“I’m stuck” Heather said as I came to a stop in the mud behind her. As I stood there, I felt myself sinking deeper into the “dry” riverbed. The cloying mud was now up to the top of my wellies and I tried to lift one foot. No. And then the other, not a chance.
I was stuck too.
We had arrived in the Naliboki Forest earlier that morning after an hour and a half drive from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. We were greeted on arrival by Irina and her husband Vadim, who was to be our guide over the next 3 and a half days. Vadim and Irina run the Naust Eco Station, deep in the forest.
We were in Belarus to see the diverse range of mammals that exist in the Naliboki Forest, a huge, complex habitat that is home to wolves, lynx, bison, elk, deer, wild boar, beavers and a whole range of other creatures. Vadim is a professor of zoology at the University of Minsk who has switched to conducting full-time research in the field, much of which is funded by organising these eco-tourism trips. There were only three of us for most of this long-weekend, with another hardy-soul joining us for the last day and a half, although Vadim does have groups of up to 16, especially on the longer trips, which can be a week or two long.
Vadim is an engaging and knowledgeable guide, always with a story to tell or an opinion to offer on where the world is going wrong, but it’s clear that he has a passion for the forest and the research he is conducting that will help to understand the forest, it’s animal inhabitants and hopefully help to preserve them both.
The forest is also home to a number of people (including Vadim and Irina themselves), with a smattering of villages and homesteads dotted around. Although these numbers of dwindling with many houses in villages only occupied at weekends and houses deep within the forest are lived in by people in their 80s whose children have long since been attracted by life in the city. These homes will be abandoned when their occupiers pass away and they will be left to gradually fade and be consumed by the forest.
Although these trips are for paying visitors, you are just there for the ride. It is clear that Vadim would be out there driving and hiking through the forest daily, checking his 50 or so camera traps and collecting data for his books and papers whether you were there or not.
Each of the days was fairly typical in format, but visiting different parts of the forest, with different sites and environments to see and, of course with any sort of wildlife watching adventure, with random chance playing its part on what creatures you may see.
Each morning started early (pre-dawn) with a home-cooked breakfast, always with something hot, such as the traditional and delicious syrniki (a kind of thick pancake made with cottage cheese), supplemented by cereal, fruit and coffee or tea. This would then be followed by a drive in one of Vadim’s 4×4 cars to one of the open field areas within the forest, with the morning being one of the best times to possibly spot wolves, lynx, bison, elk or deer. This was followed by one of two daily hikes, typically 8km in the morning and 4-5km in the afternoon, into different parts of the forest to check on Vadim’s camera traps, checking what it has been snapped and replacing batteries. These walks traversed through different landscapes, from dense forest treks, to river beds, alongside reed-trimmed canals or across open fields. All of these walks are pretty tough and Vadim, a natural woodsman, sets a spritely pace, with the thick foliage, deep mud or uneven ground all contributing to slow and difficult progress.
The day would then finish once darkness has set in, by searching out at a likely wolf spot and with with Vadim re-creating his best wold-howl and listening to see if they would respond.
Lunch was often prepared by Vadim himself over a wood-fire out in the woods, offering the chance to fuel up and have a rest before the next trek, and dinner would be prepared by Irina in the evenings, these included traditional Belarusian beans and pulses, sausages, salads and fried potatoes. Beer and a local spirit was also always on the table!
Sadly, we didn’t see any wolves or lynx on this trip. They are both elusive creatures, but we did see signs of them, including scat, tracks, bones of prey and “wolf cub toys” and we saw incredible images of them on the camera traps. However, we were lucky to see bison, elk, red deer, roe deer, a wild boar, capercaillie, a great grey owl, a spotted eagle, a peregrine falcon and a grass snake in 3 and a half days.
And the mud? After a couple of minutes of “no-show” Vadim came back to see where we were, to be confronted by Heather and myself almost up to our knees in mud. First he took many photos of our predicament and then helped us, bootless, out onto the river bank. Our boots were then literally dug out by hand. It was embarrassing enough to be stuck in the mud, but not as much it happened to me again on the way back 20 minutes later!