had decided to give up their cars and walk the last few kilometres of the road. Amazing. But no. A large ship had anchored in the bay, and actually an even bigger one was preparing to do the same, with a few hundred passengers on board. The restaurants had of course open. I had a tasteless and largely overpriced cappuccino (25 kuna) and a glass of water. I had been planning to spend most of the day here, but this finished to convince me to cycle out of the preserve to somewhere quieter.
I ended up in the little port of Sali. It was August fifteen and the town was, in fact, very quiet. The supermarket was closed and most restaurants opened only in the evening. As usual, I spent the hottest hours of the day on a beach. Amandine had suggested that I hike somewhere high to watch the sun set over the Kornati Islands. So in the evening, instead of taking the ferry back to Zadar, I decided to cycle to the other, drier side of Telašćica Bay.
Milky figs and milky way
There were so many figs by the roadside that I almost missed the sunset. They were so good, that I decided it had been worth cycling two thousand kilometres if only for picking figs on the roadside. The landscape became again very dry. Only a few lone pine trees dotted the arid hills, catching colours in the evening sun. Towards the end, the gravel road was much rougher than what I would like to cycle on with a laptop in my bags. I managed to climb a little hill just in time before the sun disappeared behind distant clouds. The southern sea was filled with dozens of golden hills poking out of the water. I had planned to cycle out of the preserve for camping. I thought the road made a loop but it was a dead end, and it was quickly getting dark.
I don’t like much breaking the rules, and even less to brag about it on the internet. But after all I’d seen in the so-called preserve (car traffic, large ships bringing crowds of tourists, trash on the sea floor), I did not feel bad camping here. My tent is tiny, I always bury human waste and never make camp fires (which would be a very bad idea in Croatia). In any case, I ended up sleeping in an olive garden, which was closer to a trash dump than a natural space. I picked this spot rather than the car parks mostly because there was an stone wall which would make a good support for photographs, facing the direction of the evening milky way.
On the next morning I woke just in time for sunrise, and cycled back the bumpy road to Sali, where I took the ferry to Zadar. Before cycling to Bibinje to meet my friends, I could enjoy once more the sound of the Zadar sea organ. The artist who designed this instrument is a genius, I thought. The organ uses the natural rhythm of the waves to produce an ambient melody, that creates a very special atmosphere over part of the city centre. If anyone has come up with a smarter way to bind people both together and with nature, I would like to know.
The route (3 days, 138.1 km)
- 14/08/20 Zadar – Zadar & Brbinj – Zaglav 74.7 km
- 15/08/20 Zaglav – Sali 40.7 km
- 16/08/20 Sali – Sali & Zadar – Bibinje & Bibinje – Bibinje 22.7 km