Lots of Dads have a man cave, but my Dad’s man cave just happens to be a real cave. In Montenegro. And he lived in it in August 1961.
As I have mentioned before in this very blog, travelling is in my genes. In order to understand why I have spent so much of my life strapped to a backpack, one need only look as far as my parents to see that the apple never falls far from the tree. I grew up on stories of Mum and Dad’s travelling exploits around the world, but one in particular became wedged in my psyche at an early age.
During an ill-fated trip in the summer of 1961, driving a Vauxhall Wyvern around Europe, Dad and his mate John experienced a series of events that left them sleeping in a cave outside a military base outside of Titograd, Yugoslavia (now Podgorica, Montenegro). The story is way too long to detail here, and really warrants its own book, but – long story short – with the car suffering from multiple organ failure, and having narrowly escaped a nasty situation where a member of the Yugoslav police pulled a gun on them and demanded money, Dad and John were negotiating narrow, winding badly surfaced roads in fading light. Suddenly the steering started to shudder and, as they rounded a bend the front left hand wheel came off. The car lurched to the left and dropped onto its brake drums. They were very lucky that the previous damage to the vehicle and the fact that they were moving up hill slowed them down . If this had happened at speed or on some of the narrow mountain roads they’d been through earlier in the day, they could well have plunged into a ravine or river bed – and I may never have been born!!
They managed to get the car on to the shoulder and in a safe position and then opened a tin of pineapple to celebrate Dad’ 22nd birthday. What a way to celebrate – and what a great birthday present!! That night they slept in the car and the following morning stopped a Volkswagen and asked a German couple if they could get the garage in Titograd to send a pick-up truck to collect them. Finally a table-top truck with about eight 44 gallon drums of stinky pig’s guts on the back pulled up and the driver insisted that they could lift the car onto the truck. Dad thought the driver was mad and probably trying some sort of scam. But the guy went away and came back later, minus the pig guts but with a group of about 8 university students – some of whom spoke English. Getting the car onto the truck was another adventure and they finally got back to Titograd to get the car repaired.
Unfortunately they didn’t have enough money to fix the car so the following morning they set out to visit the Government Bank of Yugoslavia to get some money transferred from London. Easier said than done as no one spoke English in the entire city (where were those University students when you needed them!!). So he drew rough maps of Europe with London and Titograd featured prominently and an amount of cash in Pounds Sterling converted into Dinar and hoped for the best.
After 3 or 4 days the money was dwindling and they could no longer afford the hotel – and so they moved into a luxury cave by a river on the northern outskirts of town. After their run in with the gun-toting policeman and having seen that a policeman sat in the lobby of their hotel, monitoring guest movements, they were a little unnerved to find themselves directly opposite a military camp and being patrolled by soldiers. They spent their days visiting the bank, walking around town asking people if they spoke English, and living on bread and windfall apples, the only food they could afford.
54 years later, and finding myself in Montenegro having lashed out and hired a car, I set out to retrace his steps. I managed to track down a map of Yugoslavia from 1954 and plot where the original roads had been back then (a new, straight road now takes you right there). The actual driving part was not as easy as you may think, given the first section has been completely replaced by a modern road. I was determined to recreate the journey as faithfully as possible, however and spent the next two hours finding all the bits of the original road and driving every last one of them – in one case the road was so overgrown I couldn’t get through and so walked that section, went back for the car and then drove around from the other side of the impasse to continue. It was quite the adventure and took me into some countryside that I would otherwise never have experienced (it actually took me into someone’s garden at one point – people here seem to have a habit of just building houses and putting up fences over paths and roads they consider to be no longer useful). That was the only piece of the road I was forced to miss. I could totally see Dad’s point though – these roads were terrible! Windy and badly surfaced – but with some really beautiful views. Although the wheel was probably busy working its way off over all these bumps, it kindly decided not to make its departure from the car until a good piece of road as you can see from the pictures. Unfortunately I didn’t have the benefit of these pictures while I was searching or for sure I would have found the exact bend. For now I will have to make do with knowing I drove it..wherever it was. The track is saved for posterity on Wikiloc for anyone who wants to check it out or recreate it themselves. I noticed someone has already put a bike trail on there based on my original GPS track so it seems that Dad’s legacy will live on!
My second task was to find that cave. After two false starts at sites that potentially matched the description, I came across a compound which belonged to the police and thought that could have been the old military complex. So I started having a nosy around the area and taking photos on the sly -remembering Dad’s run-in with the Police and not wanting anyone to think I was an international spy (it would be an easy mistake to make, I admit). At the back of the Police compound was an area I can only describe as a service vehicle graveyard – police and military vehicles of every ilk and era lay abandoned as the weeds grew all around them. I then crossed the road to a fenced off enclosure and pulled up to their gate … to find a symbol affixed of a tank and several other pieces of signage indicative of the presence of a military base at some stage in the past. And across the river…several caves that matched the description – BINGO!!
I had originally planned to sleep for a night in the cave and eat only apples for dinner as a form of homage to the great man, but reality soon put paid to that idea when I saw how much the city had obviously grown since 1961 (not to mention the complete absence of local apple trees to provide my windfall dinner). The area is now covered in apartment blocks and, while the caves still exist, somehow I didn’t fancy my chances of getting into the cave unnoticed by the residents in an area that appears to be catering to those untouched by Europe’s economic miracle. So, as a compromise, I skulled a well-earned bottle of apple juice and toasted my superior detective skills. Later that night I was glad of my decision as I settled down in my own luxuriously appointed apartment (to which I had been upgraded by the kind owners so I wouldn’t be disturbed by a group of young men staying on the same floor as the cheapo room I had booked) as the owner told me that those caves are full of snakes! I mean I like snakes but I don’t really want to share my sleeping bag with one.
So – mission accomplished!! And I have made a film to celebrate the 54th anniversary of “Dad’s Disaster”, which was Dad’s birthday present this year. Better than a tin of pineapple…but only marginally.