Looking. For the Aurora Borealis.
Twelve nights in Iceland in search of the Northern Lights.
It isn’t supposed to be easy. The best things in life tend to be those that are earned; through perseverance, through dedication, yet sometimes rewards come just by being in the right place at the right time.
Where I was heading, 66 degrees North, Iceland, all the advice told of October to April being the best time to see the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – when the hours of daylight are shorter.
With age I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the night sky: it’s twinkling stars, the sense of perspective it provides, and so, the phenomena of the greatest light show on Earth, was something I had to see. And where better, I figured, than the land of ice and fire; a giant’s stone throw from the Arctic Circle.
Vast vistas of natural nothingness, of rugged mountains, imposing volcanoes, black lava fields, and plains and ocean inlets dotted with colourful metal structures of homes and industry: Iceland was a mysterious, far away place to me that appealed to my wanderlust, sense of adventure and lust for life less ordinary.
However sage the advice though, that is not to obsess over catching sight of Aurora while staying in this spectacular country, the possibility seduced my thoughts regardless of the days’ wonderful pursuits; from stepping behind the pummelling Seljalandsfoss waterfall and bathing in the hot geothermal spring waters of the mountainside Myvatn Nature Baths, to marvelling at the beautiful calmness of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.
There is, of course, more to happening upon the Aurora Borealis than simply rocking up at a tip of the Northern Hemisphere at the right time of the year.
Two other elements are important: matching clear skies with high magnetic activity, and if you are heading to Iceland a great tool is this website – en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ – which provides a dedicated Aurora Borealis forecast for the whole of the island. It is frequently updated throughout the day, showing a map of the country with different shades of green indicating the depth of cloud at any given location.
Next to the map a sliding scale of 0 to 9 provides a measure as to the magnetism in the atmosphere, so the higher the number the greater the magnetic activity. Match a high activity number and a location where the skies are clear, away from light pollution, and boom, there’s every chance of being in luck.
My girlfriend, Rosie, and I had chosen early March to fly to Iceland from Manchester, England – flight time approximately two-and-a-half hours – and booked our flights through easyJet. Determined to see the Northern Lights we were staying in Iceland for 12 nights.
We settled on an itinerary that saw us spend our first three nights in the capital, Reykjavik; four nights in the second most populous settlement, Akureyri, in the north; another two nights in Reykjavik as a half-way house to adventures further south which led to two nights in tiny Vík on the coast; ending with one final night in Reykjavik before flying home.
A week in and we’d seen precisely zero hint of Aurora activity and I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little anxious. In the back of my mind the lights were to be the pay off for holidaying in sub-zero temperatures and thus wearing five layers of clothing, long johns and all. We’d been checking the Aurora forecast several times a day, more so as the holiday wore on, in the hope of getting decent conditions.
Lo and behold, on the morning of day eight, the forecast for the next day was looking promising: an activity rating of four (meaning ‘Active’) and clear skies over much of the south of the country, where we’d be for our stay in Vík; a village of around 200 people located next door to Katla, one of Iceland’s largest active volcanoes. According to locals, on average Katla violently erupts twice every century but the last major eruption was in 1918. A slightly unsettling fact when you are sleeping in a bed next to it…
So the next morning we made a plan, to tour east along the ring road to the glacial lagoon late in the afternoon. We would stop for dinner in a remote village on the way back to Vík, by which time it would, all being well, be ‘show time’. Another quick check of the forecast before we set out on our days’ road trip and the activity rating had crept to a five; ‘High’.
This had to be it, had to be our lucky day, now or never. The long range forecast for the rest of the stay warned of clouds, clouds and more clouds.
It was 8pm by the time we pulled up outside a simple restaurant, out on a limb in a tiny settlement consisting of no more than a couple of streets and small houses. The orange glow from the windows an enticing draw in the chill of the evening.
We dined at a table next to the window and cast glances through the glass at the clear night sky in anticipation. No sign. Conversation by a group of Americans around a table in the middle of the room touched on the Aurora then drifted onto other matters. Main dishes over. Still no sign. I ordered dessert. A risky call. “For all we know they could be right above us!” Rosie said, only half joking. It is fair to say it was the quickest I’d ever eaten a serving of apple pie.
We settled the bill. Fleece on, jacket on, hat on, gloves on… we swung open the door into the dark night, the glow of the restaurant’s light filtering a warm hue onto the pavement outside. We turned to the right and WOW. At last!
Right across the sky as far as the eye could see stretched a thick luminous green streak. Rosie screamed in excitement but I was gobsmacked, classically awestruck. Wow, is indeed what I think I said. A few times. Before I knew it Rosie was off, urging us to flee the invasive light from the restaurant, bounding across the road, no one else around, into the nearest ink black field.
Together, we stood there, held one another and craned our necks. Aurora was out, in all its glory, directly overhead. The brilliant green streak grew wider, then slimmer in parts, wiggling like it was being gently shook in slow motion at one end; dancing an ethereal dance. As mesmerising as promised.
Majestic. It was truly unlike anything I’d ever seen. Then it changed, split into two lines, its texture like dust caught in a stream of light from a window on a sunny day. Directly above us a blotch of green, it widened, looking as though it was opening itself out from the middle. It seemed as though it was cascading downwards; felt like we could reach out and touch it. I seriously expected to see a face emerge out of its centre and speak to me in stern, slow sentences; the result of watching too many sci-fi flicks.
Its otherworldly dance continued across the sky for, we reckon, 12 minutes. Every second of every minute was intoxicating. I couldn’t believe we’d actually got this lucky. And then, slowly, its green sheen faded and faded, gently, disguised back to the black of the night; just a faint trace visible on the horizon. It’s safe to say what we saw will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
I didn’t care that the battery in my camera had died hours before. So elusive the spectacle, it seemed fitting that I hadn’t documented an experience hard earned. I can still see it now. All I have to do is close my eyes.
The snow, the ice, the layering up, it had all been worth it.