Winter at the Plitvice Lakes

Somewhere in Croatia is a karst landscape that many may mistake for a place in China.

Some years ago, an e-mail made its way around with pictures of cascading waterfalls, turquoise coloured pools and lush forests. It was claimed that this was “Sg Jagung in Kedah”.

When things appear too good to be true, they usually are.

The purported “Sg Jagung in Kedah” was one of the innumerable hoaxes that inhabit the Internet and the vacuous minds of people who dream up these things. The Internet teems with such spoofs, lurking in ambush for the unwary, the careless and the ignorant. Fortunately, the Internet also has genuine resources to find such spurious links.

A search on the Internet will turn up the “Sg Jagung in Kedah” hoax with links that disprove it and identify the true location of the pictures used for the hoax. The lush landscape in the pictures do exist, but not in this country. It’s not that Malaysia doesn’t have any of these. In fact, there are websites dedicated to various Malaysian waterfalls, as well as dedicated Malaysian waterfall hunters.

The pictures are of a real place in faraway Europe. It is the Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, a Unesco-listed World Heritage Site.

When the opportunity presented itself, I was keen to see this place for myself. Croatia’s largest national park, Plitvice Lakes is located in an area of extensive karst landscape. The word “karst”, now used to describe topographies where water dissolves soluble bedrock into a distinctive landscape, originates from this part of the world.

The Plitvice Lakes resembles the famous Jiuzhaiguo National Park in Sichuan, China. Both sites share more than a superficial resemblance – besides being national parks and World Heritage sites, both boast a series of cascading lakes formed behind “travertine” barriers.

Travertine is a form of limestone which is caused by precipitation from water action. It exists in many places, a famous example being the Pamukkale terraces in Turkey.

Natural dams or barriers are formed from limestone deposits, and – in Jiuzhaiguo and Plitvice – are responsible for those stunning, aquamarine pools that collect behind the barriers, as well as the cascades that fall over them. The natural beauty of Plitvice also causes it to have another common feature with its Chinese counterpart: crowds.

In the peak summertime season, the park sees thousands of visitors every day. The annual number of visitors to the national park is a staggering 900,000. Winter, however, is the low season, and the park is little visited. Every season brings out different aspects – blazing autumnal colours, lush waterfalls and clement weather in summer, and stark, austere beauty in winter.

I visited on a wintry but sunny day, beneath a cloudless blue sky. The snow was thick on the ground, attesting to heavy snowfalls in the preceding days. It lay like a pristine blanket over the forest, with the dark boles of trees breaking the snowy perfection. The weather had frozen the surfaces of lakes into giant sheets of ice, sometimes patterned with variegated designs where the ice had frozen unevenly.

It mutated everyday objects, such as benches, into strange shapes.

At the entrance, a lone and bored-looking ticket collector was the only other human in the deserted park.

There are extensive lakes in Plitvice, and hikers can undertake long hikes in the summer season to the lush forests around the lakes. Brown bear, lynxes, wolves, foxes, weasels and other wildlife survive and thrive here, even though they have disappeared across much of the continent.

Most of the upper lakes were frozen over and were thus closed, but the lower lakes, which form the main tourist attractions with their extensive wooden boardwalks, were open. From a lookout point a short distance from the park entrance, I could look out on to the depression in the canyons where one of the main waterfalls met the main river draining the lake system.

At this lookout point, the waterfalls were almost directly opposite, while the famous lakes formed a series of pools and cascades which gradually met the waterfalls. There was a zigzaging path leading downwards towards the lakes, and in the freshly melted snow, it was slippery in places, but I descended away from the angle of sunlight, to where the snow was much deeper at the bottom of the canyon.

The wooden boardwalks which spanned the lakes were accessible from here, and for most of the way, they were covered in snow. Up close, the lakes were quite stunning.

The water was extremely clear, and dissolved minerals imbued it with a startling aquamarine hue. Sunken tree trunks and debris showed up clearly at the bottom of the lakes. Partially melted ice on the surface of the lake formed crystalline patterns, and where they caught the sun, they sometimes resembled sparkling diamond necklaces.

Untrodden snow on the slopes looked pillow-perfect white, punctuated by dark branches. At water’s edge, snow – juxtaposed against rushing water and brown reeds – presented compositions of natural contrasts in colour and texture. Bright sunlight bouncing off brown cliff surfaces, the blue sky and the white snow presented aspects that transformed the dramatic landscape into a study of a few elemental colours.

The frigid temperature had frozen many cascades solid, and these were now slowly melting beneath the gush of frigid water. Rushing water and solid ice formed unlikely snow sculptures of jagged and strange shapes.

I walked on the snow-covered boardwalk across one of the lowermost lakes to the main waterfall on the other side. With icy water just inches below, and sometimes slippery ice on the boardwalk where snow had partially melted and refrozen, the boardwalk was tricky to negotiate. As I proceeded, the snow became thicker. It was evident that the sunlight did not penetrate to this side of the canyon, but I couldn’t turn back – some parts of the boardwalk were so slippery and sloped that I had to go on all fours.

A fall into those frigid waters would be disastrous. So, onward.

There was a deep chill in the hollow around the waterfall and the snow was much thicker. I had to climb up a flight of steps to the top of the falls. The steps had been cut into the slope and were fortified with wood in places. However, they were blanketed in snow, which meant kicking into the snow and ice – fortunately I had sturdy leather boots on – to form indentations so that I had some purchase. Even so, I had to hold on to branches to haul myself up that icy slope, slowly, slowly, until I reached the top.

A path led along the top of the gorge on the opposite side from the park HQ, which I now followed. It was deserted and there were a few lookout points over the lakes and cascades below. There were deep footprints in the snow, which came up to mid-calf in some places. Much further along, I came across a sloped path leading eventually to a wooden bridge spanning the lakes at a narrow point.

This was where one lake drained into another via a series of clear running rivers. With some relief, I crossed over, taking in the expanse of solidly frozen upper lake, the clear trickling water beneath and the grasses beginning to push their way upward through the blanket of snow. On the other side was a broad path that led to the park boundary and my hotel, which was located just outside the park.

The sun was already low in the sky – darkness fell early in winter – and the forest assumed a desolate air. Through glimpses, I could see the frozen adjacent lake, dusted with snow, under a clear, wintry sky from which daylight was beginning to leach away.

In winter, Plitvice Lakes National Park presents an aspect very different from those depicted in the e-mail hoax. It is quiet, empty and austere, but those qualities only accentuate the sense of wilderness, a reminder of what nature wrought before man came along and changed the landscape.

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