Looking Back At Obonjan Festival

Each year the unique Croatian island of Obonjan, close to Sibenik, is host to a festival curated by various different collectives, each intent on offering a chilled experience that is fun but not chaotic and relaxing but not dull. At night, warbling music echoes through the tiered amphitheatre, close to the wash of the ocean. Guests gather on the steps and recline together to a mixture of more underground music, from slow post-rock crescendos to the steady cardio-graphic rhythms of house and electro. Alternatively, music also plays in the dusty forest bar, drowning out the last few sleepy chirps of the unseen cicadas. There are also DJs hanging out in a rickety beach booth at the harbour, overlooking the dark shore, where waves lap quietly against the rugged rocks and lavish yachts bob happily in the shallows. Meanwhile, contented travellers nurse drinks on low-lit loungers, creating a convivial atmosphere remiscient of the first half of The Beach, before the shark shows up and it all goes horribly awry.

There are a few restaurants on the island, including The Kitchen, which is a pristine, neon-lit building, slightly at odds with the hand-crafted, bohemian aesthetic sported by the rest of the island, although it does serve delicious and healthy portions. There's also the added bonus of it having a nearby pool with carefully lit salt water sitting restfully over a clear blue bottom. You'll often find a few guests there, wrestling to mount the exhausted animal inflatables after a few drinks or floating in slow circles to settle their stomachs.

While we were there, my brothers, Calum and Robbie, myself and our girlfriends, Beth, Serena and Valeriya, sampled a lot of what the nights had to offer, often ending each exploration at the foot of our tents, sipping Croatian wine and scoffing unfamiliar snacks under the stars. 

My favourite night, however, was blissfully uncomplicated. The ingredients were: several rows of comfortable seats, an open air cinema, a freshly cooked seafood pizza and The Talented Mr Ripley, with an intro courtesy of a friendly film fanatic from the magazine Time Out.

While the nights are packed with sights, sounds and things to do, the days sprawl-out like sun-warmed cats, keeping a more leisurely pace. Water sports are launched occasionally from the kayak and paddle-board jetty, but, for the most part, the rest of the island sits wrapped in a hushed, hazy aura of relaxation and warmth. Chilled activities abound, like yoga nidra, for example, which draws a quiet crowd to the shaded forest platform, close to white-swathed massage chairs with views of the shimmering ocean. All the while, talks run frequently in the cinema pavilion and drinks do the rounds at the harbour, where you're never short of intrepid divers, hurling themselves from the concrete blocks. 

All in all, it's a really good time and a great way to detach from urban anxieties and the like. For us, there was only one place we really wanted to be throughout the day, and that was in the water. In terms of clarity and temperature, the waters around the island were near perfect, teeming with fish and washing gently over subtle coral formations and sculptured rocks, dotted with urchins (the only downside).

During our time at Obonjan we led two adventure swims - one for beginners on the Saturday and one for intermediates on the Sunday, before sunset. On Saturday the currents wrapped around the head of the island and dealt us a few choppy blows. Nevertheless, the whole gang swam on in a chuckling, chatting bunch and it seemed as though everyone had a very special, natureful experience. Fortunately we managed to reunite everyone with their flip-flops as well. 

On the Sunday, Poseidon laid his trident to rest and decided to bless and soothe the Adriatic, supplying us with clear, undisturbed waters. Our group doubled in size, seeming even more eager to push themselves out into wilder waters, shepherded by the girls as they paddled back and forth on their kayaks. Congratulations are in order for the four brave swimmers who went on after our group stopped and the kayaks were returned. They circled the entire island, completing a swim of 5km! 

It was wonderful to join you all out there, escaping the confines of the pool in our tight-knit group. We were so overwhelmed and delighted with the turnout. To see so many islanders and fellow aquatic souls up for the adventure, donning caps and goggles, regardless of age or ability, only to come out grinning on the other side - this was very special for us. We hope it was enjoyable for you too. We loved meeting you all and hearing your stories. We hope that you feel encouraged to get out and swim wild more often. And who knows, perhaps we'll get to share the water with some of you again next year.

The three of us also gave a talk at the pavilion before the final swim, where we discussed our Arctic expeditions and the origin of the Wild Swimming Brothers. All you fellow Obonjan-ees - we hope you took something away from this and enjoyed your whole island experience as much as we did. As it turns out, Croatia is great for wildlife too. We even saw two bottlenose dolphins on the boat ride back from Obonjan, a snake in Krka National Park and countless varieties of fish and insects.

If you're still on the fence as to whether or not you want to check out the island of Obonjan next year, you should definitely give it a shot. And who knows, we might even be invited back, in which case we'll be assembling another happy wild swimming army to explore more of the lukewarm Croatian waters - all the more reason to get involved!

Finally, we'd like to say a huge thank you to Jo Keeling of Ernest Journal for inviting us out and allowing us to be a part of the Creative Exploration weekend!

Jack Hudson