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An Arctic Adventure

When Umhlanga restaurateur, Milko Conte’s adventurous spirit led him into the icy Arctic dog-sledding through the Äkäskero Wilderness, he had no idea just how much the majestic landscape and untouched beauty of the Finnish wilderness would change his life.

A hankering to venture into wild with a team of sled dogs, with no connection to the outside world and behold the magnificent Northern Lights, saw the 45-year-old intrepid adventurer set off on a 29-hour flight to Kittila, Finland, 200km North of the Arctic Circle where temperatures are known to plummet lower than –35 degrees.

 “I’m a game ranger by trade, an adventurer by heart and a bachelor for now, probably because I spend so much time searching for new adventures instead of settling down.

“Dog sledding in the Artic has been on my Bucket List for as long as I can remember, but I’ve just never got around to it. After the sudden passing of a close friend of mine last year, I was reminded that life is too short to waste time procrastinating.”

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No stranger to epic adventures, Milko has come face-to-face with a charging elephant in Zimbabwe; he has tracked chimpanzees in Uganda, climbed Kilimanjaro twice, kayaked in the Okavango and watched the sun set on the banks of the Chobe River. He has a deep love for Africa which started when he moved to Zambia and worked with his father at a metal foundry. Easily bored and driven by his passion for adventure, Milko began taking groups of tourists on camping adventures in Botswana and Namibia, an experience that some say changed their lives. Still restless for change, Milko moved to Umhlanga and with the help of his family, he opened Caffé Italia.

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“I am still a bush person at heart, but I needed some stability in my life. Running the restaurant has allowed me to stay close to my Italian roots and play around with my love for good food, as well as explore the possibility of other adventures. I enjoy pushing myself to the extremes and testing my capabilities, and I’ve always wanted to rough it in the wild, learn a new culture and live like the locals, with little or no contact from the outside world. With that in mind, I started planning my trip.”

Desperate to go dog sledding and experience the Aurora Borealis and Northern Lights, Milko got hold of a guy who ran the Äkäskero Wilderness Tour – a guy whose love for the north and sled dogs inspired him to build a Husky Village where sled dogs could work and live in comfort.

“As a means to fund their dog village and the racing they do, they take people on guided tours. The Äkäskero Wilderness Tour sounded ideal to me because it was wilderness accommodation in a variety of cabins and huts that offered a true arctic experience on the high tundra plateau. There is no electricity, no connection to the outside world, you are able to command your own team of huskies and you are on-site with them during the entire duration of the tour. Having experienced it, I have to say there is nothing quite like the morning views of beautiful forest scenery and the sounds of joyful expectation from the dogs.”

In January this year, Milko set off on his eight-day journey. He joined six like-minded men and women (mostly of German descent and with more experience than he had), with little comprehension of how much it would change his life and his way of thinking.

“Space is pretty limited on a trip like this and being from Africa, naturally I failed to pack light. I must have had double the luggage that the others had, most of which I had to leave behind at the base camp, and even though I thought I was well-equipped with a few ridiculous thermals, I clearly underestimated the cold. For a five-day trip we each carried two changes of clothing; the rest was provided to equip us for the tour – this included snow suits, a hat, over-gloves and winter boots. In spite of the cold though, at the end of each day, our own clothes were wet through because of the layers we wore and sweating so much from the exercise involved in mushing (sledding). Thankfully, with no humidity, our clothes dried easily overnight.”

The first and last days of the tour were spent acclimatising, while the remaining five were spent sledding in the wilderness, covering between 30km and 60km each day with intermittent stops along

“The sun rises at around 11.30am and goes down again at about 2.30pm. Every day before we set off, we had to clean and leave our cabin ready for the next tour group who would arrive only once our tour had ended. The tour takes you through the vastness of Lapland (Finland’s northernmost region), where the landscape changes from large swamps and marshes, lakes and rivers to vast forests and mountains that rise 1000 metres above sea level, all of which are iced over and covered in snow for most of the year.”

Nights were spent in log cabins equipped with gas stoves and wood ovens. Water had to be fetched from a nearby lake or river, and where there was no fresh running water, snow had to be melted. Collectively the group was responsible for preparing meals, setting the table for dinner, cleaning up afterwards, chopping wood, making fires, heating the sauna as well as feeding and taking care of the dogs. With chores done, there was never a shortage of time to enjoy the peace and silence of the wilderness, but tired bodies usually equal tired minds, and most of the group preferred the warmth of the sauna and the comfort of bed and rest.

“The food was an experience on its own. We ate a lot of high-fat foods, soups, stews and pasta, and most of our protein was in the form of reindeer meat. I embraced it all, not only because it was a part of the whole experience, but because I knew we needed it to cope with the conditions we were living in. I took a few energy bars with to snack on, and for the rest we drank flavoured tea. Alcohol is not really welcomed because in the past people have got out of hand, and the dogs do not respond well to this at all. Also, you lose so much water on each stretch of the tour, that tea becomes not only a necessity but also a heavenly thing once you’ve settled in your cabin after a day of strenuous exercise. The only thing that isn’t so heavenly is having to remove your snow suit in -35 degree conditions in order to use the toilet. It’s an experience I can’t really describe without expletives!”

Each person on the tour was also responsible for his or her own team of dogs. Because Milko was the heaviest person on the tour, he was given the strongest team of dogs – Metso, Viscan, Tsaka and Scout. And boy could they go!

“Metso was the powerhouse, a loner, but a monster out in the front of the sled. Viscan was the most affectionate of the four, with a beautiful face and piercing blue eyes. The two youngsters at the back, Scout and Tsaka, were easily best friends. Both were loveable, and evidently headed towards a serious future in racing.”

Part of the dog duties Milko and his fellow sledders had to undertake, were to harness and unharness their own team of dogs. The dogs were fed twice a day – the first meal, consisting of two big mounds of pellets each, they are given as soon as the tour arrives at each new cabin. Later on, at around 11pm, the dogs are given a main meal of frozen chunks of reindeer inners.

“Because the dogs eat a lot, they also leave about eight buckets worth of poo in the snow which we hadto collect and dispose of. That’s a real treat when you are knee deep in snow!”

“When I signed up for the tour, I knew it required physical fitness, but I had no idea of just how much. Generally, I consider myself to be relatively fit. I visit the gym three or four times a week, so I felt confident I could tackle this without issue. Boy was I wrong! It’s not just about standing on the sled for up to six hours a day. It’s about working as a team, with your dogs, to climb the peaks and brake on the downhill; it’s about how your body reacts to the harsh conditions of the environment, and your general frame of mind. Mentally it was tough.”

Towards the end of the tour, Milko lost all feeling in his fingers and toes and at some point his face began to go numb. He was physically and mentally exhausted and going home to the comfort of his own familiar space was just about the only thing on his mind. While he narrowly escaped frost bite, the pain was intense and for weeks after, he felt the effects of the numbness.

“This was possibly my weakest moment and one that proved to me just how great our four-legged companions are.

“The only thing these dogs demanded from each of us was respect, and to be a team player. They understand that the person on the sled is in control and to a large extent, they follow your command. But, you are expected to pull your weight. If you don’t, they will let you know. It was my job to be a part of the team by helping to push the sled on any uphill, but on this particular day, I had almost nothing left in me. I was at the point where I hardly had the strength to hold my head up. I just wanted to collapse and give up when I heard the dogs making a noise different to the usual panting. When I looked up, all four dogs were staring back at me, as though they understood that I was tired but implored me to keep going. That was all I needed to summon the last bit of fight I had in me to make it to our destination that day. We all need to be egged on some times, and those were my cheerleaders. I regained my spirit after that.”

On the last tour day, the group reached the dog camp during the afternoon where they were all afforded the chance to say goodbye to their four-legged teammates before heading off for their first shower in almost a week, followed by dinner with their guide and a laid back session reflecting on their shared journey.

“I met a group of strong-willed, like-minded people whose company I thoroughly enjoyed. We saw a great deal, with the only letdown being that we were not fortunate enough to see the Northern Lights. Nevertheless, I can only describe this adventure as breathtakingly life-changing. I would recommend it to anyone (fitness dependant obviously) who has ever wanted to experience the beauty and the rush of the Artic. It’s accessible, doable and it is indescribably cold, but if you are willing and prepared, it is worth every second in that isolated wilderness.”

 

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