"Up to Sveti Ilija? From Donja Vrućica?! God forbid! Not a chance! Impossible... Nobody's passed there for over forty years! Don't go, there are countless snakes, they will get you,...". This is what the locals from Donja Vrućica told us when they heard about our plan to break through to Sv. Ilija (St. Elias), the highest peak on Pelješac, from their village.
Some of them said they would gladly forbid us to go if they could. Not even Eni, a very nice and cordial director of the Tourist Board Trpanj wasn't thrilled with do this on her territory. However, we decided to try it anyway long before. After all, we are on a mission, and letter «E» mustn’t suffer. When we were planning our last writing route at home, we knew that the ascent to Sveti Ilija (Saint Elias) from the North side of Pelješac would be the final challenge in this project. So we prepared well and reviewed all our options. I wanted Čedo with me on this trip, because of his vast experience in exploring wild hills and his natural intuition for discovering trails where there aren't any. I would like to point out that as experienced hikers and cavers we always take the advice and information from the locals. We didn't take the warnings and disbelief of the people living on the peninsula lightly. However, we are aware of the fact that we're used to passing territories where no one wants or needs to go, so we are more flexible to the term «impassable». The objective danger in the nature always exists and one should be aware of that in order to assess when advice and warnings of locals are founded, and when they are not. In this case we got the most competent information from Darko Prizmić, head of the Orebić Ranger Station. When he told us that it would be hard to break through the macchia in the first part of the route, but said it was possible. The second part on the reef is challenging, but clear and passable, so we had no more doubts.
We had to paddle our way to Pelješac from Ploče where we spent the night. I woke up with sore hands. The Neretva Arc took its tool. Andrija and Mirna from the Tourist Board greeted us warmly as well as the charismatic owner of the Fulin restaurant, Mr. Ante Štrbić. Although they have exceptionally beautiful surroundings, like Neretva delta and Baćina Lakes, Ploče is primarily an industrial town and a port. Not all the places on the coast are tourism-oriented, I thought as I paddled past large docks, cranes, and other steel giants in the cargo port of Ploče, the second in size of transshipment in Croatia.
After a little more than two hours of steady paddling I entered Trpanj. Among other things, I remember this town and his interesting rocks at the entrance of the city port. The enthusiastic and hospitable Jurić, the man whom Čedo met a few days earlier, was sad to hear we didn't have time for the cruise and visiting beautiful sights on Pelješac which he wanted to show us. Still, he was happy to find my potential relatives in Donja Vrućica. My grandfather, who died before I was born, was originally from this old settlement, situated on a wild plateau a few kilometers from the sea. So I met Steve from New Zealand who decided return to his roots. It turned out we were third cousins. Today, he runs his own camp in Divna, one of the most beautiful beaches on the Adriatic, with his South-Korean wife. Even though Vrućica has only a dozen inhabitants, it is a colorful international mix.
We finally began our trip to Sveti Ilija. The goal was to break through to the old Napoleon road, which descends to Stankovići after the crook. Soon, somewhere above us, we saw old supporting walls from our path. The only problem was that everything around it was filled with thick bushes. I was glad Čedo was there. When there were no other options or a path ahead but vast brushwood, Čedo looked on both sides for a brief moment and said firmly: «Let's go this way». The next moment he disappeared into a green wall. We were breaking through branches, brushwood, bushes and fallen trees, but we managed to reach the old Napoleon road. This would make a wonderful stroll if the path could be rebuilt. The trail goes to the reef, which has a view of both sides of the peninsula. Even though it's still in a relatively good state, it is completely covered in bush. However in some places, where there's not much bush, it becomes clear this is an interesting construction project. At the crook we left the trail and we climbed the reef for almost three hours. As the Ranger Darko told us, the reef itself is challenging, yet passable. And of course, it’s spectacular. The reef itself is partially narrow so it can literally be ridden. Although the peak was in the clouds, as we approached Sv. Ilija the clouds lifted. We reveled in the breathtaking view of the steep slopes of Pelješac. This was by far the most beautiful experience on the Welcome tour. At the peak itself we met Marko the cameraman, who climbed up from the side of Orebić, where there are several marked hiking trails.
After the descent to Perna we met Lana and Matea from the Viganj surf center who had a new vessel waiting for me. I paddled insecurely to Korčula on a SUP. A Stand Up Paddle is in fact a surfing board with a long paddle. It's an interesting combination getting more and more popular over the past few years. In any case, I still need to work on my paddling-while-standing technique.