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.