Felix Arba Expedition ’23

We started on the top! Veliki Alen is the name of the place. Big Alen, it’s not the name of the mountain top but the area and the peaks all have separate names. After we unpacked our gear in the mountain house we did a few ice breakers and headed up Bublje(BUB-lee-eh) , a small peak that sits right on the edge of the escarpment. The surrounding peaks were rocky and jagged. The group seemed to be gelling, hiking and running up the open alpine meadows. My thoughts were mostly about the plan for the next few days. Students had no idea what was coming next and it was going to be a lot of firsts for everyone.

The Felix Arba Expedition is a peace-building journey, uniting students from Split, Croatia, and Banja Luka, Bosnia i Herzegovina. For most participants, this trip was their first encounter with individuals hailing from these regions, each characterized by diverse religious backgrounds and a history of past conflicts. I am always slightly nervous during these initial interactions at the beginning of  expeditions, eagerly observing and anticipating the unfolding dynamics. However, any barriers seemed to vanish as the group embarked on their adventure. Lines of separation disappeared, replaced by helping each other up the craggy outcrops and running down the meadows together.

We made it down to the house in time to make dinner and prepare for sleeping. The mountain house has mattresses on the floor and 10 to a room is totally fine. One room for guys and one for galls. The watchkeeper was a bit of a curmudgeon, occasionally shouting at us for using too much water or where to brush our teeth. We did our best to steer clear and giggle when his voice popped up again at 10pm quiet time the sun had just set and they were not too interested in steeping but he quieted them down.

An early start the next day for our trip down the mountain. What we had planned to do was not an easy undertaking. A big descent, from the top it was about 12 miles down 4500’.  The trail goes through several biomes as we go down. Starting in alpine meadows then coniferous forest, deciduous forest, and finishing in scrubby chaparral. I had hiked the trail the day before to check the conditions and plan for the group. As we were starting out the spirits were high! Shoes on, water bottles full, spring in the step and we were off.

It is sometimes hard to explain to people how outdoor or experiential education works. I mean they understand that the goal is to get students out of their comfort zone by doing and having new experiences, but the actual experiences are hard for them to consider. Our plan was to sleep in the open air below the hotel Albana in Jablanac. The Sertic Family had provided us dinner at the hotel and said we could have a room, but I insisted we have to sleep on the dock by the sea.

“Are you sure,” Darko asked.

I told him that this was part of the experience, little did I know there was an isolated rain shower headed our way. We knew there was something in the forecast, but the timing and severity was still in question. Most of the locals said it would be a light drizzle for a short time.

The students were excited to sleep on the pier. As we got things sorted for the night’s rest the students were not sleepy even after walking twelve miles and descending 4500’. There was raucous chatter and the leaders asked them to keep quiet several times. Things finally quieted down around 1:30am. Then the rain started. Light at first, but then turned into a real soaking drizzle.

Most of the students were dry in these little caves that were along the wall with just their toes sticking out, but one or two ended up in a puddle and there was no way to get them back in their bags.

For the students this was great. They now chatted and played games and chased each other around all night. The hotel would be open at 7 and we were invited to breakfast. At six, myself, one of the leaders, and several students were dozing off.

Then I woke up. You know that feeling like you would have if you overslept for a job interview. The pier was quiet. There were six or seven people sleeping and the rest were gone. It was 8:15. Good Morning I said and there were some rumbles of voices. I didn’t know where the rest of the group was, but one of the leaders was with them. When I got to the restaurant, there they were, laughing and playing games as they had been doing all night. When the trip was over I asked them what was their most memorable experience and several said spending the night by the sea in the rain. This warmed my heart as I thought this was a mistake to skip the hotel room and sleep on the pier but it turned out to be one of their favorite times on the trip.

The Kitty

As it was still raining a little packing was just to throw all the wet stuff in a garbage bag and the we headed to the ferry to the island of Rab. The plan for the day was to Kayak under the city walls and swim off the beach near the old town.

It was quite a scene when we arrived on the island Rab. Looking bedraggled, weary we were a motley crew when we got to the launch site.  As we were getting out someone heard a meow coming from the car. It seems we were not the only ones looking for a warm place to sleep in the rain the night before. Meow, meow, we didn’t know what to do. We looked everywhere but we couldn’t see the cat and now the kayaks were waiting. While the kids were setting up the kayaks Jogi and I turned the wheel this way and that to try to get a better look.

There she was. Just a paw was visible sitting on top of the front end assembly. Cool as a kitten, but totally unreachable. As my fat hands reached in she retrated even deeper into the engine compartment. Enough for now we decided, and would have another crack at catching her later.

The trip was excellent save for some steering problems, getting stuck on the rocks, breaking a paddle, and a minor skirmish between boats. Just another normal run for our tour operator. I’m not sure what Jogi’s guide Dominik thought of us…and the cat.

Now there lies the problem. We landed on a different beach and had to move the van to get the group but the cat was inside the engine. I drove to Jogi’s house and his dad and I tried everything: lights, a little grabber tool and even a hotel guest got interested and tried to help a bit. Nothing worked. We couldn’t get our hands on her. Meow, meow, was the only response.

Feeling hopeless and anxious, wondering if I was about to kill our passenger, I started the engine again. We drove to Hotel Valamar where the students were waiting. They all came running when they saw the van. Is she still in there? They asked.  They commenced their extrication. Plans were made and it was decided Mio was nimble and dexterous.  We had lights out and Mio was able to get her.

Now we had a cat on the expedition. A perfect mascot for our group. Disheveled and road weary, a bit hungry, overwhelmed being away from home and around so many new people all showing affection and love.

Fuska Lokva and Medova Buza (Fuska Lake and The Bears’ Hole)

Rab is busy during the summer. Tourists pack the old town and the beaches are arun with holiday makers. This was not like where we had just come on the Velebit mountains and canyons. Luckily Jogi knew a place where we could get away, Fruska Lokva. A near perfect meadow on the top of Rab with a little lake, birds and wandering sheep. The field was flat, a perfect place to camp.

In the middle of the island, it was a perfect base for us. The next day Jogi told us about a place called Medova Buža. It was a sea cave that you can jump into from above and swim out underwater. I thought this would be a good challenge to seal some of the lessons we had learned through the trip.

The challenge was definitely a big one. The hike proved to be steeper than we expected with lots of loose rock. The props days travel both helped and hurt our group’s morale. Half the group was like “ oh not again and the other half just took off running exploring the skills they had learned in the days before. We arrived at a tiny beach tucked in the base of the mountain. From here the cave was another 300 meter swim in open water.

Jogi said “You will feel cold water from the cave, then look for the hole in the rock face.” These were the directions. I can’t express how odd it is to set off on an open water swim trying to “feel” where the water gets cold but that’s what we did. The first group returned after about 20 minutes. They couldn’t find it. So we set out again in search of the illusive colder water. We had to swim past a point and then it struck me, brrr, my toes first then the rest, we were on the spring. Up on the rock face was a depression. There it is!

We climbed up the face and a perfect beehive of a cave upended below our feet. About 12 feet down the azure water beckoned.  It’s not easy jumping into a cave when you know you have to swim underwater to get out. With a bit of gumption we did it. Then we were all in the Bears Lair. together we swam out under the rock face, emerging anew energized by pushing our boundaries and overcoming our fears. Then we did it again…and again.

Video of Medova Buža- https://youtu.be/H-_GzCVBCW8


The Next morning we broke camp and got ready to go. The ferry was at 11. With all the gear packed we headed to the port. The line was long, and in the end caught us by surprise. We had to run to make it. We were saying goodbye, there were even some tears.

“Lets go!!” the leader shouted at the stragglers and they ran and jumped on the boat.

“Where are your shoes?” the leader cried in disbelief.

I ran back to the van. Sure enough there were pink converse under the seat and made it back just in time to throw them up to the students as the ferry was pulling away.

We didn’t have time to do our classic closing and reflection but the looks on their faces as the ferry pulled away told me that we had had a tremendously successful trip. We had brought together students from different countries formerly in conflict and made friends through pushing our limits and unforgettable experiences. The first Felix Abra Expedition was complete with lasting memories and a will to return.


The traditional sailing boats in the north are called Guc, (GOOts). It has proved elusive to get students on the boats. There are just a few. I know of two on the island that are still sailing. We made arrangements to get the students out, but on the day we were supposed to sail the owner couldn’t make it.  As this was the first trip in the region, people don’t know quite what we are about, and tourists usually don’t want to try things like this, preferring waterslides and motorboats. So, organizing sailing on an old fishing boat is sometimes a bit challenging. After our trip I met Mladen Scerbe, one of the organizers of the Virtual Museum of Fishing, Seafaring and Boatbuilding. We arranged that next year we will be sure to get the students to spend some time with the elders and get out on the water. You can more info on Juxta Marehere-  http://www.juxta-mare.rab-visit.com/

While traditional boats are a focus of our organization, youth development is by far the most important aspect of our work. This year’s Felix Arba was a success by any measure and we will continue to build on this year’s work making next year even better.

Thank you all for your support and helping to make this transformative expedition come to life.

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