Randwick, Flemington ... Kautokeino. Ewen Bell discovers a spring racing carnival with no stewards but plenty of pace.
Strapping yourself to a reindeer is rarely a good idea. They don't mind being around people, familiar people at least, but are never all that eager to be tied to someone by rope. For centuries the indigenous people of Arctic Norway used reindeer to pull sleds and every spring would indulge in some friendly competition. The annual tradition continues, although the sled has become an optional accessory in the pursuit of speed.
Spring is the favourite season for residents of the Scandinavian Arctic. By the end of March, there is still plenty of snow on the ground, yet the days are long and bright. In the far north of Norway, people talk of the warm spring weather, meaning the air is minus three degrees instead of minus 30 – warm enough to spend all day out in the snow, scooting about on snowmobiles or making fishing holes in the ice.
Sami people have lived inside the Arctic Circle for thousands of years but only with the help of reindeer. These well-tempered beasts of burden have been crucial to the survival of Sami in the extreme cold winters, providing food, leather, fur and transport. There are few things you can't use a reindeer for when you live 65 degrees north.
Every year the Sami Easter Festival brings together communities from ethnic minorities in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They share old and new cultural treasures: a film festival, a singing contest and reindeer racing. All over northern Scandinavia you can get a taste of Sami culture, but nothing quite like this.
Picture a large frozen lake, a generous covering of snow and lots of room for a horse-shoe shaped course. A kilometre of track follows the edge of the lake, with a starting box at one end and a closing pen at the other. Once you get reindeer started they can be hard to stop. Men, women and children wearing helmets and skis take their turn to hold the reins of a reindeer. The gates spring wide and the reindeer are racing.
The big event is an excuse for Sami people to wear their finest traditional clothing, colourful and ornate blends of practical warmth and ostentatious flare. According to the heritage of each Sami community, their dress is dominated by cloth of a particular colour, embellished with fine textiles and precious metals. The designs would read like a history book, if only I spoke their language.
The Easter festival is rich in traditional dress but contemporary Sami mostly wear contemporary clothing. As an evolving culture in a modern world, they present themselves simply as they are: people who live in a cold climate and need warm clothes. Ornately decorative or otherwise.
Mihkal Gaup has lived in Kautokeino his entire life and is now in his 60s. He wears a garment his mother made before he was born, a garment that was sewn for his uncle.
Mihkal strolls along the stalls like a proud peacock, showing off his finest colours in the hope of attracting a mate. He has never married, so he looks forward to Easter and the possibility of making new friends.
It's not easy meeting new people when you live in the Arctic Circle; there are reindeer to tend and much of the year is spent herding them from one forest to another.
Sami lifestyles are traditionally structured around families that live in harmony with the land, coming together on special occasions with distant neighbours.
Historically, the reindeer races and singing contests mark the time of year when Sami are "waiting to head north". That, literally, is what the translation of the season means. There are eight distinct seasons in the Sami calendar, each named in appreciation of what the reindeer will need. When April is over, it will be calving season and the men take their reindeer closer to the coast. Here the snow is melting and calves can start life with food under their feet.
"We wait until spring for the reindeer racing," Gunhild Sara says. "It's so warm and the days are long and bright. In a few weeks, it will be time to head north with the herd, so this is our last chance to get together for a little fun."
She recounts what the reindeer races used to be like. There were no skis or lycra, just a well-travelled sled and the most faithful of reindeer to pull it. There were no snowmobiles either; the beasts of burden were transport for the family.
All around the town of Kautokeino, the festive mood has been gathering momentum. Earlier in the week, ice carvings appeared along the main street, stalls selling reindeer handicrafts have been springing up in car parks and, by noon on race day, the music festival revellers have dragged themselves out of bed for one more day of celebration.
There's even a reindeer taxi operating to get you out of town and off to the events further along the valley.
Kautokeino is a hub of Sami arts at any time of year but the Easter festival brings out the full range of handcrafted goods. Roadside stalls and tented shops at events provide the best shopping for reindeer skins you'll see all year. There are thousands of them for sale, often sold directly from the herder himself. In the Arctic they are not merely decorative, they are downright useful. Reindeer skins provide a dry and warm place to sit when you're ice fishing on a lake, cooking lunch over an open fire or riding a sled across the frozen valleys.
Trackside at the races, young children are kept warm in their sleds with reindeer skins beneath them and a blue sky above. The schedule moves along without much fanfare; when one race is over the next reindeer are lined up to start their run.
Hanging on to a semi-domesticated animal as it hoofs it around a frozen track might not sound like a sensible pastime, but the really dangerous part is getting a harness on the animals. Reindeer don't like it at all.
They're used to roaming the forest and digging up lichen, so the sudden manhandling by strangers can lead to aggression. They will buck and stomp in protest and sometimes get loose in the process before running amok through the crowd.
I have my chance to take a reindeer down the track. When the serious events are finished – and the Finnish did very well this year – the tourists are offered a spot on a sled behind some of the tamer animals.
I watched the first two candidates take their seats and seconds later, the hooves were flying – sort of. One sled broke early and then stopped dead a few metres down the track. The second sled swerved to go around it, with the untrained driver yelling to make way. Reindeer are a lot less predictable than a snowmobile. The charging reindeer would not stop for anything, pounding its feet into the snow and throwing large chunks of it into the sled behind. The poor fellow on the sleigh was screaming and laughing so hard, I thought he'd fall off.
It took a little more than three minutes for the race to be run. The experts on skis have been getting around in under 80 seconds.
It's not hard to imagine what this event might have looked like in centuries past – no need for a stopwatch; just wait and see which sled makes it to the finish.
That's what Kautokeino and its annual Easter festival are all about – a chance to engage with Sami culture without having to walk into a museum.
Sure, the traditional songs are performed with the help of microphones, many families arrive at the festival on the back of a snowmobile and the reindeer are reined in by lycra-clad speedsters. Life for indigenous people in the Arctic Circle has changed in recent decades. But they still love their reindeer.
The writer travelled courtesy of SAS and the Scandinavian Tourist Board.
Scandinavian Airlines flies from Sydney to Oslo several times a week. The closest airport to Kautokeino is Alta, which is serviced by Scandinavian Airlines with daily connections to Oslo then on to other Scandinavian cities and Australia. Fares including taxes start from $2149. Phone 1300 727 707, see flysas.com.au.
MyPlanet Australia offers accommodation at the Thon Hotel in Kautokeino from $173 a couple, breakfast included. Phone 1800 221 712 or see myplanetaustralia.com.au.
The Sami Easter Festival takes place between March and April every year. Go online to the Scandinavian Tourist Board at visitscandinavia.com.au for more information on the region of Finnmark, Kautokeino and this event.