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River Rafters Test Yugoslav Method

February 23, 1986|MARTHA ROBINSON | Robinson is a Pasadena free-lance writer.

FOCA, Yugoslavia — Below, glinting in the sunlight, flowed the blue-green Tara River where, if all went well, we would soon be rafting. This is what we had come to Yugoslavia for.

Ivo stopped the bus and let us out at the edge of the mountain road in what seemed to be dense forest, but Stevan, our guide, knew a footpath through the underbrush and led us to an open bluff above the river.

Although most of our party of 22 friends had experienced river rafting in the United States, we eagerly looked forward to a float down this remote wild river, expecting both adventure and to learn something of a country new to us.

As we stood on the bluff, a log the diameter of a telephone pole hurtled down the muddy slope to the water. Zahler, a sturdy woodsman we would soon know well, picked out another log and sent it splashing after the first. In the river Milo, Zahler's partner, was rapidly fastening the logs together with huge nails and iron hasps.

Old Methods Obsolete

For generations woodsmen have cut trees in these forests in the Durmitor Mountains of Montenegro, made rafts of the logs and floated them down the Tara to be sold. Now good roads and modern lumber trucks make the old methods obsolete, but a few woodsmen like Zahler and Milo still make the rafts in the old way.

As part of a government program to encourage tourism they take groups of passengers down through the rapids to Foca, a city where the rafts are broken up and the timber marketed.

From our put-in site in Montenegro to Foca in Bosnia-Herzegovina is about 70 miles as the crow flies. On the river the trip takes 3 1/2 days. We added two layover days in camp.

From the bluff we watched a raft take shape. Milo split branches into boards from which he fashioned a rudder and two long sweeps. At the upstream end of the 10 logs he had fastened together he attached the rudder and one sweep, the other sweep at the opposite end.

Zahler returned to the river and together the men built a superstructure: four stanchions, each about three feet high, set in a square on the raft with a railing of rough boards extending between them.

The square was big enough to enclose half of our gear; the structure would be bench, handhold, cabin and locker for our journey.

The New Bridge

When the men began building our second raft, Stevan shepherded us back to the bus. He wanted to show us the new Burdevica Bridge which, except for a dilapidated footbridge in the woods, is the only bridge over the Tara.

It was worth seeing. Stretching across one of the world's deepest gorges (3,400 feet from river to rim), this 1,200-foot span is a good example of modern engineering.

On the bridge we witnessed a little scene that came to epitomize Yugoslavia for me. A young woman approached from the village of Burdevica on foot, driving a diminutive horse burdened with bulging sacks. She wore a black head scarf and a long black dress and carried a thin switch to guide her horse.

Obviously confused by our presence, she dropped the switch as she passed us, but ignored it and held her head high as she walked on, a proud country woman and her animal straight out of centuries past. As she reached the other end of the bridge a diesel truck roared by.

This was a microcosm of the Yugoslavia we experienced thereafter: a peculiar mixture of old ways proudly continued and a vigorous new technology, a land of contradictions.

22 Americans

By mid-morning next day our two rafts were loaded and we set off down river: We were 22 Americans perched on the railings or standing; Stevan, our guide; Andric, our cook, and four boatmen. Our gear, sketchily covered with plastic sheets, was lashed down in the square frames along with two inflatable paddle boats; provisions (unwrapped bread, cheese, a box of pears) were piled on top.

Zahler, head boatman, and Milo, his second, had as helpers their teen-age sons, both anxious to show their fathers that they could do men's work.

We swept under the Burdevica Bridge and into white water swirling over and around a fall of boulders that from the parapet the day before had looked impassable. Here Zahler and Milo showed us their mettle. With shouting and groaning and wrenching pulls on the sweeps, we skimmed through the rapids without bumping a log.

After that it seemed only appropriate for Zahler to break out the slivovitz. This plum brandy with its clean, stinging taste was, we discovered, a staple of Tara River travel. Locally made and bottled in whatever containers were handy (old 7-Up bottles were favorites), slivovitz would be a morning pickup and noon tipple on the rafts, an evening cocktail and cordial in camp.

Close Look

Moving downstream, we had a close look at the great gorge we had seen from the bridge. The river was emerald green, deep and flowing swiftly but so clear that we could see the rocks that dappled the sandy bottom.

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