27-28 December 2018
On Thursday 27th December, as Christmas celebrations slid into the rearview mirror, we packed early for a side trip and piled into Sebastian and Karolina’s cars and headed northeast. The road took us through a landscape of fields and villages, small towns and the valley of the Bug River.
The architecture took on a distantly east European flavour, the houses made of wood and with steeply angled roofs: here and there are signs in Cyrillic script. Among the many churches that dot the landscape are the domes which suggest we are moving into a place where the Eastern Orthodox church tradition soothes the souls of the locals. Not far away is Belarus.
After several hours and many Polish pop songs blaring from the car radio we arrived and unfold ourselves from the cars. In the chilly air we have arrived in Biełowieża.
Biełowieża is a village whose main focus are the vast tracts of forest that surround it and beyond the short distance to the Belarus frontier. One hundred and fifty square kilometres have been transformed into the Biełowieski Park Narodowy, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site which preserves one of the last remnants of the ancient primeval temperate forest which once stretched across Europe. It is also home to the world’s largest population of Żubr, or European Bison.
In the wintry air, devoid of urban development – and at this time also of tourists, one can feel a freshness and quiet which indicates a wild land. The pine forest stretches off in all directions surrounding a small village whose streets are lined with tourist bars and restaurants which are mostly shuttered for the winter. A few cosy places ply their trade, selling simple and warm food while a stove burns in the corner. Snow is everywhere.
Our bellies full, we drive out of the village along the single road, turning off to arrive at the Rezerwat Pokazowy Żubrów, a modern wildlife park and interpretative centre for the national park. Beyond a modern multi-media museum complex are large, snow-covered enclosures where, in the late afternoon, we can see examples of local wildlife: wolves, lynxes, deer, wild boar, and the bison themselves. We are practically the only people there, and it’s incredibly atmospheric. The bison are colossal animals, the heaviest land species in Europe, their ancestors wandering in forest herds since before humans hunted and destroyed their habitats, and likely bred from them their bovine cousins.
As the shadows of an early evening rise under the pines, we make for the car, and, beyond the reserve boundary fences, far into the forest, a pack of wild wolves howl. It’s a spine-tingling moment that none of us will ever forget.
Far from our friend’s home in Warsaw, we agree to rent rooms for the night in the Museum of Nature and Forest of the Białowieża National Park, a large but mostly empty government-owned hotel and museum on the other side of the village. It is a modern building, built in the communist era, among the trees and adjacent to the remnants of a royal hunting lodge. The rooms are reasonably priced, warm and functional.
In the evening we head out for dinner in a cheerful restaurant, eating wild boar and sipping on soup and strong Polish beer. Later, the tired kids in bed, we stroll a short distance to a bar, to enjoy delicious Polish dessert, coffee and a sip or two some very fine Vodka liqueors.
In the morning we head out again, our hosts joining us for a walk in the empty forest. A long boardwalk leads us through a flooded part of the landscape, the still water frozen to ice around the trees, snow piled on decaying logs. It’s a beautiful scene, alien to our lives in Western Australia, and we are privileged to be here. How long will the efforts of the Polish people to preserve these wonders resist the relentless march of ‘progress’ which has trimmed this ancient – ancient – forest to a tiny corner of the great continent?
Our walk comes to an end and we pile into the cars for the long drive home. On the way, our hosts stop for a walk among the haunting crosses of the Orthodox pilgrimage site of the Holy Mountain of Grabarka. Considered by Orthodox Poles to be the holiest site in the country, it is told that here an 18th Century cholera epidemic was stopped by prayer and bathing in the holy waters that flow through a nearby stream. Today it is marked by numberless crosses brought by pilgrims, and a small but beautiful wooden church atop the steep hill. Inside the church’s dark interior we stood, reverent for a few minutes at the icons which cover every wall.
Soon we were on the road again, the sights of eastern Poland fresh in our memories, but turning into a surreal dream as we return to the solid urban surrounds of Warsaw from a land far away in time.