The Grain Boat of Karlovac

How two entrepreneurs returned a freight boat to the waterways of Karlovac for the first time in 150 years, creating a unique tourist offer that explores the town's history and beautiful nature.

Written by
Marc Rowlands

Time moves more slowly in the village. This is true of many of the small riverside settlements that surround Karlovac. Far removed from the bustle of the city or the traffic of a main road, in such places, it’s not uncommon to go several hours without hearing a single car engine. The dart of a dragonfly or the rare glimpse of a kingfisher flying above the waters is sometimes the only thing here that could compare to the frantic pace of life experienced elsewhere. But, in the rivers surrounding Karlovac, especially the Kupa, this wasn’t always the case.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Karlovac was a significant inland port, the river Kupa linking it to another, the Croatian town of Sisak. On this route, goods like salt, spices, wood, tobacco and all manner of grains would travel by boat, emanating from as far east as Temišvar (Timișoara) in Romania and passing through Serbia and Bosnia prior to arriving in Karlovac. From Karlovac, this route was linked to Croatia’s Adriatic seaports by road, horse and cart enabling continental products could reach the coast. But, the bulk of the journey was made by huge wooden, pulled along the river Kupa by horses and men on riverside paths that extended for hundreds of kilometres through Croatia.

These days, such waterside walkways have long since overgrown as freight transportation has shifted to road, rail and plane. The once-busy waters around Karlovac are now comparatively silent, the stillness broken only by the splashes of summertime swimmers and tiny fishing boats. Except for in the village of Brođani, that is. For there, a remnant of the past, a 25 metre-long replica wooden grain boat has appeared and explores a passage thought lost in time and reclaimed by nature.

‘There are three types of riverboat that used to operate on this route, the korablja, a small boat, around 12 metres long, which was used for smaller, local transport and a much larger one called a burčule. The tumba is the type of boat we built, a middle-sized boat, about 25 metres, which could take the weight of around 30 tons,’ says Jasmina Cvetković, whose dream of bringing such a boat back to the waterways around Karlovac took a full eight years to realise.

Jasmina’s nearby home village of Zamršje must have seemed even quieter than ever 10 years ago after she and her friend, Ana Prepolec, returned home from several years of university study in the fast-paced Croatian capital of Zagreb. Though happy to have returned to their beautiful place by the river Kupa, put simply, the girls were bored. But, in their years away, they had acquired a new set of skills, no small amount of confidence and were brimming with ideas.

A replica grain boat seemed to tick so many boxes for them. If they could do it, it would be a way to put their beautiful, silent villages on the map, increase the tourist offer of their town, explore the history and nature of Karlovac and allow them to remain within such an idyllic setting without being forced to seek occupations and put their skills to use elsewhere. Nevertheless, it was an idea of unparalleled ambition locally.

‘Most people were friendly, they listened,’ remembers Jasmina with a smile, ‘but they couldn't help but laugh at the idea. 'OK girls, OK. No problem', they said.’

Undeterred by such responses, Jasmina and Ana decided to give shape to their idea and apply for European funding. They proved more than capable in their project proposal. Though they still faced some scepticism, a breakthrough came when a small amount of funds was donated by the Croatian Ministry of Tourism and the town of Karlovac to have technical documentation drawn up to present to the European authorities. Started in 2008, it took a full two years to secure the funds required to realise the project.

‘We didn't know what was going on, what was happening with our idea, but at every step we were receiving positive news. It felt like our dream was really going to come true,’ says Jasmina. ‘To be honest we didn't really have time to celebrate receiving the money because our worries immediately switched to 'Ok, just how are we going to do this? How can we actually build this boat?'

‘When we sat down with the designer, Nikola Brnardić, his first drawing was of a much smaller boat,’ she recalls.’ We said 'No, no, we want the bigger one, 25 metres, with a small house on it'. He said, 'My God, you want a tumba. Such a thing no longer exists on the rivers between here and Ukraine!'

Nevertheless, with a father who was a boat owner in Sisak and a family history of working in river transportation, in Drnavic they had found the right man. However, with plans finished, there still remained the task of actually building the boat. Luckily, they again came across exactly the right man for the job, Ivan Zec, an engineer based in Zagreb.

‘He was 72 at the time he accepted the project,’ says Jasmina, with a clear admiration for Zec’s abilities and a gratitude that he took them on. ‘In some way, I think he viewed the construction as the pinnacle of the challenges in his working life. Ivan had worked in the wood processing industry and also in the metal processing industry. He set about the task with great enthusiasm and pragmatism. Before he even started on some sections of the boat's building, he first had to make the necessary tools, they simply did not exist here at this time. We were lucky to find him because all of the boats that are now constructed in continental Croatia are made of metal, not wood. You would usually have to go to the coast to find someone with any knowledge of constructing a wooden boat. But he knew everything we were talking about.’

The construction of the Karlovac Grain Boat aka ‘Zora’ took place at a dry dock in Zagreb, a laborious undertaking not without complications due to the authentic nature desired of the replica.

‘It was difficult enough just to collect the wood for the construction,’ remembers Jasmina. ‘We needed 40 square metres of dry oak, which was so difficult to find in Croatia in the measurements we needed. In the end, we had to source that wood from every corner of the country; some came from Slavonija, some from Međimurje, Zagorje, Gorski Kotor. Ivan really had to hunt it down.’

Once completed, the boat was placed atop a huge truck and transported by road to the inland port of Sisak, the overnight journey taking a full 10 hours as obstacles such as road signs had to be removed (and then replaced) to allow the monstrous load to pass along the relatively narrow thoroughfare. They arrived at the shipyard in Sisak by the morning and a huge crane was employed to lift the boat off the truck. It took another five hours to take the boat from the top of the yard down to its position in the water. From there, the rest of the journey would be made on the water, a route not travelled by a boat of this size for around 150 years.

‘We had to wait for a high level of water in order to begin the journey by river, which was OK because some things were still not finished on the boat,’ says Jasmina, who was nervously waiting by the phone in Zamršje for updates about the progress. ‘While we were still making some construction work in Sisak, at one point the river level dropped so low it seemed like maybe there would be no way to make the trip. Luckily, a huge amount of rain arrived at just the right moment, the river level rose and the captain called me in the middle of the night 'Come to Sisak within two hours, we must begin the journey now!’ The boat set off on 30 April and we had arranged the grand unveiling in Karlovac for 1 May 2017. It really was the last possible moment for us to do it. In May and June, the water level no longer rises, so March and April were the last chance we had to make the trip. If we had not done it then, we would have completely missed a whole summer season of work, a great loss. '

Even after acquiring historical knowledge of the river navigation needed for a boat this size, the passage to Karlovac was not without its difficulties, the boat having to traverse some small rapids in order to reach its new home.

‘The river Sava was flowing so fast that at one point we feared our motors would not be strong enough to take us into the Kupa,’ says Jasmina. ‘They needed around 11 hours in total to navigate from Sisak to Karlovac by night. When the boat finally came into Karlovac in the daylight, people were lined along the side of the river, waiting for us and waving. Some were even crying. It must have seemed as strange to some of them as would a spaceship arriving in the town.’

‘Zora’ has now been situated in Brođani for two years, its beginnings partially helped further by the Odvažna program, run by the Zaklada Solidarna trust, IKEA and Mastercard which rewards female entrepreneurs. Operating seasonally, from April to November, it makes trips at 11am daily along the river Kupa, the boat’s animator Ivan informing about the history and nature of the river throughout the journey.

Classes of school children, work colleagues on team-building excursions, international tourists visiting the nearby Plitvice Lakes or Karlovac and daytrippers from the length and breadth of Croatia have taken the trip. Along the 90-minute journey, they feast on delicacies such as quality dried meats, cheeses and breads, each made by local artisans, as are the traditional rakias and white wine they are washed down with. For larger groups, Ivan is joined by animators wearing traditional folklore costumes that would have been more commonplace when such boats were seen along Karlovac’s rivers. Musicians playing acoustic instruments entertain the audience, their folk songs and the enthusiastic chatter of guests the only sounds to break the peaceful silence of the tree-lined route. Remnants of Karlovac’s defensive past are pointed out, from the period of the Ottoman attacks to Second World War bunkers and evidence of the most recent war, which saw Karlovac again on the frontline and within striking distance of guns commanded from the Serbian Krajina.

The area the boat travels is sometimes known as the Valley of Butterflies with some 108 different types of butterfly living here. Many are seen along the way, as are kingfishers, ducks, cormorants, occasionally otters or a beaver and rare, protected species like the orao štekavac (white-tailed eagle), which has a wingspan of 1.8 metres.

‘He's not afraid of us any more,’ says Jasmina of the eagle. ‘He flies in front of us or sometimes rests in the branches of a tree and watches us go by. It's incredible to see. He's a big beast, you know? One day we saw a large bird, similar to a stork, but grey, and he was flying above us carrying a big snake in his mouth. Truly, every day on the river is different.’

Children, in particular, seem to love the journey. They are able to climb atop the captain’s hut and steer the boat from the traditional high rudder, wear the captain’s hat and ring the boat’s bell. Enthusiastic groups can also opt for a three-hour excursion which takes in waterfalls, the confluence of the Kupa and Korana rivers and even offers the opportunity to stop, swim in the river and dive to see the remnants of a recently-discovered sunken Roman boat, its cargo still visible on board.

It’s now ten years since Ana and Jasmina first dreamed of returning such a boat to the rivers of Karlovac. The smiles of their visitors and the genuinely appreciative feedback left for them on their social media pages are testament to the value of their vision made real. They are, perhaps, also an indication that nobody should ever underestimate the determination of women with a great idea.

Ana Prepolec and Jasmina Cvetković

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