Memories of an elk's gait, charge of a wild boar, and a worm
The beautiful scene unfolding in front of me could be straight out of one of Disney's all-time classics, Bambi (1942). A pair of pointed ears, eyes darker than midnight and a smallish frame covered in sleek russet fur signifies that I'm peeking at one of God's most timid creatures: the roe deer.
Well it is about 250 metres away - I'm using high-powered binoculars. This is the sort of animal activity you would normally only expect to see in the middle of the wilderness. I'm less than half an hour's drive away from Stockholm, on a safari tour.
The heart of Sweden's awe-inspiring capital, the innerstaden, is split into four districts (Kungsholmen, Ostermalm, Norrmalm and Sodermalm), each with as much character as the main protagonist in a Charles Dickens novel. The city in its entirety (population 917,000) consists of 14 islands located at the point where the deep blue of Lake Mälaren flows into the Baltic Sea. But everyone needs a rest from the hustle and bustle of the most delightful metropolis, which is why our guide has brought us to the idyllic fauna-filled Bornsjon Nature Reserve.
Stockholm Outback can't promise that you will encounter any animals on this three-hour jaunt (7-10pm).
"Nature has always been known to set its own agenda," the guide maintains. But sightings are regular - more than 900 elk, roe deer and wild boar over the past 50 excursions.
Given that it's mid-August and we're being showered with sunshine, our minivan - there are four of us in the tour group - journey to Bornsjon is a wonder in itself.
Narrow, twisty roads bisect huge stretches of meadows and woodland, leading to fields dotted with isolated farms, chocolate-box pretty churches and wooden manor houses.
But before we try to locate our principal quarry, there's a 15-minute trek along a walking trail.
Here, 25- to 40-metre high pine and Norway spruce tower above us as our nostrils are tickled by the fragrance of masses of flowers: bluebells, cowslips, snake's head and water lilies.
The real purpose of this detour is to be made aware of Runestones: slabs of weathered rock marked with inscriptions, standing just over a metre above ground level.
"They can date back to the fourth century, but were most common in the Viking Age [AD793-1066], and were usually memorials to dead men," the guide says in one of his many informative commentaries. "Often they were painted in bright colours, but over time these have faded."
A bit later, at a vantage point by the side of the road, I peer through my binoculars at an expanse of pasture in front of a large forest. In less time than it takes to assemble the average piece of Ikea furniture, a wild boar clan steps out from the undergrowth. Although the fluffy, striped piglets appear so nice that I'd like to bring one home, their beefy mother (up to 70cm in shoulder height and weighing 60-80kg) is a no-nonsense hog. In Scandinavia she has the power and ability to fend off wolves; in Africa, lions.
However, the animal that takes my breath away is the elk, the largest member of the deer family. "Although the summer population of elk in Sweden is 300,000 to 400,000, you should still consider yourself pretty lucky to be able to observe them strutting about in the wild," the guide says.
And I do. Weighing in at anywhere from 380kg to 700kg, this majestic chestnut-furred brute has antlers - meaning it's a male - so sharp and treacherous, they look as though they could do more damage than a Norse god's thunderbolts. As if the explosion of action on terra firma weren't enough, a caterwaul of honks, crows and squawks signifies that many species of bird continually drift and swoop above us: grebes, swans, tawny owls and more.
About halfway into this excursion, we rest up by the eerie mass of impenetrable blackness that is Lake Bornsjon. It's 8.30pm, and the sun is setting. Here our thirst is quenched with a fika (pronounced fee-ka); the Swedish tradition of a social coffee or tea break. It is normal to consume a sweet snack with it, in this case a few "kanelbullar" (cinnamon buns). Ninety minutes later, we pack up and leave. By now, all of the natural light has disappeared. What will never fade are memories of an elk's gait, the charge of the wild boar, and a slow worm that surreptitiously slithered out from the shadows. And all of this zoological drama, just a stone's throw from Stockholm.
TOURS and ACCOMMODATION
Stockholm Outback's (www.sthlmoutback.se) tours run from May 1 until September 15. Adults HK$540, youths/students HK$400.
Norwegian (www.norwegian.com) flies to Stockholm-Arlanda from London Gatwick, Edinburgh and Manchester airports in Britain, with prices from HK$580, and offers free Wi-fi on board all European flights.
More info: The Rough Guide to Sweden (www.roughguides.com)