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From Issue #25 September 12, 2013

Just Desert

Africa, a devil, and Burning Man meet in Eastern Europe’s little desert.

By Colleen Hubbard Twitter icon

With its brick and stone houses painted in muted rust tones, the small village of Chechło is typical of this region of southern Poland. The streets are empty save for the lunch rush at a cafeteria-style restaurant where scoops of steam-table chicken, potatoes, and cabbage land on industrial white plates.

As in most of Poland, the population in this region is dropping and graying: entry into the European Union in 2004 coupled with the easing of immigration standards among some member states meant that many of Poland’s young people left to pursue educational and occupational opportunities elsewhere. From 2004 to 2011, the country’s population decreased by one million people.

Yet Chechło’s town green offers a sight that distinguishes it from surrounding hamlets, with their renovated farmhouses and gated gardens. Between a shrine of the Virgin Mary and a silver-blue fir tree, a statue of a Bactrian camel glares at an empty bus stop across the street. The camel’s peach lips curl into a snarl, and time and sunshine have conspired to drain the color from patches of fur on his humps. His ear is another matter.

“Kids,” shrugs Marian Pajdak, president of the Polish Sahara Association (PSA), gesturing to the hole that offers a view into the statue’s hollow skull. Local teenagers are implicated in the crime of breaking off the camel’s ear.

That Chechło is a one-camel town is not an accident. The village, and the surrounding region of Klucze, would like to bring your attention to an aberration of nature: a story of Nazis, Burning Man, Africa, pharaohs, silver mines, and, of course, moonshine.

It’s the story of the Polish Sahara.

Marian Pajdak, president of the Polish Sahara Association (PSA).

The devil, you say?

How a sort-of desert developed in Southern Poland depends on whom you ask. To start with, the Polish Sahara, called Pustynia Błędowska in Polish (Błędow Desert), is not really a desert.

Technically speaking, a desert is an area defined by aridity, though there is no universally accepted measurement or combination of measurements to define desert-level dryness, so the classification remains somewhat elastic. With rainfall typical for this region, along with an occasional choking fog, the Polish Sahara is only a desert insofar as Lake Michigan is an ocean if you’ve never left your mom’s porch in Kenosha.

As to how the Błędow Desert appeared where it did, one story goes like this: In the Middle Ages, men discovered that the land here ran thick with silver and lead, so they began mining to extract it. Angry at the disruption to his subterranean home, a devil filled a bag with Baltic sand and raced back toward the open mines, intending to clog them and impede the miners’ work. But as the devil sprinted across the low hills of Silesia, his bag of sand snagged on a church steeple, spilling the contents and creating the Błędow Desert.

Another version goes like this: In the 13th century, men discovered that the land in this area was rich in silver and lead. They stripped the local forest to power mining operations and construct mine shafts. After felling trees and hauling lumber out with horses, the destruction of native plant life was complete. But underneath the pines, something unexpected materialized: a deep layer of sand deposited by a glacier that had dragged across this region.

Today, of course, no one believes the story of the angry devil protecting his home, but when we pass a local church, Pajdak points out that it’s the building the devil hit. The steeple remains askew.

Dominik Mbeda Ndege.

Up close with the exotic

As president of the PSA, Pajdak’s role is to promote the educational, ecological, and cultural role of the desert in the region. He’s a man of retirement age, with short silver hair in a slightly overgrown Caesar cut; he used to work as a journalist and teacher. Though he grew up in Wieliczka, near the salt mines south of Krakow, Pajdak’s first desert wasn’t the Błędow: he saw a desert when he traveled to West Africa with a contingent of journalists in the 1980s, and he visited Poland’s desert for the first time 12 years after that.

Established 10 years ago with a name bestowed by a Jagiellonian University professor who resided in Chechło, the PSA emphasizes the Sahara-Africa connection in part to capitalize on interest in life outside of Poland among cosmopolitan young people from Krakow, who are the target market for the PSA’s annual summer music festival in the desert.

Poland’s small African-Polish community has also played a role in defining and publicizing the Polish Sahara, says Dominik Mbeda Ndege, a musician whose Kenyan father and Polish mother met at a university in Poland. Mbeda Ndege is part of a Facebook group of about 600 young African Poles, and he recounted his visits to Ethiopia and South Africa on a Polish television show on which Poles who have traveled to far-flung locales offer an overview of their experiences with and the highlights of a foreign culture, including showing off knickknacks they acquired in their travels and demonstrating dance moves.

A black person in Poland remains an uncommon sight. After the murder, displacement, and emigration of minorities during and following World War II, Poland became ethnically homogeneous: among the country’s population of 38 million, only 1.4 percent claim to descend from an ancestry other than Polish. (That number includes those who self-identify as Kashubian or Silesian, ethnic groups from southern Poland.)

Only about 4,000 Poles living in Poland are black Africans, most of them living in the cities of Warsaw and Krakow. This small population hasn’t stifled the Poles’ fascination with the landscape, culture, and people of Africa, or African Poles’ engagement with the local Polish community.

“It reminds me of home,” Mbeda Ndege says while in the desert, looking at a crumbling bunker painted with images of black women wearing bright textiles and carrying baskets on their heads. “They’re painted in an African style, not a European style.”

The artist is Seydou Zan Diarra, a Mali-born small-animal veterinarian who lives in Krakow and lists the birthdays of his patients on his Web site, where in the “hobby” section he describes his interest in the art styles of the Dogon and Tuareg people of Africa. Mbeda Ndege, who plays tuba, and his brothers, who play trombone and saxophone, performed African and world music at the PSA’s Desert Mirage festival in the Błędow. Photos and posters from the annual event show bare-chested white women wearing body paint and dancing in the center of a circle of onlookers.

The PSA also organizes and sponsors Africa-themed educational events in Krakow, including an exhibition of Seydou Zan Diarra’s work, tastings of African foods, and screenings of documentaries and dramas filmed in Africa.

Pustynia Błędowska.

Just add mortars and stir

When a little desert with dunes appeared in Eastern Europe, it proved lucky for many a tactician, of both the domestic and conquering varieties. In its early days, the desert had limited appeal for the community: locals found it creepy, and its commercial use was limited to the harvesting of the cochineal, a small insect that lives on the knawel plant and is crushed to create a crimson pigment called St. John’s Blood.

Between World War I and World War II, the Kraków Army used the space as a training area. Ethnographer Marian Kantor-Mirski visited in the 1930s and in a monograph of regional history described the Błędow at that time as an “extensive emptiness, eerie wilderness, sea of sand.”1

During World War II, the occupying German troops, including Field Marshal Erwin “Desert Fox” Rommel and his Afrikakorps, used the Błędow for tactical practice of maneuvers planned for the North African front. A propaganda photo passed off as an action shot from North Africa in fact depicts a Nazi soldier riding a motorbike on a dune in Poland.

After the close of World War II, the Polish army reestablished ownership over the northern section of the desert. NATO carried out exercises there, and today the 6th Pomeranian Airborne Division uses the area as a paratrooper drop zone.

The Błędow, with its resemblance to a real desert (assuming one can’t feel the temperature or see the fog), was also an easy choice for Polish filmmakers looking to take advantage of the dunes in their backyard as a low-cost film set.

Tad Makarczynski’s 1962 allegorical short Magician (Czarodziej), about a wily sorcerer who turns a band of young boys into murderous soldiers by encouraging them to shoot increasingly realistic targets, appears to have been shot there.

The land doubled as Egypt for scenes in the Polish production Pharaoh (Faraon), Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1966 Oscar-nominated three-hour epic in which a bunch of white guys dipped in bronze body paint squint meaningfully across ravaged vistas in a convoluted tale of Ancient Egyptian back-room politicking between Ramses XIII and a group of priests.

But the desert can’t keep its secret, and the detritus from its use by the military still shows itself today, from crumbling concrete bunkers to spent mortar shells. Recently, sappers scoured the desert to locate and remove potentially dangerous military cast-offs. They even uncovered a half-ton dud. But long before experts arrived, during the Communist regime, villagers searched for shells to disassemble and sell as scrap metal.

“Especially in Chechło, there are people in their 70s and 80s who got their fingers blown off trying to disarm unexploded shells,” Pajdak says.

When Magdalena Moroń, now deputy director of the Klucze district office, was a girl, kids playing in the desert planned treasure hunts for spent artillery shells and other military scrap.

“The kid who brought the most fun things home was the winner,” she explains. “You couldn’t call it an entirely safe way of playing.”

Magdalena Moroń, deputy director of the Klucze district office.

Corrupting the natural

After the deforestation of the Middle Ages, the desert’s area spanned 150 square kilometers. Today, only 33 square kilometers of sand remain exposed. Over time, and with the reduction of mining and farming in Silesia and Małopolska, the desert was returning to its natural state.

Starting in the 1950s locals planted willows and firs in the area, hoping to avoid the regular afternoon chore of sweeping sand from their driveways and stoops. Environmental pollution from Silesia speeded the regrowth: nitrogen runoff caused blue-green algae to develop, which in turn caused soil to take hold over the sand layer. For some who lived near the Błędow, the disappearing desert seemed like a lost opportunity.

“Every small region would like something unique in its vicinity, something rarely seen,” explains Moroń, who grew up 200 meters from the desert.

Moroń, an auburn-haired young woman wearing a striped bronze tee, carries a cordless phone as she offers a tour of the Klucze district office’s Desert Information Center, where one day tourists might visit to learn about the local environment.

For now, the center looks like an example of an office in an IKEA showroom, with blank whiteboards and artfully arranged candles crowned with virgin wicks. On the conference table rest cups of cornflower- and gold-tinted sand, while a wall-sized photo shows lumpy cumulus clouds rolling over a pine-ringed field of sand. Inside glass cases are stones and fossils unearthed in the desert, and the district secretary offers refreshments in Pustynia Błędowska-branded teacups emblazoned with project logos.

Klucze didn’t want the desert to disappear. Neither did the PSA. But without the deforestation and overuse of the land that kept the natural progression of plant life in check, how were they to reclaim their desert?

The first attempt involved goats. In 2010, Silesia district authorities hired 100 goats for the job of expanding and enhancing the desert. The project’s initial managers found goats terrifically successful at chomping down the scrub and grasses that bloomed across the desert floor.

Too soon they also discovered that although the animals proved adept at destroying leaves and stalks, they were less skilled at consuming root systems. An area of goat-cleared land, briefly and beautifully a desert once more, sprouted fresh shrubs and saplings as soon as the goats relocated to fresh pasture.

Verdict: disaster.

After the regrowth of shrubs and trees following the goat experiment, Klucze authorities assumed control of the project by taking an extraordinary step.

They applied for and received environmental conservation funding under the Natura 2000 initiative, a European Union-wide directive to preserve and maintain fragile ecosystems. Other Natura 2000 projects represent more typical conservation efforts, such as preserving a threatened fish population in the Danube River Basin. Of the more than 26,000 funded sites as of 2011, the Polish desert may prove the only conservation of an area created through deforestation and maintained by eradicating native plant life.

Officially titled “Active conservation of priority sand habitats,” the €2.6 million ($3.4 million) in funding for the Błędow supports the extension of the desert to its boundaries in 1958, and accomplishes this by uprooting willows, pines, and birch trees — some of which grow here naturally, and some of which are non-native species planted to stop the sand drift.

As a first step, project managers contracted with sappers to scour 400 hectares to a depth of 1.5 meters for any military cast-offs. The project’s approved goals include expanding and stabilizing the desert dunes and grasslands, establishing nature trails, producing a guidebook, and welcoming at least 1,000 visitors each year to the newly constructed Desert Information Center.

Which, of course, raises the question, What are 1,000 visitors to do in a tiny fake desert in Poland?

Burning Man and beyond

In addition to establishing the Desert Information Center, the project’s managers encourage local artisans to capitalize on the commercial opportunity by developing desert-related souvenirs and handicrafts in advance of the crowds they expect to arrive here. So far, you can buy a stained-glass camel ornament, wooden squares painted with big-lashed cartoon camels, a cheese-filled “Sahara bun,” and a local moonshine called “Magic of the Desert.”

Children from neighboring towns who are studying Africa in school come to the Błędow on school trips to see their native desert, Pajdak says. University students and researchers from Krakow also visit to conduct studies; some have published papers on the desert’s ecosystem. The town of Olkusz, about a 15-minute drive from Chechło, boasts a museum of Saharan African culture and handicrafts, created at the bequest of a Polish couple who lived in Africa for 11 years. The museum has organized events and visits to the desert in conjunction with the PSA.

In the northern section of the desert, the land is flat, and on the horizon looms the Katowice Steelworks. The day I visit, the Błędow is cold and gray, with fog hanging low over neat village houses and dark lilacs swooning from overgrown bushes along the lane leading into the desert. Pajdak says that the name, Błędow, comes from the Polish word for “wandering,” referencing the perennial mists that make it easy for visitors to get lost here.

We arrive at a portion of the desert reserved for paratrooper use. Skirting a “Military Area: No Trespassing” sign, we find that another group had preceded ours. Two women, one with a camera and one with a reflector, appear at the cusp of a dune near the shattered bunker painted with African motifs, and below them on the fog-damp sand stands a young man, pale, naked, and, having seen us, making an attempt at modesty with his hands. Someone throws him a towel.

Pajdak speaks Polish to explain the situation, and though the translator deciphers his comment, the tilt of Pajdak’s head and the lift of his brows communicate the message without the delay of interpretation.

“Art students,” the translator confirms. A military truck barrels onto the scene and tells us all to get lost; they’re marking out a perimeter for a paratrooper drop later in the day.

On the ride back to Krakow, Pajdak tells me about a television show he caught on the Polish documentary channel, about an American man who was angry with his girlfriend, so he went to the desert and threw a party, but then the party became a big deal, an annual event that everyone wanted to attend.

Of course I’ve heard of it, he insists. It takes a moment to place what he’s describing.

“Burning Man?” I shout from the back seat, above the rumble of Pajdak’s Fiat Uno Fire.

“Tak, tak,” he says, yes, yes, that’s it.

They’ll do something like that, he tells me, and make their summer festival bigger and better, a Little Burning Man, a Burning Man Junior, here in the cold desert of Poland, with the flames of Katowice flickering in the distance.

Photos by the author.


  1. Kantor-Mirski, the father of Poland’s renowned avant-garde artist Tadeusz Kantor, adopted the pseudonym of Mirski, abandoned his family, and was caught distributing underground newspapers during World War II, after which he was arrested and killed at Auschwitz. His regional history monographs, including the one describing the Błędow, became collector’s items. 

Colleen Hubbard lives in England, where she writes fiction and nonfiction.

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