There is no getting around it, that reindeer is really spooked. I am in Tromsø, Norway at about 69° latitude north and standing on a lakeside strip of land. There are several tee-pee type tents scattered around as well as wooden sleighs and wooden poles presumably for building more tent structures. A man drives up and extracts himself from his vehicle, moving with conviction toward the field with the reindeer. Donned in bright cobalt blue traditional Sami attire, as well as tan coloured leather trousers, he looks dressed to attend a costume party. Instead, armed with a small harness and rope, he goes and fetches this incredibly fragile looking animal for us to gawp at. I have never seen a reindeer up close and was taken by how petite and delicate its hooves are and by its amazing antlers, furry yet sturdy at the same time.
This Arctic Circle voyage on Fred. Olsen cruise line’s ship, Balmoral, will be taking me and about 1,200 passengers up to the very top of mainland Europe. The North Cape juts up against the Arctic Ocean and is the most Northerly point of the European mainland. After trekking to the North Cape (by bus), we will then re-join our vessel and skirt along the Arctic Ocean; eventually tracing our steps and sailing back down the jagged, rugged coast of Norway. These destinations at the top of the world are often bleak and foreboding but, as it is summer and wild flowers as well as grass are blooming (fiercely fighting for their spot in the sun), it is actually incredibly beautiful and verdant.
Having first stopped in Molde, Tromsø is our second port of call on this itinerary. Now the Sami villager, Peristan, explains that he trains reindeer to work for his family and his village. These caribou type animals will pull the sleighs loaded with tents and provisions, and also provide the clothing and food for these people; in fact, reindeer are still vital to Northern nomadic tribes which have depended on them for thousands of years.
Inside the largest canvas tee-pee, we will all try out reindeer stew. In parts of Russia Sami still use reindeer fur for the tent lining. What a surprise when Peristan brings out family heirlooms for us to examine: a delicately carved wedding box, furry reindeer shoes with turned up toes (to secure the skis with rope), a silver wedding belt and a100 year old harness made of reindeer antler that belonged to his great, great grandfather. They were possibly some of the most enchanting objects I had ever seen.
But what was really special was when he sang. There was no ego or embarrassment, he performed with ease. And not just any old song but a ‘joik’. A joik is an extremely personal composition written as a type of chant for a Sami person at important events during their lives: birth, marriage and death. It sounds similar to an American Indian style chant but with more colour in the tone, more nuance and dynamics. We were all transfixed. He told me about the Grand Prix that takes place every year which is when all the Sami gather to compete for the coveted title of best performer and singer. I plan to come back and experience this. Imagine hearing a type of music that has been around since before recorded history. A surreal and incredible experience.
We then trucked out to the outskirts of Tromsø to see Villmarkssenter and Tove Sørensen’s huskies. Based in Kvaløya (Whale Island), Tove, formerly a lumberjack, began her business over twenty years ago when she realised how much visitors loved her dogs. Already a dog-sledding champion at that time, she had competed with her dogs in Alaska’s Iditarod, the longest and most extreme dog-sledding race in the world.
What a joy to see these incredible animals. There are over 400 working huskies in the camp and, during the long winter, they are busy taking tourists on expeditions that run from 5 hours to 5 days. It is readily apparent that they are bred to enjoy human company…I was covered in mud within moments of communing with them! The puppy barn was the best area to visit. I took a picture of my hubby holding MacGiver (the entire litter had been named after TV show cops) as both smiled ferociously at the camera. I am not sure I have ever seen folks enjoy themselves so much. Everyone was having a smooch with the dogs and having their photos taken, smiling though covered in mud. I will never forget these amazing creatures were so overjoyed to see people.
When we finally arrive at the North Cape, it is in a fog bank. I won’t pretend it wasn’t a massive disappointment to not see anything from the 307 metre high cliff. At 71°10’21” latitude, Nordkapp, is the northern most point in Europe. But even though the weather is poor, I enjoyed the wide-screen film about the four seasons at the North Cape. And on our journey back to Honnigsvåj seeing the reindeer herds in the fog was also atmospheric. One Sami has even trained his charge to kiss him if he wants more food. The Globe Peace monument was erected here in 1978 and there is an extensive visitor centre as well.
This far North, there will only be two months of summer before the days start to shorten and wind and cold return. In fact, I find it hard to believe the snow only fully melted two weeks ago. In the winter there is three months of total darkness, the Polar Night, when the Northern Lights are most prominent.
The rugged beauty and romance of this the most Northern part of the world cannot be emphasised enough. It really needs to be experienced.
Fred. Olsen cruise line’s ‘Journey to the North Cape’ on Balmoral departs Southampton 27th July 2014 and visits Olden, Leknes (Lofoten Islands), Tromsø, Honningsvǻg (North Cape), Ǻlesund and Bergen. Price starts from £1,299pp based on two sharing inside twin cabin. Visit www.fredolsencruises.com or call 0800 0355 150 (Monday – Friday, 8am – 8pm; Saturday, 9am – 5pm; Sunday, 10am – 4pm).