It is 3am and the sun is just starting to rise in the sleepy village of Białowieża in eastern Poland not far from the Belarusian border. A light mist surrounds the traditional wooden houses whose inhabitants have not yet stirred while the birds chatter noisily in the trees and rooftops above us.
We are going in search of the bison, deer, wolves and boar that roam wild in the Białowieża National Park, which is home to Europe’s only remaining primeval forest.
Our guide Michał explains that there are no guarantees we would see any of these animals as he drives us to a clearing next to the thick forest on the edge of the village. The skies by now are a striking crimson colour as the sun continues to rise and we get out of the car at the appropriately named Żubrowa (Bison) Street where we are greeted by a small herd of grazing bison. Although they are Europe’s largest mammals, weighing as much as 900kg, they are also extremely shy and only come out at dawn and dusk to feed before retreating into the forest during the day-time away from the prying eye of humans.
With its abundant wildlife, Białowieża was, for many centuries, the hunting ground of the tsars and later, Hermann Goering. The bison were hunted to near extinction in the first part of the 20th Century and although they have been reintroduced again, they still remain extremely vulnerable not least because of their limited gene pool.
Our journey continues through the fairytale forest and we catch fleeting glimpses of rare woodpeckers, wild boar and deer along the way. We then make our way through the big, wooden gate to the special protection area of the forest, a Unesco heritage site which is accessible only with an accredited guide.
“Welcome to Europe 2,000 years ago,” Michał says as the gates close behind us. Sometimes described as a ‘Garden of Eden’ this swampy wilderness evokes romantic notions of what Europe was like before humans settled there and built towns and cities. Tall oaks, spruce and pines create a shaded canopy and the smell of wild garlic and rich, damp vegetation hangs in the air. Without human intervention, the forest is constantly regenerating and as trees die and fall, fungi, moss and other plants start to form in the nutrient-rich, decomposing bark.
Michał points out the footprints left by animals on the ground and my spine tingles at the thought of wild boar and wolves crossing this path just a couple of hours before we do.
Although the primeval forest is regularly visited by members of the scientific community and a small number of tourists Michał says that it could be under threat from foresters who want to use the wood for commercial purposes.
The forest may support a diverse ecosystem but some locals see the dead wood on the ground as a waste. Instead, they want to create areas of managed woodland containing the types of trees suitable for logging rather than those that occur naturally. The forest has been protected since the First World War; it has survived the turbulence of the Second World War (perhaps perversely because of Goering’s links to it) and the communist era. It would be a tragedy if it were destroyed at time when we are more knowledgeable than ever about this area of outstanding natural beauty.
– How to get there: We flew to Warsaw from Stansted Airport. It takes around four hours to drive to Białowieża. There is good range of places to stay from camp sites to hostels and bed and breakfasts. There are also a couple of upmarket hotels including the Twin Peaks-esque Hotel Żubrówka.