The Polish Sahara

By 23 October 2018Polish Nature

Poland is a real paradise for tourists. We have it all: mountains, sea, lakes and rivers, lush forests and flowering fields, historic cities. But there are also tourist attractions that you’d never expect in this part of the world. Believe it or not, there’s a real desert in the middle of Poland, just an hour’s drive away from Kraków!

A mysterious desert

The Błędów Desert puzzles its visitors. It contrasts with its verdant surrounding and thick forests. The sandy area is cut into two parts by the picturesque valley of the Biała Przemsza river, which looks like a kind of a local oasis. What surprises even more, this barren land is subjected to a EU-funded conservation project that is meant to preserve fragile ecosystems. The conservation of the desert entails deforestation and eradication of native fauna. Why bother? And how did this desert come into existence?

Legend says that the Devil spilled sand in this area to bury the Olkusz silver mine. But the more down-to-earth explanation is that the origin of the desert can be attributed to a mixture of natural and unnatural factors. Human activity in the 13th century, overexploitation and intensive silver mining resulted in the lowering of ground waters to such an extent that plant life could no longer be supported. The area was aggressively deforested in order to foster mining. That’s when a hidden deep layer of sand was revealed. That sand had been deposited there by the melting glacier. Later on this mini desert started to undergo the same processes that are characteristic for “fully-sized” desert.

Bunkers and unexploded shells

The Błędów Desert is Central Europe’s biggest accumulation of loose sand away from any sea. From the beginnings of the 20th century it has been used as military proving grounds. It’s actually where the Afrika Korps were trained. Abandoned bunkers can still be found in the area of the desert. In 2013 a project was launched to clear the desert of unexploded shells and to eradicate unwanted plants. Nowadays only the northern part serves a military purpose.

At first the desert covered the area of 150 square kilometers. In the 1950’s local people, tired of having to sweep sand from their villages, started planting pine and willow trees. In result, today the desert is only about 32 square kilometers big. The average depth of the sand is 40-70 meters.

The conservation project is meant to stabilize the desert, establish education trails, spread knowledge and attract more visitors. Apart from observing the local fauna and flora, many outdoor events are organized on the desert grounds. Who knows, perhaps one day someone will feel tempted to film a western on this barren land? Or perhaps I should say “a southern”, taking its location into consideration.