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.
As a boy I would cycle a lot. I would spend weekends and school holidays bezzing about on my BMX and then my green Rayleigh Ascender mountain bike. When I became a teenager, I embarked on a riverside cycle following a rocky, muddy track on my dad’s road bike.
I was asking for trouble, wasn’t I? But, as it turned out, the greatest peril was attempting a downhill right hand turn, back on tarmac, as I pulled into the street I called home.
Wrenching the handlebars at too acute an angle at speed, the tyres lost tread mid-turn and down I went, and stayed down in the middle of a thankfully quiet suburban road junction.
Flat out on my side, I was in trouble. Minutes later I somehow manged to pull myself up and staggered the 500 yards home, gingerly pushing my dad’s bike along with me.
Scolded for arriving home late for tea by my mum as I unhitched the back gate, I was close to passing out. It would transpire, hours later in a cubicle at the local hospital; leaving my mum feeling somewhat guilty, that I had in fact broken my left arm. It required manipulating back into place which, yes, is as painful as it sounds.
Since that fateful day I had, until recently, just a single bike ride to my name as an adult, and that being a most leisurely jaunt alongside the Sava river in Belgrade last summer followed by a remarkably untesting diversion through the city centre on the way back.
There were no dramas to speak of on that occasion. And then, this summer, just months after the Grand Départ of the Tour de France passed through my home town, I received an interesting offer from the Austrian Tourist Board. Would I like to go on a four-day cycling trip through the Zillertal valley? Perhaps still mind-drunk from the thrill of the Tour, I accepted, without hesitation and with, at least initially, an absence of apprehension.
As the trip drew nearer however, the nerves crept in a tad; what with my long absence from the saddle – Belgrade aside. My answer was to kit myself out with cycling gear because what could possibly go wrong if I looked the part? Then the itinerary arrived. Great news. I’d be cycling up a glacier.
The only comfort at this stage was that I’d be taking on such treacherous terrain firmly in the seat of an e-bike, which isn’t, contrary to the wise cracks, a bike made in Yorkshire. No, this would be a battery powered set of wheels. The power kicks in to respond to the rotations of the pedals, giving the rider a boost that would only otherwise come through extra manpower. It’s cheating, essentially.
Reassured, I warmed up the day before the flight east by pedalling a Boris bike through central London, as you do. In town to catch the flight from Gatwick, I caught up with an old friend. Meeting at London Victoria we cycled to Leicester Square. Picking our way through traffic and gulping in the not so fresh capital air with my seat too low, thus requiring needlessly strenuous effort on my behalf, it was hardly an experience that filled me joy about the adventure ahead.
I joined five other English and Welsh ladies and gents signed up to the trip and headed for Innsbruck. Day one was gentle. Having touched down we were transferred to the tourist board HQ and were equipped with the machines that would be our companions for the rest of the holiday. Here’s my trusty stead, pictured below.
That day we trundled 25km to the nearby town of Mayrhofen on flat terrain along a trail that passed through sleepy farmland alongside a train track (pictured below) with speed mode on my bike cranked up – effortlessly clocking 29km/hr.
Day two was to offer the biggest test – glacier day and a two-hour crawl uphill via winding dirt trails with panoramic views of the Zillertal valley and the village of Hintertux (see next photo). Those vistas proved a spectacular diversion as we wound ever upwards in low gear at slow speed. Our end point was a cable car to the top of the glacier and the most testing part at this stage was my increasingly painful saddle sores. The air too was thinning out, presenting an extra challenge and the chatter between us died down as we came to terms with the rhythm required to make the trek.
At last, we rode the cable car to the glacier’s peak, some 3,250 metres above sea level. It was shrouded with fog as we arrived but suddenly, stationed on the viewing platform, the wind cleared the weather front in patches, offering majestic views of the sleepy iced capped mountain range that stretched out around us. The border with Italy was just 2km away.
A few pictures for posterity later, lunch and the odd experience of a robotic toilet seat that rotated to clean the bowl (blew. my. mind.), and it was descent time. Wow. This is where it got interesting. The forward momentum as the steep gradient gave way beneath the bike’s wheels propelled me along at increasingly pulse racing speed; the edge of the path gave way on the right of the bumpy track to uncompromisingly sheer drops into the picturesque valley below. Cows are known to plummet to their deaths with one misplaced step. I didn’t fancy joining them.
Such a high speed descent over rough ground requires steady navigation to negotiate ruts filled with water and loose rock debris, as well as the hazards presented by hikers – who thankfully stepped aside – and cows, obviously…
Gaining velocity and plunging headlong into a straight stretch having taken a sweeping bend with a mere stroke of the brakes, my path was unwittingly blocked by a herd of these four-legged friends. They moo-ed and sniffed, and slowly a gap between their hides opened up, wide enough to allow me to continue downwards. Soon I was again hurtling at speeds on the outer limits of my comfort zone. Then – oh great – the pedals locked up. The chain double backed on itself. I had no option but to stop. I couldn’t fix it so I freewheeled on, letting gravity do its job.
We were nearly there, our pack of six riders and then… slip, SMASH… and the gent two cyclists ahead lost his balance and was down in a tangled heap having taken a sharp, rocky, muddy corner onto the final section of the route without appreciating its difficulty. The main road back through Hintertux was just a couple of metres away. The corner was suddenly upon us now, me and the rider immediately ahead. Screech, hard braking, rubber against metal wheel rims, then tip, skid, SMASH, the guy in front of me was now down in the same spot as its last victim.
Bizarrely, my reaction to having seen this sorry spectacle was to let out a chuckle, quite uncontrollably, but I had to concentrate because now I too was rapidly bearing down on the blackspot. Rear and front brakes both squeezed, I took the corner with incredible caution and delicacy, so much so in fact that suddenly it wasn’t the bike that had the momentum. Almost stopped in its tracks, 75kg of me, raised ever so slightly out of my seat to take the corner, was carried forward, overbearing the 20kg of the steel frame beneath me, and I felt it go. Weight ratios in horrifying disarray. The frame of the bike was overcome, I lurched forwards and sideways all at once, and silent nanoseconds later, down I tumbled, SMASH; bike landing on top of me. Both me with limbs flailing and it, my overly exerted bicycle, sliding six feet, ten feet, more, down the slippy rutted hillside with my right foot wedged between the seat and the frame.
I came to a stop. Instead of shooting pain, this time, this crash, my overwhelming rush of sensation was that of hilarity, and I burst into a fit of giggles. No harm done, not this time, only bumps and bruises, to my legs and to my pride.
Over four days, I would average a crash or a ‘stack’; so the experienced cyclists in our number called them, once every two days. Between us we ‘stacked it’ a total of eight times. Consistently dramatic if not polished in our performance on the slopes of the Austrian alps.
If there’s one thing I learned from my cycling travails, it’s that I won’t ever mount and expect anything other than some rough and tumble, but in Austria I rediscovered the liberating thrill of two wheels. The adrenaline rush of zooming breathlessly down a mountain, wind in my face, was exhilarating. Time for a trip to Halfords soon, me thinks, I’ll just remember that it is wise indeed to wear a helmet.
- If you would like more information about the Zillertal region of Austria, have a look here. Otherwise, here’s some quality Austrian music…