How it happened was this: “How does everyone like their reindeer cooked?” I ask the assembled hungry hikers.
I am in a hut on the banks of Lake Abiskojaure in far, far, far northern Sweden, having just hiked 15km carrying a 27kg pack (5kg of which was the aforementioned frozen reindeer meat).
We are miles above the Arctic circle. The Norwegian border is a few clicks that-away and Russia looms rather close over the horizon. We are in fact one hell of the way close to Russia.
We are at the start of an eight-day hike from the Abisko Turiststation and we are tackling the mighty Kungsleden, literally King’s trail.
It’s is a walk of over 100km over through along river valleys, birch forests, mountain passes.
We pass glaciers and flush game in the land of the Sami (the politically correct term for Lapp, as in Lapplanders), the ancient aboriginal folk who have lived in these parts for at least 20,000 years – deep time indeed.
There is in fact proof that the Sami were here during the last Ice Age on top of a miles-thick ice sheet that carved out the valleys I’m walking down – these ancient hardy folk just sucked it up and got on with their lives apparently.
The consensus seems to be medium rare (for the reindeer I mean). Why our group of 10 allows me to cook on our first day out is a mystery to me. It turns out to be a masterstroke.
Thereafter not one of the womenfolk in the party will allow me, or any of the men for that matter, near a stove nor so much as touch a dishrag for the remainder of our trek.
The hike is to last seven more nights and goes through some of the most amazing countryside I have ever seen.
Put it this way: I had no idea such beauty existed, and I’ll be going back.
The next day is the biggest challenge. I’m only humping 20kg now (the reindeer, which I cooked with mash and a sour cream and herb sauce, was inhaled by the group).
However, the leg is the longest of the hike: 25km, the last 10 or so turns out to be in the pouring rain.
During a break in between to squalls the sun comes out and I am vouchsafed a perfect view of a rainbow, the arch seemingly entering the lake only a few metres away. Wow! I stay calm, get out my Canon and get a few frames that are surely without price.
Everything I am carrying is soaked _ the rest of the party has covers for their packs and are fine. As my belongings are slowly soaked the weight of my pack increases, seemingly to 30, 50, even 60 kilos.
I begin to wonder if I really need half the stuff in my pack. Levi’s? Ridiculous. Deodorant? It must weigh all of 50 grams. My parka, who needs it? It must weigh half a kilo.
I finish that leg in about 5th spot. No great feat, since the party’s average age is 55, seven are women and all started with packs as heavy as mine.
I buy a beer at the next stop, Lake Alesjaure. The beer is warm, light (2.2 per cent) and is the best beer I’ve ever tasted.
Warning to readers: The whole Abisko region is “dry” meaning only light beer can be sold, except in bars. and there are no takeouts.
Buy your beer and whisky in Kiruna, and haul it up, if you need a tipple.
Turns out I go eight days without a (full-strength) beer or a fag.
By the end I had not felt fitter since a certain tour in the Australian Army Reserve. And there are peculiar lumps all over my body, which people assure me are in fact muscles and quite normal.
That night we enjoy a sauna followed by a dip in the lake.Overlooked by Dracula’s Castle or a reasonable facsimile.
We run down ludicrously steep steps through the freezing air into the equally freezing water. an Italian physicianess who is in our party explains the benefits of alternately boiling and freezing your body after such an incredible exertion. Your are literally squeezing fatigue toxins out of your body.
God, you know you’re alive.
Incredibly, everywhere we go I am assured I am the only Australian ever to have passed that way, this by people who have lived in this wilderness for decades – although there have been “a few New Zealanders’’. Bloody Kiwis. Always trying to show how much smarter they are, even when it can’t possibly matter. God what a national inferiority complex. If you ask me the Kiwis are OK. With us at Gallipoli, almost as good as us really.
The next day I am definitely over the hump.
I should also mention that along the way there are words of wisdom from Swedish US secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold carved in stone along the way. Some of these are worth writing in your notebook (meaning I forget to) Bengt our guide asks if I know who Dag was. “He was a good bloke,’’ I tell Bengt. “He was UN Secretary general in the ‘60s and was almost certainly murdered by the CIA and British intelligence.’’
If Bengt and the other Swedes are impressed with my knowledge they hide it well.
On the trek to the next resting place I discover a Sami secret holy place in a secret canyon, apparently led there by an old bull reindeer and a screaming zephyr of wind.
It is a huge skull, carved out of the living mountain rock, about 5m across, it’s blank hollow eyes staring at the skeins of mist roiling over the mighty ramparts of the mountains to the north.
The skull is set on a huge circular plinth. Instead of the tough scrub and grass in the rest of this ancient valley. Here are planted a different strain all the way up to the base of the plinth.
The grasses are soft. I take off my Army issue general purpose boots and wiggle my toes and then soak my feet in a creek. Presently I am in a pleasant reverie.
When I come to, tears are streaming down my face. “Must be something in my eye,’’ I grunt to myself. The first words I have heard for hours. They sound out of place.
I refill my canteen. It turns out there are places to put your feet where a clear trickle makes a three foot trip onto a rocky basin worn smooth over the millennia.
People have clearly been filling their canteens here for a while.
Other odd things happen here – I could show you photos. But – and this is the creepy part, not one of the 50 or so frames I took in that canyon came out, although the camera worked perfectly before and after.
When I rejoin the group I’m a little befuddled and I’m afraid no one will believe my story. Of course there are no pictures to back any of it up. They decline my requests to take them to the spot (it’s 300 metres or so off the trail. And to say the rest of the group is on a mission to get to the next staging hut would be a massive understatement.
We stop that night in Tjaktja mountain station. I swim beneath a waterfall with thick permafrost coating both sides and the odd iceberg coming over the falls.
“It’s plus degrees,” the caretaker tells me with a grin.
A crowd gathers to watch me scrub my slim lithe form, I cheerfully tell them to piss off.
The next day we cross over the Tjaktjapass. At 1140m, the highest point on the the odyssey and the only time I break out my parka in the whole journey.
The valley Tjaktjavagge opens up into a breathtaking vista.
At the bottom of the valley there is a cool river flowing over smooth clean pebbles.
By the river about halfway down there is a stone banana lounge, evidently used by the Sami to watch the kids while they have a dip.
The lounge could have been put that day, 100 years ago, or before my folks left these parts to go pillaging in England (about 500AD.)
I am at the end of the group. I let everyone get ahead, strip off and have a dip. There is a crystal clear pool, with a smooth rocky bottom in front of the the lounge chair.
The Sami are smart; it’s a great swimming spot.
I squeeze some reindeer and cheese out of a tube onto some crackers and wash my snack down with creek water.
I lie on the lounge and soak up the sun and with some difficulty refrain from taking a nap to avoid worrying Bengt, our superlative guide.
That night there is a sauna and another dip, from a small island in middle of the river a herd of reindeer companionably watch me shave and brush my teeth using my Gillette Sensor, Colgate Total and a tin cup (I was using the Gillette and Colgate and a tin cup I mean, not the reindeer).
In keeping with the supernatural theme, there is a perfect circle about 200m across carved in a glacier on one of the 5000-foot mountains overlooking this place – apparently the landing place of a passing UFO.
If green men come in asking a for beer tonight I wouldn’t be a bit surprised at this point.
I wonder how I will sleep, thinking about all the incredible things I have seen so far. I nod off while wondering how all this could happen to a boy from Paddington.
Days and many wonders later our trip ends when we walk into civilisation in the form of a tiny Sami village at the foot of the mighty Mount Kebnekaise, the nation’s highest peak.
Our waitress at lunch is a luscious Sami girl. I’m afraid that after eight days in the bush I drink a little bit too much and wax lyrical about her beauty. If she is impressed by my overtures, she hides it well.
Only take a Kungsleden walking tour if you are after a life changing experience in a magical part of the world and are prepared to see things that will change your life forever at a deeply spiritual level.
I did not see anything that I’m not sure I believe – provided that is if you don’t count the UFO, the fact that 50 pictures I took of an ethereal supernatural object did not turn out and discount an elderly bull reindeer and a gust of wind taking me on a tour of a certain canyon.
Go to the Kungsleden if your idea of fun is swimming in crystal waters, if you dig waterfalls, smelling birch and being dazzled by fiery fall colours, the midnight sun and knocked out by auroras in Europe’s valley of the kings.