Poland’s Sahara, the Błędów desert, is a ‘marvel of nature’
Poland is known as a land of contradictions and that also applies to its geography.
Not only is it bestowed with snow-capped mountains, glass-still lakes, enchanted forests and bleach-blond beaches, it also has a the largest desert in Central Europe, and this summer tourists have been able to enjoy the breath-taking views from a new visitors’ complex.
Dubbed the Polish Sahara, the Błędów Desert is an improbable area of shifting sands that spreads over 32 square kilometres on uplands about an hour’s drive north-west of Kraków. The northern part is currently used by the Polish Army for parachute training, while during the Second World War Rommel used the desert’s empty expanses to prepare his feared Afrika Corps. There have also been numerous reports of people experiencing mirages in the hazy dunes.
Błędów is not just one of many scrubby patches of sand that can be seen all over Poland. Containing a volume of up to 2.5 billion cubic metres of sand that reach depths of 40 to 70 metres, it’s an official, bona fide desert. The fact that this place exists in Poland’s moderate, humid climate makes it a marvel of nature.
However, nature had a helping hand. Experts call it an anthropogenic desert, which means that it was caused by human activity. The sands were deposited by a retreating glacier 2.5 million years ago, but the area had always been covered in lush, green forest.
In the 13th century though, the water table started to decline rapidly when people felled all the trees to provide beams and supports for zinc, lead and silver mines in the region. Over time, plants were unable to draw water and dunes were whipped up by winds, creating a desert.
Unsurprisingly, legend offers a different explanation for the appearance of the sandy wastes. Local lore has it that miners from the nearby silver mine were making such a racket with their banging and thumping that the Devil residing underneath couldn’t get any sleep.
What’s more, they were also stealing his silver. To put a stop to these disturbances, he flew to the Baltic coast with a huge sack and filled it with golden sand, which he tipped over the silver mine to create an ever-lasting desert.
Even if true, the plan did not quite work out, because in the 1950s an intense tree planting programme raised the water table and brought back not only trees but other plants and shrubs, significantly reducing the desert zone from 150 square kilometres to a fifth of that today.
In recent years, much work has been done to stop nature reclaiming the desert, including felling trees, removing bushes and creating animal pastures to stop new growth.
Local authorities have not been slow to see the tourist potential of the desert on their doorstep and in May this year a complex built with EU funds opened.
The Lawrence-of-Arabia-sounding Rose of the Winds features gazebos, viewing platforms and linking walkways with a 40-metre land pier that spikes out into the sands. It’s an ideal jumping-off point for trails into the desert.
Large pieces of military hardware are due to be installed around the complex to underline the desert’s use as a firing range and a carpark will be built in anticipation of the hordes of tourists. Unfortunately, there are no plans for camel rides.