Gola Pljesevica & Zeljava Airbase
The Croatian-Bosnian border area near Bhiac and Plitvice is an interesting place, a lot seems to be going on and happening in different areas. Most people go to this area to visit the world famous Plitvice National Park with it’s extremely beautiful waterfalls.
We however, had seen the Instagram-inspired hordes before, and after hearing of the insane 35 euro per-person entrance fee and witnessing the parking and queue chaos ensuing around the entrance, we decided not to visit the waterfalls.
Instead I’d convinced Jolien to go on a E-mountainbike tour to the top of the highest mountain in the area. Hrvoje, a local guy, runs these tours in the area, and he takes people to places that sounded a bit more like our thing: an abandoned radar station at the end of a very rough road, or an abandoned Yugoslavian airbase.
I picked the radar station, as the road sounded like it would be too much for my big old van and the airbase you can just drive onto with ease.
While e-bikes still tend to have a negative connotation (“they’re for old people”), I’d used them before and understood it just makes things more fun and you’re more inclined to cycle. 10 km uphill on bumpy roads was also something I didn’t want to underestimate, as we weren’t imagining ourselves to be fit athletes.
Mount Gola Pljesevica has two peaks, on one there’s still an active, unmanned TV broadcasting station (pictured above), the other has the ruins of the radar station.
The mountaintop is interesting because the Croatian-Bosnian border (which is also the border of the EU) actually runs over it. We encountered police on the way up, they even made me doubt the veracity of the “4×4 only” claims as they were just driving a regular passenger car up there. Hrvoje explained the police presence was due to refugees trying to enter the EU: at this point the distance to Slovenia and the Schengen area is at it’s shortest.
We weren’t alone with our guide Hrvoje: 4 Australians came along as well. We did quite alright cycling uphill compared to most of them, even on e-bikes.
The base itself is quite old and was built somewhere in the late 60’s, early 70’s. It was technologically mostly obsolete by the Yugoslavian wars. When it was abandoned in the chaos of war, a bodged attempt to destroy it was made. In 1995, after the war Canadian peacekeeping forces occupied the mountaintop base where it continued to serve as a radio-relay node until 2004. You can find a bit more info as well as some older pictures online.
Hrvoje took us exploring the bunker tunnels inside the mountain as well, where we could still see proof of Western forces occupying it one and a half decade ago. We didn’t wander too far, perhaps a good thing as I’d seen pictures of abandoned, unexploded grenades lying in these spaces!
Hrvoje calls this tour the “360 Tour” due to the amazing views you get all around. At least you do on a nice day, as we luckily had.
We had lunch on that interesting rock, where our guide had brought some apples from his garden and local cheese. I don’t know if it was the effort we’d gone through before, but it all tasted amazing. I wish we had found some more of that cheese for sale afterwards!
Going down, which was much tougher than up due to the bumpy roads and higher speeds, we had a bit of a sobering experience.
We’d seen the police before, and Hrvoje mentioned they were there due to illegal migrants trying to cross into the EU. However, on the way down they had actually detained a family or two who tried to cross. These people had probably walked for hours through the forest, only to be caught and sent back. While we were there having fun on expensive bikes, it felt a bit perverse to ride past them like that. Later we would see just how far and dangerous their trip was.
After the ride we stopped at a hidden swimming spot Hrvoje recommended us. Parking was hard to come by, and a local came up to us at our first attempt with “You have to leave now or I call the police”. It was unfortunately often like that in Croatia, where tourists are expected to pay a lot and stay in the hotspots, or just stay away and not bother the locals.
In the evening we drove to the airbase, stopping to explore the base buildings a bit first. Lots of mosquitoes drove us away quickly though.
The main runway turned out very cool, we hit it at just the right time.
Almost equally cool were the aircraft bunkers. There are about 3 entrances with a big tunnel network behind it. They are designed to accept jet fighters, hence the inverted “T” shape for the plane tail. We didn’t venture far as the air was hard to breathe in there.
At the entrance there’s an old plane parked up, that’s become a bit of an icon for the place. It’s been plundered a bit, a lot of pieces have gone missing and its full of stickers these days. We had dinner on its wings. A big group of Belgians came by, looking for a second plane. I didn’t believe them, and they couldn’t find it, but apparently only a few years ago there was a much smaller jet fighter parked nearby. No idea if it got removed or just overgrown: these planes used to stand in an empty field.
We parked up for the night next to the plane, or so we thought… That evening, just as Jolien wanted to go out for a last pee in the dark, the Croatian police showed up. They were having an operation against migrants again, and we were standing right in the middle. We obliged and moved to a truck parking closer to the road, again thinking about people risking their lives at night
It’s especially sobering if you think about all the warning signs for landmines we saw in the area surrounding the base, an area they would all come through heading for Croatia and the EU.
We’d be leaving the EU the next day, into Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Very cool! I spent a lot of time on that mountain in 1998. I was in the Canadian army at that time and in Bosnia for six months from around January to June. I was a radio technician; I maintained the radios and other communications equipment we had up there. It’s nice to see the place slowly going back to more peaceful pursuits!