With its accessibility, unspoilt green valleys and relative obscurity, the Prenj mountain range in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina might just be the region’s best kept local secret.
The driver slowed down, stopping his old white Honda Civic at the side of the mountain road. His English was lacking to the point of non-existence, so we were resigned to stay seated in the back while politely smiling at the guy who was kind enough to pick us up. When hitchhiking to a trailhead while coping with a language barrier it’s sometimes better to just sit and smile. As to why our vehicular host suddenly stopped was a mystery that, in true Balkan fashion, would probably resolve itself by patient observation.
A few days earlier, in the city of Mostar, my South-African travel companion Alex dug up some info on the surrounding area. According to her source the nearby Prenj mountain range was supposed to be one of the best hiking spots in the country. Having witnessed the beauty of the local mountains while riding the train from Sarajevo I was also looking forward to hiking through this relatively unknown area of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
A prime location
Located a little to the north of Mostar, Prenj is easily reachable by car. Public transportation will get you part of the way, but expect a morning hitchhiking or walking to the start of the mountain trails. There are many trails leading up from any direction into the range’s central valley, Bijele Vode, which rises 1450 metres above sea level. The valley sits as a green oasis between tall, bare peaks covered in pine trees and flowerbeds interspersed with giant boulders, seemingly strewn about by some careless giant.
As with most parts of Prenj, Bijele Vode is only reachable on foot. Cutting through the mountain range from north to south the valley makes for an excellent way to traverse the area. Not to mention the great views of the surrounding peaks it offers!
The landmine question
During the Yugoslavian civil war fighters on both sides of the conflict buried thousands of landmines in the area. To this day, some areas still haven’t been cleared in spite of repeated attempts that fell short due to a lack of resources. Over the past years several landslides have moved the mines around as well, further complicating clearing operations.
Unfortunately, Prenj is one of the areas still afflicted by uncleared landmines. The dangerous areas are clearly marked, but it is advisable to stick to the trails and not wander too far off marked paths. Most of the area is perfectly safe, but unless you are with an experienced local guide, it’s best not to take unnecessary risks.
To keep Prenj a pristine natural gem, it is important to leave it as you found it! Even though locals might not always honour the ‘leave no trace’ principle, let’s lead by example and be responsible guests by cleaning up after ourselves!
Water and shelter
While these mountains aren’t exactly dry there is a relative lack of potable water sources, especially in the hot summer months. Hikers should carry enough to last them at least a full day, perhaps even two. I carried four litres, which included water to cook with. Prepare for the trip by gathering local info on water sources before you set off!
There are a number of mountain huts in the area, some of which require a key that can be obtained from local park authorities. Others, like the newly rebuilt Jezerce hut, are open to all. I would recommend bringing a tent or tarp however, as this will ensure shelter under any circumstance.
After sitting still for quite some time, the reason for our driver’s little roadside break became obvious. Another car approached and stopped next to us. Their driver leaned out of his window while calling to the driver in our car, all the while frantically gesturing to us sitting in the back.
He then addressed us with an enthusiastic “Hey you! Where you from?!”. This sparked a short but lively conversation where he would tell us that he liked Dutch football, didn’t like Germans and he couldn’t believe that blond-haired, white-skinned Alex came from Africa. After saying goodbye to us and our driver he sped off down the valley again.
A bit confused, I asked why we had stopped to meet with the other car. In his best English our driver told us: “He…brother, family. He speak good English. I tell him on phone I meet you, he come from village…practice.”
We then drove off again with us sitting quietly in the back, a polite but genuine smile on our faces.