All around, there are big, seemingly bare blocks of rocks with numerous cracks, impenetrable forests, small and big karst valleys covered by grass, pits, dolines, snow-filled cracks, ponds and karrens. The area of Northern Velebit is a true mosaic created out of the most diverse habitats, constituting home to many plant, fungus and animal species, the abundance of which we have only begun discovering. It is precisely this diversity of karst forms, life and landscapes that led to the establishment of the Northern Velebit National Park. Back in 1930, Ivan Krajač, a renowned mountain climber who fell in love with Velebit, provided the following unmatched description: “As if in a majestic procession, the most dignified alpine majesties are assembled here for eternity as in no other area of the mountain of Velebit, with so many of them in one relatively small place, and at such high altitudes.”
Northern Velebit is not a completely untouched wilderness; it is also a space where people have left lasting traces. Man has left a special mark on the landscape of this part of the mountain. It was man who created and maintained grasslands and ponds, who built shepherd’s huts and dry stone walls. Today, we are reminded of that presence by overgrown traditional paths and ruins of old constructions. By creating new habitats – pastures, ponds and dry stone walls – man also enabled life for a number of plant and animal species that would have otherwise never appeared in the area, thus enriching the biodiversity of the National Park.
The entire area of the National Park is a spectacle of diversity. Forests, grasslands, rocks, talus cones, water habitats... the boundaries of these phenomena are not strict; instead, they merge into one another. Due to this diversity, Northern Velebit National Park, while small, is nevertheless an important part of the ecological network, as a conservation area important for as many as ten plant and animal species, and eight various types of habitats – grasslands, forests and rocks.
It may seem incredible at first sight, but the stone heads that constitute the peaks of Northern Velebit were created in the sea, just like the mountain in its entirety. The area of the Northern Velebit National Park is built out of sedimentary rocks that were created over long periods of geological history, in the ancient shallow sea that was between only several and a couple of tens of meters deep. This is where carbonate sludge, sands and particles of skeletons of sea organisms were sedimenting. The hardening of these sediments has eventually resulted in hundreds and even thousands of meters deep carbonate layers of the mountain of Velebit as we see it today.
Eighty percent of the National Park surface consists of forests. There are very few natural grasslands, and the existing ones have been created by human activity, for the purposes of livestock grazing. With the disappearance of human activities, the forest is gradually taking over the grasslands again, and many plant and animal species are disappearing irreversibly as a result of that process.
The wild side of Northern Velebit is represented by carnivores – bear, wolf and lynx. This area still provides them with the opportunity to survive, and many visitors will come across at least some traces of their presence.
However, the key character and values of the National Park are hidden from most visitors, underneath their legs. We are referring to a unique and special world of subterranean karst forms, with pits being the most extraordinary phenomenon – typical, predominantly vertical subterranean karst formations resulting from chemical and mechanical wear of the rocks in a tectonically fragmented terrain. The area of the Park, in particular the Strict Reserve Hajdučki i Rožanski kukovi, is one of the most interesting speleological localities in the world, given the considerable number of deep pits – over 400 of them. Three pits deeper than 1,000 meters have been discovered within the Park: the pit systems Lukina jama - Trojama (-1,431 meters), Slovačka jama (-1,320 meters) and Velebita (-1,026 meters). Unusual forms of life thrive in the pits, accustomed to permanent darkness, high moisture and constant temperature. Insects such as beetles, snails, milipedes, false scorpions, spiders, crustaceans, polychaetes, springtails, leeches and bivalves all live here. Some of them are endemic species of the northern Dinarides, and several species completely new to science have been described in recent years. The best-known subterranean species is the Velebit leech Croatobranchus mestrovi, endemic in the National Park, having been found only in four deep pits of the Strict Reserve Hajdučki i Rožanski kukovi. There are few people who have had the privilege to visit and investigate this subterranean fantasy world. The biggest values of the Park will forever remain invisible to most people.
Natural values of Northern Velebit are not yet fully discovered. In the past fifteen years or so, many species previously unknown in Croatia have been found in the Park, and several subterranean animal and fungus species completely new to science have been described as well.
Like any mountain, Northern Velebit is also best examined by walking. All the invested effort, sweat and an occasional blister caused by mountain shoes is soon forgotten by a tired visitor upon climbing to any of the peaks of Velebit.
What a wild beauty! This is possible only on Velebit, a mountain that brings together all the wonders of high mountains and the beauty of coastal areas, uniting mountain and sea air, amazing heights and unseen depths.
Dr. Gizele Tarczay; Planinski vestnik, 1926
The area of Zavižan certainly belongs to the best-known localities of Northern Velebit, with numerous peaks ranging from 1,600 to 1,676 meters above sea level: Veliki Zavižan as the highest peak of Northern Velebit, Zavižanski Pivčevac, Zavižanska kosa, Balinovac, Vučjak... Each of these peaks is also an impressive sightseeing point.
This is where a well-known meteorological station is located as well, recording all the calm and turbulent encounters of the continental and the Mediterranean climate. It is impossible to separate the story about the station from the story about its faithful chroniclers serving the station for decades. Members of the Vukušić family have been doing the work of meteorological observers on this location for three generations already. Ante Vukušić is a legendary caretaker of the mountain lodge on Zavižan located at 1,594 meters above sea level. He takes care of the meteorological station, and plays host to mountain climbers and visitors. Even though he sometimes cannot open the doors for ten days in a row on account of major snowfall in the area, and knows what it feels like not to see a living soul for full forty days, this inhabitant of Velebit likes to point out that he wouldn’t change his mountain home for any urban area.
On the second day, we climbed to the peak of Vučjak. I do not know whether there is a single place in our homeland that affords a more beautiful view of our sea. One could see the sea expanse of the Adriatic, bordered by purple-grey rocks and lit up by the morning sun, gradually disappearing into the distance towards the Italian side in a light haze. It seemed as if islands, islets and sea rocks swim in it. I immediately forgot all the efforts and botanical concepts...
Oto Oppitz, Hrvatski planinar, 1937
The botanical garden of Velebit is situated in between three peaks of Zavižan, in the immediate vicinity of the mountain lodge. Established in 1967, the botanical garden has been an indispensible point of interest for visitors of the Park for almost 50 years, and it is a place where one can observe and learn a lot about the rich diversity of Velebit plants.
Already as we speak, there are a number of best-known plants of Velebit growing in natural plant communities in the territory of the reserve. The introduction of new plants must not jeopardize the existing harmony achieved in the distribution of plants on the terrain of the garden.
All plants in the garden will have the appearance of a completely natural plant cover; however, every plant species will be marked by its botanical name on locations where living conditions for it are optimal. This will allow the visitor to easily see which community a plant belongs to, in which environment it grows, and which plants accompany it. The plan is to bring together the entire plant community of Velebit in the garden within a period of several years.
Fran Kušan, Senjski zbornik, 1970
As we look for the most beautiful locations on Velebit, one place we are certain to take note of is the karst valley of Veliki Lubenovac at the very border of the reserve Hajdučki i Rožanski kukovi. The remains of shepherd’s huts, dry stone walls and cisterns remind us of the days when people spent their summer months here taking care of livestock. This used to be a seasonal transhumance area in the summertime, but also a meeting point of the local population. A preserved livestock pond Lubenovačka ruja is one testimony to human presence on the locality of Lubenovac.
If you ever go to Velebit, do come to a valley such as this one. For this is where nature gives man plenty of time to recollect his thoughts. In human settlements, worldly concerns absorb one’s attention too much; here, on the other hand, you will find that lilies are dressed more divinely than the kings of this earth, and you will also find that the sun gives warmth to man, blue butterflies, lilies and the grass with equal tenderness.
Dr. Oto Oppitz, Hrvatski planinar, 1937
The well-known Premužić Trail runs through the peak area of the Park, connecting the areas of Zavižan and Alan, skillfully built with only mild inclinations. Built in a dry stone wall technique back in the 1930s, it passes through the area of Rožanski kukovi and opens the path to the most rugged and inaccessible parts of the Park. The names of some peaks stem from the tradition of the area – such is the case with the peaks of Gromovača, Čepuraš, Varnjača, Crikvena and Vratarski kuk. Some peaks, on the other hand, have been named after scientists and mountain climbers – Pasarićev kuk, Novotnijev kuk, Poljakov toranj, Krajačev kuk.
Inaccessible, unknown, solitary and indifferent, these peaks are proud and eternal intermediaries between the western sea and the eastern land, between the depths and the sun. They are friends of strong winds and the roar of thunder; they are at home in the wild rage of the elements and the life-giving power of the sun – standing immobile in their place for millions of years of eternal creation. Today, people try to find their way to them, referring to them as their homeland, climbing the mountain trails rising up their slopes. And when the moon spreads its silver light on the peaks, on occasion you will see a man sitting there, enjoying the harmony of open sea, universe and the earth.
Dr. I. Krajač, Hrvatski planinar, 1930
Walking along the Premužić Trail is like visiting an open gallery – it leads visitors with ease through diverse forests, grasslands and rocky areas, with several climbs towards the local peaks starting from the Trail. A favorite shelter of mountain climbers, Rossijeva koliba, is located there. It bears the name of one of the first explorers of Velebit, the botanist Ljudevit Rossi. For a visitor who cannot spare more than a day to visit Northern Velebit, the Premužić Trail and the area of Rožanski kukovi are the best choice to get a glimpse of the splendor of the Park in a short period of time.
I do believe that nobody shall complain of monotony... As we start from the shelter of Krajačeva kuća on Zavižan, the scenery changes constantly and substantially. First there is the wonderful panorama of Zavižan... and then you suddenly find yourself in a forest park and deep shade. All of a sudden, a rocky patch is there, bringing your attention back. A small clearing appears too, erasing unpleasant thoughts... Immediately thereafter, a lovely little forest, and then a mountain pass, and a stunning view of the firm pride of Velebit. After two or three stones, there is a gorgeous beech forest... One is still in awe, and already karrens and ravines are there, just like one would expect from a mountain as majestic as Velebit...
Ante Premužić, Hrvatski planinar, 1932
The area of Alan is located in the southern part of the Park. It is a place of mountain grasslands, dolines and cascades with mountain peaks above. The view from Alan towards the sea and the islands is bound to remain engraved in the memory of every visitor. The locality of Mirovo is close by, a place that used to be a major mountain settlement in the summer, and now includes only remains of houses, barns, dry stone walls and cisterns.
The Velebit road connecting the region of Lika and the sea over the mountain pass of Veliki Alan also represents a geographical boundary between the northern and the central part of Velebit.
And so the morning came, one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. We rushed to Alan, to cherish the majestic panorama. There is no hill in the Alps that can possibly give you such brilliant views. In front of us, there was the sea, in its divine tranquility of the summer morning, with islands all covered in gold. Rab, Lošinj, and all the other islands were there – a unique panorama that lifts one’s spirits and soul, and easily brings ecstasy. In front of such a view, nothing else matters, neither the past nor the future...
Dr. Gizele Tarczay, Planinski Vestnik, 1926
Throughout its history, Velebit has not been merely an empty space without vibrations of everyday human life. The mountain may seem stern at first sight, but a visit to the green valley of Štirovača on the very southern side of the Park may easily change one’s perception of the entire area. It has a source of potable water, and small creeks that bring water to meadows. This live water, together with rich forests, is what once attracted people to the mountain in the summer. In this area, right in the heart of the forest, a saw mill was built back in 1866, with its foundations still visible today. Once upon a time, there was a small store here as well, and workers’ quarters are still in use. Just like the previous inhabitants of Velebit were once attracted to this green part of Velebit crisscrossed by creeks, today the valley attracts visitors as one of their favorite destinations.
Of all the places I have visited in our karst so far, Štirovača is by far the most pleasant. And there are several reasons behind this conclusion of mine. It sits on a ridge of Velebit at 1,102 meters above sea level, surrounded by high peaks reaching all the way to 1,600 meters. Dense deciduous and coniferous forests serve as ornaments to all the limestone and dolomite rocks; thick grass grows in wide dolines, occasionally transformed into wider fields, with silky-haired herds grazing throughout the area. In the thick shade of fir and spruce, you can hear the murmur of clear spring water – a rare sight in these karst mountains.
Dr. Tućan, Planinarski vjesnik, 1919
Northern Velebit National Park has many faces, and it is impossible to get to know them all in one single visit. However, one visit is likely to ensure the second one, for it is easy to fall in love with this place. Its beauty can easily leave one speechless, for sometimes no words are suitable to describe the magnificence of nature. And yet, at the same time, a walk through the mountain will render the words unnecessary.
Given such isolation, each plant group began developing independently, with unique species and subspecies, endemic in character, appearing as a result. Velebit is one of the four Croatian centers of endemism.
Over 950 plant species and subspecies have been recorded in the area of the Park so far. Many of them are regionally limited in terms of distribution, and there are also around 40 locally distributed strictly endemic species.
The Park, as part of the ecological network, represents an area of conservation important for three plant species (Kitaibeli's columbine, alpine sea holly and Arabis scopoliana) and seven various habitat types (carbonate rocks with vegetation of cracks, three types of forest habitats, and three types of grassland habitats).
Fungi are one of the least-researched groups of organisms in Croatia. They represent a very important part of the ecosystem, playing a major role in decomposition and return of nutrients back to the environment. In addition, many fungus species live in symbiosis with woody plants. On the one hand, the presence of fungus species enables plants to obtain water, mineral salts and other important substances; on the other, plants provide organic matter that fungi require for food.
As a result of several years of intensive and systematic research on fungus species conducted in the Park, approximately 420 such species have been discovered in the area. Many species have been recorded for the first time in Croatia. Some are rare throughout Europe; some fungus species are completely new to science. Many species are rare and endangered, since they depend on dead wood mass, which is scarce in managed forests. Given the fact that there is no felling of trees in the National Park, and that the forest is left to natural processes instead, it abounds with large remains of dead old trees, with a very large number of fungi appearing as a result, whereas these fungi are predominantly absent in managed forests.
When it comes to invertebrates living in the Park, the data is still relatively scarce, with research on this topic still in its initial stages. So far, approximately sixty spider species, thirty beetle species and 150 butterfly and moth species have been recorded in the area of the Northern Velebit National Park.
Subterranean fauna is particularly interesting. Intensive biospeleological research on around twenty speleological sites resulted in the discovery of over 30 subterranean species belonging to various groups – sponges, snails, bivalves, Serpulidae, leeches, arachnids (spiders, mites, false scorpions), isopods, beetles, dipterans, milipedes… Many species are endemic, and several species new to science have been discovered in the area as well, such as the leech Croatobranchus mestrovi and certain snail and milipede species.
Only six amphibian species have been found in the Park, this low number being a result of the scarcity of water in the Park. There are also 16 reptile species, mostly strictly protected lizard and snake species; over one hundred bird species; and around 40 mammal species, including the Balkan snow vole as a relic species and an endemic karst species of the Dinarides.
When it comes to birds, there are around thirty nesting bird species from the Red Book of Threatened Birds of Croatia present in this area. In recent field research conducted in the territory of the National Park, substantial findings have been compiled regarding the threatened birds of prey from Annex I to the EU Birds Directive and from the Red Book of Threatened Birds of Croatia. These species are honey buzzard, short-toed snake-eagle, booted eagle and lesser kestrel.
It is important to point out that major conserved forest complexes constitute a favorable habitat for all the three large carnivore species in the country – bear, wolf and lynx, which means that the Park, as part of the ecological network, represents an important conservation area for these species. Their presence in one and the same area is a sign of a high degree of ecosystem conservation.
Northern Velebit National Park, the geological character of which represents a foundation of its natural wealth and diversity of forms, is a markedly karst area characterized by a high degree of variance in the terrain. Carbonate rocks, tectonic activity and precipitation enriched by carbon dioxide that resulted in the dissolution of carbonates – these were some of the decisive factors that resulted in the creation of such a magnificent karst relief.
The oldest rocks in the Park, over 200 million years old and stemming from the age of Triassic, can be seen in the southern part of the Park, in the area of Štirovača, where the only permanent surface water source in the Park is located as well. In the Jurassic period, in a calm and shallow sea, the sedimentation of carbonate sludge and shells and skeletons of died organisms resulted in the creation of the bulk of carbonate rocks in the area, predominantly limestone.
However, geologically most interesting and most mysterious rocks were created in the Tertiary – the so-called Velebitske breče, or the breccia of Velebit. These rocks cover over one half of the National Park surface, and are a result of strong tectonic activities that caused more intense disintegration of Jurassic, Cretaceous and Eocene carbonate layers. It is worth mentioning the breccia of Velebit include almost all karst forms.
However, abundant karst forms have also developed below the surface, as a result of expansion of tectonic cracks and cavities due to corrosion and erosion effects of water.
The most numerous are pits – speleological phenomena with a pronounced vertical expansion of channels – with almost 400 pits discovered so far. Many of these pits are located precisely in the breccia of Velebit, including the area of the Strict Reserve of Hajdučki i Rožanski kukovi. So far, three pits deeper than 1,000 meters have been discovered and partially explored in the area – that includes the pit system Lukina jama – Trojama (1,431 meters deep, and one of the top-20 deepest pits in the world), Slovačka jama and the pit of Velebita (a world champion in terms of the length of the internal vertical section, at 513 meters).
The National Park is a constituent part of the ecological network, and represents an important conservation area for this type of habitat.
Below the peak of Vučjak located in the Northern Velebit National Park, there is the highest mountain meteorological station in Croatia, at 1,594 meters above sea level. Established on October 1, 1953, it has been in constant operation ever since, without even a day of interruption. Over the past half century, the tasks of meteorological observers have been performed by the members of the Vukušić family from the village of Gornje Klade on the littoral side of the mountain.
Many meteorological parameters and phenomena are measured and recorded on the Zavižan meteorological station – including temperature, air pressure and relative humidity, wind direction and speed, quantity and type of precipitation, hours of sunshine, etc.
Zavižan is the snowiest, foggiest and windiest meteorological station in Croatia, with the lowest temperature in the country. The highest measured temperature was +28 °C, and the lowest -29 °C.
In the area of Zavižan, snow falls on average from mid-October till the end of May; however, snowfall may occur in every month of the year.
In valleys and dolines, the snow is retained for longer periods. In snow-filled cracks, or so-called snow pits as they are referred to locally, snow can be found throughout the year. The highest volume of snow on the mountain is typically recorded in February and March, when its height is at around 130 centimeters. The highest snow cover ever recorded was 322 centimeters. Snowdrifts caused by the wind can get significantly higher than that, however.
One of the key climate characteristics of this area is the bora wind, blowing from the east. The highest recorded wind speed was 136.8 km/h. On average, strong or gale-force winds blow on Zavižan as many as 102 days per year.
Thunder is quite frequent in the warm part of the year as well: so frequent, in fact, that one of the highest peaks in the Park is named Gromovača, after the Croatian word for thunder, on account of the frequency of that phenomenon.
In the 1st century B.C., this area was subjected to the Roman rule, with the Roman cities of Senia (Senj), Lopsica (Sveti Juraj), Ortopla (probably Stinica) and Vegia (Karlobag) built on the locations of previous ancient settlements. The Romans also built roads leading over the mountain to their settlements in the continental region of Lika. Over time, this area turned into important crossroads, as the roads towards Italy, Dalmatia and the north all converged here.
The data regarding the period after the Roman Empire and following the settlement of the Croats are scarce; however, we do know that dukes of Kurjakovići, Frankapani and others governed the area of Velebit in medieval times, predominantly exploiting the forests that constituted a major resource of the area.
In the 15th and 16th century, with the incursions of the Turks, the mountain of Velebit turned into a place of conflict between the Ottoman Empire, Venice and Austria-Hungary, but also a refuge and a sanctuary. In those times, the base of the mountain was inhabited again, this time predominantly by refugees from the areas conquered by the Turks.
With the waning of the Turkish danger, in the 18th and 19th century, the Habsburg Empire built new roads over the mountain passes of Velebit; in addition, links between littoral settlements were developing as well. According to dr. sc. Boris Olujić, historian from the Department of History of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, these new transport links had a particularly strong impact on the development of cities of Senj and Karlobag on the coast. Other settlements (Stinica, Sv. Juraj, Jablanac) never regained that intensity of life that they had enjoyed in the Roman and medieval periods of their history; however, all of these areas continued with that millennia-old lifestyle of living on the mountain, building and maintaining shepherd’s huts, mowing their meadows, grazing their livestock, cultivating every little piece of available arable land, and exchanging what they had with what they needed amongst each other.
As soon as the snow would begin melting next spring, they would come back into the embrace of that harsh, and yet also generous mountain. They would bring with them what modest yield they grew in the gardens of Podgorje, and manure in cloth sacks.
In the period of the Roman rule, coastal towns grew in importance on account of exploitation of the forests of Velebit, and the transport of wood into other parts of the province and the Empire. Forest management remained important during the Middle Ages too, which is when refugees from the areas subjected to Turkish rule migrated into this region, bringing with them their knowledge, tradition, beliefs and culture. All of that merged with the accumulated tradition of the past millennia and the tangible heritage palpably present on the slopes of Velebit. Naturally, one can assume that a certain part of the original population, no matter how small, remained in the area as direct bearers of tangible and intangible heritage.
Even after the conflict with the Turks ended, that way of life, thousands of years old, remained present in the area. One would still carry from the mountain everything that was collected during the late spring, summer and autumn. In the winter period, preparations for the return to the mountain would already begin. This migratory way of life, with people seasonally moving into the areas that currently represent the peak areas of the Park, remained present in some localities until as late as the mid-20th century. The remains of many shepherd’s huts, dry stone walls and cisterns, scattered throughout the Park area, are a testimony to this history.
As we reflect on this way of life from our own perspective, marked by urban pleasures and all the technology surrounding us, it may seem extraordinarily harsh and difficult to us. However, to the past inhabitants of the mountain of Velebit, it represented the only feasible way to survive. And these people were very much equipped for such an arduous task, given their strength, their knowledge, and their perseverance. On the mountain and at its base, they found almost everything that they needed. What they still lacked, they would obtain by exchanging the goods that they had. That is why we must perceive Velebit as a unique whole, and as a space that brings people together.Written by: dr. sc. Boris Olujić, Department of History, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Zagreb