Explore Poland’s Biebrza National Park
It's morning and I am geared up for action in the far-flung east of Poland's beautiful Podlaskie Volvodship, Biebrza National Park is 60,000 hectares of marshy flatlands, gentle river valley and moose-concealing pine forests. This is a landscape of wetlands and peat bogs, bordering the Biebrza river and home to hundreds of different bird species, thousands of insect species, 900 moose, red deer, wild boar, hares, rabbits and even wolf packs and solitary lynxes. It's going to be a good day.
I rock up at the HQ of Biebrza National Park at Osowiec-Twierdza to meet my guide, before heading off by 4WD along the snow-strewn park's lone road, we abandon the jeep and creep through the pines in search of the elusive moose. About the size of a horse, with bobbly, Shrek-like antlers, they have long, comical faces and soon one peeks shyly around a tree at us. And another. And then more and more. But it may not be this way forever; with each protected moose in the Biebrza forest consuming 20kg of pine leaves daily, there is an ongoing feud between conservationists and forestry commission, who wants to cull the animals.
After an awesome morning of catching moose off guard, spotting majestic red deer and following the tracks of wild hares through the icy undergrowth, we lunch on smoczki (pork meatballs) in the park's wood-panelled hostelry at Dwor Dobarz. Here, we discover the weather conditions are perfect to take a hot-air balloon trip to spot some more wildlife. My guide Kate notices I've gone green. "Here, have this. It'll help the nerves," she says, handing me a shot of local Zubrowka vodka, flavoured with bison grass.
And perhaps it does, because I'm soon propelled into a wicker basket and we are off, swept along by a bright yellow-and-red balloon, the only splash of colour in the gun-metal skies. The pilot releases the burner and we swoop 2kms up over the Biebrza river valley and the flat marshes bordering the pine forest, drifting high above the treetops and looking down on grazing moose and boar.
The next morning, I'm at Bialowieza National Park, which was established in 1921, but now has 60 per cent of the land lying across the Belarus border. The area belonged to Russia until 1919; Tsar Nicholas II used it as his private hunting ground, eradicating the existing hers of bison and laying waste to pretty much all wildlife in the area. Today the park is home to protected herds of European bison - reintroduced in the 1950s and now flourishing, with 480 living wild - plus the remnants of Europe's last great primeval lowland forest.
I set off on a 4WD safari to track down the creatures. We search for them among the pine trees, spotting red deer, white eagles and harriers before eventually tracking down a herd, their great shaggy heads nodding as they bask in weak winter sunshine.
Having told my guide, Michal, I've never seen a beaver, at twilight at twilight he takes me off to a secret site on the river Narewka where we catch a handsome male specimen frolicking in the icy water before it swims upstream and disappears into his multi-level bank side home.
Back in the park next morning, I make it to Bialowieza HQ in time to jump on a horse-and-trap for a journey into the primeval forest. Untouched and unmanaged by human hand, this wild land is fiercely protected and left entirely to its own devices. There's no harvesting, no hunting and all the species are native: spruce, oak, lime, pine, rare fungi, birds, wild boar, bison, red deer, and yes, those 29 kinds of mosquito.
It's here that my three-day ecology seminar ends. What an experience to explore two such special, nurtured national parks, to see the animals in their natural environment and to see the work involved in preserving Europe's last great wilderness. Long may it last.