The road from Sarajevo to Montenegro must be the most dangerous road I have ever driven on. As we left Sarajevo and travelled south towards Žabljak, we foolishly assumed that a road called the ‘M18’ would be asphalt. It wasn’t.
As we drove towards the border crossing at Šćepan Polje, the road abruptly stopped. A crude diversion had been cut out of the earth in the side of a hill, and the M18 was rerouted down this narrow, precarious dirt track. Water was running off the hill above, causing streams of mud and rocks to flow across the road into the Tara River, 1,000 feet-below us at the bottom of a ravine, with nothing but six inches of crumbling road between us and the bottom.
As we edged around corners at walking pace, the inevitable happened: a coach appeared, coming straight towards us, and forced us right out to the edge of the road. Now I’m no expert on gravity, but I think we defied it by staying on the road. I’m pretty sure we could hear gasps of admiration and cheering from the coach passengers, amazed at how heroically we cheated death.
Žabljak itself is a small town in the Durmitor mountains. At almost 1,500m above sea level, it’s the highest town in the Balkan region. We arrived and met our host, a charming Serbian chap called Zarko. He gave us both a cup of Bosnian coffee, before telling us that we still had a few hours of light, and should go to the Black Lake. It turned out to be an excellent recommendation, and we walked about half an hour through the cool forest to Veliko Jezero, the largest of 18 glacial lakes in the northern Montenegrin mountains.
‘White water’ rafting
The main reason we were in Žabljak was to go rafting. The Tara River Canyon is the second deepest in the world, after the Grand Canyon, and offers some of the best white-water rafting in Europe. We were there in the low season, which meant that the water would be a lot less white than usual. Nevertheless, we signed up for a day of rafting. After squeezing into wetsuits that were far too tight and being given a brief safety talk in broken English, we joined a few other intrepid rafters. It was a beautifully calm experience, with just the occasional strait where the water was rougher. A lot of the time, we simply drifted along at the bottom of the gorge, in awe of the steep cliffs a kilometre high on either side of the narrow river.
We arrived back in the Guest House that evening, where our host Zarko gave us another coffee and asked what out plans were for the next day. We explained that we were driving down to Petrovac the next day. Zarko announced that he needed to get a new part for his motorbike from Podgorica, and that he would join us on the four-hour journey. We tried to explain that we’d prefer to travel alone, and that we might stop along the way or take diversions to see other sites. He didn’t seem put off by this, and asked what time we would be leaving. We said it would be very early, but he said this wouldn’t be a problem.
There was no other option – the next morning at 6.30 am we silently packed our bags, put on our quietest shoes, and crept down the stairs of the guesthouse to the front door. Žabljak was not yet awake, so we quickly loaded the car, and edged our way out of the drive onto the main road. Zarko, if you’re reading this, we’re sorry. I hope your motorbike works now.
We stayed at: Guest House Andjelich
We rafted with: Tara Kula Rating (tarakularaft.com)
We cheated: death on the M18