In eastern Poland, straddling the border with Belarus, is an ancient forest where wild European bison roam.
That’s reason enough to visit Białowieża National Park, but its greenery is a marvel too, little touched by human activity and home to numerous species of animals and plants.
While borders and human populations around it have dramatically altered, this remarkable natural refuge has endured, as Tim Richards discovers.
Entering the ancient forest
‘It’s like the entrance to Jurassic Park,’ jokes park guide Łukasz Ławrysz, as we reach the edge of the Strictly Protected Area. He has a point. Its gate is an ancient-looking timber structure, topped with wooden beams crudely spelling out ‘Park Narodowy’ (National Park).
Although this Unesco-World-Heritage-listed national park was established in 1921, its gateway looks as though it could be a relic from a forgotten ancient world. It seems fitting, as that’s exactly what this protected reserve is: the last stand of a primeval forest which once stretched across northern Europe.
Thanks to Polish kings and Russian tsars who liked to hunt in the area, this snippet of a vanished Europe has been more or less preserved in its original state.
The term ‘primeval’ is actually misleading as the forest hasn’t remained entirely untouched by human activity. But it’s fair to say it’s had minimal human interference, as the area within the protected zone is bounded by rivers, making it relatively inaccessible.
Given this special status, it’s surprising to learn from Łukasz that only 20% of visitors to Białowieża National Park enter the Strictly Protected Area, but it's possible the requirement to hire a guide discourages some people from entering. The result, though, is that visiting remains a special and uncrowded experience.
Searching for creatures great and small
It was the national park’s isolation that made it the perfect place to reintroduce the European bison, which had died out in the wild after the last free bison was shot by a poacher in 1919. As bison still existed in captivity, it was possible to start a breeding program in a facility on the edge of the forest in 1929. By 1953 the population had increased to the point that the creatures could be reintroduced into their natural leafy home. Since then, the wild population has slowly increased to almost 600 of the massive beasts.
It’s unlikely we’ll see them as we walk through a small corner of the park, though, as the bison tend to keep away from humans. Still, there are many other creatures to spot, and a medley of bird songs fill the air. The local avian population is many and varied, says Łukasz, as he rattles off a list of winged inhabitants: chaffinch, robin, pygmy owl, tawny owl, warbler, woodpecker and cuckoo.
Bigger forest creatures include wild boars, lynx, deer, elk and wolves. I’m not quite so keen to encounter the last of these, given their fearsome reputation, though wolves are reportedly also shy towards humans.
It’d be easy to be disappointed by the low chance of encountering one of these larger mammals, but any despondency is offset by the park’s abundant flora. The leaves overhead create a dense, sun-dappled canopy and edible plants are plentiful – wild garlic, strawberries and blueberries all grow here, but remain unpicked. Along with the ferns and other ground-level foliage at our feet, they form a landscape so luminous and verdant you’d assume it was produced by a filter if you spotted it on Instagram.
But it’s real and remarkably relaxing as I breathe the cool fresh air – it’s up to 5°C cooler under the canopy. I can feel myself become calmer as we walk, as if responding to some preurban affinity with the ageless forest.
The circle of life
Here and there dead trunks lie on their sides, acting as homes for insects and fungus as they slowly decay.
'We call this the afterlife of the tree, says Łukasz. 'Forests don’t need human beings around in order for them to grow. All you need is sunshine, water, earth and time.'
Underlining this sentiment is a mighty oak, still standing after 500 years. It’s one of the park’s great survivors, given that the German army reportedly chopped down many such trees during its occupation of the area during the First World War.
Nearby we pause by a dead linden tree which has a new linden growing inside its trunk, using the same root system. Could it be regarded as basically the same tree? If so, it could be thousands of years old.
Legends of the forest
Leaving the reserve, we head for the European Bison Show Reserve outside the village of Białowieża. This scientific study centre and breeding facility also acts as a zoo, exhibiting animals of the forest.
This is where I finally see bison for the first time, as several of the huge creatures lounge under a tree within a grassy enclosure. Even in the moulting season between winter and summer, when their hides look patchy, they’re still impressive. They’re also big – an adult bull can weigh up to 900kg. Elsewhere in the reserve are deer, tarpan (an ancient horse breed) and that impressive predator, the wolf.
Visiting the reserve is admittedly nothing like being immersed within the forest, but it does offer the chance to see larger creatures that aren’t so easy to spot in the woods. The two experiences therefore work well together – a walk through the national park paints the emotional picture, while the reserve fills in the factual details.
And although I leave without having seen any of the forest's animals in the wild, I console myself with the thought that they’re living as nature intended, hidden somewhere within the mysterious leafy beauty of Białowieża National Park.
Making it happen
You can organise the required guide at the helpful PTTK office in Białowieża. It lies at the southern entrance to Palace Park.
As Białowieża is a popular getaway destination for Poles, there’s plenty of accommodation across each budget category. Good choices near Palace Park include the inexpensive but comfortable Unikat, and the upmarket Hotel Żubrówka.
It’s easiest to get to the park by car, but there are public transport options which generally involve a transit through the cities of Białystok and/or Hajnówka.
Tim Richards travelled to Białowieża National Park with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.