Katarina Milković, Director of the Cave Park Grabovača, organized the first cave trek in the region
The Cave Park Grabovača on 23 July was visited by almost one thousand people: over 600 of them competed in the first Lika Cave Trekk, some came to see what it all looks like, and some came to the concert of the group “Vatra u pećini“ (Fire in the Cave).
"For a month and a half we have been preparing the first Lika Cave Trekk so it is no wonder that now I'm spending my days solving many jobs in the Park that I have neglected during that time, but also sleeping, because sleep is what I have been missing the most in recent weeks", tells us Katarina Milković, Director of the Croatian Cave Park Grabovača. While we walk along those same trails along which on 23 July as much as 624 competitors from six countries ran past by taking part in the first competition of this kind in Croatia, Katarina concludes that the organization of such a humanitarian and sporting event needed at least half a year in order to find sponsors, agree on cooperation and ensure success. She came up with such an event in March, and she started the detailed preparations together with her team only in mid-May.
Why they have taken the action so late, it is the question that naturally arises. "We really had not planned anything, but we were designing an event that could become a reality next year. However, we encountered good co-operations, and when we found a date that would suit everyone, it turned out that it coincided with Lika Trekk which takes place for years". Things were nicely coincided: Lika Trekk became Lika Cave Trekk, which made Lika, and also Croatia, to be the first one to get trek through the caves. The popularization of geological heritage and geo-diversity was the main objective of this event and this was achieved, concludes Katarina adding that the three national televisions covered the event.
No one believed that so many runners would participate at the event. "I believe that the attractiveness of my Lika and of this park contributed to the whole story," she point out proudly.
From an idea to the tradition
Lika Cave Trekk will become traditional race and will be held in July, just like this year, when along with the Croats, Slovenes, Irish, Russians, Belgians and Canadians run along Grbovača. "Our desire is to increase the number of runners, but also the number of people who register for voluntary blood donation at Ana Rukavina Foundation. This year 47 people were registered and people in the Foundation are very satisfied with this, and I think we could have done much better ".
Although at the first glance link between the cave and the Ana Rukavina Foundation is not visible, the Foundation which has become a trademark for fight against leukaemia both in Croatia and in the region, we find out that Ana was born in Perušić, where there is also the headquarters of the Park. "Formalizing the manner to popularize geological diversity, especially to attract the media and show through them the beauty of the park to the whole country, we concluded that the only possibility was the combination of sport and humanitarian organization. Little by little, knowing that Ana Rukavina is from Perušić, we contacted the Foundation and came to the fantastic stories", explains Katarina. To complete the whole thing, they invited Vatra, a band that recently played also in the air, and enabled them to play in the underground as well. It was a concert at 8 degrees, while outside it was around the hot 30 degrees... About 350 people listened to the "Tango", of which at least 150 came only for the reason of such an unusual concert.
The reactions of people to everything that they could experience on that day in the Cave Park Grabovača were stunning. Director proudly states that Croatian Mountain Rescue Service had no intervention. "We were expecting at least dehydration, but people were obviously very well prepared, with respect to 30 degrees Celsius", she explains, adding with a big smile, as if it were only then that she realized, that she and her team developed probably the first cave trek in the world!
Future Regional Park
On Grabovača there is priceless wealth of underground karst formations, even 1/4 of the total number of protected speleological objects in Croatia. This is known thanks to the latest research, which revealed more than 40 speleological sites, with those that are already known and managed: cave Samograd, Medina and Amidža cave, which are also the geomorphologic monuments of nature since 1964."
Grabovača has not been under the preventive protection since 2012. Back then we refused permanent protection in that category since we had launched research of the wider area and now we expect to complete the professional background with the proposal of a new category of protection. We wish it would be a regional park, but will this happen, we do not know". Katarina's small team partnered with scientists and they started all kinds of research: geomorphologic, speleological, geological, biological with students of Biology ... they are currently doing research on bats, and the Ministry of Environment and Nature Protection submitted a request to expand the boundaries of the park, along with the already mentioned one for gaining a new category of protection.
What does the protection mean for the park? More employees, higher revenues? "First of all, this means preventing the devastation of the areas in question. We want to set ourselves up as a buffer zone between those who manage and those who do the eventual devastation. The disposal of waste and the construction of forest roads near the entrance to the caves should be prevented as well, and all those who go into the woods should be protected from a possible falling into pits. These caves and pits are currently unmarked and all users of the forest can easily end up injured", warns the Director and adds that she would certainly welcome two more employees because there are too few of them in the park - only four: professional service, supervisor, accounting and director. "Actually, all of us do everything! All of us are guides and project managers, we work at the box office, we clean the toilets... And the number of visitors increases every year more and more, which means more obligations".
Grabovača has a lot of projects, volunteers from around the world come to the numerous education programmes and it has become interesting for school excursions as well. For work with children still they employ students of the teachers' schools, who have completed certain courses which help them so that children could get the best possible care, but also the knowledge of the geological heritage. "Professors learn of Grabovača by means of the media and it is a very good indicator that it is important to invite the media to every event we organize. I am convinced that 1500 students more in May this year, compared to the previous year, is the result of a good media exposure of the park. "
Cooperation with the local people exists, but the products are missing
Expanding the boundaries of the park would include the extension of the offer as well. The first one Katarina sees through educational trails that need to be made so that people get familiar with the incredible wealth of the Dinaric Karst. For this purpose they will seek finances in the various funds from relevant ministries and agencies which tend to have good competitions. And they will involve the local population in everything much more and more often, which was very surprised by the mentioned Lika Cave Trekk.
"Local population is shocked, they never dreamed that so many people would come ... They are accustomed that we organize seminars, professional training, education and they probably assumed that this will be one of such events. Frankly, nether we did expect that this will have such proportions. The first races are usually attended by around two hundred runners, and now there was literally a flood", she happily recalls the hot July day, adding that with the local people they have developed a good dialogue and that they to help them and gladly jump in when there is a crowd in the Park.
Will the local population now more specifically cooperate with the Park, produce local products that would find their place in the luggage of tourists? Katarina does not believe, at least not for now. "We are stubborn and inconvincible people. But through the volunteering projects we are trying to make all those people who live in the area of the park more sensible, as well as in the area of the whole municipality. We want to make them understand that from the tourists who come to us a source for living can be obtained. I note some progress, but it is not yet measurable. So far I am satisfied that we have achieved that local people do not mind the fact that in their place some foreign people are coming. There are few people who produce on their farms, so there are still not so many such products, considering the possible extent."
Katarina however concludes that the chronic problem is tremendous depopulation of the inhabitants, about which so little and with few words is spoken in the media. "If there were more people living in Perušić, I'm sure that a lot more of them would be selling their products".
Petra Boić Petrač, WWF Adria