Bosnia and Herzegovina: Rafters head to the Neretva River
Stars and Stripes June 26, 2003
Most tourists do not have Bosnia and Herzegovina on their summer travel map.
Memories of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war have deterred many from visiting the natural treasures and sites that once drew tourists to the Balkan country.
But the attractions are still there. And anyone who goes rafting on the Neretva River becomes a witness to that.
Known for its intense emerald green color resulting from the oxidized copper in the rocks, the river has attracted fisherman, sunbathers and shutterbugs for decades. Since the end of the war, it also has become a rafting haven.
Most rafters go to the river on a day trip, but can arrange to stay for as long as they want. The normal day tour — covering about 14 miles and lasting seven to eight hours with breaks — takes rafters through Neretva canyon. Most of the route is accessible only by boat.
In early June, I joined a group of adventurers for a trip on the river.
We piled into four rafts. Each had six oars and held six to 10 people. Anyone who wished was given a chance to row.
The trip was under the leadership of Samir Krivic, owner of Rafting Europe, and each boat had its own skipper to guide the raft and rafters on the trip.
Rapids and tranquil waters alternate along the way, allowing for time to admire the cliffs touching the sky, occasional waterfalls, bare rocks, lush greenery and, in places, eagles circling high above the mountains. The river abounds with fish.
Few could experience the beauty of this section of the river for most of the second half of the 20th century. No fishing or traveling on the river was allowed. Heavy fines, and even prison time were set for those who entered the off-limits area.
The reason: An entire mountain on the right bank of the river was hollowed out to create a massive bunker that could provide shelter for months for the lifetime president of the former Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito.
While the bunker still exists and military guard towers and some barracks are visible from the river, it is no longer off limits.
Krivic grew up on the banks of the river, downstream in the town of Konjic, and says the river runs in his veins. When he started his business three years ago, he wanted to share that joy with the world.
But introducing rafters to the river is not his only agenda. He also uses the trip to promote Bosnian food and drink.
He starts the tour by feeding everyone a good breakfast, there is a stop along the way for sandwiches, and he finishes the tour with a full-blown dinner.
Among the specialties he serves: phyllo-dough pastry filled with fresh cheese, potatoes or meat; corn meal with sour cream; yogurt drink; grilled meat and vegetables the Herzegovina way — tender and juicy. Sljivovica, homemade plum brandy (no, it is not illegal, but rather customary in the country) tops everything off.
Krivic’s family helps out in the business. His wife cooks and his father-in-law drives the rafters in a van to the starting point.
“The most important thing is that people love nature, love to experience not everyday things,” Krivic said, “I take responsibility upon myself for everything else.”
More than a thousand people went rafting with Krivic last year. He prides himself in having taken all of them safely down the river.
“I have never had any problems, no one’s ever gotten a scratch,” Krivic said. “No one has complained or left unhappy.”
Rafting tourism has started to develop in the past five years on four different rivers in Bosnia: the Una in the northwest; the Drina and Tara rivers in the east and southeast, respectively, and the Neretva, running south into the Adriatic Sea. All the rivers are known for their purity, compared with others in the country, which have been polluted by industrial waste and people’s relatively low environmental consciousness.
Krivic boasts that Neretva is the only river in Europe that people can travel on and drink from in its upstream portion — coincidentally the part the tour goes through.
Being adventurous in both sports and business, Krivic took an expensive loan to purchase quality equipment, boats, oars, helmets and life vests. All had to be imported since no Bosnian company produces them.
In the beginning, few government officials, who could have provided a more affordable loan, believed that his idea would work. But lately, having realized the potential of the river as a tourism draw, they have started to promote it, Krivic said.
Rafting promotion on local TV and radio stations began just this year, but the word got around even before, mostly from people who had been on previous trips.
That is the best advertising, Krivic said. Many of his visitors come back for another trip.
More than half of them are Bosnians, but foreigners count for a large portion.
Most are people already in the country working for international organizations — people like William Potter of the Office of High Representative, the United Nations-formed body overseeing the governments in the country. Others stop off on their way south to the Croatian Adriatic coast.
Potter came to Bosnia as an Air Force colonel in 1997 with the peacekeeping force. He now lives and works in Sarajevo with his wife, Wendy.
The two were on a three-day camping and rafting weekend. Potter also tried his luck with the Neretva fish; he caught a few and released them.
“The country has natural beauty that really is quite something,” said Wendy Potter, who has gone on other eco tours with her husband in Bosnia.
Better promotion of outdoor tourism opportunities would boost the economy, William Potter said. He says Bosnia is not only safe but also “a very economical alternative to other places in Europe.”
Making this trip with friends is the way to go, said Patricia Kuster from Colorado, who went on the day trip with an American friend she was visiting in Bosnia.
While the will to put your body to work by rowing does help, it is not necessary to enjoy the trip.
“You could’ve worked as hard as you wanted, if you wanted,” Potter said. “It is not as extreme for people who want something intense, but it’s very beautiful, surprisingly beautiful,” Kuster said.
If you go rafting
• Costs: 50 euros for day tours and 80 euros for rafting and camping. Rafting Europe provides all equipment, food and tents. Insurance in case of accidents and all taxes are included. Discounts of 20 percent are available for groups of more than 20 people. Tents for campers and accommodation are available at weekend houses at nearby Boracko Lake.• Ages: There is no age limit; vests for smaller children are available. Parents need to decide in advance whether their children can make the entire trip, because quitting after the rafting trip starts is not possible since most of the route is only accessible by boat.• When to go: Season runs from end of April to end of October.• What to take: Good will, an adventurous spirit, environmental consciousness (no littering allowed), comfortable clothes and sneakers, a change of clothes, sunscreen and sunglasses.• For more information: See www.raftingeurope.com
— Ivana Avramovic