Reindeer seem to fly. You only have to watch a moving group of reindeer to understand how the idea of them flying came about. They move forward in a straight line, their bodies perfectly still, with no up and down movement at all and their heads shot forward in line with their bodies. It looks just like the movement of a low flying bird.

This is especially extraordinary when you realise that in the fjäll they run on the most uneven terrain imaginable, rocky and slanting and often covered in ice and snow. Their legs are adapted by being double-jointed and seem to function on automatic, ensuring a smooth movement for the body with seemingly little effort. They’re perfectly adapted to their environment. Which is more than can be said for us this week, when we were out in the fjäll testing a new tent.

We’ve done a lot of day walking, and a few of short overnight trips in huts, but we’d never camped. Camping can take you further away, and give you an experience of being close up with nature, but it brings a lot of new challenges. We like to work it out for ourselves, testing how things are, and then building up that knowledge piece by piece. We have a lot to learn. It’s useful now and again to get some advice from someone with the experience, but there’s only so much you can take in before you have to work it out for yourself. Now was the time to get over our fear of tents.

It was a clear autumn day and the fjäll was glowing red and yellow in warm sunshine. Despite the strain of heavy backpacks – all those things you feel you need for an overnight stay – the trek there was a joy. The wonder of seeing reindeer is that they’re quite large animals, but encountering them is totally without fear on either side. They’re called ‘semi-domesticated’, but they’re wild really, in the sense that they’re nervous of people, and look after themselves in a natural setting. Human intervention is only to count and slaughter them, and when necessary to guide them over to better grazing if the weather, or human activities, have destroyed what’s usually there.

Reindeer keep a safe distance, but frequently stop to look you over, sometimes on the brow of a hill, antlers silhouetted against the sky. It’s an encounter, no doubt about that. Then they start to run, flying down into the valley. It makes you feel a part of their world, just watching them.

But putting up our tent, as the temperature sank rapidly, I knew what an alien I was. We were about to have our first night out in a landscape where we would be totally alone, no-one likely to pass by, and beyond reach of the phone network. We should have started this camping lark in the summer, when there was no darkness. We were a little apprehensive about our ability even to erect the tent (we’d tried it out in the sitting room) and get the gas stove going. But we’d decided that all would be well.

Confidence can take you a long way, and so we got the tent up, and had a hot meal before the cold drove us into our sleeping bags for the night. We were tired but satisfied we’d managed everything fairly well, and the tent looked good for the night.

I was awake quite a while, listening to the silence. I left the tent of necessity at one point and faced the mountains, the stars, and pale white northern lights spread out across the sky, billowing gently in the solar winds. It was cold though, so I was driven back into the sleeping bag.

I was just dropping off to sleep when I heard something outside the tent.

‘Schnigglegrroomph.’ What was a wild pig doing out here in the fjäll? And why was it outside our tent?

I shook Rolf awake. There were a couple more ‘Grmph’ noises from outside and few protests from inside while Rolf came back into consciousness and saw my alarmed face.


‘What is that?’ I demanded. Rolf tried to look unimpressed. In fact he tried to look as if he wasn’t really lying in a sleeping bag in a lonely place with an animal outside the tent.

‘Schnigglegrroomph. Grmph.’ Now the beast in the night was stamping the ground around us. I had visions of a wild boar charging through the tent, trampling us in a frenzied attack.

‘Must be a reindeer,’ said Rolf.

‘What, sounding like a PIG?’ I protested.

‘Schnigglegrroomph’. This time it was Rolf making the noise.

‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Are you mad?’ But I couldn’t stop him.

‘Schnigglegrroomph’. He seemed to think that replying to the beast might scare it off.

‘Schnigglegrroomph’. It didn’t. Now we’d encouraged it – the beast in the night – and I knew in my bones it was coming through. I knew there were no wild boar in the fjäll so it had to be a reindeer, and I knew that reindeer aren’t aggressive – but I was sat bolt upright in my sleeping bag, frozen by a kind of fearful imagining. Why didn’t we go out and challenge it, whatever it was?


Then, completely out of context, or so it seemed to us, we heard the tinkling of a bell. What was this, the Austrian Alps?

It took a few seconds to re-imagine the scenario, and replace the beast in the night with an image of reindeer. The dominant female in a herd may have a bell round her neck so herders can find her when they want to encourage the herd to move.

This tinkling matriarch is an experienced old reindeer. She’s seen it all, and knows what the herd should do. And when she comes across a young inexperienced reindeer, having his first encounter with a tent, wondering what it is and making ‘Grmph’ noises, she can give him a good bit of advice.

So she did, and the beast in the night, the dominant female reindeer and the rest of her small herd moved on and all was quiet again.

It was a memorable night, and we, and one young reindeer, learnt a thing or two about tents.