Kore, a Mr Fixit of Norwegian adventure travel, and three of us from England had been invited to join Britt's husband, Lars Mathis Gaup, and his family, on the annual reindeer migration to the most northerly tip of mainland Europe, the Norwegian region of Finnmark. We would be learning how to drive snowmobiles and camping out on top of mountains in temperatures of -10C. More to the point, we were in the immensely privileged position of being among only a handful of outsiders ever to have joined a Saami reindeer family during this, the most significant event of their year. (The firsttrip with fee-paying tourists departs next April.) The Gaups comprised Piera, 23, and Anne-Magrette, 20, along with Nastte, their black reindeer dog.
The reindeer Saami are a distinct Scandinavian group, who are intent on preserving their traditional semi-nomadic life based on the siida, or family clan. Lars Mathis is somewhat unusual in that he wants to combine the demanding life of the reindeer herdsman with opening the door to the wider world - our invitation being one example. He believes a little modest enterprise and education of the Daccu (non-Saami) is the way forward.
At his cosy cabin on the shores of Tanafjorden we prepared for this most mysterious of migrations. The news was that the reindeer were tired, stressed and hungry, resting in the woods. The conditions were about as bad as they could be for the 60-mile trek: it being April, some thawing had taken place, but then temperatures had dropped, turning the snow into concrete and making it impossible for them to burrow for lichen.
Reindeer have migrated north from time immemorial, with the pregnant females - 75 per cent of the herd - leading the way as they return each year to the very same rock to give birth. It's the older ones who blaze a trail, one- and two-year-olds in their wake, with the bulls bringing up the rear. In spring it's the females who sport antlers to protect the food earmarked for their newborn calves.
The reindeer provide the Saami with meat, clothing, leggings, shoes, rugs, tools and household implements. In the 1970s, snowmobiles replaced huskies and sledges for herding, but these beautiful, intelligent creatures still largely dictate the pace of the migration.
We were kitted out with Arctic suits, fur-lined boots, balaclava headgear, thick socks, goggles, gloves, head torches and chocolate. The Gaups preferred their thinner - but warmer - reindeer furs. For two days we waited for the off, hearing rumours that wolves had attacked the herd, or that they'd wandered off and mixed with other herds. Even Nestte had lost his voice from so much barking. On one occasion the cry went up that the reindeer were straying into the next valley and we were called on to scare them off with yelps and waving arms, our alien tones apparently doing the trick.
"When will we go?" I asked Lars Mathis.
"I don't know," he replied. "Ask the reindeer."
At 8pm the call came: at last they had started moving. I jumped on to Kore's snowmobile and we sped away, and there they were treading gingerly down the hillside. Lars Mathis ordered hay to be spread so they could stoke up for the long haul ahead. Anne-Magrette fed the tamer ones with grass pellets. Darkness fell, and our snowmobiles drove the herd up the valley through a narrow pass, but they didn't like being confined and tried to make for the heights. We needed to push on because the pregnant females couldn't be delayed any longer. Eventually, it worked, and we followed them into the night and the growing cold. "You must wiggle your toes and fingers so you don't get frostbite," Kore advised.
As the new moon appeared, we stopped to boil up some soup on the Primus: powdered vegetables had never tasted so good. Kore and Lars Mathis were deep in conversation. Apparently, the reindeer were still in bad shape and needed more rest. The plan was to stay put until dawn. We lay down on reindeer skins to snatch some sleep, but the combination of numbing cold and my companions' snoring made it impossible. I felt scared, wondering if I had taken on too much. Just as I was sinking and shivering into despair, there, way above me, I saw the Northern Lights, two parallel silver rainbows pencilling across the sky.
I looked at my watch. It was 2.30am and dawn was breaking. In the half-light I could see disparate, stationary patches of grey - the shadowy mark of 500 of these beasts of the north, their bells ringing across the silent, white wasteland. The Gaups stirred, and within minutes we were off, my nocturnal terrors dissipated in the headlong movement as I steered the snowmobile higher and higher into the growing day.
As the animals caught the rhythm, their memories of past migrations stirring back into life, so they began to assume control, turning us humans into mere extras in this naturalistic drama. At one point, as we hung back on an incline watching their shapes padding slowly through the grey Arctic light, all 500 switched to single file, which is their economical way of negotiating deep, sucking snow. For three days we became part of a painting whose only colours were white, black and grey.
Then three things happened. The headlights on Lars Mathis's snowmobile went out and he smashed into a snowdrift. At the top of an escarpment the reindeer - hungry again - ran amok, careering for the food on the black spots of rock below, whereupon another snowmobile ran out of petrol. Finally, the storm broke, bringing a vicious wind that whipped up clouds of loose powder and cut us like an icy knife.
Just when we were about to dig ourselves into a bivouac, survival-style, Lars came roaring up, smiling: miraculously, his children had rounded up the straying reindeer and they were now gathering safely at the river.
It was down to Kore and me to get more petrol - the fuel shortages had come about because the reindeer had needed much more herding than usual. We headed off down a lonely valley with a sledge piled high with empty fuel cans, skimming over a frozen river while keeping an eye out for dark crevasse lines - giveaway signs of danger and disaster. An Arctic hare bobbed away into the gloom and a bright white ptarmigan buffeted up into the air. We bumped into a tiny fishing village and relieved four flabbergasted locals of eight cans of petrol.
Not before we'd managed to overturn the snowmobile, we returned to the others and, with a shy sun sneaking though the mist, we pitched the lavvu - a wigwam. As we tucked into Kore's superb soup of fresh crab and cod, followed by blueberries and cream, Lars Mathis announced that one of the hardest migrations for years had been a success: only a handful of reindeer had been lost, and they'd be recovered in the autumn migration south.
But these quiet northern rulers had already turned their backs on us. Some sauntered down to the fjord and grazed on seaweed, while others - most of the heavy-bellied females - were searching out their individual mangers of stone. We humans were now surplus to requirements. The best thing to do was to slip quietly away.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Robert Nurden travelled to Kirkenes, via Oslo, with Scandinavian Airlines (0870-607 2772; www.scandinavian.net), which offers return fares from around £450.
High & Wild (01749 671777; www.highandwild.co.uk) will be offering a limited number of places on the reindeer migration in Finnmark on 5 and 9 April 2006. The price of the nine-night trip is £3,035 and includes accommodation with most meals, all transfers, activities and snowmobile hire. Group size is limited to a maximum of seven people per trip.
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