Poppie the poro joggled his head from side to side in what could be described as a typical Indian idiosyncrasy to emphasise his stack of antlers. Standing a few feet away amidst birch trees in a forest livid with the red and orange colours of autumn, I thought, “Here’s one camera-friendly poro”. Poro is reindeer in Finnish, and in Lapland most male poros are positively perky.
Mating season was coming up, you see, and all of them were out to gather harems of lady reindeer to ensure the continuity of their line. What I perceived as exaggerated waggles of vanity were warning signs telling me that I should let them get on with their amorous overtures. So I quickly ran back to the safety of my Volkswagen Golf.
True Colours shining
The line marking the Arctic Circle goes through a place called Santa’s Village, a permanent Christmas exhibition and many souvenir shops. It’s a great stop for kids!
I was on a driving holiday in Lapland. And I had timed it perfectly because the trees were in that transitional stage from green to stripped, and before they got there, they went through a spectrum of colours, including orange, red, yellow and dark blue. And all this was reflected in the still waters of the many lakes and topped by a blue sky scattered with fluffy clouds.
The Finnish Fells lie within the Arctic Circle – and while the very word Arctic might bring to mind ice and snow and unbearable cold – the Fells are quite hospitable during summer and autumn. Temperatures stay in the mid-20s, and walking, cycling and kayaking are quite popular.
Even in winter, when the temperature drops to an instant-ice-making 20 degrees below zero, visitors still arrive. But the game then is all about ice walking, skiing and snowmobile touring. The latter is an activity where you are kitted out in Arctic winter wear and go on a safari on frozen river beds and white forests. You stay at heated log huts and sit by campfires watching the night sky as the Northern Lights (the aurora borealis) play out an amazing drama.
Even when it’s cold, the Arctic is a lovely place to visit. There are more reindeer than cars on the roads through the Fells. In fact, the statistics for Lapland state that for every square kilometre there are 0.8 people and 1.5 reindeer.
A date with Santa
The fall of the leaf: In autumn, the trees are a myriad of colours
We had boarded VR Railways’ over-night express no 265 from Finland’s capital Helsinki to Rovaniemi, the gateway to the Arctic. These double-decker trains have twin-berth cabins which are ideal for families or big groups. There’s a lively dining car, huge toilets and hot showers. So we arrived ready to hit the road at Rovaniemi. My car was waiting at the station’s parking bay and we were soon driving north on European Highway Number 4 – affectionately called Santa’s Road or the Arctic Highway in Finland.
Eight kilometres out of Rovaniemi, we crossed over the Arctic line. The line marking the Arctic Circle goes through a place called Santa’s Village. Complete with Santa Claus, his elves and a post office with its own postmark, this place is a wonderland for little kids.
Santa Claus is in his town. Santa’s Village is host to Santa’s office, a post office, a permanent Christmas exhibition and many souvenir shops.
The Fells, which are undulating forested plains, are a trekker’s delight. The lakes and rivers are teeming with life, making fishing intensely satisfying. These rivers formed the lifeline of this region before the introduction of roads. Narrow river boats were used as transport earlier; today they are used for river and lake safaris, although most now have an outboard engine clapped on.
My first experience on such a boat was at Sodankylä, where the Kitinen riverside is a beautiful area with little cottages along the banks. Just by the tourist office there is a wooden church that is the oldest in the region and dates back to 1689. It is also one of the very few buildings in Lapland to survive the Second World War.
Another unique place to visit in this region is the Lampivaara Amethyst Mine close to Luosto, 12 km east of the Rovaniemi-Sodankylä road and 27 km short of Sodankylä. The climb up to the mine shaft is stunningly scenic and along the way I could pick lingonberries and blueberries. Once there, we could prospect for some of the precious stone. The norm is that if you can enclose what you find within your fist, then you can keep it. Anything bigger than that goes to help Finland’s GDP.Gold rush
You can pan for gold at the Tankavaara Gold Mine
I enjoyed the 129-km drive north from Sodankylä to Saariselkä. As we moved north, the colours of autumn were even more vibrant and varying. The still conditions made the surface of the lakes we passed almost glasslike, reflecting the scenes around. Thirty-two kilometers short of Saariselkä, at the Tankavaara Gold Mine, is the site of one of the great Lappish gold rushes – and the museum here tells it all by way of great exhibits and displays. You can pan for gold, and there is always a glitter at the bottom of the pan if you do your panning diligently. Here too, you can keep whatever gold you find. If it is within reasonable
limits, of course!
Saariselkä is where I got my fix of adrenaline. Canoeing on the scenic Tankajoki River, rafting through white water rapids on the Ivaljoki River and the guided walks through the Fells all made the area a worthwhile pitstop. The water is icy, but the thrill cancels out its sting and by the time you’re paddling hard or dodging swells, it feels almost lukewarm.
Continuing further north, our last halt was the village of Inari. The Siida Museum of Sami Life makes the visit to Inari worthwhile. Here, you can find out how the indigenous people survived here in the centuries before bitumen roads, fast transport and indoor heating. The underlying fact that comes through is that the reindeer has been and still is the vital survival component of local Sami life.
My GPS told me to drive from Inari to Levi, which is west of Sodankylä via Sodankylä itself, but I didn’t want to drive along the same road again, so I went along Route 955 from Inari. There is a reason that the GPS doesn’t offer this road as an option, it is because most of it is a dirt track. I felt like as if I was driving in a rally because once or twice I gave in to the temptation of sliding the car around corners.The wild side
Levi is an adventure hub but is also a place where a good party is never too far away. There are mountain bike trails where you can take your bicycle up to the hills in a cable car and then zip on it down the slopes. Then there is jungle craft, where you can do stuff like traversing trees on a cable, crossing a Burma Bridge or doing the monkey crawl.
Another thing that almost a religion here is karaoke. Wake a Finn up in the middle of the night, and give him or her a microphone, and he or she will sing. Also, they love to dance. So in Levi there are afternoon restaurants with live music, where you will see the bizarre sight of locals in full walking gear celebrating the completion of a long walk with a glass of wine or vodka, and trying to do the boogie-woogie dressed in Gore-Tex and hiking boots.
And that is how my Finnish holiday in Lapland drew to a close, watching two hikers trying to tap dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to a live band, while the restaurant owner nervously pulled at his chin, wondering how long the wooden floor would stand up to the whopping it was being subjected to.TRAVEL FACTS
: Indians need a Schengen visa. Visit www.finland.org.inFlights
: There are no direct flights from Mumbai; Finnair flies direct from Delhi to Helsinki.
Helsinki definitely warrants a day or two. Take a flight (1 hour) to Rovaniemi or take the overnight train. Book online at www.vr.fi
You can hire a car online at Europcar Finland at www.europcar.fiON THE ROAD
Keep in mind that there are very strict speed limits and that reindeer sometimes rush across the road.
Hitting a reindeer is very unlike hitting a stray dog on the roads in India. The animals are quite large so a collision can be fatal for all involved.
If you do hit a reindeer and it is in agony, you are expected to perform the coup de grace.
Having a GPS is good, but be sure that you carry a road map of the region as well.
For more on Finland and Lapland, go to www.visitfinland.comFrom HT Brunch, December 23
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