It was 1983. It was my first big adventure, backpacking across Europe primarily by myself. After an overnight train ride followed by a rough bus ride from Zagreb, I was extremely excited when I arrived at Plitvice Lakes National Park in what was then still Yugoslavia (this UNESCO World Heritage Site is today in Croatia). I just love nature, the great outdoors and water and the lush wildlife rich forests, limestone hills and caves and cascading lakes scores high in all those aspects.
After finding a place to stay in a home in the village of Jezerce, I hurried to the entrance of the Park and spent the whole afternoon in delirious exploration of the trails, waterfalls, lakes, beaches, boardwalks, caves and vistas of the Park. I was running around all over like a kid in Wonderland. It remains one of the best days I had ever had. Time quickly passed and before I knew it, the sun was beginning to sink behind the hills.
At this stage, I thought of hiking it back to the village but as I was approaching the exit, I was waylaid by this most exquisite aroma. It was the smell of fish being grilled and it came from the Park’s outdoor restaurant. Until then, I had been mostly surviving on stale bread and cheese to save money while on my cross Europe trek. Now after a whole afternoon of rambling and scrambling, I was hungry and when I saw how inexpensive the food was as compared to other parts of Europe, my resistance crumbled. I took a seat and ordered grilled trout.
I had a great dinner but by the time I had finished, night had fallen. To my dismay, I then realised that apart from the restaurant which was then already closing, there were no lights to be seen. It had slipped my mind that I was now in the countryside and in a wilderness area. Although I had a torchlight, it was sitting in my backpack in my room in Jezerce, some 3 km away. I fumbled my way out of the Park and on to the road that led to Jezerce.
The road was not very wide although two cars could pass each other easily. At the side of the road was a narrow verge and then the tall pine trees of the surrounding forests rose high into the night sky so that it blocked off most of the light from the stars. It was very dark and I could barely make out the road. It was also getting very chilly. I had no choice. A warm bed awaited but I would have to navigate this road in the darkness.
As I walked, I realised that I knew very little about this part of the world and its forests. I knew there were bears and wolves in some parts of Europe. Were there any here? I did not know and my heart beat faster in my ignorance. I managed to find a fallen tree branch of suitable length and used it like a blindman’s walking cane, probing the area in front of me. The branch might also come in handy if I did encounter any wolves or at least that was what I comforted myself with.
The journey was slow and stressful. Perhaps an hour had passed and I saw no one else nor any signs of lights from dwellings. The sky above was ablaze with stars twinkling in the chilly night air but I plodded along a dark road lined by dark silent trees. Then, in the distance, I saw a single bright beam of light appear on the road. It was coming towards me at a reasonably fast speed. I realised that it must be a motorcycle and was glad that to have even that little bit of light to illuminate my way.
The light got nearer and bigger and brighter. Eventually, it was so bright, I could not look into it. I moved to the side of the road to allow the motorcycle to pass. Then suddenly, it was upon me. To my horror, it was not a motorbike at all. Instead it turned out to be a massive juggernaut, a big 16 wheeler monster that was barreling down this country road that was barely wide enough to accomodate it and at high speed. To cap it all, it had only one headlight working.
The driver may also have been surprised to see me and seconds before I reacted, I heard the loud blast of its air horn. Th sound galvanised me into action and I threw myself off the road and into some bushes at the edge of the forest. The juggernaut rolled by with such speed that I could feel the air and myself being sucked towards the wheels as they passed. Then just as quickly, the lights and noise of the truck disappeared and darkness and quiet returned.
It had been another close brush with an unpleasant end. I made it to the village and safety without further incident but I was cold, bruised and in shock and it took a very long soak in a warm bath before I recovered any color in my cheeks.
If I had learned any lesson from this experience, it is to appreciate the truth behind the following wise sayings; “Stay away from the light.” and “The light at the end of the tunnel may turn out to be a speeding train.” Oh, and you would have thought that I would have also learnt the importance of bringing a torchlight along when walking on dark roads and forests but I still forget from time to time.
For all you readers with morbid curiosities who wanted me to conclude my previous post about near death experiences, let me just say that apart from what has already been mentioned, I also had Scarlet Fever, had a lorry rip off my car door, escaped being impaled by metal rods from the back of a lorry and been in at least 3 car accidents including one in which I caused the car to spin 3 times.That’s all folks…….and it is quite enough, don’t you think?