In the wilds of an an­cient for­est

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GILDA COW­ELL ELIMBAH, QUEENS­LAND

It was get­ting close to mid­night and we were still jolt­ing along nar­row coun­try roads. There was some com­fort in the knowl­edge that our ac­com­mo­da­tion for the night was booked, but in ru­ral Poland, up on the east­ern bor­der with Be­larus, we couldn’t ex­pect a five-star ho­tel with 24hour re­cep­tion.

We hadn’t in­tended to be so late. Time had slipped away from us; de­spite the lack of a com­mon lan­guage, we’d spent the day with a hos­pitable Pol­ish fam­ily who fed us mush­room piero­gies and quince schnapps.

We were then on our way to Bialowieza Na­tional Park, a vir­tu­ally un­touched rem­nant of the an­cient for­est that once cov­ered north­east Europe.

It’s a place where wild preda­tors and prey still roam freely and is so spe­cial that a guide is re­quired to ac­cess the pro­tected zone.

The park is home to huge old trees and to Euro­pean bi­son, lynx, beavers, wild boar, elk, in­nu­mer­able birds — and wolf packs.

Hid­den in the wild­flow­ers and moss on the for­est floor are the lonely graves of par­ti­sans killed dur­ing the dark days of World War II.

One day we were up at 4am walk­ing to the for­est edge in the hope of see­ing bi­son, the shaggy icon of the park, come down to the cleared land to feed.

Golden birds that our guide iden­ti­fied as yel­lowham­mers hopped in the low bushes and a pair of corn crakes called to each other from the tan­gled grass on ei­ther side of the path. A roe deer ap­peared briefly but dis­ap­peared back into the thick for­est with a skit­tish flash of its white rump. Rip­ples spread on the sur­face of the lit­tle stream as beavers dived on their dams.

The bi­son were else­where that morn­ing we’d risen so early. How­ever, wait­ing in the bone cold, amid the ab­sence of any hu­man noise, while the sun rose slowly and burnt through the mist, span­gling the spi­ders’ webs, was an ex­pe­ri­ence to be trea­sured.

And, yes, when we fi­nally ar­rived at our ac­com­mo­da­tion, there was some­one wait­ing up for us.

When my hus­band’s head cold de­vel­oped into a hack­ing cough, our lovely hosts brought chicken soup and dosed him on heal­ing honey from their own bee­hives deep within the for­est. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion, with full postal ad­dress, to: [email protected]­tralian.com.au. Colum­nists will re­ceive a se­lec­tion from Aus­tralian sta­tioner Notemaker that in­cludes a MiGoals pass­port wal­let ($29.95), Del­fon­ics can­vas pen­cil case ($16.95) and a cloth­bound Mole­sk­ine Voyageur note­book ($44.95). More: notemaker.com.au.

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