Zabljak is a hamlet in the north-west corner of Montenegro, shouldered by the borders of Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. It would go unnoticed if it wasn’t the gateway to Durmitor National Park, a magnificent massif in the Dinaric Alps where wild wolves and brown bears roam freely. Its grassy meadows, silent glacier lakes and various towering peaks, the highest being mount Bobotov Kuk at 2523 m, had lured us to Zabljak. It was early in the morning when we found ourselves in the town’s main street to stock up on bread and water which was to serve as lunch during our hike.
At the bakery we selected some burek, flaky pastries filled with spinach and sheep cheese, which we wrapped in oily paper bags and stowed in our backpacks. At the entrance of the supermarket where we entered for two large bottles of water, a pitiful little critter hopefully watched the store’s patron through the window. From the outside, she kept close watch on the transactions made inside, and every time someone finished packing their groceries and made their way to the exit, her tail started to wag. She was pitiful, because it appeared that her front leg had been broken: when she put her weight on it, it would bend at the joint and flip the wrong way. Whatever was wrong with her leg did not stop her from jumping excitedly and rather foolishly at customers exiting the store, full of hope for a scrap of food even though most people ignored her, and those who did not ignore her kicked at her. I wasn’t sure if she belonged to someone or if she was a stray like some of the other dogs in this town, but I had seen her linger around the store entrance the day before and was struck by her cheerful demeanor despite the badly healed fracture in her front leg.
From Zabljak it is a 30-minute walk to the entrance of the national park. On our way there we soon noticed that we had company in the shape of a limping black-and-tan figure. Did her canine nose tell her to follow the scent of the fresh burek in our bags, or was she simply up for an adventure, just like us? Although I felt for her, I purposely did not feed or pet her as I did not want her to stray too far from the town into the wilderness of Durmitor – but she would not give up her pursuit of her newest trekking buddies until we reached Crno Jezero, one of the park’s glacier lakes. The Montenegrins call these lakes ‘mountain eyes’, their piercing blue surfaces gazing up from the dense surrounding forests as if keeping a close watch on the skies that sometimes creep down the mountain sides into the valleys of the park. While fog started to form over our heads and between the pine trees near the lake, the presence of another dog had distracted our limping friend, and I felt relieved at the thought that she would probably turn around at this point and hobble back to town.
We hiked through pine forests until we reached grassy plains intertwined with giant lone spruces. The fog had turned to a steady drizzle and we pulled out our plastic ponchos in an attempt to keep ourselves dry. There were no other souls in sight. After the meadows came more pines, and we continued to climb on a rocky path that led up the mountain range. We had been walking for some hours, and I was lost in increasingly paranoid thoughts of the brown bears to whom these forests are home, when suddenly a very familiar shape came up behind us on the trail. The creature did not seem to mind the rain that continued to soak us despite our ponchos, and changed position to continue to walk in front of us. “How did she manage to come all the way up here on that limping leg, and how did she find us in this wilderness?” My partner was as stupefied as I was. For a while we lost sight of the dog again, but as we reached the shores of Jablan Jezero, another mountain eye, I spotted the small animal shivering in the bushes at the side of the trail. Worried that she might never find her way back to the town, I called her in an attempt to make her follow us. She was soaked and trembling, and I tried to rub her dry.
At the shore of the lake we rested our weary feet for a while, thankful that the rain had finally ceased, allowing a clear reflection of the pine forest on the water’s surface. We fed the little dog what was left of our burek, now hoping that it would make her follow us back to civilization in Zabljak. I did not want to think about what would happen to her if she were to stay behind here in the wilderness of Durmitor. While she gratefully devoured the bread, she never even noticed the fox that materialized on a ridge at the edge of the forest just a few meters from where we were sitting, and that for minutes stared intensely at the black and alien creature that had intruded her territory.
The walk back to Zabljak was hard on our legs and feet after having covered a large distance in craggy terrain. The dog was now slow in following us, clearly exhausted from her long walk, her limp intensifying. It seemed that she put her trust in us guiding the way out of the forest, but her tread slowed to the point where we had to stop and wait for her to catch up with us again several times. Near the edge of the forest we took some rest on a lonely wooden bench. The dog lay down in a ditch behind the bench and immediately fell into a deep sleep. We had to move on if we wanted to reach Zabljak before nightfall. “Wake up, blacky, you little fool,” I whispered while stroking the dog. She would not wake up for some time and when she did, we could not tempt her into following us as we continued to walk. I looked back and saw her tired eyes looking at us from where she was lying. I had to return to the ditch to pick her up, and I carried her in my arms, her warm body against my stomach and her weight wearing down my arms after some time. I put her down and she started to walk with renewed vigor, but after some minutes would not move any further and I had to take her in my arms again. Weary from the long hike but determined not to leave the little one behind, I started to think of ways to bring the dog on the bus with us tomorrow to our next destination, and then later on the plane, to go see a vet and to go home with us… Finally, Zabljak came into view and as we entered the town, I put little blacky on her three feet again. We turned a corner to the main street, and when we looked back, she was gone.
The next day we had scheduled our departure to Sarajevo. Before catching the bus, we walked down to the supermarket to buy some snacks and water. I expected with affectionate anticipation to see our friend there as she had been the day before and the day prior to that; sitting at the shop exit, patiently waiting for someone who’d give her some attention or morsels of food. But she was not there, and regret seeped into my heart as we walked to the bus stop. I wondered if she was out in the mountains again, following other hikers into the wild, and hoped that they would be kind to her and make sure she’d find her way back. But as our bus started its engines and slowly rolled out of Zabljak, leaving the mountains and the ever staring mountain eyes behind, I decided purposely that she must have thought it was time for a day off, and lay resting at the feet of her loving owner, in front of a burning fire place in one of the houses off the town’s main street.
How to reach Durmitor National Park
The small town of Žabljak is the gateway to the national park. It can be reached by bus which will in most cases require a change at the Nikšić bus station. You can also arrive here via Podgorica and Pljevlja. Žabljak is also linked by bus to Sarajevo in Bosnia Herzegovina and to Belgrade in Serbia, however not with direct connections. A useful site for planning your bus trip is Balkanviator which offers time tables and schedules for many destinations in the region.
Žabljak can of course also be reached by car, and the scenery will probably make this a top notch road trip. Do check before heading out if roads are not closed due to snowfall if you are driving in winter. Expect high drops and sharp hairpin curves – not for the faint hearted or little-experienced drivers.
I do not recommend a visit to Durmitor as a day trip. You will spend a good number of hours just to arrive there, and to fully appreciate the wilderness and beauty of the park you should take at least one full day to explore the trails beyond the area immediately after the entrance and visitor center. We spent two full days in the park to hike different trails.
Where to stay in Žabljak
There are a number of hotels in this town as well as a number of campgrounds, but many locals also rent out rooms in their homes. We took this option because we like our accommodation to be small-scale and were pleased with our mini apartment Obradovic Milan which included a kitchenette and en-suite bathroom. Similar accommodation can be found on the major booking sites. There is also one hostel called the Hikers Den, whose owners we heard are very knowledgable about hiking in this area. Žabljak is a small town so location-wise it does not really matter in what part of town you are staying. There are a couple of restaurants, a super market, a post office and an ATM in town.
How to enter Durmitor National Park
A 30-minute walk will lead you from Žabljak to the entrance of the national park where you will be required to pay a 3 euro entrance fee. There is no public transport from the town to the park entrance. Immediately at the entrance you will find one of the eighteen glacial lakes (‘mountain eyes’). This is the most visited part of the park but if you explore the park on your own you will soon find yourself well alone in the wild. There are several way-marked walking routes through the park, ranked by difficulty level and distance. Besides hiking and climbing mount Bobotov Kuk, you can also go ziplining, rock climbing, canyoning and rafting (notably in the gorgeous and adrenaline-inducing Tara canyon) and in winter you can enjoy yourself at the park’s ski center.