After more than an hour’s hike through the hilly Bergslagen woods in central Sweden, excitement grabs a group of tourists when their guide points to the ground and whispers: “elk droppings!”
Reassured, the party of four lumbers to keep up with eco-tourism guide Marcus Jonson in their quest to spot one of these large-headed northern mammals — known as elk in Europe, moose in North America — or perhaps even one of Sweden’s elusive wolves.
“We have a chance to hear wolves because I know there is a family living in this area,” says Jonson, “but when it comes to elk, I guarantee that you will see some!”
Jonson runs an excursion centre called Kolarbyn that received Sweden’s pioneering eco-tourism stamp of approval, Nature’s Best, three years ago. The first of its kind in Europe when it was launched in 1996, the label is awarded to tour operators who meet a long list of strict criteria aimed at ensuring the trips they offer are eco-friendly and promote sustainable development within the local economy.
Today, 78 tour operators across Sweden, most of them small businesses like Kolarbyn, can boast the Nature’s Best label. The certification process can take a year and the label can be revoked.
“The criteria are very tough, but they really helped me to improve my products and to prioritize quality over sales,” says Jonson, 30, who only runs his business in the spring and summer months and spends much of the rest of the year traveling the world.
With no electricity or running water, and with most meals made up of organic ingredients cooked over an open fire, Kolarbyn — located about three hours by car east of Stockholm in the region of Västmanland — calls itself “Sweden’s most primitive hotel”.
And it lives up to the claim. In a small clearing in a dense pine forest near one of the country’s 100,000 or so lakes, the centre comprises 12 small log cabins with rudimentary furnishings.
‘Sweden’s most primitive hotel’
Candle light dances on crude wooden walls and a basic wood-burning stove crackles in a corner, incinerating logs collected and chopped by the guests themselves.
There is barely room to stand upright in the small space between two narrow wooden beds covered by sheep skins, but at only 250 kronor ($42) a night in absolute silence, no one complains.
Jonson organizes a number of different excursions. In addition to the popular elk safari, which costs 1,795 kronor per person, there is a beaver spotting, owl sitings or a trek to “hear” howling wolves. There is no promise of seeing a wolf, however, as only 100 or so remain in the wild in Sweden and they are shy and rarely spotted.
Jonson takes out no more than eight people at a time. The elk group was half that number and four nationalities – British, French, Slovakian and Swedish, trekking past midnight, when dusk finally fell over this far-north forest where the summertime sun only sets for a few hours a night.
They heard no wolves but made out the silhouettes of four elk in the distance and caught a glimpse of two deer and a hare — a slim catch for hours of tramping.
Thomas Atterdal, an amateur photographer based in Stockholm, had no regrets. “It was wonderful. It’s an excursion into nature and if I had wanted to see the animals up close I would have gone to the zoo,” he said.
Unlike the others in the group, Atterdal knew all about the Swedish eco-tourism label and deliberately chose Kolarbyn’s wilderness tours because the firm is certified.
Among the criteria to be classified as a true eco-tour operator is a pedagogical approach to animal behaviour, including their sounds.
Loosely covering their nose and mouth with both hands, the tourists on the elk trek tried to imitate the calls of both the males, with their formidable antlers, and the females. This included a deep grunting sound believed to tell the king of the forest: “Do not move!”
AFP’s Francis Kohn