EVA KRAFCZYK visits a snowy paradise virtually untouched for decades.
The rundown hunting lodge at the end of Bialowieza Park on the Polish border with Belarus has seen better days. Not so long ago, it housed a number of Communist dignitaries, including Soviet politburo members who probably shared a love of vodka with 19th century aristocratic hunters.
The view from the lodge, however, is still beautiful, much as it was when Russian Czars came to the tiny provincial village to hunt bears, wolves and deer. A snow-covered plain stretches afar. Oaks, pines, beeches and limes have grown to impressive heights over the centuries.
Today, only the horse harnessed to our wooden sleigh is in any danger of getting into a sweat, yet Bialowieza national park ranger Pan Jurek, a stocky man with blond hair and grey eyes, has little use for scarves, hats or gloves. Fortunately, blankets are always on hand for shivering guests. Better wrap them around you closely,” he warns. “It can get quite chilly if you sit still for a while.”
The horse is anxious to get going and has to be reined in while passengers mount the sleigh. Jurek flicks the whip, and the horse is off.
The sleigh creaks and the first paces on the frozen surface prove hard work. Soon, horse and sleigh glide out of the palace park over the vast, Puszcza Bialwieska plain, or Bialowieza heath. The wind is icy and the coachman is soon flushed, but shows no sign of discomfort – unlike his passengers, whose fingertips feel like solid ice when the sleigh stops outside Park Narodowy’s big, wooden gates.
“Looks more like Jurassic Park,” muses one. Jurek lights a cigarette and announces: “Last opportunity. Smoking is strictly forbidden in the park.”
The laws within the ‘protected zone’ apply to both park rangers and visitors as there has been no human interference in 85 years, since Poland’s oldest national park was founded. A Unesco World Heritage site, Bialowieza forest is the last remaining primeval forest in Europe, its vast 150,000 hectare territory covering parts of Poland and Belarus.
A walk through the protected zone is not easy – limited numbers of visitors are allowed to enter the reserve and must be accompanied by a ranger. There are no roads; only pedestrians, bicycles and horse carts are admitted.
Giant oaks and firs soar skywards. Thick, green moss carpets the few mighty trunks that have not been blanketed in snow. The forest is a vision in black and white on a cold winter’s day, and is resplendent in green and golden hues in summer sunshine.
Mother Nature is in control here,” Jurek notes. “Some of the trees are old and die, and then they just collapse.”
The oldest oaks are up to 400 years old – impressive giants of the forest. Only when a felled tree blocks the paths can the rangers cut the wood and remove it.
“That can take days,” Jurek sighs. “Machinery is not permitted in the protected zone, so it’s all done manually.”
The roar of machines would disrupt the silence otherwise broken only by chirping birds and creaking twigs.
The coachman points to the right as the path forks: only three more kilometres, and we’d be in Belarus, he tells us. Despite the border area, there is not much smuggling. “People who try to smuggle immigrants into the country pick less dangerous paths,” we’re told.
For the forest is a real wilderness. Most of the 15,000 species found there are as harmless as insects, bugs and butterflies. But an encounter with rutting deer, wild boars or hungry wolves, could be dangerous.
“The wolves keep the natural balance in here, save us from unnecessary interfering,” Jurek says. The law of the jungle rules here. Weak, old or sick animals are most likely to fall prey. Only the ‘king of the forest’ demands a respectful distance from even the most hungry wolf.
No other species is as strongly linked to the Bialowieza forest as the wild bison. Almost extinct in early 20th century, they were saved by zoologists from various countries and set free in Bialowieza. Now almost 400 roam free in the forest – the largest bison population in Europe. Every visitor to the forest hopes to spot bison, and so the sleigh riders crane their necks on the lookout out for the massive creatures … to no avail.
“Even if we are only taking the paths, it would take five or six hours to cross the park,” Jurek says, and everyone pulls the blankets a bit closer, flinching involuntarily.
After about 90 minutes, the sleigh arrives back at the hunting lodge. Everyone but Jurek is frozen stiff, despite the blankets. But the sleigh ride through the forest has been worth the near-frostbite. “I feel like Anna Karenina,” says one passenger. “Only the furs are missing.””