A savannah in Sweden

Recently my fella received in the mail a free travel pass for life! for 10 days, and so we decided to make use of this boon. The area it covers, the Västra Götaland region, is pretty large by European standards (I’ll not get started on Australian standards) and so we had many options to choose from.
On one day he went up to Lidköpping and had an enjoyable look around, and then last weekend we devised a plan to visit the coast near the Norwegian border and see either petroglyphs or standing stones, or possibly both. It was all a little tenuous without a car, as the problem with standing stones and petroglyphs is that they are either part of a stone in a fixed location, or they are a stone in a fixed location, and therefore they don’t move to more convenient locations. Generally convenient locations don’t include fields and backyards way out in the country. Despite these possible problems, we were determined to see something prehistoric.
As you may detect from my tone, there was another problem with this plan.

In a word: floods.

I feel as though I’ve been labouring a point these last few weeks when I mention the change of the seasons, but in case it hasn’t been made clear, we are now in autumn and it is both cold and rainy. It has been raining a lot. It has been raining even more up north, in the area of Västra Götaland that includes standing stones and petroglyphs.
After deciding on our prehistorical, coastal expedition, I happened to look at a local news site and found out that there was severe flooding in the towns we were considering visiting, and that in fact the train network in the whole area had been shut down until further notice.
At least we found out the night before.

So that expedition was put on hold, and after looking at maps, tourist sites and travel information we settled on a little place not too far away that boasted a zoo and pretty scenery. Which is how we found ourselves coming face to face with a number of distant relatives last weekend.

Borås zoo can be found, unsurprisingly, in Borås and includes, somewhat surprisingly, an African savannah. As we walked into the zoo, past the dinosaur sculptures and posters of lions, giraffes and zebras basking in sunlight, I wondered how they managed to create a comfortable environment for these animals this far north. I was soon to find out, at least partly.

Flamingos

Flamingos

Before we got to the savannah though, we were surprised by an enclosure full of lawn ornaments flamingos, bobbing through a lake, flexing their wings and generally looking awkwardly elegant and pink. We then found the African Wild Dogs, a huge pack of them, some sitting under trees scratching, running around chirping or standing and watching us pass by. Ever since I did an assignement about them in primary school (featuring a diorama that I was rather proud of) I’ve been fond of them, and it was nice to see such a large group apparently socialising happily and enjoying more space than is provided at the zoo in my home town.

African hunting dogs

African hunting dogs

Next was the savannah, a large area enclosed by a stone wall and containing ostriches, zebras and antelopes, grazing or running around and looking unbothered by the cold.

Strutting ostriches

Strutting ostriches

A sign pointed to the elephant house, in which we found no elephants, but instead a rhino and a giraffe family. They were all in cement floored enclosures strewn with straw and with food hanging from the ceiling. My first thought was that I hope these are winter enclosures. They did have openings to outside areas, but the rhino at least seemed somehow frustrated, if it’s possible to anthropomorphise snorts and shuffling and blank stares. The giraffes seemed less bothered, but due to the bareness of the area I got the chance to make direct eye contact with two of them as I stood and watched them eating, and felt a bit like an intruder.

A giraffe considering me

A giraffe considering me

From the savannah we made a brief stop at the restaurant then continued on to the ape house. At the door we were greeted by tamarins, who looked like extremely curious and energetic old men. Further in there were displays about the damage of palm oil plantations, poaching and the effect of humans on animals and the environment. There were also many apes.

Chimpanzees

Chimpanzees

In one of the enclosures a group of macaques rolled, played and groomed up and down branches and through straw. In one corner a female with her baby clutching her stomach was grooming a larger male, and just behind them another macaque was running around with a canvas bag over it’s head. They all seemed very intent and social, as with the chimpanzees and in a nearby enclosure. There were four of them, who began grooming while we watched. One was on its own for a time, and then wandered over to get the attention of the smallest, youngest looking chimpanzee, who I assume was the female. After some convincing, she settled down with him and they continued grooming, while the others wandered around and sat restless poses that were difficult not to anthropomorphise.
A lonelier ape was the gibbon, one of whom was staring out through the glass, though I couldn’t tell what or who it was staring at.

A watching gibbon

A watching gibbon

Finally were the orangutans, who were either climbing their constructed tree, resting, or in one case nestling under a bag on the straw. Bored or tired, it was impossible to tell, but for the first time I felt that the Perth zoo was doing a better job with one of the enclosures, which allows more space and openness for the families of orangutans who live there.

An orangutan, resting

An orangutan, resting

From apes we moved on to big cats, where feeding was supposed to be taking place soon. First we found the tigers, two from Siberia, who were relaxing on a vantage point and pacing the enclosure. I was reminded of the long stare from the tiger at Nordens Ark, and struggled to find an adjective for them that didn’t stray to the grandiose side of magnificent.

The feeding was taking place at the lion enclosure, where an entire pride was impatiently strolling around, alternately watching the gathering crowd and the cliff tops above their home. Soon food was dropped and despite there being plenty to go around, other than the mother and cubs, they didn’t seem very big on sharing. The male lion in particular made a point of roaring and grabbing whatever he could threaten away from the lionesses, and then settling down to enthusiastically gnaw, watched by those who had managed to keep their piece or who were waiting for scraps. I felt quite glad that I wasn’t in there with them, as the sight of hungry lions and the particular harmonic of their roars awakened an ancient instinct in me to run.

A hungry lion

A hungry lion

From lions we made our way to the wolves, and I got to see them clearly for the first time in my life. I had briefly seen one at Nordens Ark, but these loped around in the open, eating and hiding hunks of meat, and paying no attention to the humans watching from across the stream and fence. Despite the long history between humans and wolves, I felt no particular fear of them, just recognition of an animal that I have long wanted to see and that is so tied up in the culture of my ancestors. From Fenrir to guide-dogs, wolves and their descendants are part of our culture, and though I wouldn’t like to meet a pack on equal footing in the wild, I was glad to see a few in their close-to-natural environment and I hope to see more some day.

A wolf

A wolf

The last really wild and fearsome creatures we saw were the brown bears. They were huge, furry bundles that lolloped and rolled around, and still managed to seem powerfully frightening. While we watched a zoo keeper dropped perfumed pine cones into the enclosure, and soon the bears were rolling all over them, rubbing their faces into the scent that even we could smell from a few metres above with every sign of enjoyment. It’s something they do in between feeding to keep the bears occupied, as they’re fascinated by new smells.

A pile of bears

A pile of bears

We left the bears to their fun and walked on to find the elk, looking very much a part of their environment, and then the farm animal section.
A rather majestic pony greeted us and posed for a few photos, and then made way for a tiny pig (in Swedish, ‘minigris’, which literally means ‘mini-pig’), who squealed and snorted and didn’t seem very happy to be separated from the other tiny pigs in the neighbouring enclosure. My partner chatted to it a bit (he’s very good with pigs), and then we headed for the exit.

Photogenic pony

Photogenic pony

From the zoo we headed into Borås, and wandered around for a few hours.

The town hall and cathedral were very picturesque, and the parks around the canal must be very pleasant in sunnier weather, so we decided we’d better come back next year.

Nobel adorning a building

Nobel adorning a building

We were also treated to preparations for the end of a soccer game. This involved at least 3 police cars full of officers, a herd of mounted police and numerous others on the ground, watching various pubs and monitoring the main square. As we were heading back to the train station, the sound of chanting filled the air and a mob of about 150 people marched past, led and followed by police. I’m not sure where they ended up, or even who played, but it seems that the very thought of a riot is not to be considered in Sweden.
Dinner at a sports bar included yet more soccer fans, after which we took the long bus ride home and had an early night.

A riot-free street in Borås

A riot-free street in Borås

As I sit a few days later and think about the zoo, I wonder whether it’s fair to compare it to Nordens Ark. It has a different goal and a different theme, and it is ambitious to base a savannah in northern Europe. I couldn’t help feeling for the animals in their winter enclosures and cement floored homes, though. I’ll be living bound in by winter soon too, but at least I have the key to the door and I can ask why.

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A glimpse of wildness

A watching tiger

As promised, I have finally written a post about our visit to Nordens Ark last year. It is a tale of a surprisingly sunny day, playful red pandas, hungry snow leopards and extremely unimpressed cats. Plus a little ponderance about the ethics of zoos and the power of caged animals.

Åby fjord, where Nordens Ark is based

Åby fjord, where Nordens Ark is based

As you may have guessed from the name, Nordens Ark is a zoo, and it specialises in endangered and threatened animals, running breeding programs and educating about the issues that endanger these creatures. For obvious reasons it specialises in European animals, though some of the critters that are exceptions to this rule greeted us as we walked in. They were furry, red and continually pounced on each other, tumbling about in a manner that made all 4 of the women in our little group coo and melt slightly. I dare anyone to resist the charms of red pandas, even from a distance.

Red pandas - awwww

Red pandas – awwww

The two guys stood at a slight distance, trying to translate the cooing sounds (there is a specific Swedish word that refers to cute things, it seems), but not protesting about staying at the enclosure for a bit longer.

Continuing along the designated trail, we found very sure-footed mountain goats, lynxs hiding on cliffs and owls, inlcuding Hedwig who looked rather miffed to be in captivity, though given that she was killed I’d have thought she’d be relieved (I’m not going to apologise for spoilers, because if you’re worried about them you really should have read the books by now, honestly).

Hedwig is not happy

Hedwig is not happy

We also came across some animals that I had been looking forward to seeing since I’d first heard about Nordens Ark, and started badgering my partner into visiting. A herd of the slightly hard to pronounce, and spell, Przewalski’s wild horse. These horses are the only remaining species of wild horse left in the world, a breed that has never been domesticated and until recently was extinct in the wild. As a historically minded horsey-girl from way back, I have long wanted to see one, and practically ran down the path when we neared the enclosure. They looked like fuzzy ponies, as they had already grown their winter coats, and I was enraptured.

Przewalski's wild horses

Przewalski’s wild horses

Further along, we encountered a breed of cat that was even less impressed with us than Hedwig had been. Despite it’s name, the Pallas cat, implying to me some sense of wisdom (see: Pallas Athena), the impression I got was a sense of extreme grumpiness and just cannot-be-botheredness. For most of the time that we stood and watched (and giggled) at the cat, it sat with it’s back to us, apparently staring at a rock. The picture below was taken in the brief moment it deigned to glance at us, grumpily, and then turned back to it’s vital rock-staring.

Pallas cat being grumpy

Pallas cat being grumpy

Very soon, however, we came across other felines who were not of the grumpy persuasion. They were some of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen, and whose near extinction seems one of the most tragic. Fortunately for them, and us, the breeding program seems to be going well, and so we were able to see a total of 5 snow leopards. The father was in his own enclosure, lazing about and considering the hunk of meat that had been hung from a tree for his lunch, while the mother and 3 cups were variously relaxing and attempting to reach their own lunch. From what we could tell, the cubs have a lot to learn about such things as climbing trees, reaching out for food and critically, not falling down all the time.

Lunch time for the cubs

Lunch time for the cubs

While the cubs tumbled, swiped and climbed the mother watched and walked around. She reminded me of one of the negative aspects of a zoo; it is more or less a prison. Yes, it protects animals that may otherwise starve or be hunted in the wild and it helps educate people, but at the same time it deprives those it protects of their ability to be wild. Maybe someday we’ll find a compromise, and I hope that the descendants of the snow leopards we saw that day will still be around to benefit from it.

Mother snow leopard

Mother snow leopard

By this point it was reaching our own lunchtime, and so we headed for the wolf building, a large hut with glass sides that looked out over the wolf enclosure. As we sat and enjoyed our picnic and sipped hot chocolate mixed with Baileys (oh yes), we saw no sign of the wolves. It seems that there had been some health scare or breeding issue, so all but one of the wolves in Nordens Ark had been removed. After lunch we had another look, but could see nothing. As the others went on to the next enclosure I saw a small movement among the trees and watched carefully for a while until it coalesced into the shape of a wolf. It stood there for a short time and then disappeared. It was the first wolf I had ever seen.

The first wolf

The first wolf

We then passed reindeer, frogs, raptors and almost missed seeing the most threatened cat in the world. There was only one Amur leopard in the park, sitting on a rock in what seemed a smaller enclosure than the snow leopards. It too seemed bored, and beautiful, which I suppose the reason for it’s status (the beauty, not the boredom).

A bored Amur leopard

A bored Amur leopard

One of the next animals was one that certainly isn’t endangered due to it’s luxurious pelt, and in fact isn’t as threatened as the other animals that we had seen. The description of the wolverine, and what we saw of it, indicated that it’s reputation for viciousness and strength aren’t exaggerated. A solitary wolverine can apparently take down an elk, which is quite a feat for an animal that ranges from between 60-100cms long. While we were there, the first sign we had of it was a pine tree shaking as it climbed down the branches, thereby ruining my possible idea about escaping from them up a tree if I even spotted one in the wild. I really hope I never do, as I am smaller and quite a bit less fearsome than an elk. Usually.

A curious wolverine

A curious wolverine

After passing a few more unimpressed cats, we reached the enclosure of a cat that definitely fit into the impressive category.

Still not amused

Still not amused

I have seen tigers before, and remember then being struck by how trapped they seemed and how threatened by human stupidity they were. The Amur tigers at Nordens Ark were bored, walking around the tracks that had been made by their repeated loops, but I was also able to get a glimpse of how wonderfully stunning and powerful they are. I didn’t know until I just looked it up right now that Amur tiger is another name for Siberian tiger, an animal that I have been fascinated about for a very long time, as it is the largest of the big cats. There were 2 enclosures, one with a high platform that the tigers were sitting on, only able to be spotted by their tails and paws over the sides, but in the other enclosure a single tiger was in full sight, prowling around and ignoring us for the most part. I don’t think I need to go on about how amazing it is to see a tiger, and how sad it is as well, knowing how few are left, as anyone who has ever seen one will know what I’m talking about.

Amur tiger

Amur tiger

Even more impressive than the sight of the tiger prowling however, was when it lay down in a secluded part of the enclosure. Some of us walked around to find it and once there agreed that we were lucky that there was a fence. The tiger lay on the other side and watched us intently, barely moving as we took photos. Staring back into those eyes I wondered what it would be like without the fence and the cage, to be at its mercy. Perhaps, like that day, I would be too transfixed to run.

A watching tiger

A watching tiger

That visit was about 2 months shy of a year ago now, and I still think about the animals I saw there, and my conflicted feelings about zoos and how to protect endangered creatures. As I look at the photos I took there though, there are two things that stand out, more so even than the grumpy cats and cute pandas. One is a brief glimpse of a wolf, an animal that has played such an important part in human culture for most, if not all, of our history.
The other is the stare of an immense and powerful cat, trapped behind a fence as a result of human greed, but capable of making me feel like prey, while at the same time wanting to worship it.

The city of islands

Having woken somewhat groggily from a post-Viking feast slumber, we eventually set out on our second day in Stockholm in the late morning. The city by this time was alive with people, gaggles of tourists, locals crossing town for work or play or just wandering about and enjoying the summer. We joined the crowds on Gamla Stan, planning to cross to the mainland to catch a ferry.

Our route took us past the royal palace, where it seemed that something was afoot. The largest crowds we had seen so far were packed and still packing behind rope barricades, apparently watching the palace guards, who in turn seemed to be blankly watching nothing. No one seemed inclined to explain what was going on, so we hung about curiously until an announcement that the changing of the guards was imminent. As neither of us was very interested and it seemed unlikely to involve horses or the royal family we hurried out, passing a marching band and a group of very serious looking guards on their way to take over guarding duty.

Stockholm from a ferry

Stockholm from a ferry

Now that we had escaped the fanfare, we skirted around the palace and found the ferry dock, where we caught one across to Djurgården, an island which seems to house most of the interesting and fun places in Stockholm. As we looked for somewhere to have lunch, we could hear screams from the theme park and see people darting about the tree lined streets, bound for the ABBA Museum (I’m not kidding), the Vasa Museum or Skansen, which was our destination.

So Skansen; how to describe it… Basically it’s a combination zoo, craft village, music venue, playground and outside museum in the middle of an island, in the middle of Stockholm. To understand you really have to visit it.
As we following the paths around for our first visit, we found the wolf enclosure, where we spotted one fellow trying to sleep in the sun and ignore the pointing crowds. I got a thrill spotting him, or her, as I did when I caught a glimpse of a single wolf at Nordens Ark last year. Speaking of which, I do intend to post about that day at some point.

Spot the wolf!

Spot the wolf!

From wolves, we saw a family of lynxes, the kittens pattering about with huge paws and the mother patiently carrying them across streams while the father lazed in the shade of a tree.
Then bears, sleeping in furry, comfortable piles in the sun, also ignoring the excited people leaning over the fences and taking photos.

Sleeping bears

Sleeping bears

One of the animals I found the most interesting was one that I hadn’t seen before, at least not in the flesh. European bison were almost extinct at one point, with a small amount remaining in zoos and none left in the wild. Thanks to breeding programs, there are now a few herds out there and also a number in zoos such as Skansen. They were one of the most represented animals in cave paintings, and seeing them in life I could imagine why they had such an influence on the people who shared the world with them thousands of years ago.

Bisons being shy

Bisons being shy

Finally we found deer, lying next to fences and tolerating the children (and older people) touching their furry summer antlers.

A tolerant reindeer

A tolerant reindeer

Elsewhere in the park we came across a tall and imposing building, that I have just discovered is the Hällestad belfry. At first glance I had no idea of it’s purpose, though it seemed most of all to be somehow foreign and strange, possibly pre-Christian and part of some culture that doesn’t exist any more. It looks as though it’s covered in thousands of wooden scales and smells deeply of resin and pine, as with the smaller belfry near where we live, and also the cabin we stayed at in Norway months ago. Once we were off the island, it is one of the few thing that can be made out between the trees and the towers of the theme park.

Hällestad belfry

Hällestad belfry

Other ancient buildings were scattered around the paths, old farm houses, churches and even a manor house. A fearless squirrel ran out and pestered some children for a little while then disappeared, and ponies and horses appeared intermittently, carrying children or pulling a cart. As we got more hot and tired, we found an icecream van and enjoyed the treats by the old theatre with a lovely view of the city below.

Stockholm from Djurgården

Stockholm from Djurgården

As we tried to find the exit we passed through the craft village, and got dragged by curiosity into the glass making workshop, where someone was in the middle of making a series of stylised reindeer with apparent ease. Outside great loads of glass fragments were strewn across the rocks, like piles of colourful and clear ice.

Once we had made our way outside we caught a tram to the mainland and then walked to the ferry harbour, to wait for another journey. After staring up into the seamlessly blue sky for a short while, our boat arrived and we settled in for a ride through the archipelago.
If you have a look at Stockholm on a map, you will see that between the city and the sea there is a maze of islands of all sizes. On our voyage to Vaxholm, one of the nearest publicly open islands, the scenery changed from built up apartments, cliffs covered in houses, then scattered housing, an oil refinery and finally leafy green shores with expensive houses and tiny harbours poking out between the trees.

Island houses

Island houses

We’d pass uninterrupted stretches of trees, then a 4 story manor would appear, deck chairs set out on the front lawn or a party in full swing on a terrace. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we even passed an island called Boo. If you don’t believe me look it up. It was also right across the water from a place called Bo, apparently.

Sunset on the archipelago

Sunset on the archipelago

Vaxholm is small and neat and lovely, and we didn’t really have enough time to take it all in, or visit the old fortress. We did have time though for dinner on a rooftop terrace with a very nice view of the fortress and the harbour.

Vaxholm fortress

Vaxholm fortress

For our return trip we caught a steamer, much more old fashioned than the modern ferry we’d arrived on. We found benches on the lacquered wooden deck to watch the islands passing by and the sun slowly set, and listened to the steady chugging of the engine as we sipped cider and beer.

Nighttime on a steamer

Nighttime on a steamer

Back in the city, we discovered a festival that was ending, in loud music and bright flickering lights, and walked down the main street guarded by hippy-looking lions. When we returned to Gamla Stan for one last loo before we went back to the hotel, we bumped into an old friend who we hadn’t seen since last year. He was visiting the city with some friends from his hometown, and after exclaiming about coincidences, introductions and chatting, they invited us to follow them along to a bar for a final drink. The bar was in the nice part of town, and inhabited by well dressed folk dancing and drinking well dressedly. We chatted and laughed some more, and I enjoyed another Madde, before eventually their post-kayaking exhaustion and our post-exploring tiredness overtook us.
As we stood and swayed on the tram headed for the hotel, we found out that one of the fellows was the project manager of a planned museum to honour Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA. This is the sort of thing we just take for granted in Sweden.

Stockholm at night

Stockholm at night

The next day, after leaving our luggage at the train station, we headed to the History Museum. Limited slightly by time, we went through the exhibitions quicker than I would have liked, but we managed to take in the huge numbers of Viking artifacts, get drawn into stories of ancient people, marvel at the hoard of gold and silver and even practice archery. Sadly I wasn’t able to find the original Freya pendant that I have a replica of, but I’m sure that wasn’t my last visit to Stockholm.

From there we went to the train station, then the train and then to our seats. On the ride back we were entertained by another pianist, who played some Håkan Hellström to the delight of a chef and his audience, preparing us for our return to Göteborg and home.