Kuterevo Bear Refuge



We’re going on a bear hunt,
We’re going to catch a big one,
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.


– Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen’s book was a firm favourite of all of ours when the kids were much younger and the old tattered and dogeared edition we read together so many thousand times is one of the few possessions I would never be willing to give up. Every reading of this book ended with a moment of sadness in which we would contemplate the fact that the much harassed bear had to go home without any dinner. So it was with enormous excitement that we visited Kuterevo Bear Refuge and to witness how happy these orphaned bears (that were not chased across woods and swamps) could be.

Kuterevo Bear Refuge is a little off of the beaten track in the Lika region of Croatia. To find it, you must journey down a succession of quaint narrow winding roads that should be taken at a steady pace and enjoyed for the stunning views. If you try to drive quickly on these roads you are liable to meet a car on the wrong side, a tractor, or a flock of geese (we met all) so take your time. The refuge is set in a valley so beautiful that it defies description and our cameras were totally incapable of capturing the magic.

The forests (home themselves to wild bears, wolves and lynx) stretch out in every direction, dark and mysterious – the deep green of fairy tales. We passed through the small sleepy village of Kuterevo and followed the hand carved silhouettes of bears to the top of a farm track. Here we had to stop because three tiny black piglets were fighting over a piece of discarded tinfoil in the middle of the road and trying their hardest to choke themselves on it.

We all piled out of the car and however chaotic you imagine four well-meaning people chasing three chubby piglets through a field to steal their chew toy is, I can promise you it was more ridiculous.

We are however nothing if not tenacious and I finally managed to confiscate the carelessly thrown sandwich wrapper before we continued the 50m down to the sanctuary.

Parking the car next to a long abandoned and well rusted Yogo (a small communist-era car) we took a few minutes to soak in the beauty of the place before walking down towards the bears.  We were met at the front entrance by a couple of volunteers and a Border Collie who were charming and knowledgeable and chased every stick we could throw respectively. We were told that the sanctuary had been started 40 years ago, originally as a rural-living community. The discovery of an orphaned bear-cub in the surrounding forest was the beginning of an eventual and complete transformation into the sanctuary it is today.

Our way to see the younger bears was impeded by a pair of geese and a chicken involved in a noisy fracas with yet more piglets.The piglets, it transpired, are a mere fraction of the offspring of a pair of particularly virile Vietnamese Potbellied Pigs that have added an unexpected and hilarious dimension to the Kuterevo experience, keeping the volunteers busy chasing them into or out of various places they should or shouldn’t be. 

Past these winged and hooved obstacles we finally made it to the large sleepy field that promised bears. And bears there were! 

Three of them, foraging and playing in the late summer sunshine. They took it in turns to climb and pose on the lip of their large earth and rock pool and came down to the fence to observe us as we watched them. Gemma and I sat transfixed as two bears pawed at each other and hugged in obvious affection mere feet from us. As you may expect Izzy and Sam were spending this magical moment examining an ants’ nest behind the rough wooden benches we were sitting on having “already seen the bears”.

We visited midweek during term-time in September, so had the entire place largely to ourselves. We took the time to sit with the bears and watch them gambol around in the sunshine before moving on. While the enclosures are large there are only 8 bears in the refuge and few exhibits but what there was was tasteful and in keeping with the rustic feel of the place. It’s immediately clear that the priority here is to provide a safe and happy environment for the animals – not keeping the humans on the other side of the fence entertained. 

The adult bears are some 300m from the juveniles with a very pleasant walk past fields of curious and friendly ponies. We were caught in a sudden and torrential shower half way up the track but took shelter in a beautiful old black wooden barn. We were joined here by Good Old Boy (the name we gave the playful dog we met) who adopted us for the rest of our visit. Once the rain relented we moved on up the hill to Bruno.

Bruno is a big old Brown Bear; somewhere in his early 40’s which is ancient by bear standards. He enjoys nothing more than to roll around in the long grass, rub against trees and dive into his large bath displacing a tidal wave every time.

Next along our trail, we met the final group of three full grown adult bears. They appear to be full of joy, foraging and bathing and grooming each other.

The peaceful tranquility of this scene was almost meditative. The only sounds, aside from the wind in the trees and the grunts of the bears, were gentle. The low hum of the  many types of insect rushing from flower to flower or dungheap to compost, chased by the noisey hoards of brown warblers, dashing about after them.

We stopped and, like Goldielocks, had a satisfying picnic lunch within feet of the three bears, who’s interest in our food led us to believe that not everyone observed the many ‘don’t feed the bears’ signs. The call of nature eventually moved us back towards the small café where we found no people but spotless toilets and delicious natural spring water on tap.

We had seen all there was to see but the place was so beguiling that ended our stay with an hour or so in which the kids wrote their impressions of the place (Sam a descriptive piece, Izzy a story about a dog) while me and Gemma passed a very pleasant hour in the company of Bruno and Good Boy taking the time to fully relax.

On our way out we stopped at the tiny gift-shop to sign the guest book and purchase some homemade Rakija (a traditional Croatian spirit which in addition to getting you fairly tipsy if you drink it, boasts many anecdotal medicinal properties) and left a donation (there is no entry fee). We spent some time chatting to the volunteers and left determined to return, and for longer next time hopefully to volunteer some of our time to help maintain this amazing place.

Zlatko’s Octopus Peka

Seafood was a big draw for us when we came to the Dalmatian coast. Luckily, our host in Vir, Zlatko, is just as enthusiastic about it as we are and offered up his recipe for Octopus Peka. Frank was keen to learn how to use the beautiful wood-fired oven in the garden, so he played chef while I took notes.

This is a one-pot slow-cooked dish and takes about 4-6 hours to cook (depending on how caramelised you like your vegetables). Zlatko is also keen to emphasise that the Octopus in this dish can be substituted with any other meat for a completely different density and tastes – he particularly recommends lamb or chicken!

Here, the dish has been cooked in a Peka, which is a cast iron dish with a bell-like domed lid. The Peka is placed in an outside wood-fired oven, though I suspect the recepie would also work in an oven on a consistent heat (between 160-180 degrees).

Serves 4-6


Ingredients


2kg Octopus (or meat of your choice)
2kg Potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
1kg Carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks
4-6 Large onions, peeled and chopped into quarters
4 tbsp of good quality olive-oil
Liberally applied glug of white wine (red if using for red meat)
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin seeds
1 tsp granulated garlic
1-2 tsp of fine sea salt


Method


  1. Light your fire, then leave to reduce to embers
  2. While you are waiting, mix all herbs and spices together and prepare your vegetables
  3. Put all of your meat and vegetables into one dish, drizzle with the olive oil and mix to ensure everything is well coated.
  4. Add all of your herbs and spices and mix again so that they’re evenly distributed.
  5. Place in the Peka with the lid on and leave to sit for half an hour.
  6. Place the Peka into the oven. Stack the embers around and on top of it, leaving some to one side to replace any that go out while cooking.
  7. Check after 30 minutes to see if you can smell the aroma of the meat cooking forcing it’s way out of the pot (Zlatko is quite emphatic here about not lifting the lid). Once you can smell it, leave for another 30 mins before checking by lifting the lid.
  8. Thereafter, check on the dish every 30 minutes. Stir – only if you have to – to prevent sticking.
  9. Repeat until you are satisfied that the dish is cooked to your liking!
  10. Serve with fresh bread (to dip in the gravy) and salad!



The tentacles might stress some people out with the octopus, but this was absolutely delicious – even the kids loved it! Very much looking forward to recreating it with lamb or beef in the near future…

All credit for the recipe goes to Zlatko!

A brief history of bad ideas…

Hello!

WordPress assures me that it’s best practice to start with an introductory post when starting a blog. I am nothing if not compliant, so consider us introduced.

We are Frank, Gemma, Izzy and Sam. This blog is serving (along with our instagram account) as an online diary of our year away travelling. When we were planning our trip we found it really helpful to read and follow the accounts of other families doing a similar thing, so we’re now adding ours to the mix.

First, a little background…

In a nutshell, we are a family of four who made the controversial decision to sell everything and set off traveling for a year around Europe during a pandemic. Our nearest and dearest are now very used to our sudden and dubious life-choices, though I’m pretty certain there was a collective Mexican-wave style eye-roll when we made the announcement.

Most adult relationships seem able to strike a balance between spontinaity and rationality, but Frank and I enthusiastically encourage each other and get swept up in each other’s ideas (often at the expense of practicality). Our lives are very much the victory of blind optimism over common sense. This is how we’ve managed, in a fairly short space of time, to get through a range of occupations (Royal Marine, Pirate Hunter, Marketer, Midwife, RAF Officer, Online start-up), acquire a menagerie of interesting beasts (including dogs, ducks, tortoises, frogs, mice, etc) and the full exasperation of our long-suffering parents and siblings.

As a background to our story, Frank suffers from PTSD following an ill-advised expedition to Hellmand Province with the Royal Marines – courtesy of Mr Blair – in 2009. We had no idea about his condition until a family suicide in 2018 triggered vivid and debilitating flashbacks that would not be ignored. A complete mental health crisis and two years of intense CBT and EMDR therapy later, we were wrung out and fed up.

Frank had to leave the military, which meant we were obliged to leave our house (provided by the MOD). At the same time, Izzy was nearing the end of primary school and Sam still liked to let us know every day that school was pointless and he’d rather be at home. Without being too philosophical about it, the world handed us an opportunity to completely reset – and of course, being the head curators of the Ropey Ideas Museum, we decided to go for it.

Lockdown, coronavirus and that lack of common sense we were talking about…

When Boris shouted ‘lockdown’ back in March, we already had a rough schedule, travel plans and even some accomodation booked up until mid-2021. We were certain that if we delayed this trip, even for a couple of months, we were unlikely to ever go. We would need a new house, a new school, etc and these ties would be expensive to create and difficult to sever. There was very little we could do but sit back and wait to see if the borders reopened.

I’ll be honest, we had a pretty great lockdown. We were accutely aware that we had a lot to be grateful for. We lived in a beautiful part of the country (Buckinghamshire), with a big back garden, countryside to get our hour of exercise in, and plenty of people to talk to (including two of the younger Wyatt siblings who lived with us and made the experience so much more fun than it would have been otherwise). Instead of putting us off, Covid-19 spurred us on with the promise of more time, more experience, more life.

Excellent idea. How are you going to afford it?

Firstly, living is expensive. Renting even a shed in South Bucks would cost you around £1,400 a month and that’s without gas, electric, council tax, water, wifi, and all the other things a good shed needs. So giving up our address and effectively making ourselves homeless automatically freed up almost £2000 a month. If you’re happy to live like locals and treat it as a living experience instead of a holiday, it’s very possible to get by comfortably.

It’s true that we were about to lose our biggest source of income, but with a decent severence package and the house we own happily rented out, we could just about afford to put these ludicrous wheels into motion.

With that kind of optimism, what could possibly go wrong?

Ha. [Definition: (also hah) the sound people make when they are surprised or pleased, or when they have discovered something. Eg. “Ha! It serves you right!”] How apt.

With everything sold and what little we were keeping hold of stored away in my sister’s garage (special thanks to Kelly and Danny here), we moved out of our house and made sure our various pets were safely delivered to their holiday homes (more thanks to Marie, Dave, Amy and Neal). With final farewells, we set off for Dover – so excited that we didn’t even mind that the sat-nav took us through central London for no reason whatsoever. So excited, in fact, that it took us a really long time to notice that the car was shuddering like it had just exited the North Sea and forgotten its towel. So excited, that the clutchy smell coming from the engine, was of no concern to us at all. Until we realised what it was, of course.

Now, for normal grown-ups, this would have been a disappointing delay to the trip of a lifetime. Any adult with any sense whatsoever, would have taken the hit and watched the ferry sail away as they muttered expletives from the reception area of a local mechanic’s workshop. Surely no one is stupid enough to attempt a 2000 mile journey, weighed down with kayaks, paddle-boards, luggage and pink flamingos, in a broken car?

Can you see where I’m going with this?

Watching Dover’s iconic white cliffs get smaller from our vantage point on deck, we promised ourselves that we would get the car checked in Calais. We asserted that as long as we were actually on the continent, our trip had officially begun and we would be less disappointed than we would have been eating Tesco meal-deals for dinner in a Travel Lodge box room and dealing with two hyperactive kids. But when we disembarked at Calais, the car was quote: ‘feeling ok’ (disclaimer: it wasn’t AT ALL), so we decided – of course – to chance it and carry on.

Over the course of three days, we drove through France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and a good portion of Croatia. Every time the engine started, we celebrated. Every time we got into sixth gear and could simply cruise along, we breathed a sigh of relief. I really feel like Bon Jovi must have had a similar roadtrip as he wrote ‘Livin on a Prayer’.

So now we’ve been out here for three weeks, the car is at least fixed now, right?

Ha. No. It turns out that Dalmations (the people, not the dogs) are less concerned with the constricts of time and urgency than even we are. But, that is a story for another day – one where I document for you exactly how difficult it is to get a car fixed in Croatia (it’s a great story, I promise).

But everything else is going ok so far, yes?

Well, since arriving on Vir, that poor old car has been walloped at a junction by a speeding road demon. The heating system in our rented house has gone up in smoke, effectively deleting our financial safety-net from underneath us, and we’ve had some bad news about the health of a beloved family member back home. So you could say that everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong so far.

Still, for as long as we’re able to stay out here, we remain very grateful for the opportunity to chase our adventures around – even if they refuse to work out the way we had planned.