TEXT: Jiří Čeloud, instructor of self-sufficiency training at the Paraple Centre
PHOTO: Jiří Čeloud’s archive
Last spring I found a beautiful camper van, an old transporter, on a German used car site. But for a disgusting price, 25 grand in E’s. „Duck,“ I asked the woman, „when it’s fifteen, can I buy it?“
Then one day I was fiddling with my computer in the autumn and the same car jumped out at me. Fifteen. And since my beloved wife at the time replied with a great deal of empathy, „Yeah,“ within a month it was parked in front of the house.
The loan for a quarter of a million was definitely worth the unlimited opportunity to fantasize about future trips.
After three quarters of a year of devising and implementing suitable modifications, I am finally behind the wheel and I am like a little child, honestly happy. I get in via a platform and both the driver’s and passenger’s seat swivel. I’ve raised the ground clearance by ten centimetres for better ground clearance, and there’s a modern home-made „improvement“ on the rear door for attaching a handbike. There’s not a lot of room in the interior, but I can turn around and use everything with the wheelchair, our bed is at wheelchair height. There wasn’t much more I could do to function on my own, with as little help from Kaci as possible.
It is mid-September, Indian summer is in full swing and we are heading south with our first stop in Wildalpen, Austria. We spend the whole weekend on the Salze River with a bunch of friends. It’s really beautiful. We all go down the upper part of the river in inflatable canoes, I stay with Tefík the next day.
Tef is our dog, which we brought three years ago as an abandoned souvenir from Tenerife. We’re lying in the car in the meadow, I’m reading a book Saudade about a round-the-world bike and kayak trip by Matej Balga, and I’m glad I’m not alone. In the afternoon, we say goodbye to our friends and continue on, just the three of us, across the Wörthersee to Slovenia.
We have prepared a travel plan, but we know that everything cannot be planned. Just below the horizon on the 18% climb between Villach and Kranjska Gora, the throttle stick snaps at the hand controls. Fortunately, the brake is working. We quickly take turns at the wheel and Kačka whizzes through the serpentine switchbacks to the source of the Soca River in Triglav National Park. Actually, I’m glad I’m not driving. For one thing, I can enjoy myself and then it’s quite a chore with a twenty-year-old car, with hydraulic power steering.
After ten kilometres we have to turn back, the road is closed for repairs. The stupid day continues at the campsite at Lake Bohinj, which is packed to bursting and quite unsuitable for a wheelchair. We don’t like it there at all, but we bring a seakayak and want to paddle around the lake for a day or two. We solve the dilemma of whether to stay or not by loading up on beer. We decide to go elsewhere. The day ends well.
We get to a beautiful barrier-free campsite located on the cycle path between Bohinj and Bled. After a hot shower, we watch the Icelandic movie The Rams before going to bed. After two more days of handbike tours around the area, a local garage welds the steering wheel back into usable condition so we can head across Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Mr. Fischer, as we call our transporter, rides like a dragon, and if it weren’t for a cat that decided to end its life by jumping under its wheels, the journey would have been uneventful. Unfortunately, the duck is mourning her and has been feeding the lonely animals with pellets and pouches ever since.
The voice of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer from the minaret draws us into another culture. We have a good feeling about Bosnia. We stop at Una National Park, a neat campsite by a river. We have a dinner of trout caught a few minutes ago, wash it down with rakija and then, freezing, as the night temperatures are slowly heading towards zero, we go to sleep.
Nearby are the beautiful waterfalls in Martin Brod and especially in Strbački buk, but unfortunately they are inaccessible for wheelchair users.
From the E761, we turn off at Drvar and head west along the Bosnia and Herzegovina road to Mostar. This several hundred kilometre stretch of country has a strong genius loci. Here and there a light with a hint of life, otherwise thousands of abandoned houses, desolation.
We arrive in Mostar in slight embarrassment. All the well-known tourist places have disappointed us so far. But not Mostar. Unexpectedly few people and pleasant atmosphere made us so happy that we bought a brass coffee grinder in the market.
After a two-day stop and swim on the Peljesac peninsula, we continue along the Montenegrin coast towards Lake Skadar. I was quite looking forward to this ornithological and aquatic paradise on the border with Albania. We are parked in a nice campsite for €15 a night. That’s a good price, plus the local boss is always yelling: „Praise the Czech nation.“ We’re having a nice time here. It’s like a zoo as we drive around. We see a praying mantis, a snake, a turtle, which Tefík especially liked, cows and a billion frogs. In the evening we grill spit, eat it with ajvar and wash it down with beer. Well, anyway, the most important thing is yet to come.
The road SH21 leads to the village of Theth, in the middle of the Albanian mountains. We keep climbing up the mountains. At about 1 800 m above sea level the asphalt part of the road ends and the gravel section begins. After a few hundred metres we see that a hotel is being built here. When it is finished, it will be accommodation in one of the most beautiful places I have visited.
And we’re moving on. The road is getting dangerously narrow. We meet a big off-road loaded with workers and I have to reverse into the widest part of the road. Even so, with the mirrors down, we miss it by millimetres. I’m stuck on a rock, the off-road has its wheels close to a cliff of several hundred metres. After a while, the same situation repeats itself and I feel that driving like this for the next fifteen kilometres is beyond my driving skills. If Mr. Fischer and I had a few more tens of thousands of kilometers on the road, we might continue, but I see it as too risky and I turn the car around.
We’re not sorry we didn’t make it to Theth. We sleep in front of the hotel in our own hotel on four wheels. It’s a clear, cold night and we fall asleep under an extra blanket.
We have breakfast with a fresh breeze under a sunlit sky, leave the mountains and slowly start to return home. Kačka is driving. The long descent is spiced up by a family of pigs hunting by the container and a goat herder with his herd of about 100 head. We take a shortcut, a terrible way, but we have a little adventure again. We pass the Cursed Mountains and head north along the Tara River into the Durmitor Mountains of Montenegro, where we walk past the Black Lake.
In the evening, already very tired from driving, I take a rest stop near Zagreb. In the morning I turn the key and nothing. The car starts up, but the starter doesn’t go. Kačka taps it and nothing. We’re about to dismantle the cover under the steering wheel and look at the switch box. Eventually I’m going to „knock“ at the cafe to see if a mechanic from the area can come and get us.
We sit in the tow truck and ask how far the workshop is. „Sixty, seventy kilometers,“ the guy replies. I break out in a sweat, though I’m not sweating, and I say, „Well, Mr. Fischer, you kind of fucked up at the end there. Anyway, I’ll sell you and buy a Mercedes Sprinter!“
At the workshop, the guys pull the car off the floor, turn the key and Mr Fischer starts the car. All at once! A faulty schalter lever indicator didn’t allow the engine to start. What a stupid thing to do. We paid €120 for a tow and drove home the six hundred kilometres nonstop.
I’ll keep Mr. Fischer after all. He’s great. A few adjustments are still needed, but next year we are going to Albania, the beauty with a bad reputation, as the title of Peter Horky’s book says, again. On the river and especially for a longer time.