Magazine article Geographical

Roaming with Reindeer: Joining the Indigenous Sami Reindeer Herders for Their 110-Kilometre Annual Migration, Author Robert Nurden Became One of the Few Outsiders to Experience This Gruelling and Dangerous Journey into Norway's Frozen North

Magazine article Geographical

Roaming with Reindeer: Joining the Indigenous Sami Reindeer Herders for Their 110-Kilometre Annual Migration, Author Robert Nurden Became One of the Few Outsiders to Experience This Gruelling and Dangerous Journey into Norway's Frozen North

Article excerpt

The aurora swirls above us as we watch the distant grey shapes of the reindeer trudge in single file through the deep, sucking snow. Lars Mathis Gaup, the herdsman, indicates with a perfunctory wave that he wants the snowmobile engines turned off. He's worried: his animals are hungry, stressed and confused, and progress on the 110-kilometre trek to their summer pastures at Norway's northern tip is painfully slow.

"How many reindeer do you have?" I ask. He says he doesn't know, but of course he does. I should have known better. You don't ask a Sami reindeer herder how many animals he owns; it's like asking to see his bank statement.

During the mid-1990s, most of Gaup's herd starved to death after the lichen--the reindeer's staple diet--became locked under a thick layer of ice. His economic-recovery programme was more imaginative than most. In addition to reestablishing his herd, he decided to open up the poorly understood life of the reindeer herdsman. "We can no longer keep to ourselves," he says, stroking Nastte, his dog. "I want to tell outsiders about the Sami reindeer people. That will help us to preserve our life. Tourism and education of the Daccu [non-Sami] is the way forward."

We're among a handful of non-Sami ever to have joined a reindeer migration. This isn't just another event in the calendar; for this proud, semi-nomadic community, the migration is the culmination of the year and has a deep, almost spiritual, significance.

Worrying signs

In the cafe at Tana Brun, before we set off, Gaup's wife, Britt, gave each of us Daccu--Norwegian explorer Kare Tannvik and three Britons--a leather necklace made of coloured beads and a splinter of bone from a reindeer's shin. "Wear this," she said, "it'll bring you luck. You'll need it."

Forty years ago, she would have been coming with us; traditionally, women had the dominant role in reindeer-herding culture. They knew the individual animals and managed to combine animal welfare with being a mother. It was the introduction of the snowmobile during the 1970s that reduced their involvement.

It isn't totally a man's world, however: Anne Margrette, Gaup's 20-year-old daughter, was to accompany us on what would be her tenth migration. Her brother, Piera, 23, was there too, along with five snowmobiles.

The snowmobiles came from Frode Utsi, who made his fortune in the hire business. But he'd recently decided to return to his first love: reindeer. As he drove us down roads still banked a metre high with snow, he looked longingly at the hills. "Next week my migration will start, too," he said. "I have less money now, but I am more happy. But I do not think what you are doing will work. The old and new ways will not mix."

We had joined the Gaups at their cabin on the shores of Tanafjorden. I say 'their', but in fact they share it on a rotation basis with about 15 other people, all members of their siida, or family clan. This is the unit that oils community living, everyone helping each other out during crises--frequent occurrences in the risky world of reindeer herding.

Indeed, the signs for our migration weren't good. The conditions under which Gaup's previous herd had died were being repeated: it being April, some thawing had taken place, but then temperatures had dropped to--10[degrees]C, turning the snow on the hills hard and preventing the reindeer from reaching the lichen.

Reindeer have migrated north along the same routes since time immemorial. Tire pregnant females--75 per cent of this herd--lead the way as they return each year to the same rock to give birth. The older ones blaze a trail, one- and two-year-olds in their wake, with the bulls bringing up the rear. As it was now spring, the females bore antlers, with which they would defend patches of food for their new-born calves.

Traditional travelling

As we wait for the herd to regain its strength, we're kitted out with Arctic suits, fur-lined boots, balaclava headgear, thick socks, goggles, gloves, head torches and chocolate. …

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