Thursday, 28 February 2013

Dancing colours in the sky: The beautiful Northern Lights in Lapland

On the short journey from Ivalo airport to Inari, our base for the following week, my heart began to sink. Snow fluttered around us, settling on the already white ground, and the temperatures were much milder than I'd expected, hovering just below zero degrees. The landscape was stunning, littered with frozen lakes and tall pine forests, and I was incredibly happy to be there. But as I watched the clouds thicken and hang low in the sky as the day progressed, I couldn't help but feel worried.

"Not much Aurora last week", the bus driver had commented. "Weather too mild - clouds and lots of snow. A Lappish heatwave!".

When Andy arrived for our briefing, however, he quickly brushed our worries aside. Yes, he conceded, the temperatures had drastically changed, from -30 to just below zero, and the resulting cloud was a bit of a pain. But the solar activity charts looked good, and he had an idea of where we might find clear skies, even for a short while. Plus, he added, the forecast seemed to be improving for the next couple of nights, so our chances were good.

Wrapped up in thermals and bundled ungracefully into the car, we were off. Andy had given us some tips on how to get the most out of our pictures, and I was still fiddling with my camera when we suddenly pulled over at the side of the road. Although the cloud still surrounded us, it was patchy, and I saw grey wisps fading in and out of sight in star-filled flashes of sky. Over the next quarter of an hour, the wisps grew stronger, with hints of green throbbing at the edges. Although the display wasn't dramatic, it was definitely there, and we eagerly snapped photos before the clouds swept in and blocked the colour out completely.

Excitedly arriving back at the hotel, we were exhausted but happy, and would have been content if that was our only sighting all week. We had no idea that the best was yet to come...

The following evening, still buoyed from the night before, we received a message from Andy. Instead of leaving at nine or ten pm, he wanted to head off at seven, having spied clear skies and strong activity on his maps. We left the hotel shrouded in cloud, but barely an hour's driving later we pulled over once more for some test shots. The screen revealed the tell-tale green, so it was back in the car and off again to a frozen lake nearby.

Surrounded by pine trees and glistening snow, we had barely struggled down to the lake when the first flash appeared overhead, a vivid green streaking higher and higher. Bands of lights stretched across, the colour intensifying as we watched breathlessly. Soon the whole sky exploded into various shades of green, with reds tinging the edges. Spiralling, flowing and winking in and out of life, the Aurora lit up the trees and danced for us. We stood, captivated, for almost four hours. Every time it seemed like the display was coming to an end, it began anew in another direction, teasing us.

It was more beautiful than I could possibly have imagined, and rivalled our display in Iceland last year. My feet were aching with cold and I could barely feel my fingers, but I couldn't tear myself away from the exhibit until I was absolutely sure that it was all over. Arriving back close to 2am, pumped full of adrenalin, I could barely sleep...

But the Aurora wasn't quite done with us yet. On our third and final evening with Andy, we stayed closer to Inari, taking advantage of the clear night. The lights greeted us one more, showing off with a lazy spiral and arching across the sky in one long band. After gently fading from view, we hopped back into the car, moving on to a second site nearby. There they were again, bright reds joining the neon greens and moving much more quickly than we'd seen before, dancing directly above us and framing the trees.

Three nights, and three Northern Lights displays. I couldn't possibly have been happier... 


Saturday, 23 February 2013

Arriving in Lapland...

As I alluded to in my post on Helsinki, our brief day in the capital in December was only a taster before returning for a slightly longer trip to Finland.

Braving the icy temperatures once more, we touched down in Helsinki last week in a flurry of snow, and spent a night near the airport before boarding a place to fly north to Ivalo, situated within Finnish Lapland. Spread across four countries, Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland, Lapland sits high within the Arctic Circle and is sparsely populated by both the indigenous local peoples and other residents of its respective countries.

Despite being primarily known as the centre of Santa's operations (with an abundance of 'meet Father Christmas' holidays to match), once December has been and gone Lapland reverts back to a glittering snowy wilderness for the rest of winter. Soft, powdery snow, vast frozen lakes and plenty of cold weather activities make it the perfect location to escape the damp, cold and grey UK during February.

For the icing on the cake, there's one final draw. The long nights, low temperatures and location very near the North Pole also results in a high level of Aurora Borealis activity in Lapland. After our incredible experience of seeing the lights during our travels through Iceland last year, I was hooked, and couldn't wait until winter rolled round again to try our luck once more. Fully aware that a combination of high activity and clear skies were required - both factors completely out of our hands - we nevertheless had our fingers firmly crossed and were determined to increase our chances as much as possible.

From our previous experience, we knew that it was no good sitting around and hoping that the lights would come to us. After evenings of waiting for the rain to cease in Iceland, pouring over weather maps and Aurora prediction websites, we realised that we would have to do the chasing. Six hours of driving later, and we'd stumbled across the only clear patch of sky in the country, and were rewarded with an amazing display. The overall theory was still sound, but a change in country brought with it complications. Although cloud cover in Lapland, whilst extensive, rarely covers the whole region at once, the roads are thick with snow and ice, and Reindeer are a real danger to motorists. We also couldn't help feeling that luck, more than anything we did, had brought us success last year.

Onto the internet and through magazines I trawled, before stumbling across a company who seemed too good to be true. For three nights in a row, a renowned photographer and Aurora addict would collect us from our hotel, and take us Northern Light hunting. After spending much of each day pouring over maps, weather reports and Aurora activity websites, Andy (our guide) would choose the best spot and take us there. If the sky was overcast, we'd move on once more, spending up to six hours seeking them out in an environment he knew well. He had a great track record - every group he'd accompanied over the past season had seen the lights at least once during the three days, with some racking up two sightings. On top of this, some photographic advice was also included in the cost.

However, even an expert Aurora hunter wouldn't be able to change the weather if thick clouds rolled in, or increase the solar activity. We'd done the best we could, and made sure to organise enough daytime adventures to lessen the blow if we were unlucky.

It was all in the sun's hands now...


Monday, 18 February 2013

Monday photo - 18th February

This week's Monday photo was taken almost three years ago at the incredible temples of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, one of my favourite countries in the whole world. Looking at it makes me want to go back again...

Monday, 11 February 2013

Monday photo - 11th February

A year of hard saving, careful planning and more research than I'd ever done on a trip before, all for moments like this. Standing on the shore, icy water lapping against my welly boots after jumping down from the zodiac, watching penguins eyeing us curiously as they waddled around. Antarctica blew me away with its incredible beauty and amazing wildlife, and it was a journey that I'll never forget.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Monday photo - 4th February

After a long morning trekking through the jungle in Sumatra, we were hot, sweaty and ready for a break. Cooling my feet in a stream eased the ache as I listened to the sounds of nature all around, but it was the appearance of this little fellow that really made me forget about the heat and humidity. Taking his time, this little soft-shelled turtle worked his way up a small waterfall before coming to rest right next to us, head curiously popping out of the water for a look around. As he settled into the mud, he was almost camouflaged by the colours surrounding him.