Soomaa National Park

We arrived in Soomaa in time for lunch (since we'd brought it with us there wasn't much danger of missing it) which we ate under a wooden shelter. It was the oddest meal of the trip, a selection of salads accompanied by what turned out to be chocolate bread - probably meant as the pudding.

Birch Wood - Photo: Sean Knight

We went into the tourist centre to be briefed, then set off into the park. We walked on a narrow boardwalk through a birch forest. If you've ever seen any of Klimt's paintings of birch woods you will have some idea what it was like, except that this was midsummer rather than autumn, so there was green undergrowth between the silver trunks instead of brown leaves. The boardwalk was necessary as the forest is really a kind of swamp with trees growing in it - 'a superb breeding ground for mosquitoes' according to the tourist information. They were right. Estonia in general is a superb breeding ground for mosquitoes in my experience, but this was the worst. Several of the more macho members of the party were in shorts and T-shirts, and you could see the welts appearing on their exposed skin. Juliet was going round in a public-spirited way offering to spray us all with insect repellent. The mosquitoes didn't seem to mind it, and could bite through cloth anyway, so there wasn't anything we could do to keep them out. This was the kind of country Estonian partisans hid out in during the war, and you could see how impossible it must have been for the Nazis to root them out.

Beaver Damage - Photo: Sean Knight

We stopped to look at a tree that had been felled by beavers. The neat teeth marks went about two-thirds of the way in, and then were replaced by rough torn fibres where the tree had collapsed. For some reason, the beavers had left this tree where it was instead of using it for their dam.

Emerging from the forest, we walked for some time along its edge, still sticking to the boardwalk with wetland on the other side of us. Eventually we came to what looked like a small hill. In fact it was the edge of a raised peat bog - the peat builds up for centuries until the whole area is several metres higher than the surrounding countryside. Standing on it felt like being on top of a springy mattress. There was an observation tower nearby, and we all queued up to stand on it and look at the view. It was bleak country, but oddly familiar, reminding me of parts of the New Forest - a great expanse of heather and grey-brown vegetation under a heavy purple sky which threatened a storm at any moment. The guide showed us some of the plants, a few of which I knew from similar areas of Britain: cotton grass, bog myrtle and the carnivorous sundew, as well as the strong-smelling marsh tea, which I didn't know.

Bog and Boardwalk - Photo: Sean Knight

The boardwalk led us through the bog and around a couple of large ponds. The guide said that bogwater was very good for the skin, and invited us to swim in it, but the only person brave enough to try was Mark's brother Robert, who dived in and swam around for some time, apparently enjoying the black water. Mark and Klaire were led off by the guide to take part in yet another Estonian wedding custom, this one involving plaiting a red flower and a yellow flower together and hiding them in a secret part of the bog. I was walking round one of the ponds when Creina, some way behind me, decided to change direction, stepped off the boardwalk and started to sink. Trying to extricate herself, she lost her balance and fell in. Fortunately there were plenty of people to pull her out again.

Rope Bridge - Photo: Sean Knight

Somehow the storm didn't arrive. We drove to another part of the park, where we saw a canoe that was being carved out of a single alder trunk. After the trunk has been hollowed out, the timber is gradually stretched until it is wide enough to sit in comfortably. There was a river here with a precarious rope bridge which we all took turns to cross. Some, like me, crossed it in a sort of crouch holding the uncomfortably low handropes, while others walked confidently upright. No one fell in, despite the attempts of the cricketers to shake them off.

Soomaa was the wildest place we visited on the trip. Afterwards, we drove on to our night's lodging near Pärnu, the so-called summer capital of Estonia, and next day went on to Haapsalu.

Estonia home page

Matthew Francis home page