Travel Report – Region “East” – The Amazon of Europe in Croatia and Slovenia

About 1000km away from Antwerpen – where I finished my tour through the “West” –  we started the next chapter of the biodiversity Ride in the region ”East” in Bad Radkersburg in the south of Austria right next to the Slovenian Border. Since I wasn’t able to do the tour through the South, due to personal reasons, we decided to change the route in the “East” and start from Austria instead of Koprivnica in Croatia and add to more days of cycling.

This part of the trip turned out to be somewhat different than the rest of the Biodiversity had been that far. For one, I was not travelling alone this time. Stefan, my husband, joined me on this leg and this sure changed the travelling routine, which meant that we stopped less to explore than I had done when I was alone, but it also gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I was observing during the day and most importantly it gave another perspective and opinion to our surroundings. And most importantly: there is a good chance that I wouldn’t have made it to Osijek without Stefan’s support. Then the other thing that was very different to my previous tours was the temperatures. When we left Bad Radkersburg to travel alongside the River “Mur” (in German) or “Mura” (in Slovenian) around noon the air temperature was about 30°C already and it climbed to 33°C that day in the afternoon. The sun was shining the whole day and we could only stop in the shade, preferably from trees. The problem with that was the amount and intrusiveness of mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes were constant travel companions of mine during the biodiversity Ride, especially in the woods of Germany they were very annoying no matter the time of day. But with insect repellent, I was able to keep them at bay. Not so in the “East”. The mosquitoes here didn’t seem to mind the insect repellent. After only a few minutes in the shade, there were at least 50 mosquitoes sitting on any exposed skin they could find. For the first few days, it felt like we were being chased from one hotel to the next because we started relatively early and tried to get to our next destination rather quickly to avoid the hottest temperatures of the day and, whenever we stopped in the shade, we were practically eaten alive by mosquitoes and sometimes horseflies, too. This kind of travelling didn’t really serve the purpose of the Biodiversity Ride, where you shouldn’t hurry, but rather stop a lot and explore your surroundings in more detail. But with the circumstances being as they were, it was not possible for us.

So we travelled along the official Amazon of Europe bike trail. This leads from “Mureck” in southern Austria to Mohacs in southeast Hungary alongside the rivers “mura”, “Drava” and “Danube”. It is advertised with the motto “Cycling for Nature” and invites people to explore the natural river environment.

The landscape we experienced was again mostly agriculture. A lot of times we had the protected forests alongside the river on one side of us and agriculture fields right on the other side of our path. So the path we were following felt like a dividing line between two “extremes” in terms of land use. On the one side, you were eaten alive by mosquitoes or grilled by the sun on the other.

Interestingly the agriculture fields seemed to me rather small or divided into smaller segments at least, compared to my observations in Germany and the Netherlands. To Stefan on the other hand they felt big and seemingly endless. But of course, there were also some buffer zones with beautiful meadows. And within the protected areas there were old natural-looking forests as well as, meadows and floodplains.

One big issue that we noticed in this area was a lot of invasive neophytes. These are plants that are not native in an area, but spreading uncontrollably and taking up a lot of space that would be inhabited by native plants. We saw a lot of “Japanese Knotweed”, “Canadian Goldenrod” and we noticed, that a lot of the woods contained mostly “Black Locust”, also an originally not native tree to Europe same as the commonly called “Princess Tree” which we saw planted alongside streets in villages and as plantations. The effect of these non-native and partly invasive plant species on the native ecosystems is a topic, I want to elaborate further in the “analytic” part of the Biodiversity Ride.

During our ride, we were able to observe many species of birds, especially pheasants and storks – species I haven’t seen in the other regions of the Biodiversity Ride. One evening we drove by the “Sands of Durdevacs”, also called the “Sahara of Croatia”. This is a small protected area, with rather sparsely vegetated sand dunes. And what did I discover here and was even able to take a photo? A nightjar! So I saw one after all. I never would have noticed the bird, if I hadn’t talked about it with a scientist in Belgium.

Also, butterflies and deer often crossed our paths and once we even spotted a fox right next to us in a field. Overall, I had the impression that we encountered a greater number of animals than on my previous routes. This is probably due to the fact that this area despite of a lot of agriculture seems a little bit “wilder” and isn’t as densely populated.

Not only is the population density in this area rather low but there are also very few tourists. We didn’t meet any other cycling tourists along our way and we only noticed other tourists, Germans of course ;), in one village. It was also very hard to get in touch and talk to locals because we met only a handful along the way. We had a long conversation with someone, who worked at the hotel we were staying. At first he said, he knows nothing about biodiversity but as the conversation went on, he told us quite a few interesting things about nature and the people in this area. From what I gathered it seems that a lot of mammals and birds in Croatia are protected and they “can’t do anything about them”. He mentioned, that they have a lot of hybrid wolves in the area, which is also protected, but it didn’t seem that they are making a lot of trouble. There are also a lot of bears in Croatia (not particularly in the region we were) and the way the hotel employee put it: people know that they have bears in some parts of Croatia but they still hike in these areas and they seem to coexist side by side. He told us that there are hardly any encounters between hikers and bears reported and if there are, it mainly affects tourists. He also mentioned, that in his opinion people are the reason nature is out of balance. So it seemed to me like there is a bigger acceptance to a wilder nature, than in the parts I’ve been to before, but also a little bit of annoyance that you can’t “do anything about” protected species, who make trouble, like martens for examples.

Our ride in the “East”has again raised some questions that I would like to address in more detail later. I will have a few more interviews in July and then it is time for me to devote myself to evaluating the data I have collected. Hopefully, I will be able to present some of the results in my next post, but it will take some time.

Until then, maybe I have motivated you readers to explore your own environment a little more closely!

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The Climate Walk is a combined research, education and media-art project by the Wanderers of Changing Worlds. It is about walking across Europe to understand regional experiences of Climate Change. It is about listening to local perspectives, learning from them and connecting these stories together to construct a holistic, people-centric understanding of these complex phenomena.
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