Where the Wild Bears Roam | Croatia & Bosnia

Croatia. A country I, so far, ignorantly associated mostly with German tourists, overcrowded and built-up coasts, dry landscapes and summer heat. This time around, I found something else: A place where wilderness is still intact.

As soon as you leave the coast, Croatia shines in a different light. You start to encounter wide-ranging forests, wildly flowing rivers and remote mountains that are home to bears, wolves and lynx.

Wilderness is not all lost in Europe and that is beautiful news. So, this is the story of how I was merely looking for a parking spot and ended up living with the bears.

Meet the bear keepers of Croatia

As I was driving along the busy coastline I so strongly dislike (it is beautiful in itself, but humans got the best of it), I knew it would be difficult to find a free spot to sleep around here. It feels like every piece of land is either a campsite (which I also loathe), uncomfortably busy or decorated with a ‘no camping’ sign.

But God bless the internet where strangers share their camping spots for others to enjoy – and quite a few of them reported having been welcomed to stay the night at a bear refuge in the Croatian mountains.

Following that hint, the road led me to a quiet village, surrounded by green forests, apple trees in full blossom and sheep walking across the street untroubledly.

As one does, I went to introduce myself and asked if maybe I could stay a night or two. I was met by a room full of people staring at me in disbelief and, feeling slightly uncomfortable, I wondered if it had been rude to ask and if I was truly welcome here.

The room I had walked into was humble, nothing looked new, but it was warm, inviting, and, as the entire place, decorated with colorfully painted signs, years of volunteers and visitors leaving their traces.

“You must be sent from the heavens,” someone said, finally breaking the silence. And they went on to explain that the young volunteers, who live there as part of a European exchange program and run the refuge, would all go on a trip for the next days, with only an elderly man, Ivan, left behind to take care of the bears, chickens and geese. I had come just at the right time.

Would I mind helping him feed the bears? I was delighted, of course.

In the Croatian mountains, bears and humans co-exist

The next morning, dutifully, I showed up at 9am sharp. Ivan, the head of the project, was not there yet, so I quietly sat down next to one of the bear enclosures. I watched three young bears scramble in the morning light, not sure if it was friendly play or fighting – when I asked Ivan later, he chuckled and said ‘This? This is pure joy’.

Undeniably controlled by my German mindset, I assumed we would get to the job quickly. Grab food, feed bears, done. But I was quickly confronted with the reality that time runs differently around here.

There is no need to rush in a remote village like this, the only rush was perceived within myself. I was invited (or expected?) to sit, and chat, learn about the project and most importantly, pay a visit to one of the eldest in the village.

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Sitting in the 89-year-old woman’s tiny chamber, she served us self-distilled Rakija and lit a fire to prepare the coffee.

Being served schnaps at 10am in the morning seems to be a normal thing around here – I politely forced myself to take a sip of the throat-burning drink as Ivan toasted to me.

I did not understand a word of what they were speaking, so I used the time to look at the widow closer. Aunt Clara, as people called her, was dressed entirely in black, layer over layer, with a scarf covering her hair and framing her wrinkled face. Her mouth was barely visible anymore, but her eyes were awake and she was clearly still very sound for her age. She showed me the recycled shoes and socks she made for the bear project’s souvenir shop.

The coffee was strong, sweet and delicious. I smiled to show her my appreciation and Ivan quickly taught me how to say ‘kava je dobra’ – the coffee is good.

As rain is a blessing to nature, the people I meet are a blessing to my journey.

Do they talk too much or am I just a stressed-out Westerner?

I was aware that this was a special experience, yet I could not help but wonder how long all of this would take. I had just wanted to feed bears, when would we get there? Would we sit around talking all day? And I still had work to do, as well.

It’s sad how often our (my) conditioning, the Western perception of time, takes us away from the moment. Why is it that we can’t give whole-heartedly without questioning when it’s all ‘done’? I said I would help them, and if this is part of it, let that be it. Is it this hard to engage with other people’s rhythms, feeling rather stuck against our will than appreciating the gift that lies in front of us?

In the past, I probably would have kept this inner dialogue to myself. But there would have been a side of the story missing, which is exactly what travel really means: finding yourself in uncomfortable situations, having a mirror held up to you through foreign culture, and having to deal with your own shortcomings and unpolished thoughts.

After our respectful visit to Aunt Clara, finally, we were with the bears. We brought their favorite snacks, a wheelbarrow full of sunflower seeds, dried bread and corn.

There’s something incredibly endearing about watching bears eat. These huge, sublime creatures feed on these little morsels. A corncob looks tiny in these huge paws.

The 9 bears living here were either found without a mother or freed from illegal zoos – too accustomed to humans to return to the wild. But there are also the wild bears. More than 1,000 of them roam the forests of Croatia – at night, they even come to this village, which was deliberately designed to be so spacious to provide a corridor for the animals.

A simple life, close to the wilderness

It is quiet here, peaceful. I often find two of the free-roaming dogs in front of my camper, in silent agreement they join me. Nature and people live in tune here. Wild orchids grow everywhere, another sign, so Ivan explained to me, that nature is still intact here. On the second day, I already know how to feed the animals all by myself. It is a great joy to be able to watch them so closely.

I could have stayed here longer, welcome I would have been – but again it is the inner schedule that tells me it’s time to go.

So when I take my early leave, Ivan pats me on the arm in a friendly manner. I had feared he would resent me not staying longer and helping with the bears, but instead, he drags me into the pantry. As thanks for my time, he wants to give me more jam than I could ever eat – in the end, we agree on a jar of jam, a jar of honey and a string of dried peppers. The latter are for protection, he says, so that nothing happens to me on the way.

I am touched and at the same time humbled that I could not give more of my time than these few days, when I am so richly given in return.

All the more ironic that the next day, when I really wanted to visit the world-famous Plitvice Lakes before the weekend crowds arrive, it rains so hard that the visit falls through.

Rainy days in the van – not much to do but watching the rain (and editing photos)

Less humans, more wildlife

In hindsight, I’m glad about the way things unfolded – because instead, I ended up in the less-visited Bosnia where the theme of wilderness continued.

In Una National Park, clouds wrapped around the mountains, spilling raindrops non-stop onto the lush green surroundings. Yet, there was something incredibly soothing to this gloomy mood.

I watched the raindrops fall onto the turquoise water of Una river, a peaceful sound accompanied by the sound of the birds. I was the only one walking there and it made me feel like I had become part of this wilderness.

The soundtrack of nature reminded me of being in a tropical rainforest, only that it was a lot colder here. Again, it felt like nature was still okay here, a comforting thought. While I haven’t seen any wild bears (yet), it feels different to know they’re out there, that I’m walking their habitat, places of incredible natural wonder.

I am grateful to be able to witness this beauty before it disappears.

We are inevitably connected – if wilderness disappears, we disappear. Wilderness can exist without us, but we can’t exist without wilderness.

Being in those spaces reminds me how much they’re worth protecting.

One with the wild

Now, I’m back in Croatia, again far away from the Coast. I found a spot in the middle of nowhere, looking at Croatia’s highest mountain in front of me.

It is the most beautiful and remote camping spot I’ve had so far, with barely anyone passing by. I am looking at a wide, green plain, with thunderstorms rolling through.

When the rain stops, the night is so silent it almost seems surreal.

No, out here, I don’t feel alone. I feel like I’m part of it all.

Catch up on the previous posts of my Germany to Iran trip:

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