We all have buckets lists. Perhaps yours is a list of ten things to do before you are 30, 40, 50 or 60? My bucket list is ever-growing but the one thing that had been at the top for the last few years was a trip to see the Northern Lights.
If you grew up in the UK in the 1980’s you will remember sitting in front of the TV every Christmas Eve to watch The Snowman animation film on Channel 4. This was the very first time I saw the Northern Lights. At the time, I just thought they were disco lights to accompany the party scene (it didn’t occur to me how they would get disco lights in the sky but hey, the snowman was flying!). These lights were in fact the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights.
What I now know is that Aurora is not just the name of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty character; it is also the natural phenomenon that occurs when the solar winds are blown towards Earth. Here comes the geeky bit. The highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with elements in the Earth’s atmosphere and they follow the magnetic field. They then mix with particles of nitrogen and oxygen and brightly coloured lights can be seen from the north and south poles of Earth. The actual “meeting point” of these particles is up to 150 miles above the earth’s surface and the colour of the display depends on the altitude distance.
OK, geeky bit over.
It was time to tick something off the bucket list and seeing that the sun is reaching the end of an 11-year cycle and solar activity will be buzzing throughout 2012, it was an easy decision to make.
Iceland was my chosen destination. I loved the idea of geothermal spas, snow-capped mountains, and spurting geysers. I also love cold weather. Yes, it’s a little strange but since living in the French Alps, I’ve taken a liking to ice, snow, cold weather and wrapping up in a thousand layers.
I pre-booked a tour with Reykjavik Excursions and of course, when I arrived in Reykjavik it was blowing a gale and the skies were grey with thick cloud. These were possibly the worst conditions for hunting the Northern Lights.
The great thing about Reykjavik Excursions is that they contact your hotel on the afternoon of your scheduled night tour to let you know if the trip will be going ahead and sure enough, two days later, after I had busied myself with whale watching, a Golden Circle Tour and snowman sculpturing, I received the call I was waiting for – the trip was going ahead on my third and final night in Iceland.
I was so excited. The Snowman memories came flooding back and if Aled Jones had been there, I’m sure he would have praised me for my soprana attempt of “We’re Walking in the Air” as I waited for my lift to arrive.
I was as prepared as I could be. Camera – check, spare batteries – check, woolly hat – check, woolly gloves – check – Michelin man ski jacket – check, and thermals – no, I draw the line at woolly underwear.
A minibus picked me up from my hotel (Fosshotel Lind) and we were taken to the main office for Reykjavik Excursions where about twelve large coaches were quickly filling up with eager Aurora-hunters. This was the first tour to go ahead that week due to the previous bad weather and there was a definite buzz of excitement in the atmosphere.
At that moment, I was a little dubious. The sky still looked pretty cloudy but I followed the others and hopped onto the coach.
The coaches headed in convoy out of the city towards the south coast where there is less light pollotion.
I could see them! No wait… The red and green lights I could see were actually the reflection of traffic lights in the coach window. Ultimate fail.
Forty minutes later, after Yanz our tour guide, had given a brief talk about the lights, the coaches pulled into a deserted car park off the side of the road. It was 10pm and the sky was still cloudy but the moon could faintly be seen. Yanz had assured us that the cloud was expected to break soon in this area so we all got off the bus, braved the freezing weather, and looked expectantly up at the sky.
Our location was pretty spectacular. We were standing in a grassy car park with a beach and lapping waves to one side and soaring snow-capped mountains to the other side. The moon was popping out between the drifting clouds, illuminating the blanket of snow and the sandy shores.
I stood looking up at the sky willing the clouds to part and make way for this incredible phenomenon. All around me I could feel the anticipation among the crowd of people who stood talking in hushed voices to partners, friends and strangers.
An hour later, though the cloud had begun to break, I heard a couple of the coach engines whir into life. A few people started making their way back to the warmth of the coaches.
I looked up at the sky for one last plea when suddenly a German man next to me shouted loudly “They’re coming!”. I spun around and looked up to where he was pointing. The clouds had completely disappeared and there in the black sky, the magnificent Northern Lights were snaking their way from east to west lighting up the wintry landscapes below.
I couldn’t help but smile and one small group of Chinese tourists next to me were practically hysterical with excitement and relief.
There is nothing that I can compare this experience to. It was unique and spell-binding. As the vibrant green strip of lights danced across the starry sky, it was as though they were performing on their very own stage. They dipped, swooped, twirled and glowed; each movement flowing into the next like a graceful ballerina.
Below, the once white layer of snow was now a light shade of green as the luminescent lights passed over the icy landscapes and made their way towards the moon-lit beach.
It felt like this scene had been tailor-made to meet all of my expectations. My two favourite landscapes in the world – snowy mountains and a beach – and my most sought-after natural occurrence charming its way across the blank canvas creating an image that will forever be etched in my memory.
I could go on to use all of the superlatives in the world but there isn’t one that could sum up a sighting of the Northern Lights.
All I know is, I am now officially addicted to hunting the Aurora Borealis.
So, the search continues, from Ooh Arr to Aurora….. Now, where’s that flying snowman?
Fly with Iceland Express from Gatwick Airport to Reykjavik, Iceland
Stay at FossHotel Lind, Reykjavik centre
Take a tour with Reykjavik Excursions http://www.re.is
Don’t spend all of your time trying to take the perfect picture. A lens cannot capture the whole experience so look up and take a mental picture that will last a lifetime.
Turn the flash off your camera if you ignore the above advice.
WRAP UP WARM & BE PATIENT