Twenty years ago it was a blank spot on the tourist map and today it is one of Germany’s premier expanses of unspoilt nature. The Mueritz National Park is also located in one of the most sparsely-populated areas of the country -- another reason why it is such an attractive destination for visitors.

For decades the beavers, ospreys and bitterns had this place more or less to themselves. Large tracts of the Mueritz park territory were reserved for functionaries of the ruling communist party, the SED. They enjoyed unrestricted hunting, shooting and fishing in these parts while troops of the now long—defunct regime used the area to test their weapons.

“Rare animals, birds and plants were able to flourish here without being disturbed,” explained Ulrich Messner, who is charge of the national park authority in Hohenzieritz. Visitors now have the chance to see examples of wildlife, many of which have virtually vanished from the rest of the countryside.

Mueritz National Park extends over a large area of the lakeland between Berlin and Rostock in the south of the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommerania. It covers a total of 320 square kilometres. The decision to create this reserve and two others in Germany’s north-east was taken in the dying days of the former German Democratic Republic, just four weeks before the GDR officially ceased to exist.

Today there is all but no trace left of the military machinery which once ruled the roost hereabouts. Nature has reclaimed the areas once conquered by man. More than 250 bird species are indigenous to the region and among the airborne wildlife stars are endangered birds such as ospreys and seahawks.

There are 58 pairs of breeding ospreys in the Mueritz district -- more than anywhere else in Europe, says Alfred Bohnenstaedt of the National Park Service in Federow. He takes visitors on osprey safaris for a rare opportunity to see the birds in their nests of sticks amid their natural habitat.

The ospreys arrive back from Africa in time to catch the sun’s first warming rays and to take up nesting positions near the lakes.

The osprey feeds exclusively on fish and is extremely adept at hunting and catching them. The sight of an osprey in action is exciting to behold.

The bird flies and hovers for minutes at a time, some 50 metres above the wetlands, on the lookout for its next meal of fish. Once it spots the prey, the osprey folds its wings close to its body and plummets down, before plunging in feet first and emerging moments later with a wriggling fish in its talons.

In the autumn, numerous cranes, calling loudly, touch down at Lake Rederanger, south of Waren. They are en route to their winter quarters in southern Spain. When dusk falls they seek refuge for the night among the reedy fringes of the lake.

The number of tourists keen to see this natural spectacle has grown to the extent that park authorities now issue passes to those eager to watch the cranes. From the end of August until late October the paths around the lake are closed in the afternoons.

Ornithologists escort small groups to observation stations along the way. From here the birds can be easily seen through binoculars.

On the cycle path from Federow to Speck nature has been left to thrive. Fallen trees in the woodlands are allowed to rot, providing countless beetles, toadstools and moss with a rich source of nutrition.

Not far from Speck is a radio and observation tower which provides an unparalleled panoramic view of the area. The tower stands 55 metres tall atop a 100-metre hill. “No other place in the national park gives you a better view of the vast spread of forests and meadows,” said Bohnenstaedt.

Of the 2,000 lakes and ponds in Mecklenburg-Vorpommerania, a total of 107 lie within the boundaries of the Mueritz National Park.

Exploring the area from the water is also possible, thanks to two well-maintained waterways.

A four-kilometre stretch known as the “Alte Fahrt” is a canal between the Muderitz and the Mirow chain of lakes. There is also the “Obere Havel” or upper reach of the Havel river. From the source at Kratzeburg it is 23 kilometres to Lake Userin, the largest in the park.

On the section between Wesenberg und Plaetlinsee, which is under special protection, the waters are teeming with perch and bass and roach. During a trip with a glass-bottomed kayak it is often possible to spot beavers and otters as well.

The gateways to the park zone are signposted from seven villages and the town of Neustrelitz and there is an excellent network of roads and paths. Several highways and waterways bring tourists to the park, many of whom bring their bicycles in order to explore the territory in more depth. A cycle route marked “M” denotes the =official route through the national park. It links the two sections, known as the Mueritz and Serrahn, over a distance of 163 kilometres.