Nicole Holcroft-Emmess is made to feel right at home in the forests of northern Sweden
I know it as Lapland. You know it as Lapland. We all know it as Lapland. But to the indigenous population, northern Sweden is Sápmi: the land of the Sámi people.
With a culture going back thousands of years, the Sámi are best known as reindeer herders and their way of life is intertwined with nature and the aurora borealis – otherwise known as the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights feature on nearly every travel bucket list I know. And while it’s true I have swapped the busy, rain-soaked streets of central London for sub-Arctic ‘glamping’ at Sápmi Nature Camp with the hope of seeing them, if I don’t, it won’t be that big a deal. Because I’m also here to experience the traditional Sámi way of life.
The nature camp we’re staying at is the brainchild of Lennart Pittja, a member of the local Unna Tjerusj Sámi community, who has built it to showcase how sustainable tourism can be achieved in harmony with indigenous life in the north. And he’s done a brilliant job.
On arrival I check in to my lavvu, a Sámi tent that looks like a teepee (there are five in the camp, making the maximum occupancy here 10) that holds a comfy double bed with warm blankets, and a small lounge area with furnishings inspired by nature, including reindeer-skin seat coverings and antlers for coat hangers. Thankfully there’s a log fire, which I learn how to build that day, and an automatic heater to keep my lavvu toasty overnight. The bathroom… isn’t here. It’s a short walk away, just past the cosy farmstead where meals are served. Breakfast is freshly made pancakes served with cloudberry and lingonberry. Lunch is cooked outdoors on a fire – reindeer meat (like venison, but less gamey) and sausage pittas with lingonberry and sourcream sauce.
It’s so far north here that the locals experience ‘midnight sun’ It’s a summer phenomenon wherein the sun doesn’t fully set for around 50 days (late May to mid-July); in winter, from early to mid December, the sun barely peeks above the horizon.
If you want snow and a chance of glimpsing the Northern Lights, winter is the best time to go (I went in mid January), but wrap up warm as it’s freezing, albeit stunning. In the brief midday light (10am-2pm), the camp’s natural surroundings look truly beautiful; sun gleams over sparkling snow as I trek out for a little adventure, snowshoeing through the nearby forest and over a frozen lake.
Next, my Sámi guide, Juvva, takes me on a short trip via snowmobile to feed their family’s reindeer – all of whom have their own personalities and all of whom get food all over my scarf.
Reindeer herding in the Sámi culture is crucial: reindeer antlers, which are shed naturally, are collected and carved into tools, while reindeer skin and fur are used to make shoes, furnishings and even bags to store coffee. The Sámi people make use of everything natural; nothing goes to waste. Something we could all learn from.
As night falls, the on-site sauna is a great way to unwind. It features a large double window that affords an epic view across the lake and up to the starry night sky. Dinner, served at the farmstead, is smoked Arctic char (similar to mackerel) and moose stew with salad, all beautifully prepared and cooked by Lennart (guests are welcome to help with preparing meals, if they wish). We eat by candlelight with a crackling fire blazing in the hearth.
I took my digital SLR camera with me, which I’d recommend if you want good photographs of the sky at night here. Rather handily, Lennart is also an experienced photographer and gives great advice on capturing images of the scenery. For me, I was in luck: the sky is cloudless, inky black and dusted with thousands of stars. Then, slowly, a thin band of green light appears, at first sitting low on the horizon, then it begins to move and the Northern Lights dance across the sky. It’s a wonder to see, never mind to photograph, and the Sámi belief that the lights are the spirits of ancestors who have passed on makes it an even more awe-inspiring experience.
I stay up late, watching the aurora before heading back to my lavvu for a very cosy night’s sleep, thinking as I drift off about how much I have seen and learned in such a short time surrounded by nature in the quiet calm of Sápmi.
Off The Map Travel offers seven-night Sámi Arctic Experience itineraries from £2,349 per person, based on two travelling with daily breakfasts and most evening meals.* Flights not included. For more information on Arctic travel experiences, call 0800 566 8901 or visit offthemap.travel