Naked, off the Croatian coast

Not that it mattered a fig-leaf for Guy Mansell, as he turned into Robinson Crusoe on a deserted island in the Adriatic

f you have a yearning for a remote escape but are concerned about the degree of isolation, then an old proverb from the Canadian woods makes a useful rule of thumb: "Be as far away from your neighbour so as not to hear his dog or axe, but close enough to see the wood-smoke."

Real Robinson Crusoe islands are too far away, so where should we look? Islets off the west coast of Scotland or Ireland, skerries in the Scillies or rocklets along the Norwegian coast sounded far too cold. The Crusoe in me wanted to come home suntanned and lean and wiry from swimming in crystal- clear warm water - but wasn't the Mediterranean far too crowded for that?

In fact the 140 islands in the 100 square miles that make up the Kornati National Park at the northern end of the Adriatic seemed perfect. They come in assorted styles and sizes, from stony flat islets that can be traversed in minutes to others over ten miles long with indentured bays that ascend to 1,000 feet peaks. Some are barren, bleached limestone outcrops, others are spattered with green from abandoned olive groves or woods of holm-oak and pine. The joy is that only two have any permanent habitation - seasonal marinas serving the needs of cruising yachts.

The once summer-only locals, whose livelihoods were fishing, sheep grazing or tending hand-me-down olive groves, have long been gone and submerged themselves into the European urban economic dream. As in the Tuscany and Umbria of 20 years ago, their stone-walled houses were simply abandoned and left to fall into disuse.

The Croatian Tourist Board has repaired around 30 bothies, including fishermen's cottages, and even a couple of lighthouses, and opened them up for self-catering. Primitive simplicity is their charm. Water from cisterns has to be pumped by hand and recently installed loos are flushed with a bucket of sea water. Some have generator-powered electricity, but light is mainly candles or lanterns. The only real concessions to modern life are the gas-fuelled fridges and cookers.

None of the islands has a shop, phone, vehicle, mule or, indeed, permanent residents. Tracks and pathways are overgrown and you have to carry your own food - though there is back-up from the "boatshop" that calls every few days with a mobile phone.

I was unaccompanied on the Croatia Airlines flight to Split.The first night, in the city, was in a hotel included in the package, as would be the last. There were just two hours in the early morning to buy the week's groceries before catching the boat. My journey was three hours, for others it might be as long as five.

The cottage and location were idyllic. It was a big island called Zut, and I had my own bay where a barrel-tiled roof poked out of the olive trees along the stony shoreline. It had its own jetty, where a kayak and row boat with an outboard engine (optional extras) waited. This was where I would play at being Crusoe.

There were two rooms, both clean, rustic and functional. The bedroom came with all linen, while the kitchen-cum-living room had a hand water- pump over a bowl, a large table, plus fridge and cooker. Outside but adjacent was a loo, with a fright- size spider, who I would politely chivvy into a harmless corner every morning.

That evening I sat on what was now my very own dock, with a delicious red wine called Babic. The sunset passed into starlight with the reflection of the Milky Way on the water enhanced by phosphorescent semaphores twinkling from the minuscule sea creatures below. On cloudy nights my "light shows" would be replaced either by far-off lightning or a raucous storm overhead. This was about the only routine and would last until my thoughts turned to dinner and bed. Reading by candlelight seemed impossible, making me wonder how Dickens wrote at all.

I had not brought a tape player or radio. There seemed so much to hear in the silence: a pair of ravens would honk their way to the island opposite every morning and gulls would shriek noisily while chasing anchovy shoals. Yachts sometimes came into the bay to moor at night and over half-a- mile away, human voices jarred the tranquillity.

Stepping over the clothes in my unpacked case every morning was the closest I came to wearing any. Clothes were as pointless as the money that lay beside them on the floor.

Crusoe explored, so did I. Mornings were busy with snorkelling, fishing and relocating my home-made foldaway prawn trap with hopes of a good catch. It was a bad contest with the same daily result: Adriatic One, Guy Nil. Fishing was moderately better with a few bony sea bream and a couple of Jacks.

Walking was kept to a minimum although tough shoes were essential on the rocky limestone pathways between the abundant clusters of rosemary, juniper, lavender, thyme, myrtle and sage.

Then, one morning, I heard the throb of a diesel. Through the binoculars I could make out the dot of the boat that had brought me. I had company. It must be Friday - and Friday was the day I was going home.

CROATIAN ISLANDS

GETTING THERE

Croatia Airlines (tel: 0181-563 0022) offers daily flights to Split via Zagreb from pounds 189 plus pounds 31 tax until 15 June. Transun (tel: 01865 798888) offers weekly flights to Split from pounds 179 including taxes.

WHERE TO STAY

Kornati Island Escape Packages are available from Europa Skylines (tel: 0171-226 4460). A cottage for two costs from pounds 255 to pounds 270 per person, including transfers from Split, seven nights' accommodation, taxes, service of a boatshop twice weekly, and fuel.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Croatian National Tourist Office (tel: 0181-563 7979).

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