Don’t be mistaken. Bog walking does not comprise wading through wetlands. Estonia’s bogs are raised bogs, consisting of diverse organisms such as peat, moss, fungus and algae, which have grown higher over thousands of years. You literally need to climb up several metres onto the bog expanse.
The bog is akin to a large juicy sponge cake. Step off the wooden boardwalk or attempt to walk without proper bog shoes (similar to strapping large tennis racquets to your soles), and you will end up waist deep in (all of the above) wet organisms. Think quicksand – just much quicker.
The delight in bog walking is the entirely unfamiliar landscape. It’s difficult to describe, but imagine the closest thing to landing on an alien planet without having to leave earth.
Soomaa’s bogs – large and flat as far as the eye can see – are covered with small trees with almost no leaves. Although they are hundreds of years old, they have a life-long battle to grow because their roots are literally drowning in the acidic water of the bog. So when the sun sets, the diminutive bonsai-like trees surround you like ghostly skeletons.
Horror bog stories always include a lake with no bottom, making bog swimming a rather scary thought. But once you’ve tried it you feel remarkably refreshed. Some believe that the water quality rejuvenates the skin.
If you take into account how well preserved some ancient corpses that have been discovered in bog lakes all over northern Europe are, there could be some truth in the theory.
Bog swimming can build up a remarkable appetite – and thirst. This is where the nearby resort town of Pärnu comes in.
Ever since the first mud baths were built in Pärnu more than 170 years ago, this resort city specialised in pampering its visitors. We chose the spectacularly renovated Amande Villa for rabbit ballotine served with apricot marmalade, Pärnu pike with crab and potato tian finished off with crème brûlée, but later discovered that fish and chips from a café down any of Pärnu’s charming streets would provide just as much gastronomic satisfaction at a fraction of the price.
In a city with a party spirit like Pärnu it is close to illegal to ignore your thirst. Estonia is a country of beer drinkers, and they tend to alternate between their two most popular local brews – Saku and A. Le Coq – at the speed of a rolling barrel. And that is where we ended: The Rolling Beer in a small obscure courtyard near Nikolai Street.
A few words of advice. When they lock the doors and instruct you to smoke inside, it means you will stay inside, drink super-refined Estonian vodka poured along the blade of a long sword directly into your glass, be forced to play DJ, dance on tables and not be allowed out until daylight.
The most important thing is to remember the name of your hotel. I told the taxi driver it started with a V, but only came up with Villa Vesset one hour and 600 EEK later.
You have been warned. The word help in Estonian is “appi”. Use it when you fall in a bog or imprison yourself with the locals in a pub.
» Piet van Niekerk travelled with the Estonian Travel Board and Estonian Air