Skip to comments.An enchanted forest (pictures)
Posted on 02/27/2006 11:18:21 AM PST by lizol
Mat Schulz goes hunting for the endangered bison in a primeval corner of Poland.
For most people, Poland is connected with images of factories, coalmines and shipyards. But between the industrial landscapes there are mountains, lakes and sea. Most surprisingly, on the border with Belarus, Poland also has mainland Europe's last primeval forest - 8000 years old and 1250 square kilometres in size.
The Bialowieza Forest still exists because Polish and Lithuanian royalty used it for hunting from the 14th century. When, in the 19th century, the land became part of Russia, the tsar reserved it for the same purpose.
Today the heart of the tourist park next to the forest is located on the site where the tsar's palace stood until World War II, when the Nazis destroyed it.
I first went to Bialowieza Forest a few years ago. I remember that I was sent to an office in a hotel to find out how to visit the most protected area of the forest. The man there presented me with the following problem. Almost all of the national park is a controlled area and nobody is allowed to visit it without a guide. If a tour group arrived, I could pay a small amount of money to join it. Otherwise, I had to pay a large fee to have my own guide. If no group appeared, if I refused to pay the fee, then I could forget about entering the protected section.
"Is it likely there'll be a group?" I asked.
"There may be, there may not be."
"But what's the chance?"
"Impossible to say. If a group turns up, that means there is a group, and you can go. Otherwise ..." He looked at me and smiled. "There is one other person waiting."
The other person was sitting on the hotel's front step. Clean-cut and spectacled, he was a Norwegian student. He had some impressive-looking camera equipment - his passion was wildlife photography. In his homeland, he'd taken more than 3000 photographs of wild moose. His last holiday was to North America, where he'd photographed a hundred or so grizzly bears.
The Norwegian nature photographer was unable to understand the forest bureaucrat. The photographer believed that all tourists had an inalienable right to good service. This was because he was a citizen of a supremely Western country where the consumer decides. I, on the other hand, was nonplussed. Having lived in Poland for a few years, I had no expectation that I would be treated otherwise.
Discovering that I knew some Polish, the photographer sent me off to get regular updates from the forest bureaucrat. "It's impossible to say whether or not there will be a group," I kept relaying to the photographer as his outrage increased.
He glanced angrily at his watch. "I've got a day. One day. And I have to get a photo of a bison."
He turned to face me. "It's the whole point of this trip!"
"Why have you only got a day?"
"I want to get to Auschwitz tomorrow."
"But if getting a photo of a bison is the point of your trip, then you can put off Auschwitz."
"I don't mean that getting a photo of a bison is the only thing I want to do. I mean that it's the point."
I knew what he was saying. A certain type of traveller requires a point. It performs the function of a hook upon which the cloak of the trip can be hung. A point can offer structure and meaning.
I have met Californians in Costa Rica in search of the perfect wave, a Panamanian in Guatemala searching for a particular wooden carving of Christ, an Australian in Germany hoping to locate the real version of a photographed castle he had once seen as a child. Here, now, was a Norwegian who needed a photo of a bison.
The Bialowieza National Park is famous for its bison. Once these animals populated all of Europe, but the clearing of forest killed them off. By World War I only 100 or so remained. Then, according to what version you get, either soldiers or the local population ate them.
Fortunately, 50 bison had been kept in captivity. In 1929, Poland started to reintroduce them into the forest, and now in the Polish section of the national park there are about 250.
Bison, or zubr in Polish, are associated with alcohol. The famous Zubrowka vodka, available in some Australian bottleshops, is produced in this region. Its name translates as "Bison Grass Vodka". Strands of the grass float in the yellowy liquid, infusing it with a delicate herbal taste. (Mix it with apple juice to make a titanka, a drink served in many cool Polish bars.)
According to the Bialowieza website (www.bpn.com.pl), the park contains about 10,999 other species of animal, including elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolves, foxes, martens, badgers, otters, ermines, beavers and bats. A small, wild Polish horse known as the tarpan became extinct towards the end of the 18th century, when its last numbers were crossbred with domestic horses. Animals that closely resemble the tarpan have been bred back into existence, and a few of them have been let loose in the forest. Apart from that, the park has more than 100 species of birds and birdwatchers from all over the world congregate here.
In terms of vegetation, the forest contains maple and oak trees up to 400 years old, and more than 1200 species of plant life.
The photographer was interested in none of this information. All he wanted was his photograph.
We decided to hire bikes, and he latched a tripod to the back of his. Using a map to navigate, we rode to the park's log gate. A sign declared: "Entry without a guide prohibited." On the left side of the entrance was a wooden hut, but there did not appear to be any guards around. Tentatively I pushed the gate open. It made a soft, squeaking sound. Panicky adrenaline rose up in my body, more suited to shoplifting than forest walks. "This is a bad idea," I whispered to the photographer.
With my senses heightened, the forest seemed even more beautiful: enormous, ancient oak trees rose above us to break through the darkness. Behind us we suddenly heard a vehicle; we scurried back out the gate to stand at the side of the road. A jeep pulled up and a guard stuck his face out the window to glare at us.
Afraid to re-enter the park, we decided to explore other parts of the forest, of which the protected park actually constitutes about a tenth. The forest bureaucrat had told us that the other nine-tenths appeared more or less the same, perhaps slightly less well preserved.
We rode for kilometres out of Bialowieza village along a main road. The forest surrounded us on both sides. We turned onto a dirt track, then another. The forest began to weave its spell on me: it had a fabled atmosphere, perfect for setting a fairytale. At times its darkness reached a point verging upon claustrophobic, but then light suddenly appeared through the tall branches, usually splintered but occasionally in a great, fiery blast.
The only other human beings we passed on that dirt track were a middle-aged Dutch couple. The photographer skidded to a halt in front of them, asking "Is there anything up there?"
Puzzled, the Dutchman replied that there was more forest. "It is beautiful," he said. The photographer explained his interest was specifically in bison. The Dutchman said he had seen no bison.
Cycling onward, the photographer scanned the forest with an increasing anxiety, unable to see its beauty for the possibility of bison. His focus became so intense that it was impossible to converse with him. It was, I thought, a pointless search. If there were only a couple of hundred bison in the whole forest, I reckoned that they would elude him.
But suddenly he applied the brakes of his bicycle, flying forward from its seat while reaching behind for his camera equipment. Acrobat-like, he seemed almost to land with his tripod and camera set up before him. "Bison," he whispered, lowering his body and shooting off into the forest. I tentatively followed.
Then I saw it: a male, its size closer to elephant than cow. It seemed to be chomping on a branch. The photographer was directly in front of its face, popping off shots. The bison moved back. The photographer moved forward. The bison angrily butted a tree with its enormous head.
On the internet there used to be a website called "The Bison Newsletter". Now sadly defunct, it contained a number of tips on how to handle and breed bison, and described how bulls are usually solitary, only joining a group for mating. The group usually consists of about a dozen animals. "Almost every [bison] breeder has stories about extraordinary behaviour connected with bison bulls," the newsletter stated. It then went on to explain how in Bialowieza "you find reports of bulls attacking the sledge horses used for hay transporting in winter. The reason for this behaviour does not seem to be known."
I retreated to sit on my bicycle, one foot resting on a pedal ready to fly away. A few hours of shared experience did not, after all, mean that I was actually friends with the photo-grapher - I certainly was not going to risk being gored on his account.
But he was not killed. The bison having disappeared into the forest, he walked slowly back to his bicycle. Although he said he had not taken any "great photos", he at least had a couple of shots.
It was as if the young man had been given a sedative. As he pedalled slowly back to Hotel Iwa, all the signs of anxiety had left his face; indeed, I began to feel that his mood was turning almost melancholy.
As we dined together that night, the photographer perused the game section of the menu. The last dish was steak of European bison. "They're serving an endangered species," he said. If this fact was astonishing, it paled in comparison with his attempt to actually order it. Disappointed to find that it wasn't on that night, he had a choice of deer, elk or wild boar. Telling me that he had already tried all of them, he settled for wild boar for a second time.
Sipping on his beer, he said, "I'm thinking of giving up nature photography."
"Why?" I asked, surprised.
"It feels sort of pointless."
When the point feels pointless, you definitely have a problem.
But that night I lay on my bunk bed with my eyes open, listening to the profound silence, the silence of an 8000-year-old forest, which surrounded me on all sides, and I felt dwarfed. Giving myself up to that feeling was also a kind of point.
From birds to bison I have returned to the Bialowieza Forest more than once over the past few years, and a few things have changed. It attracts more foreign tourists now - from Germany and elsewhere, many of them coming for the excellent birdwatching. But there are not so many of them to spoil the atmosphere.
The Hotel Iwa is no longer. Possibly it shut because it had a decidedly communist feel. In its place there are other choices, including a Great Western Hotel, with four stars and decidedly plush.
But the forest is most definitely the same. It still has that fabled, ancient atmosphere. To see the innermost realm you have to wait for a group, or you can hire a guide. If costs about $80 for one to 25 tourists. You can walk or cycle, take a horse and cart, and in winter ride on a sledge. Bison are still not usually spotted in the wild, but several kilometres from the tourist complex is a wildlife reserve containing bison, tarpans and other animals.
After viewing the bison, you can eat one if you are so inclined. The restaurant in the Best Western Hotel Zubrowka has Polish pierogi, a kind of ravioli, made with bison meat, costing $8 for seven large pieces. The restaurant also serves boar and roe deer. MS
Destination Bialowieza Forest GETTING THERE
From Warsaw you can catch one of several daily trains to Bialystok. This takes 2½ hours. From Bialystok there are two daily buses to the park gates, taking about two hours. Or you can take a taxi, for about $80.
A room in the four-star Best Western Hotel Zubrowka (48856812303) costs about $140 with breakfast. A double room with bathroom in the PPTK Hotel (48856812295) costs about $32. You can get a private room in a house in Bialowieza village, next to the park, for even less money. The PPTK Hotel can also arrange guided excursions into the forest's protected area.
"Ribs of a bison" path
Meadow of anemones
"Upper bog" reserve
Sculptured by nature
"Carska Tropina" Trail
Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.
neat story, thanks for the ping!
I LOVE Zubrowka. We have a polish restaurant across the street that serves the best crispy duck. We were there 2 weeks ago & an older lady tried to order her Zubrowka on the rocks (a big no no) & the polish waiter tried to stop her....she insisted.
The wait staff is very particular about how their vodka is served...you get a chilled shot or a martini...on the rocks is very bad form.
I like it very much too.
I think it's the best on the rocks, mixed with apple juice.
We call such a drink "apple pie" :-)
The polish waiter says NO GOOD!
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Strange, as all the people I know in Poland, who drink Zubrowka do it in a way, that I described.
The snobby no ice thing sounds more like something a french waiter might say. lol
Vodka and apple juice has been my standard drink for years!
Try it with Zubrowka vodka.
Delicious, I'm telling you.
PUNG Sue ;-)
They do serve a aple martini version just not on the rocks.
Maybe the CA Polish hate ice?
But is it possible to hate ice in CA? :-)
I prefer Russian vodka on the rocks though I've had Russians chid me for adding ice also.
(Polish Vodka 'Pravda' is very good also).