OSS Ambassador Calum Maclean favours solitary swimming in remote spots in the hills or along the coast of the Scottish Highlands, where the water is cold and, sometimes, iced over. Then he accepted an invitation to join a SwimTrek group trip to the fjords of Montenegro, at a time when the water temperature may range from 15 to 20 degrees. How would he cope with the presence of other humans and the absence of cold shock?
As a swimmer, I generally tend to go alone and my favourite kind of places are usually lochs up in the hills or quiet coastal swims where I’m not likely to see another soul – with the water usually somewhere between cold and a bit chilly! So when I was offered the chance to go to Montenegro for the Swimtrek Fjords adventure, I realised it would be totally different from my usual outings – how would I cope?
The trip is based around the Bay of Kotor, an incredibly picturesque fjord on the Adriatic sea in southwestern Montenegro. Our group of 12 stayed in a villa a stone’s throw from the water in the village of Perast, one of a series of villages strung out along the shore. From here we either walked a short distance to started our, or were collected by the SwimTrek boat to take us to our start.
I got a surprise upon going for a quick swim as soon as we arrived – it was colder than expected! The previous month had been incredibly wet in Montenegro and as the water is a mixture of the sea and fresh water from the hills, the streams running down had kept it cooler. The temperature increased during the week, and it warms substantially during summer but my first thought was that it was almost the same as Scotland. My last-minute decision to pack a wetsuit was a wise one.
We generally swam twice a day and I loved how we had such variety in our swims: journeys of coastal exploration, island loops, a crossing, a lake, a river. One that stuck in the mind was a relatively short one, but it combined my loves of swimming and concrete! A series of submarine tunnels were built along the Adriatic during German occupation in WWII. Abandoned since the 1990s when the Yugoslavian forces moved out, the tunnels now sit open and can be swum straight into. The dark tunnel makes for an eerie yet pleasant swim trip into history.
“One swim combined my loves of swimming and concrete… A series of submarine tunnels were built along the Adriatic during the German occupation in WWII. The dark tunnel makes for an eerie yet pleasant swim into history”
As I think back and try to pick a highlight from the trip – looking back at photos and video to jog my memory – it’s harder than I thought! My favourite may have been the day we actually went inland from the Bay of Kotor to Skadar Lake. It was the only pure freshwater swim of the week and, like all the swims, surrounded by stunning scenery. We set off from the island of Grmožur, referred to as the ‘Montenegrin Alcatraz’ on account of its history as a prison. The beautiful cool water – skin swimming friendly – took us down to the shore, before being picked up by our boat. The birdlife on Lake Skadar was vast – pelicans, shags, ducks and more.
Our second swim of the day – after lunch and a bit of a siesta – was a downriver swim back to the lake. We had traveled upstream with the boat so with the pull of the current, we zoomed back. An effortless feeling of flying. One other true highlight I must recommend is that of Priganice – local Montenegrin doughnuts. Small balls, eaten with a honey dip – possibly the perfect post-swim snack!
Seeing as I usually swim alone or with just one or two friends the experience of being in a group of 12 was quite different – and I loved it. We usually swam in two groups, based on speed although they were never far apart. The swims became shared experiences – chatting about what we saw, how warm (or cold!) it had been, sharing the swim love. Jumps from the boat, getting up for pre-breakfast dips in the morning fog, tales of swims completed and plans for the future.
But it’s not all about the swims. The whole week seemed to fly by, and it was because of a combination of everything. The location, on the water – but with the option still to go for a walk. The country – a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. The people – our group from a variety of ages and backgrounds, who just seemed to click and relax together. The food – doughnuts and fresh seafood! The guides – Keith and Marlys, a great pair who’d not met before our week but gelled instantly with abundant banter and friendliness. Their expert eye and guidance kept us safe, such as cutting short one swim when an ominous lightning storm threatened. Even then, the option was given to us for an additional swim to make up for it.
My total swim distance over week worked out at almost 20 kilometres – though you could certainly swim a lot less if you wanted, as swims are optional and I added in some extra ones. Up until then I’d not swum much in terms of distance since winter, so the trip kick-started my motivation to get out and move more in the water again, to do more than just dip, and this is what I left Montenegro with – a spring in my stroke!