off the cuff

Memories of an intrepid conservation educator

My childhood fantasies of Santa Claus on the reindeer sleigh coming from Lapland came flashing back, and I could never thank Staffan enough for providing us with such memorable experiences

Ajita Nayar,Special to Gulf News
17:52 April 7, 2018

Call him a teacher, an environmentalist, an entrepreneur, conservationist, an activist, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) consultant, a seaman, or a loving father and husband. Staffan Svanberg eased into each of these roles so beautifully that it was difficult not to be in awe of him and get inspired.

While managing ESD projects at a conservation NGO in the UAE, I was on the lookout for a consultant to help us with one of our school projects. That was how I first interacted with Staffan. And from then on began a relationship that existed only through mails for the most part, discussing this consultancy offer. And then a chance mention by me of my visit to Gothenburg for the World Environment Education Conference prompted him to suggest that I visit the Sandskar National Park in Sweden, a nature reserve bordering Sweden and Finland, where he was the chief ranger.

Little did I know that this trip would enrich me with knowledge and experiences that only a lucky few would ever manage, and build bonds with people whom I have never met before.

So, with absolutely no idea of what Sandskar was like, we set out with our daughter for this trip travelling all the way up north to Lulea in Sweden. Staffan’s wife Lena drove us to the Haparanda port where we were greeted by this rustic looking, big and cheerful Staffan, ready with his boat for our journey to Sandskar.

The hour-and-a-half boat ride on the Baltic Sea, with Staffan manning the boat and continuously talking us through the history of the park, right from the time he used to visit the place as a little boy, even as we were feasting our eyes on the seals relaxing on rocks and soaking up the sun through the crisp cool air blowing over the sea. It was an unforgettable experience. Soon, we landed at Staffan’s most loved place on Earth: The Sandskar National Park.

Primitive in all aspects, with no electricity or running water, no bathrooms or kitchen, and just a faraway toilet, it was quite a culture shock for us. But we had no regrets being away from the mainland or the world outside, for Staffan introduced us to a completely different landscape that had the sea on one side and a lush forest on the other, inhabited by moose and reindeer and flooded with some amazing fern and flowers and berries. The long walks with Staffan in the rain were like a mobile classroom filled with history and anecdotes atleast 40-50 years old. Point out to any tree, or a shrub in the park, and Staffan had something to talk about it. So much was Staffan in tune with Sandskar that he could identify in advance even a wet, swampy patch on the ground despite the thick moss carpet all over.

It was not only about Sandskar that Staffan loved to talk. Most of the fillers were his adventurous experiences in Mongolia, India, Cameroon, Nepal and a host of other countries that he had frequented for his ESD consultancy work.

And what do I say about Staffan and Lena’s hospitality? They had carried with them supplies that were enough for us to last for all those four days, and we were treated to some amazing mushroom with cream, reindeer meat soup, smoked salmon, rhubarb-flavoured cake, pancake and lingonberry (picked from Sandskar) jam ... It was a feast done right there ... on firewood. And how could I forget Staffan’s snow-filled refrigerator (needed no electricity!) to store the produce for the summer.

If all of this was not enough, Staffan insisted that he drive us to Finland right up to the Arctic Circle — a drive that took nearly five hours one way. And along the way, as we passed through Lapland, we were greeted by a group of reindeer crossing the road! What a stunning sight that was! My childhood fantasies of Santa Claus on the reindeer sleigh coming from Lapland came flashing back, and I knew I could never thank Staffan enough for giving us these memorable experiences.

Early this year, Staffan died of a massive attack at Sandskar, a place where he truly was himself and belonged completely. Our physical interaction with Staffan and Lena lasted for just a week, but the incredible memories of the time we spent with this true conservationist family will remain in our hearts forever.

Ajita Nayar is a lecturer at Murdoch University, Dubai.