'Belarus, I presume?'
05.11.2002 - 06.11.2002 -3 °C
Eternal Flame, Brest Fortress
Polished black like a soldier’s boot, the surface of the small Mukhavets River in Belarus is a varnished strip of birch, twisted willow and spongy rotting leaves. The river spread its arms around a small green island, growing dim in the 4.30 p.m. November light, the air thickening with fog.
The island wasn’t always peaceful. It used to be the centre of Brest, a bustling trade town from around 1000 A.D. The oldest church in Brest is still there, but the rest of the town was moved in 1838 off the island to allow for the construction of a fort.
For five hundred canons, six hundred bombs and one month, two Soviet regiments held the fort when the Nazis attacked in 1941. It was the start of the occupation of Belarus, which would kill one in four Belarusians. At the far south of the island you can still see the bullet holes in the red brick buildings.
At the island’s centre an eternal flame burns, surrounded by hundreds of Soviet graves watched over silently by a massive stone head called ‘Valour’.
Valour is what you need when exploring. It’s what took Livingstone on his search for the source of the Nile.
'Valour', Brest Fortress
Monument Detail, Brest Fortress
Modern Brest is post-war and Soviet: boulevards wide and clean, cottages stone and painted, blocks towering and unsightly. But it's not the history that had brought me there in 2002, nor the dreary canteen fare I found. Brest was an ideal staging post for an intrepid expedition of my own: in search of Europe's largest mammal, the elusive zoobr.
The preparations were tiring and endless: I had to pack my things, check out of the hotel and walk to the bus station unaided. Surely Livingstone had done little more. Harassed by a weird taxi driver wanting me to pay a hefty fee for a private voyage, I seized instead my chance to negotiate the ticket window, commandeering his help. I wanted a ticket to the remote, desolate and unpronounceable Kamenjuki, and the nosiness of this taxi driver was my only hope.
My plan worked. The taxi driver couldn't help himself. He followed me to the small hole in the glass and pronounced my destination correctly: one small victory.
Then, looking at my ticket, I noticed that it still said Kamyanets, not Kamenjuki. The first dilemma of the uncharted expedition: to hope the ticket seller had understood, and take the bus, or to try something else. There being nothing else to try, I chose to go, just as Livingstone would have done.
An hour on my imaginarily blistered and sore feet later, I burst from the bus, hagged and flailing: this was Kamyanets indeed, but Kamenjuki was a short bus ride further, about eighteen kilometres. I could almost smell the zoobrs from here, or was that the drunk guy by the bus station door?
A November Afternoon in Kamenjuki, Belarus
In any case, a good explorer half-hour later I was in the still unpronounceable two horse village. Livingstone sought assistance from local African tribes. I asked a girl from the bus. She vitally pointed up the road. My huge ten-minute trek to the edge of the forest began in earnest. It was icy and cold. I had to negotiate a snowy bridge over an icy stream, but I persevered, adjusting my scarf on the way. I knew if the cold got in, all might be lost.
I entered the forest, Belavezhskaja Puscha: 1300 square kilometres of primeval, virgin forest, the last such stand in Europe. The canopy closed around me: pine, birch and spruce. I relied on my natural instincts to hold my direction, watching the sun, feeling the wind, noting the way moss grew on the tree trunks. And following the road.
Suddenly something stirred ahead. Could it be the ferocious, mysterious zoobrs I had set out for? I clutched my camera and trod carefully. The pine needles were damp and quietened my stride. But no, it was only a family of wild boar.
It would be another good ten minutes of arduous hiking before the first zoobr set eyes on me. In fact it was a small herd led by a large male. He was enormous, easily as big as ten miniature horses, with horns like Beelzebub, a rugged woolly brown coat, legs as thick as saplings, and huge flaring nostrils.
I flared my nostrils right back at him: you can't let them sense your fear. He took four lumbering steps toward me, through the mud of the clearing. We stood eye to eye now and if he charged, what would have happened? The huge European bison or wisent, called a zoobr in Russian, could have crushed me without a second thought. But I held my ground, given that I’ve never heard of anyone suffering death by zoobr and am rarely first at anything; and given that the danger was somewhat reduced by the well-constructed wire fence between us.
The zoobr: legs as thick as saplings, huge flaring nostrils
Also in the zoo were other examples of local wildlife, moose, deer, wolves, bears, wild horses. The eyes of the Mona Lisa owl followed me as I passed.
The expedition successful, zoobr sighted, I returned late afternoon to the bus station, really more of a bus shed. I pushed open the old green doors. The interior was empty apart from three fellow zoobr-hunters sitting on a bench. Not a pretty sight considering I had to be three hundred kilometres away in Minsk to find my pre-paid hotel bed.
One man asked where I was going. "Brest," I replied, and then Minsk". I wanted to see his reaction. He didn't burst out laughing, that had to be good. May be it was realistic.
Instead, they offered wine, from the bottle. No doubt it was 'house white', as that decrepit bus station was the only 'house' I could imagine suitable for such a vintage. I took a swig. I ate a bit of cutlet. That was the system: wine swig, bit of
cutlet, wine swig and so on. When in Belarus, do as the Belarusians do?
We introduced ourselves. It’s how I became 'Onjay' for the afternoon. Still, they did better than me. All I knew was that one of them had a name that started with G and the other two didn't.
One of the Not-Gs told me I didn't swig properly, too short he said. I don't think it really mattered, within an hour or so I was convinced I was the only sober being left in the world. The rest was drunk: the sky, the snow, the fat policeman chatting up the seventies blonde. Suddenly the entire tiny Belarusian village was gloriously funny. So much for valour: I suppose it’s a trait that better belongs to Livingstone.
G kept saying "and you have no wars in Australia?" After Brest fortress one could only say no. Certainly nothing compared to Brest.
One of the Not-Gs was swearing his head off about the bus timetable, which was something like a blank A4 sheet of paper. "This is an extremely dire and frustrating circumstance in which we find ourselves," he was saying using four-letter Russian words. "Yeah, but the zoobrs were cool," I replied, and they were. Only 54 zoobrs existed after World War One; by 2002 there were 3200 of them.
Eventually the bus did come. The four of us: Onjay, G and the Not-Gs, made it safely back to Brest; and me to Minsk. Not the same perilous ending as Livingstone. It must have been because I’d fixed my scarf when things got cold.
(Originally written in 2002. Adapted recently.)
G. and the Not-Gs, Kamenjuki, Belarus