Friday, 2 March 2012

The hunt for the Northern Lights

Although fully aware that it is a game of chance, I can't deny that choosing to visit Iceland in winter was partially motivated by the reports/adverts/announcements popping up absolutely everywhere claiming that 2012 is the year of the Aurora Borealis, more commonly know as the Northern Lights.

This incredible phenomenon, caused by the collision of charged particles with atoms in high latitude, resulting in ghostly displays of colour in the dark sky, has long been on my bucket list. Even though we only had a week in Iceland, and were prepared for the definite possibility that they wouldn't show up, we were still determined to give it our best shot.

After a couple of days and the overcast sky in the west refusing to budge, we had to drastically change our plans. Huddled over my computer in the kitchen of our guesthouse whilst the rain lashed at the window outside, we checked weather forecasts across Iceland. The thick, heavy cloud seemed to consume the entire country... except one small part. A ray of hope gleamed in the south-east, a small patch promising clearer skies. We cross-checked the location with the aurora forecast online, and although the possibility of a sighting was still classed as 'low', the band just covered the southern coast. It was a slim chance, but a chance all the same.

Working out the distance and our experience of the roads so far, we estimated a journey time of over 6 hours driving. Not wanting to spend a whole day of our holiday stuck in the car, it was time for a bit of creative thinking. I emailed the guide we'd booked to visit the ice caves, and managed to re-arrange our trip for the following day. We packed up the car, trying to stop everything getting utterly drenched as we did so, and went to bed, the alarm set for 3am.

After reluctantly leaving the warmth, we were in the car and ready to leave at 3.30am. The wind was howling as we set off, driving extremely slowly over the bridges, trying not to get swept off the roads whenever we hit an exposed area. Tired after barely an hour from concentration, we were beginning to regret our enthusiasm. If we'd have taken the weather as a sign, we would have abandoned the journey multiple times. Whenever the wind ceased for a while, the rain began in earnest. The rain lifted, and the fog descended. The fog was swept the wind. And so on. When we finally reached our destination, nearly 7 hours later, we were exhausted.

But the skies were blue.

We spent the day touring the ice caves and iceberg lake (which I'll talk about in a future post) before finding ourselves an amazing guesthouse for the night. After a few hours much needed nap, we were ready and willing the skies to remain clear. I couldn't believe how nervous I was - although we'd reminded ourselves and each other for months that our chances were slim, the glimmer of hope remained. Surely the aurora would recognise the lengths we'd gone to?!?! By 7pm we'd decided that we'd rather make a start than sit around in our room waiting, and on advice from our guide from earlier in the day, set off for the iceberg lake 10 minutes away from our accommodation.

Idly staring out of the window on the drive, a wispy trail of bright white suddenly appeared in the sky. It forked down for a few minutes, then gradually faded away. It's a wonder F didn't crash the car when I started squealing - it was definitely no cloud. The white streaks continued as we reached the lake, the daylight hardly fading yet. We set up the camera and tripod, willing the wind to die down a little, and sat waiting in the car. The darkness slowly crept in, and with it more distinct trails of brilliant green, flowing gently into existence and staying for half an hour or more before disappearing. By now it was still only around 8.30pm, and as the brightest lights faded, we were thrilled at what we'd seen. But the show wasn't over yet - in fact, it had barely begun. Over the next couple of hours, bands of light covered the sky, arching out from behind the nearby glacier and right over our heads, like a rainbow. Long rays coated the icebergs with eerie colours, creating moving spirals in the sky.

Some bands seemed to appear out of no-where, whilst others crept gradually up, changing shape before our eyes like food colouring moving through milk. We were speechless. I desperately tried to capture as much as I could on camera, whilst also just admiring the show (advice on photographing the lights coming in the next post...), and feeling so incredibly lucky. Finally, by around 10.30pm the lights were fading, retreating bit by bit before leaving the sky dark and star-filled once more. Tired, cold, but utterly exhilarated, we dragged ourselves into the car and back to our guesthouse.

I slept like a log that night.

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