The crossing between Serbia and Bosnia at the town of Zvornik, was a pedestrian only foot bridge, not as bad as the bridge we used to enter Belgrade, but still stepping over holes that exposed the river below. However, aside from the rather rustic character of the rusting steel bridge, our concerns had been totally needless, the officers controlling the borders at each end of the bridge were perfectly pleasant.
I do not want to associate Bosnia only with the atrocities and suffering of the war, there is far more to this beautiful country than that, however, you can not help but be struck immediately by the scars and destruction that this political and religious turmoil left behind in its wake. Standing on a bridge that separates two countries, it is chilling to envisage the scene here during those tragic years. Thankfully, today, people are now passing freely and happily between the borders and it is humbling to see.
A few days earlier we had contacted a young family on Warm Showers and we were heading to Donja Papratnica, near Žepče to meet them.. This is how we met Marijana and Ilija and their amazing family!
Marijana had spotted us from their front garden before we had even had a chance to locate their house on our map. She welcomed us over and went about serving us a jug of cold home-mullled cordial, a memorable detail after a long days riding. Ilija was still working, picking apples from the families orchard in preparation for an annual tradition that David and I would part-take in the following day.
We had gone a fair way into the forest, it was more vast than we had imagined, we are fairly sure we did spot a paw print dried out in the mud that could have been large enough to host a bear, it had sharp ridges on it marking the claws of something. Clouds came over and we could smell rain on it's way, we had to leg it back to the house, falling into their porch way just as the heavens opened up.
Ilija had kindly contacted a friend of his that lived further along our route and asked if it would be possible for David and I to stay the night after we left Žepče. Ilija told us we were being ambitious to make the distance within one day and he would know best as he and Marijana had in fact cycled across Bosnia themselves a few years previous. After all, it is not just the distance to consider in Bosnia, but the gradients and altitude that is the real challenge. We did have a schedule to stick to though, as we had both our friends Rohan and his brother Royce joining us near the border of Bosnia and also Kirsty and James meeting us for a few days after that to cycle their shiny new tandem across the Croatian islands with us. A big lung full of man up and get on with it and we finally limped into Gornji Vakuf, where Toni and Martina would greet us. I personally found this day super tough going. I'm not sure if my legs were just heavy from the food and drink of the last few days or if it had something to do with the 40 - 50km continuous uphill that I crawled up. The hills just did not stop, it is not so much the gradient, more that they just keep going and going and going! Approximately half way along the route we passed through a mega industrial town, it was the site of Bosnia's largest steel factory. Ilija had actually mentioned it to us before, using it as a classic example of why Bosnia is struggling to meet requirements for joining the European Union. We were told that although the plant has been warned that regulations stipulate that it is unacceptable to surpass the legal toxicity levels omitted from the factory more than 5 times in one year, this factory breaches those regulations more than 400 times a year and apparently nothing is done about it. As we dropped into the valley, we sunk below a light haze and the air became thick. Maybe we noticed it more than others because our legs were desperate for fresh oxygen, but I do not know how so many people were able to live in the confines of this industrial catastrophe. I am sure most residents do not have much choice and that the factory is probably a source of 100's or even 1000's of jobs, but it is so unfair and so unnecessary that people should have to live in these conditions, just half an hour of cycling in that climate and it made me feel physically sick and we had to go back up hill, I felt terrible.
Toni and Martina were fantastic and had gone to such big efforts to welcome us with hardly any warning. There were slippers waiting for us at the door and Martina had prepared several platters of beautiful food. Again, it was just amazing to be treated so well by people we had only just met, so thank you!
After a super comfortable nights sleep, it was up early again the next day to make our way to Croatia. First, we just got to get over those mountains!