For just six weeks a year, the normal job description of a reindeer herder changes a little, and many of us start driving massive trucks around the country. Well, 7.5 tonne trucks anyway, which are pretty big in comparison to our wee 3 tonne truck (affectionately named Brenda) who we use for day-to-day transport for the rest of the year.
On a busy Christmas weekend we can have up to 8 teams of reindeer and herders out and about across the country, so we hire 5 flatbed trucks and put our own specially designed and built boxes on the back, each with ample space for sleigh, kit, feed and of course most importantly, the reindeer themselves. There’s even internal lights! Each of the 5 boxes is a slightly different design, and over the years everyone has gotten attached to a particular box. Alex’s box is the most unique in design, with the space for the feed and equipment running down the side of the reindeer compartment. Great for Alex, who is tall, but not ideal for someone short like Hen, who can’t reach far enough over the barrier to grab the bags at the bottom! Fiona’s box has a rather heavy ramp, again difficult if you’re shorter, though Fi has the strength to heave it up herself. The “Post Box” did indeed start out its life as a Royal Mail box, and still has a few bits of red paint! It has a roller door into the sleigh compartment which takes a fair bit of practice and agility to get open and shut! The Metal box is a little smaller than some of the others so tends to be used for more local events – fitting enough feed in it for 2 weeks away can leave you short of room to move.
And then there is the newest box, nicknamed the Royal box as it seemed so posh and shiny when first made, and the name stuck. This is my favourite box, and having taken it out on tour for the last few years I’m now very familiar with its quirks. Our ramp has been tensioned beautifully (i.e. quite a lot) so it’s easy for us shorties to put up, but also meaning that you can unintentionally “ramp-surf” as you’re opening up the back gates, finding yourself hovering several feet in the air and having to gingerly edge your weight down the ramp until it touches down.
Like most of the boxes, the Royal box has a “corridor” with access to storage for all of the reindeer feed, lichen, straw, buckets, odds and ends, shovel, broom, etc; the sleigh compartment for the sleigh itself, all the decorations and harness; and then of course the biggest area is for the reindeer. Our reindeer travel loose, and whenever we check on them (if we stop for fuel, for example) they’re usually lying down catching some shut-eye! It’s reassuring for us that they seem to like the box, and virtually load themselves, always happy to walk up the ramp.
The boxes are bedded thickly with straw, poo-picked after each journey (let’s just say we’ve discovered another use for the “diesel gloves” you can pick up at garages…) and completely mucked out & pressure washed each time we return home. Keeps us and the reindeer smelling fresher and helps prevent that embarrassing moment when you emerge from the box with “something” stuck to your shoe!
Getting kit in and out of the corridor can be fairly entertaining, and over the years the pastime of “lorry yoga” has evolved, providing gentle muscle stretches for the herder on tour as you manoeuvre and contort into weird positions to get (sometimes heavy or awkward) things in and out. The straw bales are the worst, as they frequently try to take you with them as you eject them from the shelf! Getting them back in is even harder, especially when they weigh half as much as you do…
Driving the trucks is something I half dread and half look forward to each year. As I’m not old enough to drive them on “grandfather rights”, I did a training course a few years ago and passed the dreaded test to get my license. The problem is we go for over 10 months of the year without driving anything so big, so there’s always a bit of apprehension when the trucks are picked up for the season and you first get behind the wheel… It’s funny though, as everything is bigger, the mirrors are bigger, and they just feel totally different to a car, and your brain automatically seems to click into “slow careful truck-driving” mode. Everything has to be done slower as the trucks are so big, and it’s essential to give the reindeer a smooth ride, so it instantly stops you hurrying and gives you a new sense of patience. Our top speed, even on a motorway, is restricted to 56mph, but it’s quite delightful to pop on cruise control and just potter along to your destination.
There are a several things I didn’t know about before starting to drive the trucks. Firstly, the ruts on motorways, created by the endless trucks using the slow lane – whilst I never tend to notice them in a car as the wheels are closer together, when you’re in a truck you can get “sucked in” which is rather disconcerting. Secondly, the frustration of being limited to 56mph when trying to overtake on a motorway. All trucks theoretically have the same limit, but speedos can have a bit of variation, meaning that you’ll sometimes get stuck trying to overtake a bigger truck that’s going just fractionally slower than you. When going uphill, their extra weight slows them down and we gain on them, but once we reach the top of the hill and start heading down again, their weight speeds them up and off they shoot again! This may explain why you sometimes see trucks “duelling” for miles along a motorway… The other time your limiter is frustrating is when you come up behind a car doing 50mph on the motorway, you pull out to overtake, at which point they instantly speed up, just enough to pull ahead, so you tuck in behind them again, at which point they slow back down again!
Most of the time though it’s great fun driving a truck, and I still love arriving at an event, the organiser pointing out a tricky bit of manoeuvring that you’ll need to pull off (archways being a major culprit, sometimes with mirrors folded in and a couple of inches to spare each side) and looking hugely impressed when a girl manages to pull it off!