A t dusk a last bar of orange burns low in the western sky. A silvery sheen covers meadows where corncrakes and tree frogs call under a yellow moon.
The ancient forest is now inky black. Somewhere within, wolves, lynx and elk are waking, but two fragments of its darkness have broken away and watch, silent and massive, as several humans draw closer through the dew-covered glade.
We are 60m from a pair of bison, 800kg relics of the vast, wild woodland that covered much of Europe for millennia, and which survives in all its misty, mysterious, Tolkienian glory in eastern Poland's Bialowieza Forest.
Bison rest in the forest by day, emerging to feed when the light fades. As these two bow their huge heads, one russet brown, the other almost black, we are close enough to hear them tearing up the grasses and wildflowers around their hooves.
One occasionally looks our group’s way, but they show no fear as we watch for as long as dusk allows, only retreating towards the glow of tiny Teremiski village when night has swallowed them up.
So ends another day in Bialowieza. Europe's biggest primeval forest is home to its largest population of bison. It is a precious, pristine habitat that, despite Unesco world heritage status, is now threatened by the logger's chainsaw.
Spanning the Polish-Belarusian border, Bialowieza (pronounced "Bya-wo-vye-zha") is also a rarity in being something for which repeatedly occupied, partitioned and plundered Poland can thank some of its many foreign rulers.
Legend has it that Lithuanian grand duke Wladyslaw Jagiello, who went on to govern Poland, hunted here in 1409, granting Bialowieza royal protection that would largely endure until the chaos of the first World War and Russian Revolution.
This was the western edge of empire for Russia’s tsars, who built a lavish hunting palace in Bialowieza and continued the tradition of keeping the forest under guard to prevent commoners taking the monarch’s game or timber.
Centuries of regal avarice kept Bialowieza safe from wholesale plunder and, though bison had to be reintroduced after mass hunting during the first World War, the heart of the 1,500sq km forest is little changed from Jagiello’s day.
No trees were ever planted and few were removed in Poland’s 57sq km zone of strictly protected forest, allowing the landscape and ecology to develop over some 10,000 years without human interference.
Time and human absence have allowed for extraordinary diversity. Oak, hornbeam, lime, maple and several other tree species, of all ages and sizes, grow beneath an emerald canopy of towering giants that are hundreds of years old.
Dead trees fall to the forest floor and slowly decompose, including the still-majestic Jagiello Oak, beneath which the Lithuanian-Polish ruler was said to have sat before a historic battle in 1410. The dead trees provide homes and food to 11,000 types of insects and 1,900 different fungi.
Such fecundity is a feast for birds – 250 species have been recorded in Bialowieza, including rare eagles and owls, black and white storks, and nine species of woodpecker, whose drumming rings through the tranquil forest.
The 105sq km Bialowieza National Park is free to visit. Entrance to the strictly protected area costs less than €1.50, though it is compulsory to walk with a qualified guide, for whom the standard rate is about €15 per hour.
It is easy to fly to one of Warsaw’s two airports and hire a car for the three-hour drive to Bialowieza, but the assistance of a guide once there is invaluable, whether to show birdwatchers the best viewing points and nesting areas, or to help track and spot the forest’s bigger beasts and explain the local habitat and history.
Wild Poland has been running wildlife tours here for 10 years, and it is hard to imagine a better way to see to Bialowieza and the nearby Biebrza marshes than in the company of the men who run it.
The guides, Lukasz Mazurek and Tomasz Jezierczuk, wear their deep knowledge of this region lightly and share it with an enthusiasm that never dims through the early starts and late nights required to see some of the area's more rare and elusive residents.
On Wild Poland’s recent nine-day tour of Bialowieza and Biebrza (pronounced “Byeb-zha”), we found warm hospitality and hearty meals at the wooden lodges. Their “honesty fridges” were stocked with local Zubr (“Bison”) beer and the famous Zubrowka vodka, which takes its distinctive tint and taste from blades of bison grass.
A bottle tinkles reassuringly in Mazurek’s pack as he leads seven of us out into the night from our lodge in Dobarz, a village on the edge of the marshes.
After a short drive along country roads, scanning the woods for elk and listening for the call of nightjars, owls and nightingales, we arrive at a small dock beside the river Narew, where two boatmen beckon us aboard. Their skiff noses out into the gleaming water.
From benches that sit level with its blue-black surface, we scan the banks for movement. Soon our spotlight picks out a plump, dark figure sitting on the grass, and follows his clumsy waddle down the bank and his plop into the water, where he becomes a sleek and elegant swimmer slipping effortlessly downstream.
Over the next hour we see several more beavers; some tussle in the reeds, others flop lazily onto their backs. One cruises across our bow with an outsize branch between his teeth, its green leaves waving in the night like a banner.
Before returning us to dry land, the boatmen cut the motor, and we drift. The moon, Mars and Jupiter hang overhead, a bat flits across the water and a thrush nightingale sings on the bank. Nothing disturbs the peace, not even the sound of Lukasz pouring a last round of warming Zubrowka at the back of our little skiff.
For some of us, the next day begins at 7am with the clink of the breakfast table being laid, the smell of fresh coffee and homemade apple pancakes.
Others have been up since dawn, three hours earlier. They come in hungry after seeing two bull elk wreathed in the morning mist, heard a fenland chorus of curlew, crane, cuckoo and the rare aquatic warbler, and watched black-tailed godwits, with ruddy chests and golden bills, mobbing a majestic Montagu’s harrier.
For countless generations, some of Europe's rarest and most beautiful birds have returned Bialowieza and Biebrza to breed. Each spring they arrive from Asia and Africa to find the landscape little changed, even amid human catastrophe.
Poland endured the worst horrors of the second World War, and reminders are not hard to find. In Bialowieza forest, simple wooden crosses stand in memory of Poles who were executed there by the Nazis, and bullet holes scar the red-brick post office in Bialowieza village, a former Gestapo headquarters where local people were tortured and killed.
Near the town of Jedwabne, where Poles murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbours in a notorious pogrom on July 10th, 1941, narrow lanes lead to a beautiful vista that is like a window on another time; so lie the layers of landscape and history, man and nature here.
As we look over lush fields and fens by the Biebrza river, dark shapes come snuffling into view – three, five, eventually 10 wild boar are feeding; then three elk appear, lazily grazing on the long grass, as eagles and storks wheel overhead.
This richness results from a light human touch over centuries and millennia, not the timescales of balance sheets and election cycles. Yet Poland’s government is now intent on taking dramatic action in Bialowieza, to “save” it from a bark beetle that is munching through its spruce trees.
The cure, government and forestry officials insist, is to expand logging in the forest to remove affected trees before the beetle spreads further.
Critics, including Polish and international experts and conservation groups, see a moneymaking scheme cloaked in a convenient misunderstanding of ecology.
Naturalists regard the surge in beetle numbers as part of a cycle, which over time will be countered by a rise in birds and other insects that will eat the beetles. And as the weakened spruce trees die and fall, they enrich the habitat for plants, fungi and other creatures, and clear space for young trees to come through.
But such a long-term view offers no comfort to foresters and officials in three districts of Bialowieza who have nearly filled their 10-year timber quotas in just four years. Only more logging will keep cash coming in.
These areas are outside the national park, but experts fear a fatal fragmentation of the Bialowieza ecosystem that now supports 20,000 species, including big predators that can roam over hundreds of square kilometres.
Heading back for breakfast after a dawn walk, having seen red deer feeding on the forest floor and a rare pygmy owl preening in the treetops, Lukasz Mazurek tells us about a recent lynx sighting nearby.
Then someone whispers a word that spins us around.
He is dark grey, with brownish ears and legs, and a pale, bushy tail tipped with black. He gives us one glance, trots across the sun-dappled road and slips away through the trees.
In a moment he is gone – a lone wolf vanishing into one of our last primeval forests, and proof that there is wildness still in the ancient green heart of Europe.
[ wildpoland.com ]