A season in Raftrek – adventure guiding in Croatia

Back in 2015 I was ending with my university studies and it was time to embark into a world of steady job and paychecks. It was a time to find a job I’ll have until I die but I wasn’t quite ready for it. I’ll never be ready for it. I just spent 7 years in 2 different universities and I was looking forward for some time off. Off in a way of traveling or working something thrilling and unforgettable. At that time I was working at my student job in which I had to put ads on ad website. Ad after ad. It was sucking a life out of my outdoor spirit.

And there I was refreshing some ads when I stumbled upon an ad from Raftrek – largest Croatian adventure agency. They were seeking kind of persons I was to work as an adventure guide at some of the remotest parts of Croatia. That’s it. No more boring ad managing job. I will spend whole summer in nature, with hair and beard reaching my shoulders. I will bath naked in cold river and snakes will crawl around my legs (both of which happened). To be short, I applied. The trick was they weren’t accepting anyone and I had to pass rigorous 3 months education. First of all I had to pass preliminary interview. I went to a Raftrek headquarters, met the guys that will be my friends and colleagues that summer and passed the interview.

The next step was the education. We were having trainings twice a week and during the weekends we were somewhere in nature, practicing what we’ve learned during the week and philosophizing about life near the campfire.  In the first days of education we learned how to inflate a raft properly, then we learned how to paddle and steer it and later we were having some real fun on rivers in Croatia. The education was intense and if you were to miss 2 classes you were out no matter how good you were. They were simply preparing us for an intense summer. All the cards were open from their side. Raftrek employees told us that this kind of job isn’t for everyone and we’ll spent a summer without seeing our loved ones for months. If anyone wanted to quit it was best to do it immediately.

Most of the new recruits end up working on Zrmanja river at first, either as rafting guide or kayak guide when the water level is lower. Zrmanja river is part of protected area in Croatia and there were only few companies that were doing rafting tours here. Raftrek Zrmanja base was in a small village of Žegar, far from everything. Village was mostly destroyed during the war in Croatia and there were not many inhabitants today. If I was to accept job of adventure guide in Raftrek meant that I will spend few months sleeping in a tent and paddling down one of the wildest rivers in Croatia.

You guessed right. The education for adventure guide was done, I passed and I was ready to start earning some money. I came to Zrmanja base in the middle of June, ready to stay until October. The season was already up and running here even its peak is yet to come. When I first visited this place there were some 50 two seated kayaks one on top of the other. Now the number was even larger, around 80 kayaks with total capacity of 160 persons we can take down the river each day. Soon enough that number became a daily amount of guests we took down the Zrmanja river.

If you wonder how the life of adventure guide at Zrmanja looks like just keep reading this paragraph. You’re getting up around 6 AM or earlier, depending when the sun strikes at your tent making it hotter with each passing minute. You have no other option than to get up no matter how tired you are or soon enough you’ll sleep in an oven like environment. You spend next 15 minutes in washing you teeth and face in clear and cold river. Then you can expect to have about 30 minutes to have a breakfast, coffee and enjoy in a bright new day. Already at 7 AM all the guides gather and start to inflate boats. On average morning we inflated around 40 boats with each guide inflating 7-8 of them. Inflating was necessary because after every tour some kayaks are deflated to transport as much of them as possible in just one go. Inflating was usually done within 40 minutes or so. Afterwards you have some time to finish your coffee. First tour starts at 10 AM and first guest show usually around 9 AM. Sometimes they come even sooner. When it comes to guests all the guides have their tasks. One is taking the Land Rover and directing guests toward a base from a nearby crossing. Some are waiting for the guests on parking and explain them the basics while some handle the equipment which is given to every guest. All the guides have their own group of guests with 2 guides guiding around 30 (15 kayaks) persons on average. Next 5 hours you spend on water and reach the ending point around 3 PM. There you help with putting the equipment on the trailer and wait for your transport back to camp which is now 20 kilometers away. After short rest you start to pack rest of your equipment to go back to the starting point and you wait until your group is ready to leave. Only the drivers are usually returned to the starting point who then return to the ending point to pick up the rest of their group. Upon the arrival in the base (around 5 PM) you are unpacking all the equipment and putting in back where it’s supposed to be just to repeat everything tomorrow. As the new groups arrive in the base you are helping them with the equipment too. Boats are left near the river just to be inflated once again tomorrow morning. You can expect to be done with all the tasks no sooner than 8 PM. After that one guide is in charge to make and serve dinner. You end the day with beer in your hand, tired as hell but happy as a child.

Although it was really tiresome at some points I felt like never before. I was doing the same routine day after day and I was happy, not ever wanting to stop. I lost around 10 kilos in a bit more than a month. It’s not like you can’t have a day off here, you can, you can take any day off but this kind of life was feeding all my mental and physical circuits and I wanted more and more. It was kind of drug. I began to read news less and less. We were far from civilization and the internet was not always available. Who cares, all the news were bad ones anyway. There was no time to feel bad here. If you are feeling kind of blue and can’t find you satisfaction, try stop reading and watching news. Trust me, you’ll feel happier in a day or so. You can check this post if you want to read more about life of an adventure guide.

And so the summer was passing day after day and somewhere at the end of August I got a chance to be a guide in a multi day tour. That meant leaving Zrmanja after 2 months with no day off. Multi day tour means that you have a small group of people (up to 10) and you take care of them for a week. You have an itinerary and tours you have to do every day. You are a driver, waiter, babysitter or anything else your guests need. One day we had a tour to famous city of Zadar which is overcrowded with people during the summer. I still recall the funny feeling I experienced when standing in middle of a busy street after 2 months of solitude and same few persons. Not counting the guests on tours.

At the end of the July there is the tradition in which every guide has to shave his beard and leave only mustaches and the voting for Raftrek best mustache is held afterwards. I have to mention that I was the owner of the best mustaches of that season. It was strange to shave after some time. Usually all the river guides let their beard grow from the first day of the season. Not sure why, but there is something in beard that gives you that adventure look. August was different for something else as well. It was at the beginning of August that I could see first signs of people being tired by this kind of life. Throughout of July everybody was smiling, there were not so many tensions. August was different, guides were a bit more nervous and easily got angry. We were always friends and all the guides were like brothers to each other, but doing job like this and living among 10 same people each day result in some inevitable verbal fights too.

After my multi day tour was done and I said farewell to our British guests I sad farewell to Zrmanja as well. One more month of Raftrek adventures was ahead of me but it was on another river – Mrežnica. It’s a river near the Plitvice lakes, most famous national park in Croatia. Sleeping in a hammock replaced sleeping in a tent. Nights were much colder here. It was already end of the summer and this place has colder climate as well. Mrežnica crew was stationed in camp Grabovac. Nowadays it’s one of the most luxurious camps in Croatia, with houses on trees and stuff. To do the Mrežnica kayaking tour we had to drive for 40 minutes one way each day because that’s where the starting point of the tour was. Mrežnica kayaking tour was much shorter than one on Zrmanja river and it lasted for 2 hours total. Mrežnica tour also had a smaller capacity of persons who could take part in tour, I believe most was 50 person per day opposed to Zrmanja where we had up to 170 persons per day.

I left Raftrek at the end of the summer. This season gave birth to some new dreams, ideas and friendships. Most of the money I earned that season was spent in few weeks. I bought 3 kayaks and rest went into expenses of being alive. At the middle of season I got an idea to start my adventure travel company. And so I did. I spent one more year in Zagreb, wrote a final thesis for university, packed my things and headed to Dalmatia. And that’s how Life and Ventures started. I learned a lot during a season in Raftrek, but the most important thing you’ll ever get from experiences like this is to value people around you. If you are into nature and adventure consider doing a season in some remote part of this cool planet. You’ll start the season like a person you are and you’ll end it as a better version of yourself. It’s something in the nature that makes this process possible but it seems we’re always running away from it. Shame.

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