Browsed by
Tag: urban exploration

Željava Airbase – An expedition to the top secret Yugoslav underground military facility (part 2)

Željava Airbase – An expedition to the top secret Yugoslav underground military facility (part 2)

Read about the second part (part 1) of my adventure in Željava airbase. I spent 5 hours in the underground of the airbase. I explored almost every meter of the base, making a few fascinating discoveries.

I entered Željava underground at 11 30 leaving the beautiful sunny day behind. I slowly moved through the tunnel. The size of the tunnel was enormous. My torch was far from being able to light up the whole space between the walls. Dark walls were swallowing my light that I was hardly able to see verges of the tunnel. This made me walk close to one of the walls, to avoid feeling of walking in the empty space. The beginning of the tunnel was very clean. Apparently the tunnel was cleaned from the rubble from the destruction by bulldozers, leaving a few big piles of rubber here and there.

After few minutes, I came to the point where the tunnel turned left and last bits of the daylight disappeared, leaving me in a complete darkness. I discovered remains of the gigantic door which would be probably used to hermetically seal the base during the attack. The steel door was gone, but what left was a massive steel-concrete hat which used to hold the door. It was heavily damaged. The hundreds of thick twisted rebars stack out from the door.  It was reminder of the power of charges which was set to destroy the base. The huge pieces of concrete were hanging on the twisted rebars. I always felt chills when I moved beneath the hanging concrete, imagining it will fall on my head. Sometimes I hate my imagination.

The remain of the massive door in Zeljava Airbase.

In some parts, the floor was full of small holes, approximately half meter deep. It was probably remaining of electric installation or canalisation. Plus, there were a lot of steel waste lying around.  Its sharp corners could easily cut through the shoes, causing the injury. It was really important to watch my step, by falling to the hole I could easily broke my leg. Such an accident would be serious trouble. There was no one to help me, no one would hear my calling for help, and I could not call help by phone either. If you wish to follow my steps, it is better that you do it in the group.

I left the main tunnel to explore smaller rooms through the side tunnels. The rooms I entered were just full of rubble, some were blocked. I returned to the main tunnel and slowly moved forward, systematically exploring every side tunnel I discovered. The result was always the same, the side tunnel ending in the empty room full of steel and concrete rubble covered by black dust. It seems that unfortunately, all the equipment has been gone.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The atmosphere of the base was haunting. The darkness was swallowing all the space around me. It was getting colder and colder with every meter I took deeper inside of the base. Air was really humid and full of the grey dust slowly flowing through the tunnels. The amount of dust in the air was just insane. By looking forward, I was able to see billions of small bright dust grains flying towards my headlight. The dust in the base is a remain of the fire. It contains carcinogenic PCB spiced up with radioactive Americium. This makes the Željava underground not really good environment for your lungs. I was hoping my respiration mask was not made in China.

An amount of the dust in Zeljava airbase is insane.

The humidity in the air make the water condenses on top of the tunnel. Sometimes when water drops down it creates mysterious sounds. Walking through the tunnels creates an echo which was following my steps. The mix of the echo of my steps and dropping water created haunting sounds which made me stop with a feeling I am not alone. After some time I realized that this place is just fooling my senses and I am there alone, completely abandoned in the never-ending darkness.

My plan was to continue through the tunnel until I would reach the Entrance number 2. With confidence I continued forward. I came to the big crossroad of the main tunnels. One tunnel was going more inside of the base, but I turned left to find an exit. After more than hour in darkness I could finally see the light. I took quick brunch and enjoyed fresh air. I already felt a bit dizzy from the bad air. I was slightly disappointed that I still did not find anything interesting inside. However, walking in the dark tunnels of the super-secret military facility was exciting experience itself.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After brunch, I went back to explore another part of the base until the Entrance 3. On the big crossroad I first walked straight until end of the big tunnel. At the end of the tunnel I found remains of the toilets. Again everything badly destroyed with a lot of rubble inside. I returned back to the crossroad and took the way deeper to the base. In some moments, the cold became unbearable. High humidity made it even worse. Getting lost or staying here too long could lead to dead from hipotermia.

Walking through the main tunnel, I spotted something really unexpected. In the left wall of the tunnel, there was a small shrine with a lot of candles.  It seemed that some previous explorer lost his life in this dark place. And probably his friends come down from time to time to light up candles for him…it sounds awkward. But here it is: A shrine of the fallen explorer. I hoped to not follow his destiny.

A shrine of the fallen explorer set into the wall.

I went to explore the complex of small rooms. And finally I found something which survived the apocalypse of this place. I found something which looked as electric generator. Exciting, I was in the electric engine room. This place was the heart of the base. If the base was under the attack, the generator would be able to supply whole base. Around the generator, there were huge rounded canisters for kerosene probably to fuel the generator. In another room, there were the big hook and the strange shaped door with three rounded windows.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I went out from the engine room, took the way to Entrance 3. After some time I came to end of the tunnel. However, there was just a huge concrete wall with no other way to exit. Surprise! This way seemed to be closed or my map was wrong. Thus I needed to skip my planned break and go to explore last part of the base. I got a bit anxious about being able to find a way out.

I returned back to the crossroad and turned left to the last unexplored tunnel. The tunnel was really long. Many minutes passed and I still haven’t got to any point of my map. I was looking for the side tunnel which was supposed to lead to another complex of rooms. I was not able to find it. The long tunnel continued to never ending darkness with no sign of ending. I started to be afraid that my map is wrong and I got lost.

After some time, I spotted something interesting in the distance. Some object was reflecting my headlight. I came closer and I found out that it was a small truck in not very good conditions. The explosion had blown up whole engine area leaving the car heavily burned. Tires had melted because of the huge heat. Still it was astonishing urbex artefact reminding the difficult history of this place.

A small wreck of the truck in Zeljava airbase.

I passed by the wreck and continued curious where this tunnel will finish. After some time I spotted a light, the end of the tunnel. Finally! I was excited and confused in the same time because I was not sure which exit I found. The last part of the tunnel was heavily damaged. There were a lot of concrete on the floor with some dangerously hanging from the ceiling. I slowly crawl beneath hanging concrete heading to the exit.

I stopped at the end of the tunnel. I looked to the map and I realized something fascinating. I crossed the border to Bosnia! This was the last entrance which is from the Bosnia side. Technically I just crossed border between Bosnia and Croatia…illegally. I decided to not go further because I was sure that outside it can be polluted by the land mines. I planned to bring both my legs home. Plus if the border police stopped me I could be in serious trouble.

There was only one place I haven’t explored yet, the complex of rooms which on the map looks like a star. I went back through the tunnel, crawling near the left wall, to not miss any side tunnel leading somewhere. Luckily, after some time I found the entrance to the star complex.

I arrived to the middle of the star, when I looked up I immediately froze for few seconds. The whole sealing looked it can collapse in any moment and I haven’t felt particularly good about it. Everything seemed to be hold just by two really crumbled pillars. I breathed really slowly to make less impact on the air circulation.

A fragile sealing looks like it can collapse in any moment.

After I realized that this sealing is here in this condition for more than 20 years, I started feeling a bit better. I slowly moved to the first elongated room. The room was full of rubble with the broken furniture. In the second room I found the table and the chair. It seemed as a room for higher command. But the luxury was gone. I am sure that during the airbase military life, it was a nice cosy room.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Returning to the place with broken sealing made me more anxious about the possibility of land shift which could end my life. At that moment I decided that last two unexplored rooms are not worth of the risk and I turned back to the way to exit.

I walked really fast to the Entrance 2 singing on the way to banish loneliness of this place. I was so happy when I spotted the sunshine. Outside it was still really beautiful day. I walked on the runway lined with the warnings about landmines. I checked the time, it was after 16 00. Unbelievable, I spent inside almost 5 hours. I decided that it is time to go home.

An abandoned runway in Zeljava airbase. What a beautiful day was waiting for me outside 🙂

After my adrenaline levels dropped, I realized that my legs are completely destroyed. The shoes, I was not wearing for a long time, created huge blisters on both of my feet. Every meter was hurting like hell. I felt like every centimetre of my feet is covered by blisters, some of them got punctured which made them even more painful. The way back to Licko Petrovo Selo was extremely painful. After I finally made it, I was not able to continue forward, so I rather decided to hitchhike.

After some time a van stopped to me and surprisingly it was another Serb! Plus he served in Zeljava base during his military service. What a coincidence! We had nice chat about the history of this area. He was super nice and dropped me close to the hostel. Both Serbian drivers, who I met this day, left an impression that Serbians are really nice people.

In the hostel, people were already expecting me. The receptionist Milica was really happy that I came alive, in one peace. She gifted me with the warm smile when we met on the stairs. I chatted with few guests at the terrace, excitingly speaking about my adventure in Željava. I went to bed early, super tired but with the huge feeling of accomplishment. I was wondering what adventures the next days will bring.

Željava Airbase – An expedition to the top secret Yugoslav underground military facility

Željava Airbase – An expedition to the top secret Yugoslav underground military facility

Željava airbase lies on the border of Croatia and Bosnia. This Yugoslav top secret military facility was abandoned during the Yugoslavia civil war.  I went to explore the airbase this summer as my first urban exploration experience.

It was almost midnight. The weather was peaceful, without any wind. The sky was full of stars. What a beautiful night in central Croatia. Even though it was late, the hostel in Korenica still had a nice vibe. People were chatting and drinking on the terrace, enjoying the warm July night. People were excited about their visit of Plitvice Lakes – a large natural complex of lakes and blue lagoons and a UNESCO heritage site. A breathtaking place, but too crowded during the high season for my taste .

I was not part of this vibe, my thoughts were somewhere else.  I came here for a different reason than the other tourists. Not many people know that this place is hiding a dark secret: Željava an underground military airbase, one of the largest underground military complex in Europe abandoned and destroyed during the Croatian war of independence.

I was already back in my room packing important things for my first real urban-exploration experience. I was feeling really nervous. There were many dangers I needed to face tomorrow: land mines from the war, dizziness from poisonous dust, never ending darkness, possibility of landfalls. The combination of these things with the fear of the unknown was giving me chills. The thing which freaked me out the most were the land mines. The whole area around the airport is full of them. These sleeping killers haunt me every time I put my feet on the grass in what used to be battlefields just two decades ago. I desperately googled “is it possible to spot a mine”, “what to do if you step on a land mine”. Of course the answers were not really satisfying. I was wondering if my travel insurance covers walking through the mine fields. The only thing that calmed me down was the supposition that there are no mines inside the base and previous explorers were able to get there without any harm. I was hoping that I will be able to find a safe passage to the entrance of the complex.

In addition, I was going in alone, so I knew that I only have myself to rely on. The staff in the hostel though I was crazy. I took it as a compliment. I fell asleep with mix of excitement and fear about what the next day would bring.

I woke up at 4 30am, and had a quick breakfast. The rise of adrenalin in my blood made me feel awake, even after just 4 hours of sleep. I did a last check of my equipment: a map, a respiratory mask, a headlight, a torch, water. I was really happy that I was able to find a map of the base. Having the map of the place made me feel much better and it helped me overcome the fear of getting lost.

Two good sources of lights were the bare minimum. When you go underground, there is total darkness and zero visibility. If you would just go with one light without any backup, a failure of your torch can have fatal consequences. I remember story about two teenagers who died in the Maastricht underground. Their bodies have been found just few meters before the exit. You don’t want to be in their place.

Željava airbase is situated on the border between Croatia and Bosna and Hercegovina hidden inside of the mountain. The whole airport is hidden behind the mountain that it could not be easily spotted from villages around. At the end, it was a super-secret military facility that only a chosen few knew about.

The construction of Željava airbase started in 1948 and was finished in 1968. This project cost Yugoslavia an enormous sum of money. Costs reached six billion dollars – three times more than the yearly military budged of Serbia and Croatia combined. It was one of the biggest and the most expensive military project in Europe.

Željava airbase during its shining years in 1970

This military facility was the pride of the Yugoslavian Army. It has four exits, all of which were able to launch battle-ready jets. The base was constructed to sustain a direct hit by a nuclear missile with the power of the Nagasaki bomb (20-kt), and it could be hermetically sealed. The population of the base was 1000 men. The whole size of the underground is around 3.5 square kilometres which makes the Željava the largest underground military airbase in former Yugoslavia and one of the largest in Europe.

The base was partially destroyed during the Yugoslavian civil war. In 1992 when Yugoslavian Army was withdrawing from Croatia, the commanders did not want that this secret facility fall to the enemy hand, so they have followed an old order of Marshal Tito himself to completely destroy the base before abandoning it. The massive amount of charges was deployed. Even such huge destruction power was not able to destroy the base completely. The base tunnels stayed standing, but the underground burned from the inside, destroying its functionality. Now the base lies there silently as a remnant of the former greatness of Yugoslavia, one of the most powerful countries in Europe, which was brutally torn apart in a bloody civil war.

Getting to Željava airbase is not easy, especially when you don’t have a car or a motorbike. The closest village Licko Petrovo Selo is approximately 7 km from the base. There is not a bus connection to this small village. My plan was to hitchhike there and then walk to the base, hoping that the path through the minefield is asphalted. Asphalt is your friend in warzones!

When I left the hostel it was already 5 o’clock. The sun was already up. It was still a bit cold. I needed to wear a jacket. I stood on the side of the main road to Plitvice hoping that I will catch someone who will drop me off the main road in the direction of Licko Petrovo Selo.

After 15 minutes of waiting, an old red Renault stopped next to me. The driver rolled down the window and shouted out to me “Gdje Ides?”, I answered to him with broken Croatian/Serbian “Ja idu Plitvice”. He opened the door and I jumped in. The driver name was Dragan and he proudly announced he is from Serbia on a way to Beograd. Dragan was in his mid-50-ties, the main feature of his face was his big mustache underlined with big smile, he was a really energetic person. We spoke in broken Serbian about his life in Beograd, his three beautiful daughters. He was really great guy, a good person with a big heart. I told him to drop me off at the crossroad off the main road.

I said goodbye to Dragan and wanted to catch another ride on a way to my destination. Unfortunately the road to Licko Petrovo Selo was completely deserted, just with a big truck passing by approximately every 15 minutes on their way to Bosnia. I had no choice, I needed to walk around nine kilometres along the road, down to the village. It took me around two hours to finally reach the village.

The view at Licko Petrovo Selo, the village close to Željava airbase.

Licko Petrovo Selo is situated in small valley.  It is a really small settlement just with about 100 inhabitants officially living here. The village was pretty deserted, giving me feeling that almost no one lives there. When I finally arrived to the village, my eyes stumbled on the first house of the village. The house looked like nobody has lived there for at least 20 years, the half roof was collapsed inside revealing long white chimney. It was not the only destroyed house, many other houses, was deserted with missing windows and doors. Many of them were just empty walls with the roof. It was a sign that Licko Petrovo Selo didn’t escape the turmoil of war. Abandoned houses are often a sign of ethnic cleansing, really popular war tactic during the Yugoslavia war.

I passed Licko Petrovo Selo and met a few older people giving me a weird looks – what the hell I am doing there? Apparently, walking around with my Nikon, made me an unusual visitor of this place. The settlement continued with a low density of houses along the road to Željava. I made a quick stop for a breakfast, studying a map and thinking if this decent asphalt road will continue right to the airport.

Luckily my predictions were right, the asphalt road stretched all the way to the airport. The last signs of civilization were a small village with the same name as the base. In the village, I came across three unleashed dogs that were aggressively barking at me – probably they were not used to visitors. The owner just smiled at me, without paying too much attention that his three little monsters were ready to tear me apart so I grabbed a stick. Better safe than sorry.

After I got rid of the dogs, I finally arrived at the Željava airbase. At the entrance stood a beautiful Dakota C-47B from World War II. The plane was surrounded by high grass that seemed to be abandoned for many years. I was afraid to come closer because of the potential threat of mines. Maybe this was the reason why the plane seemed to have escaped vandalism. It still looked good enough for a museum, except for the many bullet holes spread all over its fuselage.

Majestic Dakota C-47B resting at the entrance of the Željava airbase.

I stepped on the road which heads to the runways where the underground entrances are. I got a warm welcome by a red sign about the high danger of land mines in the area. I told myself “Now the real fun starts”. The only way to stay safe was to stay away off the grass, keeping my feet on the narrow asphalt road. After some time, I have seen a car coming my way. It was Croatian police. After reading many forums, I was aware that the police monitors the area. I even took my passport. I was a bit worried that they would tell me to turn back. However, there were very nice – they just politely asked me if I am tourist and after seeing my Nikon they drove away. They were probably suspicious if I am not smuggler who wants to cross the border.

The sign, warning me about mines around the Željava airbase.

I arrived to my target around 11 00 am. Surprisingly I was not alone! I met a couple walking a dog on the runway. The strange place for a romantic walk. I had a quick chat with them. They warned me about poisonous gases inside of the base. I just needed to rely on quality of my respiration mask. The base has four entrances. Three entrances are situated close to each other on the Croatian side. Each entrance is followed by the runway. I just needed to choose one of them to enter.

My plan was to explore the base systematically room by room, tunnel by tunnel, according to my map. For that reason I chose to enter via entrance 1, the first entrance on the right. I had a quick brunch, double checked my lights, put on my mask, took one last selfie and was ready to go inside. I could feel a mix of fear and excitement pumping through my veins. I planned this expedition for weeks, gathered a lot of information and now finally I was finally there, completely alone, breathing the heavy air, heading into the darkness…

Last selfie…before entering Željava airbase. Read more in part 2! Subscribe to get the notifications 🙂