Don't call me Rudolph
Reindeer reign supreme in freezing north Finland, but not in a cutesy, red-nosed way. They make for star racers, sturdy transport and - gulp - a healthy meat supply for a population reliant on them, discovers Kevin Pilley.
The best way to see the Northern Lights at their spectacular best is to crash head-on into a Finnish pine tree at 60km/h. The sky immediately becomes a swirling kaleidoscope of unforgettable colours.
In the Land of the Sun, you can have such an earth-shattering experience in one of three ways. There are snowmobile safaris and husky-sledding trips, but these now face stiff competition from self-drive reindeer excursions. In north Finland, you can rent a polkka, or sledge, and hurtle around the Lemmenjoki National Park and other wilderness areas with a free-range, lichen-fuelled Arctic ungulate as your chauffeur. Translation: you can go off-roading on a reindeer.
Inari, a day-and-a-half from Helsinki by road, is the capital of the Sami mountain people and the reindeer capital of the world. Everyone is a second-hand reindeer salesman and all the restaurants sell reindeer parts. It's unnerving to ask a waiter what they can offer and be told, 'Tongue or bum, anyway you like.'
But just as you need a local beaver-hunting and ice-fishing permit, you also require a reindeer driving licence, which entails sitting a proficiency test. This means proving you know your way around a reindeer ... which means pointing to where the horn is. You must also demonstrate you are capable of controlling a speeding reindeer. You must do an emergency stop. Reindeer can burn slush if they want to, especially if pursued by a rakka, a large swarm of horseflies.
The secret of driving a reindeer is that there is no secret at all. Because they have wide peripheral vision, flapping your arms is enough to get them motoring. Stopping is largely up to the reindeer and whether it passes a tasty roadside shrub, which will usually cause a speeding Rudolph to screech to a halt. Otherwise, as my instructor and reindeer-driving examiner Mikko tells me, all you need is a great deal of patience and upper-body strength.
He should know. Mikko is a professional reindeer jockey. For three months a year, from November, he travels around Lapland competing in reindeer races.
The sport is highly popular in northern Finland: Lapps like a flutter and the biggest race is the Royalty or Kingship Cup. Held over 3km every April, it is the Arctic Ascot. Hundreds of spectators gamble thousands of euros trackside, the track being a frozen lake.
I watched the world's oldest and most prestigious reindeer sprint being won by Pikkamusta, a seven-year-old arctic mountain stag from Inari. It was his third successive win and turned him into an all-time great, alongside immortals such as Tupsuniska, Mustahurma and Valkko. 'The Little Black One' beat 23 other thoroughbreds and his jockey, Asla Akio, is Lapland's answer to Lester Piggott. The prize accompanying the coveted 'Kuninkuusajot' or 'Ajola Cup' is Euro1,680 (HK$17,400) and a year's supply of reindeer food.
'The Kingship is our Mardi Gras,' says Vesa Bergman, of the Association of Reindeer Herding Co-operatives, founded in 1947. 'It's a great social occasion. Everyone wears their best hats. Costumes identify areas like Utsjoki, Enontekio, Vuotso and Inari, where reindeer racing is a religion. Finnish Lapland is the only place where reindeer race pulling their jockeys behind on skis.'
More than 150 reindeer take part, all of which have had their antlers removed to make them more aerodynamic and less dangerous. The first Kingship race was run in 1950, but reindeer racing goes back to the 17th century, when Lapps raced each other to church for the best pews. Brides were never late for their weddings because they raced the grooms. Weekly markets also provided an excuse for cross-country competitions. Finland has more than 500 registered racing reindeer and 100 professional jockeys. Races are on the flat; there are no steeplechases. The other big race is the 'Gold Watch', in Rovaniemi, otherwise known as Santa Claus Village.
For centuries, reindeer have been used as pack animals and as decoys in deer hunting, the first written record of such employment dating from AD499. Reindeer husbandry for meat production came during the Middle Ages and 150,000 reindeer are slaughtered each year, producing 3.5 million kilograms of meat and supporting an industry worth Euro17 million a year. There are now 8,000 owners in 60 herding co-operatives.
Autumn is mating season and calving occurs in May. Reindeer milk was once used to make cheese and to cure allergies. The fat content of reindeer meat is low, the protein levels are high and it has five times more vitamin C than beef. Selenium-rich, it's thought to help prevent cancer and heart disease.
Tree felling and forestry work have meant a reduction in lichen and in cultivated areas, the snow hardens without protection from the wind, which means wild reindeer sometimes struggle to find food. More than 4,000 animals are killed by road traffic every year and the national railway board compensates owners for reindeer struck by trains. Predators include bears, wolves and even eagles.
The Sami homeland, known as Sapmi, covers parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Roughly 750,000 Sami live here, together with 40 per cent of the world's reindeers. More than 800 Finnish families earn their living solely from reindeer. The Kingship weekend is a celebration of their culture, which also flourishes in the two Sami language newspapers published in Norway and on the dedicated Sami radio station. In 1994, secondary-school pupils sat exams in their mother tongue for the first time; a Sami parliament has convened since 1973 and national day is February 6 - but the biggest party occurs on Kingship Cup Day.
Juhan, the owner and trainer of the great Pikkamusta, hopes to equal the record of Paavo Martin, who won the race seven times. 'It's a good life for racing reindeer,' Juhan says. 'They live longer. They're fed better and they have a better love life. If they do not perform, they will be castrated, slaughtered and sauteed. Thankfully, the trainers aren't under quite so much pressure.'
Getting there: Finnair (www.finnair.com) flies from Hong Kong to Ivalo, near Inari, via Helsinki. The Hotel Inari (www.hotelliinari.fi) can be contacted on tel: 35816 671 026 or e-mail email@example.com. For more information on Inari, see www.inarilapland.org. The 2007 Inari reindeer championships will take place from March 31 to April 1.