“Narrow swirls of light would sweep across the great dome of sky, then hang there like vapour trails…. Lights would flicker brightly in the west, then vanish in an instant and reappear a moment later behind me, as if teasing me.” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
It seems to me that there are few things that when we see them seem to provide an uplifting, almost outer edge spiritual experience, is difficult to explain why and unusually excites and arouses.
A dolphin under the bow of the boat or a field of nodding sunflowers for example and to this short list I am going to add the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights, that phenomenon of the Arctic skies that is elusive and ethereal, one of the great, timeless thrills of travel, a beautiful, shifting dance of nocturnal rainbows that is guaranteed to send viewers into certain orgasmic ecstasy or miraculously turn them into poets.
When we arranged this trip to Iceland we hoped of course that we would see them, Margaret asked us to go with them specifically – “to see the Northern Lights”, we agreed immediately but we were careful to bear in mind that this natural phenomenon is not like the Blackpool Illuminations, they can’t just be turned on and off for the benefit of tourists, no one is guaranteed to see them (unless you happen to be Joanna Lumley making a television programme that is) and many people leave disappointed.
We were encouraged however by the fact that October is the best month for sightings and in an eleven year cycle this particular October was predicted to be one of the most reliable times to see the display.
We had already spoken to many people who had paid out for a coach tour into the interior in the hope of seeing them and had returned without a sighting. One man rather apologetically told us that ‘he had definitely seen something’ but we knew from the downhearted tone of his voice and the disappointed look of a man who had wasted a considerable amount of money that he was trying harder to convince himself rather than us.
And so we came to our fourth and final night in Iceland and to date we had seen nothing on account of the cloudy skies and not helped by being in the middle of Reyjkavik with all of its sodium street lights but now we were on the west coast at Kevlavik, it was a clear night and we were all more optimistic about our chances and after dinner in a restaurant close to the harbour (disappointing by the way) we made our way out onto the headland beyond our hotel where the sky turned black and the moon shone in a phosphorescent glow on the curiously calm sea as the gorse knotted hills behind us blotted out any intrusive artificial light from the town.
There we met an Australian couple who were wrapped up warm as a precaution against the wind and had cameras and tripods at the ready and they explained that they had been chasing the Aurora Borealis for ten days all across the country and for them like us this was their last chance to get the light show that they had come to see before returning home. I asked him if it might be easier to see them closer to home in the Southern hemisphere but he gave me a patient geography lesson and explained that in the south the only real audience for the Antarctic alternative, the Aurora Australis, are the penguins.
Eventually we caught sight of a few flashes of colour in the sky but they were always only very temporary and not especially thrilling or uplifting and then some uninvited cloud came by anyway and we declared ourselves as unlucky with this as we are every week with the National Lottery and as we abandoned the venture and made our way back to our accommodation I prepared to tell the story that, like the man on the night time bus trip, ‘I had definitely seen something’.
We had some duty free wine and beer to finish now so we sat chatting and drinking and suddenly the Australian man, who had the rather unlikely name of Les Parrott, appeared at our window and was gesticulating madly at the sky with great excitement as though someone had stuck a red-hot poker up his bottom – ‘The lights, the Northern Lights’ he shrieked over and over so that we were left in absolutely no doubt and we threw on our coats and chased after him back to the headland where the sky had cleared and there was promising activity all around us.
Suddenly the lights fell from the heavens opened and closed like theatre curtains, disappearing in one place in the sky and returning to another and we cheered and whooped like children as we were treated to one of nature’s great displays: a mysterious, multicoloured show in which the night sky was suddenly lit up with a wondrous glow, like whispers of coloured smoke, the luminous green of a highlighter pen that twisted and swirled like a heavenly lava lamp and then created a pattern that looked like a giant tornado racing towards us from the horizon. It was as though I was an air traffic controller studying a radar screen and the sky seemed immense and infinite as I twisted and turned and tried to monitor as much of it as I possibly could.
The scientific bit:
The scientific term for the lights is the aurora borealis (named after the Roman goddess of the dawn). The lights are formed from fast-moving, electrically charged particles that emanate from the sun. During large solar explosions and flares, huge quantities of particles are thrown out of the sun and into deep space. When the particles meet the Earth’s magnetic shield, they are led towards a circle around the magnetic North Pole, where they interact with the upper layers of the atmosphere. The energy which is then released is the Northern Lights and displays occur when solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and on impact emit burning gases that produce different coloured lights (oxygen produces green and yellow; nitrogen blue).
The scientific bit ends.
We could barely believe our good fortune, I for one had given up any hope of seeing them and was certain that we were destined to leave Iceland the next morning disappointed. It was truly wonderful and something that I will never forget or tire of telling people about but there is no doubt that we were lucky and although I am under no illusions that this was by no means the best Aurora Borealis ever and my photographs are not going to make National Geographic Magazine it is probably the only one that I will see and later that night as I tried to sleep I could still see the swirling ghostly patterns in the sky above and all around me.
“Always travel in hope, rather than expectation, of seeing the Northern Lights. For the best chances of seeing the lights, head north – but not too far. ” Alistair McLean, Founder of The Aurora Zone