With a sickening noise, the tyres skidded on the loose pebbles, as the van swerved violently this way and that on the steep incline. One, two, there revs of the engine and we had to admit defeat, retreating back to the relative safety of the road below. Deep breath, let the tyres cool for a second and try again.
We were less than ten minutes drive from our destination, but separated from it by a steep track of loose gravel, which swallowed up our heavy vehicle in a cloud of dust as we tried to propel our way up, holding the wheels in a tight grip they couldn’t escape. But there was no way back at this point, either. Reversing back down the zig-zag we had just driven up was out of the question.
Trying not to think about how our friends’ campervan got stuck in gravel just a couple of months before, we tried again. First gear, hit the gas to gain some speed through this section and then try not to loose control as the van skidded its way up the hill, tyres screaming as sharp pebbles ripped into them. It was like being on a rollercoaster ride, except we’d have to pay for any damage. At this stage, though, we just wanted to make it up in one piece.
It only took a minute of being violently thrown around, the engine roaring with all of its might, and suddenly and miraculously we were through the worst of it. We stopped, to catch our breath (thank God I wasn’t the one driving, but I was still on the edge of my seat, both literally and figuratively speaking) and to wait for our friends Anna and Lukas at the back. With their smaller and lighter vehicle, they made it through less battered and bruised than us. Their verdict was the same though – never going that way again!
Our choice of crag this time was driven by our desire to get away from the crowds. Smrka, on Brač island, is a pretty secluded spot, in the middle of nowhere, not far from the Blaca monastery. A dirt track leads to a parking lot used by visitors to the monastery, who then need to hike for an hour to get there.
But our destination lay in a different direction. Another few hundred metres along a bouncy track and then park by an old rusty water tank and bath tubs in the middle of a field. Then a 20 minute walk and scramble down through overgrown terrain to reach a spectacular sheer 50 metre limestone face full of long hard climbing.
The original journey to the monastery parking lot, where we decided to base ourselves, was bouncy but doable. After all, only around 10 minutes of the drive was on a gravel road, with the rest of the infrastructure on the island pretty modern. But then, on our second day there, a huge bulldozer turned up and dug up the entire road we used to get there. Our way out was blocked and the only other way to get to shops and fresh water was in the other direction, down a much longer and steeper gravel track leading down to a town called Milna on the other side of the island. But having run out of food and water on day three, we had no choice but to brave it.
The way down wasn’t too bad. Bouncy, and we were not doing it alone, safety in numbers and all that. But we made it. And Milna turned out to be a very cute little town, which provided everything we needed.
But for the whole day the thought of the journey back hung over us: we knew the gravel-covered hill we skidded down was going to be a lot less fun on the way up!
When we finally made it to the top, the vehicle’s tyres somehow still intact, we discovered the track that was blocked had been laid out nicely by this point, widened and evened out by a roller. If only we’d know it was ready! (Eventually, we did get a flat tyre because of the crazy roads in this place, and had a bit of an ordeal as the wheel was screwed on too tight to change without the help of a mechanic).
Of all the things that happened in the two weeks we spent on Smrka, that drive was the most memorable! That, and the spiderwebs, complete with variously sized spiders, than hung from nearly every tree and across our path in multiple places on the approach. In the end, Clay had to employ helicopter arm swings, a hiking pole in each hand, every morning on the way to the crag to try and break up the webs in his path. There are many reasons to visit this place, but if you have a aracnophobia, it may not be for you!
The climbing itself was relatively spectacular, but hard, and in many ways the complete opposite of our previous crag. The routes were long, starting at 30 metres. The only thing I managed to send was a 35 metre 7a, which I found quite intimidating despite the moves not being that challenging, with bolting more sparse than I would have preferred. Yet it also created a spectacular sense of achievement!
I think this crag is an even more rewarding experience if you are able to get on the harder climbs. The upper part of the sector is littered with spectacular-looking 8a’s on bulletproof limestone.
For me, finding an enjoyable route at my grade proved to be a struggle, but in the end I did find a lovely 7a+, which pushed me very close to my limit, but by that point we only had a couple more days left and it was time to leave. If we ever come back, I’m sure it’ll be waiting for me, as will the 8a that was Clay’s nemesis. Good reasons for both of us to return!
Featured image courtesy of @clayclaydon – follow him on Instagram for more! The others are mine – clearly vastly inferior smartphone photos…