"How long could you survive in Croatia?"
I'd seen these words and a picture of Bear Grylls spray-painted onto a wall in downtown Zagreb the day I'd arrived. Now, as I paddle against a howling headwind that flings spray into my face halfway through an 11-day sea kayaking trip through the northern Adriatic, they're haunting me.
It's late afternoon and my six companions and I are ready to go ashore, get dry and set up camp. But first we need to find a campsite. We paddle up and down alongside the nearest island, checking out one unsuitable spot after another.
Then we see it, a small cove with a rocky beach. The wind has made the sea rough so we go in one at a time while our guide, Jogi ("like Yogi Bear"), stands knee-deep in the water to help us exit our boats and drag them above the high-tide mark.
After unloading the kayaks, we put up our tents in a sheltered, Tolkienesque oak forest and climb into warm clothes. Later, as the sun sets, we drag planks of driftwood into a rough semicircle for a dining area with a view better than any beachside restaurant: our yellow kayaks lined up side by side, the sapphire-blue sea, distant islands, the setting sun, no one else around.
This is what expedition paddling is all about: the reward of being in such a place doubled by the effort to get there.
Our trip had started with a two-hour drive along the coastline north of Zadar, a mini-Dubrovnik famous for its Sea Organ (a musical blowhole created in 2005) and its sunsets (touted as "the most beautiful in the world" after Alfred Hitchcock said so in 1964).
Like much of Croatia, because it was off limits to visitors until the mid-1990s, this coast-hugging road is a spectacular secret. We skirt the rugged 125-kilometre Velebit mountain range, looking down on hamlets of stone houses at the water's edge. While he drives, Jogi tells us about the mountains: the wolves and bears that live in its forests, the cave system that could be the largest in the world, the big walls that draw climbers from all over Europe and, just when we're starting to forget Croatia's recent past, the landmines that mean you must stay on the trail when hiking.
He also tells us about the "Bura", a fierce katabatic wind that races down the sides of these mountains at up to 300km/h. "You know the small cars, Fiats? People put rocks in the trunk to stop them from blowing off the road when the Bura comes," he says. Even when it's not that strong, the Bura can make sailing and kayaking difficult, even dangerous – but only in winter, usually.
After catching a car ferry to Jogi's home island – "I was born on Rab, I grew up on Rab and I will die on Rab," he says – we spend that first night at his family's house. While his wife makes us dinner and his father plies us with home-made vodka he calls "Viagra", Jogi spreads a nautical chart on the outdoor table for our pre-trip briefing. He traces with his finger our proposed route through some of the Adriatic's 1200 islands, reminding us that none of this is set in stone. Our itinerary depends on the weather, particularly the wind.
The good news is that the northern Adriatic is a paddler's paradise. Lying snug next to the north coast of Croatia, which faces the calf of Italy's boot, it's generally calm and has small tides (we don't even bother tying up the kayaks at night to prevent them floating away). Except for the occasional car ferry there's no shipping, there's nothing that can bite or sting us, and the water at this time of year is a balmy 25 degrees.
Our first few days pass in a blur of summer beauty. In the mornings, when there's no wind, we glide over blue satin, the water colour-coded for depth from indigo to sparkling turquoise. We cruise past high limestone cliffs, nose our kayaks into cool caves, and pull in to little coves for lunch or to cool off in the swimming-pool-clear water.
Sometimes it's as if we're the last people on Earth: no other boats around, free-camping on desolate islands, watching seabirds and, one afternoon, enormous Griffon vultures, with wingspans of 2.8 metres, that nest high above us in the sea cliffs of Plavnik Island.
Other days, early in the trip, we're reminded we're not – when we pass beaches with wall-to-wall sun lounges, car-shaped pedal boats and gaggles of naked Germans. (Naturism has been big in Croatia ever since King Edward VIII and his then mistress, Wallace Simpson, were allowed to swim nude at one of Rab's beaches in 1936; today coastal Croatia is Germany's nudist camp.)
On day three, we paddle into Croatia's convoluted history. Our destination: Prison Island, so called because up to 4000 political prisoners were kept here between 1949 and 1983, mostly during Tito's reign (nearby Naked Island was known as "the Croatian Alcatraz"). Paddling past machinegun turrets and concrete bunkers into a small bay, we see "TITO" spelled out in white rocks on a grassy hill. Almost on cue, the sky darkens and there's a rumble of thunder.
We get the tents up just in time, in a grove of pine trees that smells like Christmas, then shelter from the pelting rain in a small tourist restaurant and tuck into an early dinner of fried calamari, chips and Ozujsko, Croatia's most popular beer.
The next morning, we wander among the roofless stone buildings crumbling back to the rocks they were made from. Some have been bashed in by fallen trees, their windows empty eyes looking out to sea. We peer into solitary confinement cells and walk through overgrown vegetable gardens behind an officer's mansion. It's like stumbling upon ruins no one has seen before.
On day five, we paddle up to the 2000-year-old walls of the town of Krk on one of the two largest islands in the Adriatic, also called Krk, and back to civilisation. After parking our kayaks, we stroll past expensive boats at the marina and into the cobbled, boutique-lined laneways of Krk for lunch. This is one of the oldest towns in the Adriatic and has been continually inhabited since Roman times – which might explain why the pizza is so good (not to mention the pasta, gelato and coffee).
"What day is it?" asks Rob, one of my fellow paddlers, the next morning as we're packing the boats. Nobody ventures an answer. But he's said what we all feel.
Days of the week matter little here. The world has become one of sunshine and saltwater "showers" in the sea, my home is a cosy army-green tent I put up and take down daily, and our trusty double and single kayaks take us anywhere we want to go and carry everything we need (except fresh bread, milk and emergency macchiatos – which gives us an excuse to visit villages en route). The only signs the "other" world still exists are the jetstreams that stripe the cloudless sky every day.
Then everything changes. "The Bura is here," Jogi says after breakfast on day six. He makes a few calls on his mobile and instead of paddling to our next island, we beat a hasty downwind retreat to the nearest port, where we meet a van and trailer and catch a car ferry. It's the beginning of the anything-can-happen second half of our trip, as changeable weather keeps changing our plans.
On our second last day, for instance, we leave the Adriatic altogether to paddle Zmanija river canyon. Setting off from Obravac, a former Serb town, we drift past grim-looking, Soviet-style apartment blocks and buildings still scarred by the 1991-95 war. Then the river narrows, the Bura intensifies, threatening to tear the paddles from our hands, and we're flanked by high, desert walls – Croatia's wild west (German Westerns have even been filmed here). It's surreal and exhilarating, but I'm relieved when the river widens and we pop out at a wide bay.
Expedition kayaking in Croatia is like that, an experience that can take you from 30-degree heat to 30-knot winds, rain to river canyons, stony beaches to beech forest campsites, and on a rollercoaster ride through history, and still leave you feeling as if you've just scratched the surface of this wild and enigmatic country.
The writer travelled as a guest of Southern Sea Ventures and Etihad Airways.
FIVE MORE CROATIAN ADVENTURES
There are world-class trails in the World Heritage-listed Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia's most popular attraction. See np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/
The limestone walls of this national park have more than 400 sport climbing routes of all grades; you can also learn to climb. See paklenica.hr, paklenica-avanturist.com/rock-climbing/
RAFT THE TARA
The Tara River flows through the deepest canyon in Europe; the river is actually in Montenegro but accessible from Dubrovnik. See tara-tour.com
BIKE DOWN A MOUNTAIN
Do a summit-to-sea mountain bike ride down Vidova gora, the highest peak in the Adriatic at 778 metres above sea level. See croatia-active.com
EXPLORE MODRIC CAVE
Go wild caving in the 840-metre-long Modric Cave, near Paklenica; overalls, helmets and headlamps supplied. See adventuredalmatia.com
Etihad Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Frankfurt via Abu Dhabi. See etihad.com/en-au/ or call 1300 532 215. Croatia Airlines flies from Frankfurt to Zadar. See croatiaairlines.com
Southern Sea Ventures, based in Sydney, runs 11-day Croatia Explorer trips, with nine days paddling, in June. Next departure June 17, 2015. Trip start in Zadar and cost $2175, which includes two nights in B&Bs, eight nights camping, all meals, kayaking and camping gear, and land transfers. See southernseaventures.com
The Wild Fig Hostel, Uvala Bregdetti 14/a, Zadar, is close to the beach and Zadar's charming old town, and ideal for a pre- or post-kayaking stay. Double rooms from HRK 137 a night. See thewildfighostel.com
GOOD TO KNOW
Croatia joined the EU last year, but its currency is still the kuna. Australians don't need a visa for stays of less than 90 days.