Howls and whis­pers

The Guardian - Travel - - Green Hostels - Vil­nius

Dawn in the Nal­i­boki for­est: mist over the marshes and bats skit­ter­ing in birch trees. Above the clear­ing, stars are fad­ing into a pale sky.

We’re in deep­est God-knows-where in one of Europe’s largest wild forests. Zo­ol­o­gist Vadim Si­dorovich crouches in the half-light study­ing the track; I’m barely breath­ing, so in­tense is the si­lence. A brown bear, Vadim says. He traces a fin­ger over the prints of its front paws, and – two ovals – its back paws.

I can see the claw marks. A dozen bears roam this part of the for­est.

But we’re not re­ally here for bears: 30 min­utes later we’re gaz­ing at a meadow haloed in golden light, with roe deer

graz­ing in long grass. This is wolf ter­ri­tory. The 2,000 sq km Nal­i­boki, in cen­tral Be­larus, also has one of the world’s high­est den­si­ties of lynx, elk, bi­son, storks and ea­gles. Tour op­er­a­tor Ex­plore’s new long week­end to Be­larus, how­ever, is all about wolves.

Af­ter a day in the cap­i­tal, Minsk, vis­i­tors spend two nights with Vadim and his fam­ily at a for­est eco-sta­tion. It feels like the home of a fairy­tale woods­man, with hand­made terracotta table­ware and fur­nish­ings made of pine logs. Wifi? Even the mo­bile reception is sketchy. “I like peas­ant life,” Vadim says. “Peo­ple in this for­est two cen­turies ago were hap­pier than a bil­lion­aire.”

A former univer­sity pro­fes­sor, Vadim quit academia 15 years ago for re­search in the Nal­i­boki. Wolves are his spe­cial­ity. Around 40 mi­grate into the for­est from late Septem­ber to breed; quadru­ple that num­ber by late Jan­uary. Shy, noc­tur­nal and swift, wolves make elu­sive sub­jects. For Vadim, “to see one is God’s gift”.

That af­ter­noon, we walk deep into the mossy for­est. As we peer into aban­doned dens, Vadim chats about wolves as if they are old friends: why a mother ro­tates cubs be­tween 30 or so dens; how most cubs are killed by lynx, which see wolves as com­peti­tors; that pack mem­bers take turns to cub-sit.

We’re en route to his mo­tion-ac­ti­vated cam­eras. Vadim’s hop­ing for images of a wolf and her cubs that he’s been track­ing – each year fewer wolves breed here.

In western Europe, huge, dense forests come loaded with ter­ror – like Red Rid­ing Hood or Hansel and Gre­tel, you en­ter at your peril. In Be­larus, they see forests dif­fer­ently: the Nal­i­boki is a larder stocked with berries and mush­rooms. It’s also a refuge, where se­cond world war par­ti­sans hid when Be­larus was crushed be­tween Rus­sian and Ger­man troops.

It still is a refuge, re­ally. Vadim says: “For me, the for­est is like home for a child. It is a warm feel­ing. Here, you for­get about au­thor­i­ties. You live like the grasses grow.”

Af­ter two hours we reach the cam­eras. Images show a bear cross­ing a stream, a lynx on a fallen trunk, an elk and her calf, a truf­fling wild boar and there, fi­nally, a sil­ver-brown wolf, trot­ting away. But no cubs. Vadim is wor­ried that the for­est no longer sup­ports cubs. On suc­ces­sive jeep safaris we see ca­per­cail­lie, foxes, deer, white cranes and storks, and all kinds of rap­tors. Vadim points out a tree scratched by wolf claws. But cubs? No sign.

On our last evening, Vadim leads me along­side a swampy chan­nel. You can tell that bi­son are close: grass where they’ve rolled looks like it’s been ro­to­vated; trees are tufted with black hair where they’ve scratched. There’s a hot, musky animal stink. As we turn a corner there’s a rum­ble of hooves and the snap­ping of branches as some­thing large smashes away. It stops. Among the trees, I can make out two bi­son star­ing at us. It’s mag­i­cal, like some­thing from a dream or a myth.

A bit like the Nal­i­boki it­self, in fact. Back in Minsk, it seems im­plau­si­ble that so dis­tinct a world ex­ists. If this trip has a prob­lem it’s that it’s pitched as a wolfwatch­ing hol­i­day. Fail to see one and you might leave dis­ap­pointed. Yet the Nal­i­boki is a trans­for­ma­tional place. Out there in mo­bile-free God-knows-where, days swell and silent, inky nights thrill. To stay a while is to re­alise that life’s pauses are as en­rich­ing as its ad­ven­tures.

There’s an email wait­ing for me in Minsk. It’s from Vadim – a photo from that mo­tion-cam­era. I click it open. In a pretty birch clear­ing stand two wolves – and around them a lit­ter of 10 gam­bol­ing cubs.

• The trip was pro­vided by Ex­plore

(ex­plore.co.uk), whose five-day wolfwatch­ing trip, over week­ends in Fe­bru­ary, March, Septem­ber, Oc­to­ber and De­cem­ber, costs from £969, in­clud­ing flights, ac­com­mo­da­tion, trans­fers and guid­ing

polic­ing at its best: a sort of “please leave this fa­cil­ity as you would like to find it” phi­los­o­phy for an en­tire ar­chi­pel­ago.

In fact, the only of­fi­cial­dom we saw on our four day-visit was a group of bib­wear­ing vol­un­teers. Far from bran­dish­ing rule­books, they were there to pick up lit­ter that had washed up on the tide.

Of all the rules, two stood out: no cars and no more than 2,200 vis­i­tors a day. The re­sult is a won­der­ful, back-to­na­ture tran­quil­lity. The main is­lands – Mon­teagudo, or North Is­land, and Mon­te­faro (also known as Light­house or Mid­dle Is­land) – cover be­tween them around 4.5 sq km, so there’s more than enough space for ev­ery­one.

Plus, most folk tend to stick to the main beaches. With its travel brochure looks, the sweep­ing white Praia das Ro­das, which links the two main is­lands, at­tracts the lion’s share of at­ten­tion. But walk a lit­tle and you’ll have the pro­tected coves of Praia de Nosa Señora or Praia das Figueres al­most en­tirely to your­self.

What’s more, the draw of the is­lands’ salt-white sands leaves its in­land haunts even more un­clut­tered. Of the net­work of well-sign­posted trails, the two most re­ward­ing paths head up to Monte

Faro, the high­est of the is­lands’ three is­lands stand out is they way they have been or­gan­ised as a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion: to my mind, they are a world-class ex­am­ple of eco-tourism done well. So what’s their se­cret?

Strange as it may sound for a place with a pi­rate past, rules play a big part in mak­ing great hol­i­days in the Cies. The Span­ish na­tional park au­thor­ity, which man­ages the is­lands, loves its re­glas. No leav­ing rub­bish. No wan­der­ing off the paths. No camp fires. No loud music. No fish­ing. No unau­tho­rised camp­ing. No harming the an­i­mals (even when they steal your son’s ice-cream). No re­mov­ing shells or sand, stones or plants.

It all sounds strict, for sure, yet the re­al­ity was very dif­fer­ent. Ev­ery­one is left to their own de­vices. This is self-

Wolf haul Win­ter is the best time to spot wolves in Nal­i­boki for­est

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