Whitewater Rivers in Albania & Bosnia and Herzegovina by Shades of River Turquoise
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Quite often, people ask me ‘Why do you go south of the Balkans for your watersports?’. Because I love the waters and their color there. In my head, it is far better to flip and be able to see everything that lies beneath you – or a large part of it – than do that in murky waters.
I know that it seemingly goes hand in hand with idealism and that it does not mean that features of clear rivers are less dangerous than those of murky ones; it is simply comforting to know that you are also paddling for the beauty of it all, not only for the thrills of it.
That being said, one of my biggest beautiful addictions – I have quite a few – is exploring, feeling, and tasting Albanian and Bosnian rivers. They are my favorite and they bring out the adventurer in me. It is like a click I undergo when I know that the right season has come, that the volumes are high, and that I should be on water! I normally do a lot of ‘Aaaah, another river, let’s see its water level and try to find a line’ when driving around with my boyfriend. Well, in the southern Balkans, I don’t just look, I stare!
You would too, at the sight of these beauties:
5. Vjosa River, Albania – Grade 3
Shade: Whitish turquoise
Image courtesy of Albanian Rafting Federation
Also called ‘Aoos’ in northwestern Greece, the river flows through the two countries. Our guide on Arachthos – another beautiful river in northwestern Greece, with an impressive gorge – told us about the trickiness of Aoos before crossing into Albania. It even gets to Grade 5!
Until recently, it has been one of the few wild running rivers left in the world – yes, this is another sad story worthy of lengthier discussion. There is a dam on the Greek side, yet the construction of another one on the Albanian side would have brought havoc to the entire ecosystem, as nearly all manmade structures do. A lot of effort was put into keeping Vjosa intact.
And it should stay like that! As mountains seem to be tumbling down on you while you paddle through foam, there will be pure happiness pumping inside at the sight of yet another section of waves reached by navigating the bends and turns. You will arrive in Përmet in no time. Especially at the beginning of the season (May-June), when there’s no sign of the mighty rocks that are nestled underneath.
A treat for completing the route? Try a Trilece out. You will dream about this sweet!
4. Vrbas River, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Grade 3-4
Shade: Light turquoise
© Marcel Băncilă
Home to regular whitewater events and flowing through western Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vrbas allegedly has the best sprint section in the world!
If you choose the more demanding Bijeli buk – Karanovac section, I will spill the beans out for this route. Well, just a little, to tease you. The most difficult part is right at the beginning. You can then relax, test your skills in friendlier water, listen to info on the type of rocks, of underwater soil, and of the rapids formed, especially if you’ve got a knowledgeable guide. The last section is used in whitewater world cups; when you will reach it, close to the end of your day, it will feel like a breeze and your confidence levels will soar.
You will feel like a champion. Here’s one local Nektar beer to you!
3. Tara River & Drina River, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Grades 4 & 2
Shade: Greenish turquoise/light emerald
© Rafting Center Tara Drina
During some of my first visits to Bosnia, everybody who knew about my love for water would start to suddenly mumble ‘Go to Tara, go to Tara’. OK, I finally did go to Tara.
The river flows through Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, the typical starting point providing the very curious border control having you all geared up in your wetsuits. For some additional trivia, the Tara Canyon in Montenegro is the world’s second deepest.
You will perceive the water temperature to be really low, at a constant low even during summer! Our first adventure on Tara was so intense that we rarely needed to paddle, facing enormous waves and grabbing onto the ropes for dear life. On our second descent, I actually had time to look around and enjoy the scenery, though it was still a bumpy ride. It all depends on your luck, because to me, the entire area around the lower part of the river is incessantly covered in mystery and unpredictable dark clouds.
Aaaah, and there’s always Drina River to practice – the last 5 km (3 miles) of the regular 25 km (15 miles) route are paddled after Piva and Tara form Drina. It’s a darker green that you come across, and easier water.
The best remedy after low temperatures on the raft? A hot shower, followed by the best baklavas I’ve ever tried and that can be found in the area!
2. Osumi River, Albania – Grade 2
Shade: Clear turquoise
© Albanian Rafting Federation
I didn’t mention it before, but I will do it now – southern Albania is one of my two favorite microregions in the world. Osumi flows through it. I’ll leave you to do the math.
With 8 waterfalls visible depending on the season, narrow stretches that only leave one boat pass at depths of up to 8 meters (26 feet), and canyon walls higher than 100 metes (330 feet) from the river level, there is a slight feeling taking you straight out of Europe. One may be either in a ‘Lord of the Rings’ scene or somewhere in a tropical paradise.
The wonder that you are experiencing and that may well be my second all-time favorite river can become a beast, to reach Grade 5 in early spring. Which rang a bell for a possible and saddening construction of a dam nearby.
I will not spoil the joy of discovering the secrets of the river by yourselves, but make sure you somehow get on the old mountain road connecting the finish line to the town of Përmet. It will be double the wows!
1. Una River, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Grade 4-5; 2-3
Shade: Electric turquoise
© Marcel Băncilă
My favorite river in the whole wide world – and source of my love story with whitewater – Una flows through Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. It is thought to have been discovered by the Romans, who, bedazzled by its beauty, named her ‘the One’.
It is considered the purest river in Europe and we actually never carry water bottles with us for the upper section, as we can drink directly from the river.
I had seen this northwestern area of Bosnia shyly develop and then wildly boom over the years and you will now be paddling through a national park and you will even see fees be paid for that. The more difficult section of the river starts with Štrbački buk, another favorite of mine – this time, we are talking about a 24-meter (78.7-foot) waterfall, from which guides dive while you take in the show. It is followed by a succession of waterfalls, the first one reaching even 6 meters (19 feet) when the water level is low.
And yes! You can raft it and then continue all the way to the finish point, for about 17 km (10 miles). You will see wild ducks and underwater plants, hear stories about the way people would cross these parts during the infamous war, and pay attention to a siphon that has claimed many lives of kayakers close to the finish and that authorities tried their best to signal.
© Marcel Băncilă
The magic of Una lingers on its lower and easier section of Kostela – Grmuša. These 17.5 kilometers (11 miles) are nicer for kayaking than rafting. I did have a challenging time steering the double kayak – which was not really adequate for whitewater but rather for sea conditions – but I plan to return there next year with my own Bleikur. You can even go down the river in an inflatable canoe – now, that’s a beautiful experience!
Remember to spoil yourselves at the end with a delightful Preminger beer.
Water is life. Happiness on water is life.
A good Bosnian friend of mine once told me that there’s no shame in scouting the river with a local professional who knows the dangers and the fun parts and can get them across to you.
Make the journeys down the river count by taking them in a responsible way. It will also make the happiness last.
*Grades are listed for typical water levels and weather conditions. So are the shades.
Are you looking for a stunning backdrop for a multitude of watersports? Add Greece to your itinerary!
Read more of Olivia’s adventures on her blog.