In Search of the Zoobr

November Afternoon in Kamenjuki, Belarus

I have indeed, praise be to God, attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the Earth, and I have attained this honour.

                                                                                                            - Ibn Battuta.

…and in the modern world, where lengthy journeys to previously unheard of lands are no longer possible, we lesser travellers have to make do.

In the 4.30 p.m. November twilight, the surface of the Mukhavets, a little river in western Belarus, had become a varnished brown strip of reflection.  Birch, twisted willow and spongy rotting leaves were imaged upon its surface.  I wonder: do you think the great explorers of ages past found a quiet place to partake of contemplation, before their setting out?

Of Europe’s largest mammal I knew little and being in the city of Brest there seemed nothing for it, but to find out.  To the north, I’d read, was the wilderness which straddled the Polish border and in it, in small numbers, was what the locals called the zoobr. 

Ibn Battuta’s first journey in 1325 lasted twenty-one years.  Marco Polo travelled with his father and his uncle for twenty-four years from 1271 and the Muslim Hui navigator Zheng He, from Yunnan, accomplished his seven voyages within twenty-eight years from 1405.  It might be that I had just a day in hand to find the zoobr, but there’d need to be, surely, an expedition.

The river spread its arms around the small green island which might not normally have stood out but it was once the centre of Brest, a bustling trade town dating from around 1000 C.E.  The city’s oldest church is still there, with the rest of the town having been moved in 1838 to allow for the construction of a fort.

It is a place of reverence for Belarusians.  The fort is where two Soviet regiments stood their ground when the Nazis attacked in 1941.  They faced five hundred canons, six hundred bombs and lasted a month before the fort was lost, at the start of an occupation that would claim one in four Belarusian lives.

At the island’s centre an eternal flame burns, surrounded by hundreds of Soviet graves watched over by a massive stone head sculpture called ‘Valour.’  In the south of the island bullet holes in the red brick buildings can still be seen.  It’s in the east of Europe that the scale of sacrifice and devastation that marked the Second World War is most acutely felt. 

Zheng He was well-prepared.  It is said he had over three hundred ships and a crew of almost 30,000.  By contrast, the following day, in search of the zoobr, I would follow the example of Ibn Battuta, who left his Moroccan home, alone.  Do you think the great explorers of ages past went to bed early on the night before their departures?

'Valour', Brest, Belarus
A model Soviet city, Brest had wide, clean boulevards with older painted stone cottages and towering unsightly blocks.  It was in one of the latter I was staying, a monumental hotel of sparse décor.  I found some simple, canteen fare for dinner.

On the morning of the grand expedition the preparations were tiring and endless, or at least they would have been, perhaps, had it been several hundred years earlier.  In the twenty-first century I could not match the magnitude of Marco Polo’s preparations, no doubt, when he set off for China.  But I did pack my things and check out of the hotel, before walking to the bus station wholly unaided.

And just as Marco Polo once met the various tribes of Central Asia so I met a taxi tout who sought a hefty fee for a private voyage to the forest.  Zheng He might have had his fleet but Ibn Battuta went largely under his own steam and that was what I wanted to do.  Yet, the taxi driver could help me.  I was having trouble making the bus ticket seller on the other side of the glass window from understanding my intended destination, the village by the forest called Kamenjuki.  I was able to seize the taxi driver’s enthusiasm for my plan.  He pronounced it for me.  Do you think the great explorers overcame various difficulties with the help of locals?  I’d say they did.

But then, looking at my ticket, I noticed that it said Kamyanyets, in Cyrillic.  It was the second dilemma of the expedition: to hope I was not going somewhere entirely different.  Yet, there was nobody to fill in the gaps on the maps for Zheng He, surely, on his way to Bengal’s Sonargaon.  So I took the bus.

An hour on my imaginarily blistered and sore feet later I burst from the vehicle, spent and flailing: or I would have been, had I rather travelled on foot and by camel.  Indeed it was Kamyanyets but fortunately Kamenjuki was a short bus ride further, about eighteen kilometres.  I could almost smell the zoobr from there, Marco Polo’s China.

A good explorer half-hour later I’d arrived in the village of Kamenjuki.  Ibn Battuta once sought assistance in the mountains of Kamaru, from the followers of Shah Jalal, in order to find him in Sylhet.  I asked a girl from the bus where the forest was and she vitally pointed up the road.  After a huge, ten minute trek to the edge of the forest, my expedition started in earnest.

It was icy and cold.  I had to negotiate a snowy bridge over a frozen stream, but I persevered, adjusting my scarf on the way.  If the cold got in, I knew, all might be lost.

I entered the forest, Belavezhskaja Puscha: 1300 square kilometres of primeval, virgin forest, the last such stand in Europe.  Pine and birch, the canopy closed around me. 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 the devil himself, a rugged woolly brown coat, legs as thick as saplings, and huge flaring nostrils. 

I wonder what Zheng He thought when he reached Africa and saw his first giraffe.  He captured one and took it back to China where it was believed to be an example of the mythical creature called a qilin, evidence of heavenly blessing on the Emperor of the day.  I thought not to capture a zoobr, except on film.

Zheng He too was said to walk like a tiger.  He didn’t stray from violence when he was threatened.  Faced with a zoobr flaring its nostrils, there was nothing to do but flare my nostrils right back.  One shouldn’t let large wild animals sense one’s fear, or so it might be.  The leader of the beasts took four lumbering steps towards me, through the middle of a mud clearing.  We stood eye to eye now, and if he charged, what would have happened?

When Marco Polo crossed the Pamirs he came across a mountain sheep which ultimately took his name:  the Marco Polo sheep was described in 1271.  But the zoobr had its name, in Russian, and in English where it is called the European bison or wisent.

It 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.  Well, there was no point randomly scouring the forest when a few zoobrs had been confined to a pen for easy observation.  Okay, so it wasn’t quite like the great explorers but in the twenty-first century, one has to make do.

The zoobr: legs as thick as saplings and huge flaring nostrils

Also in the small zoo were other examples of local wildlife: moose, deer, wolves, bears and 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.

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.  G kept saying "and you have no wars in Australia?" After Brest fortress one could only say no.  Certainly nothing compared to Belarus.

G. and the Not-Gs., Kamenjuki, Belarus

One of the Not-Gs was swearing about the bus timetable, which was nearly 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.  I didn’t take back the riches that Marco Polo and Zheng He did, from their journeys, or even the spiritual fulfilment and new wisdom that Ibn Battuta must’ve found, but it had been a nice day.

And at the least I didn’t suffer Marco Polo’s fate.  Upon his return he found Venice at war with Genoa.  He was captured and narrated the tales of his journey to a fellow inmate, in jail.  But I have the luxury of writing this on a laptop, at home.

Detail from Brest Fort monument

The Eternal Flame, Brest Fort

From Belarus it's not impossible to head south to Kyiv or to take a bus to Riga to meet a secretary to a scientist.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: In Search of the Zoobr
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