Every Easter the Sami host the World Reindeer Racing Championships. It is held at Kautokeino, a little Sami town just two hours south of Alta. Easter is a perfect time to have the event as there is plenty of snow and the sun is shining bright. (But you still have to keep moving otherwise your toes can turn into icicles.)
The championships is a cosy gathering in the centre of town. The race is on a small open plain. To warm you up before the race you can enjoy real Sami food in a Lavvo. In the Comp they have youth and adult race divisions and even a special race for the Mayor. If you are a tourist (non-Sami) you also have a chance to race – the Tourist Division is one of the highlights of the day.
The serious competitors race on skis behind their reindeer. The reindeer are loaded into the starting booth and the competitors stand next to, holding the reins. Reindeer always have jumpy starts so the competitors only wrap the reins around their hands after the race begins, just in case the reindeer does something weird and they need to let go. This makes for a lot of false starts as the reins often slip through the hands. For safety the reindeer antlers are cut off (and I guess it helps with speed and agility too).
The tourists get a number and a ticket for the race. You have to jump up to the plate for your go otherwise you will miss your turn. If you have never skied before its no worries because tourists race on their butts as the tourist division use sleds. I guess it’s a lot safer to fall off when sitting down.
It is very funny watching the tourists race. Most don’t even make it past the finishline. When they lose control the reindeer takes the opportunity to head for the hills (with their reiner still attached). The Sami then jump on their snowmobiles and race for the chase doing tricks over the snow mounds. They are the real modern-day cowboys jumping off their scooters to tackle the reindeer and bring it back to base.
Soon it was my turn. I had good odds to win as only two had finished the race out of eleven (so far). I jumped on the sled and realised that they hadn’t cut the antlers off my reindeer! But my animal was calm amongst the crowd – the others had been jerky and nervous with all the people. With a few driving instructions from the Sami I was ready to go. My race started well. I was going like a bat out of hell and then I thought ‘I love this – so… why am I going fast?’ It dawned on me that the faster I went the quicker my ride would be over. I started to wish my reindeer had a stronger will and head for the hills like the rest of them. But I finished the race in good time and health. And I was happy. As it turned out I made a new world record (but my ‘rein’ was over five minutes later). Still, I can claim I was in the top ten at the World Reindeer 2008 Championships! Not bad for an Aussie.
In Alta you can get activity packages from Tourist Guide Services that will take you to Kautokeino for the Reindeer Racing Championships. Buses generally leave from the Rica Hotel in the centre of town. Packages can also include dog sledding, ice fishing and staying at the Ice Hotel.