The clock ticked past 10pm, the Scandinavian summer dusk was shifting to gloom, and, sitting on a bright orange bus with a group of German tourists, I'd accepted the closest I was going to get to an elk was the tortilla wrap with a slice of elk salami that I'd had for dinner.
Finally, a stately silhouette stepped on to the lane. Even from 50 yards you could make out its bulbous lips and enormous foam-glove antlers. Then we all gasped: a baby elk calf emerged from the undergrowth, sucking at its mother's udder, its improbably large and floppy ears straight from a Disney script.
"I've been tracking elks for so many years, but when I see one my heart still beats so fast," said Goran, our khaki-clad guide. "To see them so close is very special."
Sweden is the land of the elk. More than 250,000 meander around the countryside, and a sizeable population exists in the thick woodlands of Hunneberg, a mountain capped with volcanic rock, two hours' drive north of Gothenburg. Before darkness closed in, we had looked down from the mountain on Lake Vanern, Sweden's largest lake, and the base for exploring the country's newest nature reserve.
Vanern measures 100 miles by 60 miles and within its waters are 22,000 islands and islets, most of which are uninhabited, making up Europe's largest freshwater archipelago. This year, community efforts to safeguard this environment were rewarded when it was designated as a biosphere reserve, safeguarding the area's culture and ecological diversity and offering new hiking and biking trails.
The whole area feels very, well, Swedish. Ancient churches and modern wind turbines punctuate the landscape, every village seems to have a charming café, water is everywhere, great care is taken to make everything from summerhouses to rubbish bins fit in with nature, and there is a sense of natural, fresh remoteness. Meadows and lakeside verges were filled with wild flowers, sweet-smelling to swooning point. More than 140,000 sea and water birds use its waters.
Charter boats zig-zag back and forth during the summer months, including Navaren, skippered by Stig Oloft, the fifth and last of a generation of lighthouse keepers on the lake. Stig was born on Naven, a tiny island, 40 minutes from the hamlet of Spiken, reached by some gentle nudging and nurdling through the archipelago. The sun was shining, there was no wind and the lake was serene, but as Stig explained, this is not always the case. Vanern is big enough to be an inland sea, and the wind can easily whip up choppy waves. Even the ever-watchful Swedes can be caught out, as testified by a long history of shipwrecks. In winter, the elks, too, can fatefully wander on to the ice.
We moored at Naven island and picked our way past orange mushrooms, known locally as kantarell – safe to eat and delicious when fried – to the old lighthouse, its octagonal column now resting on top of an idyllic summerhouse. "It's a beautiful spot," said Stig. "It's what I like best about Vanern – all these many, many islands. You can be by yourself for as long as you want on most of them."
The lake shores were enchanting, drawing us back every evening. Once we saw an osprey diving into the water after its prey, elsewhere a sea eagle skimmed the pines. Skeins of geese flew overhead in classic "v" formation, southward bound from the Arctic, and there were swirling starling roosts. The scale of the lake made for a rare light, of the kind you get far out at sea.
Vanern has a place in the hearts of many Swedes. One legacy of this is the Baroque fantasy castle of Lacko, perched on one of the many spits of land that edge out into the lake. Its whitewashed walls and squat turrets enclose a classic castle of false doors and staircases that has changed little since the 17th century. The driving force was the mercurial De la Gardie family, soldiers and visionaries, who led an Arthurian, epicurean existence, feasting on 25-course meals and whose children, too, swigged wine and beer. It's more serene today, with a wonderful café, run by a British chef, which uses local organic vegetables.
Lacko is overlooked by another hilly, volcanic plateau, Kinnekulle, capped by solidified magma, where delightful trails wind up and down the mountain to a viewing tower that allows you to grasp the sheer size of the lake. Nearby was Forshem, a tiny village where the cemetery includes enigmatic Viking gravestones hinting at sacred art they brought back from their Oriental adventures.
On our last day, we wandered out to Hindens Reef, a spit of land that tapers for two miles into the lake. It narrows to just 50 feet, with water lapping on either side as you walk. Much of it covered by a delightful canopy of broadleaf trees, it's full of woodpeckers and unusual birdsong. Eventually the reef sinks under your feet and continue across the lake bed to emerge on the far shore. At its very tip, surrounded by water on all sides, as though on a giant, natural jetty, you feel as though you're about to teeter into an ocean. It was all very low key, the landscape pretty much left to nature. The Swedes handle their great outdoors with a light touch, much as they do their architecture, design and other facets of life – nature's equivalent of an Ikea flatpack.
How to get there
Mark Rowe travelled by rail from London to Gothenburg with Eurostar (eurostar.com), Deutsche Bahn (bahn.com/uk), and Rail Europe (raileurope.co.uk). Rail tickets between London and Gothenburg start at £240 return per person.
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