Got an early start for the three-hour train trip to Bialystok, arriving at the train station around noon to catch the bus for Bialowieza National Park. But where was the bus, or the bus station for that matter? I had a feeling it would be not too far from the train station which proved to be the case. A ticket seller in the train station waved her arms to direct me to the bus station where another ticket seller waved in the direction of the bus which was just boarding.
After discovering that the room I reserved but couldn’t find was operated by a woman who spoke not a single word of English, I blew off the reservation and expanded my budget to include the glorious four-star Hotel Zubrowka at the edge of the park entrance. Good move!
Bialowieza National Park is part of Bialowieza Forest, the last primeval forest remaining in Europe. The forest extends across the border with Belarus and comprises 370,000 acres. On the Polish side, the forest includes 154,000 acres of which 25,989 is fenced off as a strictly protected reserve and National Park. That area can only be entered with a guide and even with a guide visits are limited to a small area. The forest area is flat and webbed with a network of hiking and biking trails that weave discreetly through the tall trees and meander outward from small villages.
Here is where the European bison roam! Nearly extinct in 1925, careful management has increased their numbers to around 800. Wise to the murderous ways of humans, bisons keep their distance but do make regular appearances in unpredictable locations.
The forest has remained unmolested because for centuries it was used as hunting grounds for the Polish nobility. The entrance to the National Park lies a few kilometres from my hotel. In between is the Palace Park where a few carefully preserved royal buildings dot the parkland. Although not all the trees are native, it turns out that I saw more birds there than in the National Park. Birds know no boundaries.
Once I got settled, I set about exploring the park on foot.
In the morning I arranged for an English-speaking guide to enter the National Park. Meanwhile, I rented a bike to explore the Palace Park at leisure. I pedaled slowly up and down the wide lanes noting that the birdsong background was completely different from the soundscape in the Roya valley even though I could not identify the birds. I was pleased that many of the trees were labeled: common oak, large-leafed lime, aspen, silver birch.
Research revealed that the small snake that darted onto my path was a harmless grass snake. I had no problem identifying the mosquitoes which bred happily in the park’s ponds and streams.
We met Johanna, our guide, at 4pm and set out to the park. Along the way, she was delighted to hear the rare “green warbler“, normally found only in India and only recently spotted in Bialowieza. We also spotted shrike and a red-bellied flycatcher.
I now understand why birdwatchers invariably carry powerful cameras: the birds are so beautiful and the glimpses so fleeting.
Strolling the park, I was awed by the towering size of the trees.
Fallen trees were everywhere which is a natural and essential part of forest regeneration.
Outside the protected area and on the way back to the village, we spotted marsh harriers and the rare spotted eagle which makes its home in the park.
Rousted myself out of bed at 5am when the sun was already up for an hour, I met the guide for a 6am walk. Good bird-watching! We soon spotted a tawny owl hiding in the branches. On the morning walk we saw traces of red deer (but alas no deer) and traces of wild boar as well as an assortment of busy beetles, a toad and a vole. Woodpeckers are highlights of the park and, after much searching, we spotted the famed whiteback woodpecker. More shrike, marsh warblers, blackbirds and finches added to the morning pleasure.
The weather turned rainy in the afternoon and I was glad to avail myself of the hotel’s indoor pool and luxurious spa.
I had arranged an afternoon departure in order to leave the morning free for more exploration. It was really not enough. Bike trails wind on and on through the forest. I chose a relatively short route to Mlejsce Mocy, otherwise known as the “power spot” or “magic place“. A wide carriage lane led to a turn-off onto a bike path through thick forest and then a clearing. Several large stones are arranged in a sort of circle in the midst of a glade overgrown with oaks, pines and spruces. It’s believed that ancient peoples gathered here in rites to ward off evil spirits.
Supposedly the earth emits positive radiation (good vibes?) and subtle vibrations that have healing powers. I don’t know about that. I walked round and round and didn’t feel vibrations but I did have a terrible time pulling myself away from the place. It just felt so good to be there.
A curious thing occurred when I left. I decided to return to the lane and pedal further through the forest. Along I went listening to the birds, enjoying the sunshine. When I shifted into higher gear my bike chain slipped and, with some annoyance, I dismounted to fix it. After that was done, I decided to check the time on my phone. I was horrified to find it reading 13.15. My check out time was 14.00! My bus was at 15.00! I set off for the hotel pedaling like a demon across potholes, swerving to avoid branches, working up a major sweat. When I reached reception, panting, I asked what time it was. “12.40!” Sure enough, I checked my phone and that was the time. Magic? A phone touched by a magnetic field? You decide.
Meanwhile, absorb the happy vibes of the magic place. Or the magic vibes of the happy place?
As I left for an overnight in Bialystok before the morning train to Krakow, I thought I had bungled badly. This place deserves at least a week of exploration. I had only scratched the surface.