On foot in the blue heart of Europe
"Xylem" // REWILDERS MISSION // Bosnia and Herzegovina
N 43º 24' 58" E 18º 18' 39"
Text: Eva Hübner / Photos: Brais Palmas
A hissing sound between the rocks gives us pause. Poskok! They warned us about this snake. It was the first word we learned in the local language, even before we could say "thank you".
Just about everyone we've met so far has something to say about it, whether it's that you should protect yourself from bites, or that the viper attacks unsuspecting villagers by swooping down from the trees.
On one occasion, a former soldier from the Balkan war told us that he and his comrades always search the ground before taking cover when under fire. "We fear Poskok more than the enemy," he explained.
And there she is. A cream-colored female with amber, cat-like eyes. Slits for a nose. A horn above it. Scales like a carapace. Vipera ammodytes, poskok.
The encounter takes place in the Dinaric Alps, the long mountain range that separates the Balkan Peninsula from the Adriatic Sea. A few days ago, we crossed the border between Montenegro and Bosnia. Now our boots are covered in mountain dust, our legs are tired and our supplies are running low.
But as we cross a rocky peak, the view is like a balm. Rainforest clings to the slopes below the flat plateaus. Birdsong and the sound of rippling water rise like steam from the valley we will cross the next day.
Behind the golden peaks in the distance lies our destination: the River Neretva.
For the next part of our journey, we need provisions for at least eight days. The only place to get supplies is Gacko, a depressing village in the shadow of a coal-fired power station.
Thick gray-white smoke billows out of the chimneys and drifts southwest as a second layer of clouds. Lignite is being mined in a large open-cast mine right next to the village.
We only stay as long as we need to replenish our supplies and drive to the end of the asphalt road, where the Neretva Valley begins.
In the smog, the headwaters of the river are only 12 km from the power station. But they couldn't feel further apart.
There are only a few houses and even fewer people living in them. Almost all the buildings are locked and bolted. Bats have taken over the abandoned barns since farmers flocked to the cities decades ago in search of better economic opportunities.
Others abandoned them during the war. Ruins with bullet-ridden walls, a bombed-out building, scattered signs warning of landmines - the vegetation has overgrown the omnipresent scars of the conflict.
We meet a few more people, mostly elderly. They have returned to their land, they say, to look after a subsistence garden, a few sheep and a handful of beehives.
Countless rivulets gather in a small, sparkling stream at the bottom of the valley. When we discover it, we swap our hiking boots for water sandals and the dirt track for the riverbed.
With our heavy rucksacks on our backs and our feet in the stream, we struggle to keep our balance on the slippery pebbles. But with every step we take, we get more used to it.
Whenever a tributary flows in, we feel the drop in water temperature. When the banks narrow or widen, our leg muscles react to the current by compensating for the change in speed.
Above our heads, dark clouds chase each other in constantly changing constellations and we can never predict when the rain will hit us. But then the sun always breaks through, mist rises from the hills and reptiles emerge from their hiding places to bask in the warmth.
With every kilometer we travel downstream, the water becomes deeper and stronger. On the third day, it reaches up to our thighs. Whenever we have to wade through rapids, we cross our arms, grab each other by the shoulders and move together. The current hammers indiscriminately against rocks, stones and our bare legs - too strong to cross safely on our own. It's time to retreat to the safety of land.
Back on the trail, birdsong and the mating calls of yellow-bellied toads replace the sound of the Neretva. Instead of cars or people, we come across a family of wild boars, the droppings of bears and wolves and a few clean bones. Every few meters, a rustling sound indicates that a lizard or snake has noticed our presence.
Although we now follow the forest path, we often return to the riverbank to bathe, set up camp or refill our bottles. As we drink the clear water, we find it hard to believe that just 200 kilometers downstream, this river has become one of the most polluted waterways flowing into the Adriatic.
On this first part of its journey, it flows wild and unpolluted. Until now - because 70 planned dams threaten the upper Neretva and its tributaries. And some are already under construction.
A huge clear-cut marks the end of our hike: four kilometers of forest were cut down to build the first hydropower plant.
The churned-up earth is littered with stumps and felled trees. The traces of bulldozers and logging machines run through the landscape like hardened scar tissue. Tree trunks lie in untidy heaps at the edges of these barren avenues. The river, a side note - as if someone had forgotten to turn off the tap.
The air feels hot and stale. There are no more animals, no birdsong - just a lingering sense of oppression.
Walking through this rubble is perhaps the most exhausting thing we have ever done. Our body reacts with rejection. We feel sick and exhausted. But we force ourselves to go on, to document everything.
In the leaves of the dead trees, we can still make out the intricate pattern of the xylem. It is reminiscent of the map of a river basin or the blood vessels of a human heart.
Xylem is to trees what arteries are to our bodies or rivers are to the planet: Lifelines that transport water and nutrients. But here these lifelines are severed.
That is why one hundred scientists, artists and activists from seventeen countries are setting up their tents and laboratories next to the construction site tonight.
It is the start of Neretva Science Week, an event organized by Friends of the Earth Bosnia and RiverWatch.
The camp acts like a front line, the last barricade against the machines traveling upstream. From here, groups of specialists set off day and night, equipped with all kinds of artifacts. Together with them, we examine the streams, descend into dark caves and climb mountain peaks to explore the sky.
Water, earth and air: we observe how life thrives in all three elements. From fish to reptiles, mammals to insects, lichens to fungi, we encounter large and healthy populations of rare and endangered species and even discover organisms that are completely new to science.
It's hard not to be excited when we see the list of cataloged specimens growing daily. Every specimen collected could provide another argument to stop the destruction.
The Balkans are known as the "Blue Heart of Europe" because a third of its rivers are in pristine condition, while the rest of the continent has virtually no wild rivers left.
But the battle for the Neretva is representative of many other rivers in the region.
As scientists, lawyers and activists fight against time to stop the development of more than 3000 dams, investors and construction companies are cutting off our remaining lifelines one by one.
In a time of mass extinction and climate breakdown, any lifeline is one too many.