Where the wild things are
Oulanka National Park, Finland.

Europe isn't just culture, history and grand cities; it's also a landscape that's been shaped and changed beyond recognition.

About 4000 years ago most of Britain and Europe was covered with forest as impenetrable as the Amazon is today - the great wild wood of folklore.

There's not much left but there are still some genuine wilderness areas if you know where to look. Pan Parks is a Europe-wide wilderness conservation organisation, founded in 1997 by WWF Netherlands and Dutch tourism company Molecaten, to help save the last remaining wilderness areas of Europe.

National parks are commonplace but in overcrowded Europe they're invariably popular recreation areas with good access to infrastructure and support services.

Britain has 15 stunningly beautiful national parks but none meets the strict Pan Parks criteria of true wilderness and they're not natural landscapes. To be certified as a Pan Park a natural environment must have at least 100sqkm of unmodified wilderness at its core, where natural processes and wildlife still thrive and significant human interference is minimal.

No exploitation is allowed so there's no hunting, fishing, mining, logging, grazing, grass cutting, road or construction inside the wilderness areas.

This is another side of Europe that even most Europeans are unaware of.

The national parks within which the wilderness areas are located often have visitor centres, small B&B style accommodation, trail guides and equipment rental but in the core wilderness areas it's likely to be just camping or rustic wilderness huts.


Northern Europe

The most northerly wilderness area is Finland's Oulanka National Park (277sqkm and 36 per cent is wilderness) and Russia's Paanajarvi National Park (1040sqkm with 96 per cent wilderness). They are on either side of the Finnish/Russian border in southern Lapland close to the Arctic Circle.

This meandering river ecosystem is untouched boreal forest, homeland for brown bears, lynx, otter, beaver, wolf, golden eagle and the very rare wild reindeer. The scale of wilderness is astonishing - forests and lakes stretching to the horizon with no roads or towns and it is Europe's best example of pristine, remote wilderness.

Good for hiking, rafting, canoeing, swimming and maybe seeing the Aurora Borealis.

A similar environment on a smaller scale but more accessible is Sweden's Fulufjallet National Park (384 sqkm of which 60 per cent is wilderness) in the centre of the Scandinavian Peninsula bordering Norway. This mountainous region is home to brown bears, wolves, lynx, elk and moose and has the most extensive fields of lichens, ungrazed by semi-domestic reindeers.

This is good country for hiking, canoeing, cross-country skiing and ice climbing.

On Finland's southern tip is Archipelago National Park (502 sqkm, 21 per cent wilderness). This Baltic Sea archipelago is the only continuous marine fishing-free zone in the Baltic Sea.

There are 2000 deserted islands, rugged rocky islets and forested islands; grey and ringed seals laze on sunny sandbanks, moose roam windswept island forests and the white-tailed eagle hunts lemmings.

It is a great place for hiking, birdwatching, sailing, kayaking and snorkelling.

Soomaa National Park is in south-west Estonia (400sqkm, 29 per cent wilderness). It's a land of large raised bogs, flooded grasslands, forests and meandering rivers, which make it a haven for countless birds as well as wolf, lynx, brown bears, moose, elk, otter, beaver and the flying squirrel.

Enthusiasts go hiking with bog shoes and canoeing.


Central Europe

Romania's Retezat National Park (381sqkm, 37 per cent is wilderness) is in the Southern Carpathians. Towering peaks, deep ravines, limestone caves, alpine meadows, dense conifer forest and glacial lakes are home to brown bears, wolves, lynx and chamois. There are marked trails and simple cabins for visitors.

Further south is the Central Balkan National Park (716sqkm, 29 per cent wilderness) in Bulgaria, which includes several large fragments of ancient, undisturbed beech forest.

It has the highest waterfall, the tallest mountain peak and the deepest cave in the Balkan Mountains. It's a sheltered habitat for endangered species of brown bears, wolves and vultures. There is a good network of trails to the wild parts of the central Balkans which are good for hiking, horseriding, birdwatching and hot mineral springs.

Also in Bulgaria is Rila National Park (810sqkm, 20 per cent wilderness), 100km south of Sofia in the highest region of the Rila Mountains. Two hundred glacial lakes, hidden valleys and towering peaks create an ideal habitat for brown bears, wolves, eagles and chamois.

Visitors enjoy hiking, birdwatching, horseriding cycling and skiing.

The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park (850sqkm, 59 per cent wilderness) is the most eastern park located in central Georgia in the lesser Caucasus. It's one of the highest sections of the Balkan Mountains, on the edge of central Asia. Trails run though virgin forest with wild rhododendron and alpine meadows. The Black Sea can be seen from some peaks and if you're lucky lynx and wolves.

Good for hiking, horseriding, birdwatching and mountain biking.


Western Europe

Wilderness is not restricted to remote areas of Scandinavia and Central Europe; Italy's Majella National Park (741sqkm, 22 per cent wilderness) is in Abruzzo, Central Italy. It is the highest, wildest and most impressive section of the Apennines.

The spectacular peaks, canyons, high-mountain plains, caves and dense beech forest are home to otters, owls, golden eagle, brown bears and the Apennine wolf.

There are 500km of marked hiking trails covering all levels of difficulty and in winter the trails can be walked with snow-shoes. There is also good caving and birdwatching.

The furthest west is Peneda- Geres National Park (698 sqkm, 7 per cent wilderness) in north-west Portugal on the border with Spain. Narrow shepherd trails and ancient Roman roads pass along lush river valleys, over rocky mountain peaks, across golden gorse fields and through sweeping oak forests.

Native animals include wild boars, otters, roe deer, foxes, badgers, eagles and wolves.

There are also ancient megaliths, rock carvings, old dolmen graves and the ruins of Celtic castros (fortified Iron Age settlements).

Good for hiking, rock climbing, birdwatching and pony trekking.

Further national park wilderness areas, awaiting certification, are planned in Germany, Lithuania, Romania, the Czech Republic and Turkey.

These wilderness areas are exceptionally precious as they are the last remnants of Europe's original landscape. They are also the last refuge of native species, some of which are endangered, still clinging to their dwindling habitats.

European cities may be grand but the entire region's natural history is millions of years older and its rarity is more precious than the most fabulous crown jewels.


FACT FILE

• For further information, maps, accommodation and access or to arrange a visit, see www.panparks.org.

• British national parks: www.nationalparks.gov.uk.

The West Australian

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