The elk seemed to come from nowhere. One second I was barrelling down the road in my old Volvo on the way to pick up yet more baby items delivered to the local post office; the next this huge, ugly creature (looking remarkably like Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand close up) was hurtling from the bushes to my right and straight into my path.
Both my feet hammered down on the Volvo’s 25-year-old brakes but nothing happened. The elk, of course, just stopped in the road and gazed curiously at the ancient blue car careering towards it. He may have been pondering just how ugly humans are, especially those with eyes and mouths as round as moons.
The elk almost certainly heard the wide-eyed, open-mouthed idiot in the car yelling curses at him through the open window as he somehow managed to guide the car around him, missing the elk’s big, floppy gob by perhaps 20 centimetres. He would have allowed himself a brief elk chortle as the blue car drove along the next 50 metres of the road, half-in and half-out of the roadside ditch, picking up an assortment of vegetation and rubbish as if it were serving a community sentence as punishment for being a crap car.
When I did at last manage to drop anchor, around 100 metres up the road, I got out of the car and looked back to see the elk lying down in the road, looking very relaxed. I may have hollered something insulting in its general direction – I’m pretty sure it had heard it all before.
I’ve driven a lot in my life. I’ve undertaken ten American road trips, covering around 75,000 kilometres, and a similar number of European odysseys. My first ever job was as a driver. I’m by no means a perfect driver (I may be a little heavy on the gas) but I’m not a bad one. The wildlife up here, however, would provide German Formula One race driver Sebastian Vettel with a test of his reflexes. I’ve had four near misses with elk and three with reindeer – each time the margin of error could be measured in centimetres not metres. In all my time driving through 45-odd American states I encountered one suicidal rabbit. Here, the bunnies (giant Arctic hares the size of dogs), are almost queuing up waiting for a car to pass so that they hurl themselves in front of it.
The reckless wildlife up north might explain the drivers. Something has to. Anyone who has spent any time driving in the US will know that many Americans are appalling drivers – they drive as if they’re in a bubble and pay no attention to other drivers, to the point of being dangerous. The northern Swedes aren’t quite as bad (I’ve actually had two of them say ‘thank you’ for letting them out at a junction – show other road users such kindness in the US and you’ll be blithely ignored at best, furiously middle-fingered at worst).
But they do fall into two categories. By far the largest category is the cautious driver. These must be those who have actually hit an elk. They crawl along the country roads, twenty extra headlights ablaze even during full daylight, their heads moving as if they’re watching a tennis match, always on the lookout for a depressed elk or reindeer about to throw itself into their path. But they’re going so slow it’s unlikely a moose would even notice if it was hit.
The other type of driver has either never hit wildlife or hit so many animals he no longer cares. He’s usually the sort that won’t bother to overtake you on a straight road (plenty of those up here), preferring instead to wait for a blind bend, in order to get the juices really flowing. As in the UK, these adrenalin junkies of the tarmac tend to drive a white van. And are almost always on their mobile phones.
Suicidal critters and bad drivers aside, however, northern Sweden is a paradise for motorists. Unlike the UK, if a destination is a one hour drive away it will take one hour to get there (elk permitting). You will not encounter traffic jams (unless you drive through the centre of Sundsvall, Luleå, Umeå, or Skellefteå at rush hour – in these teeming cities you can be delayed by up to five minutes at peak times). And you will never see road rage (far too confrontational for northern Swedes).
Now all someone needs to do is invent an elk radar.