Day 19- Wounded Vuckovar

Headed off for the morning to visit Kopački Rit Nature Reserve with a load of tomatoes the landlady, Helena, picked from her garden. The Nature Reserve is a vast expanse of wetland – lakes, marsh, reedbeds and flooded meadows – that extends for miles on the Croatian side of the Danube. This area has an interesting history in its own right. It has long been used as a hunting area and Tito had his Hunting Lodge here – which is now open to the public. The area was taken over by Serbia during the Yugoslav Civil War, and was heavily mined. There are still no-go areas here, but not anywhere near where I was. After the ceasefire, the land was given by the UN back to the Croatian government and it is now being actively promoted for eco-tourism.

I spent the morning here doing some bird watching, first along the boardwalk area that allows you to get really close to the reeds and pools, then out on the flood dyke to get an elevated view of the miles upon miles of the reserve. It was nice to see there were plenty of information boards about the reserve and some of the important aspects of wildlife, in Croat and english which was helpful. Some of the birds I saw included pygmy cormorant, purple heron, ferruginous duck, great white egret, black stork and Savi’s warbler. It was also nice to see both middle-spotted and lesser-spotted woodpecker within minutes of each other. I couldn’t get over the number of Grey Heron here; along one flooded field, albeit a long field, I counted over 150 birds. I also saw a stoat coming out of the jacks; must have been a surprise for anyone in there!

The afternoon took me through a region that saw some of the worse brutality of the Serb-Croat conflict- names like Osijek, Vukovar and Nemetin that I would have remembered from news items on the war, which was really just a few short years ago. Such brutality and slaughter in a place that now seems so normal. There are a few memorials to this period that I passed and there are derelict buildings pock-marked with bullet holes still as a reminder. Vuckovar Train Station still lies in ruin, with the station sign hanging over the door. Vuckovar itself was largely destroyed during the conflict and is a sad, strange place. There is no centre, rather the centre was destroyed and is slowly being rebuilt with modern purely functional buildings. There is no sense of any master plan or concept of urban design. There is a strange sedate air to the place, as if people speak in hushed tones. To me it seemed like a town whose heart and soul had been destroyed. I felt the whole experience difficult and impossible to comprehend how quickly things can escalate when the right/wrong conditions prevail. A couple of days ago I was worried about my grey men in suits; today I am glad it is not men in military uniforms that I have to answer to.

The last leg of the cycle to Ilok, just at the border with Serbia, brought me over a succession of ascents and descents of 8 percent, as the road followed the undulating landscape. Finished in Ilok for the evening having covered 110km. Had a beer looking onto the Danube and across to Serbia.