Iceland, The Northern Lights

Northern Lights Iceland

“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.

Reyjkavik Iceland Northern Lights

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.

Iceland Northern Lights

“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

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51 responses to “Iceland, The Northern Lights

  1. Many is the night we sat out in our back yard, amazed at the lights dancing above our heads. I’ve even seen then go orange and purple once when we were house boating in northern Saskatchewan. Absolutely beautiful.

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  2. Amazing stuff indeed. Something I’ve always wanted to but, likely never will.

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  3. The post I have been hoping for! I felt so disappointed when reading you didn’t see them and so excited for all of you that it played out so well in the end.Growing up on the Canadian prairies we were treated to the display many times but not as intensely as this.

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    • It was a perfect way to end our short stay in Iceland. It was like getting a birdie on the eighteenth hole at the golf course or watching your football time score a last minute winning goal – the sort of feeling that makes you want to go back!

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  4. Right if the freelance income holds up we are off tio Iceland next year

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  5. So glad for you and soooo jealous. I was recently asked where I would travel if given a chance and my reply was Iceland, to see the Northern Lights! It is kind of an obsession for this year 🙂

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  6. Seen many a thing in my day… except that. Great post.

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  7. So glad you saw them! Me – not so fortunate.. So great to read about your experience 🙂

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  8. I have only see them once when I was in Minnesota. I would like to see them again someday.

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  9. The first time I saw this phenomenon, I was about eight years old. Each time afterwards, it’s felt like magic in the sky. Glad to had the opportunity of the experience.

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  10. Oh I so want to go. It sounds amazing. SD

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  11. Good old Lea Parrott – if it wasn’t for him you might have come home a disappointed man!

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  12. I didn’t realise they were so difficult to see. And I’m scrolling down reading about them, wondering why isn’t he telling us about what they actually are? Just as I was getting irritated – you did! Good one. Great that you got to see them too. Can’t say they would lure me to Iceland, but that’s because I’ve got other places higher up the list of places I’ll probably never get to.

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    • Iceland goes straight into my top ten places visited and I am certainly thinking about going back in the summer to see the midnight sun. I’d even consider putting this on a short list of places that I would like to live (if I could afford it!)
      I think the Northern Lights are worth seeing if only because lots and lots of people never will! What would you like to see that you haven’t yet?

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      • Lepcis Magna is top of the list. It’s not even far away!

        I missed out on Hagia Sofia when I did my world trip as we cut turkey out of the itinerary.

        Angkor Vat would be interesting but not desperate. Pyramids would be good too.

        But it’s countries really so Cuba, Mexico, most of South America, Machu Pichu, Goa, Madeira, Balearics (also near!), the Escorial, Avila, Oporto, Toledo, and back to Asia, with Burma. St Petersburg too, or whatever it is currently called. The Hermitage would be nice. One of the few places I would go back to would be Sintra as I didn’t spend enough time around there. And it is beautiful. Seychelles? Maldives? Antigua?

        Iceland doesn’t even make the list. Oh I forgot Rhodes and Malta.

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      • Good list – long list!

        Leptis Magna sounds good but perhaps not Libya.
        I plan to do Istanbul this year and would like to visit Aprodisias in the south west of Turkey if I can fit it in. Cuba definitely, it nearly got to the top of my list for 2014. Machu Pichu looks good but I’m worried that it will be disappointing. What about the Great Wall of China? or have you done that?

        This June I qualify for a senior rail card so I have a plan coming together to visit the cities of Northern England by train (Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle etc.), Kim isn’t terribly keen so I’ll do it alone rather like Michael Portillo with his Bradshaw’s Guide!

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  13. I’ve always wanted to go to Lepcis since university, we must have spent weeks looking at such wonderful slides of it. Same with hagia sofia. And the mosaics in Ravenna. I really nearly wrote to Gadaffi more than once to ask for permission to visit!!

    Does Ryanair fly to Cuba? A spanish friend got a good deal on a Madrid flight but when he came back all he could tell us was that it was full of mosquitoes and he only got lettuce to eat. I began to wonder if he had really gone there.

    Machu Pichu, don’t know. You mean high up a hill with a few stones? 😀 Great Wall, no I haven’t. Never really interested me. Sort of an extended version of Hadrian’s. Shanghai might be interesting. I liked Hong Kong which is the nearest I’ve got to China.

    I’ve lived in most of those. Not Manchester although I did stay at the university when I was in sixth form. Stopped off a lot en route from Liverpool home. Good art gallery in Manch. Good buildings in all of them. I think Newc is the least impressive, but it is much smaller. I’ve a soft spot for Liverpool. Worth a trip over to the wirral too to get a feel of the place.

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  14. Pingback: Top Ten Tips for Iceland | Have Bag, Will Travel

  15. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Blur | Have Bag, Will Travel

  16. Some very nice blurred photography there sir – makes it all the more surreal and spooky in a way too 🙂

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  17. You lucked in! I might have known 🙂 🙂 Sounds utterly magical (apart from the poor guy with the poker up his bum 😦 )

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  20. The Northern Lights are on my list of things to see.

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  21. They are magic, Andrew. I didn’t see any on my visit to Alaska earlier in the month but I did live in Alaska for a while and had seen them before. Actually, the first time I saw them was as a child in California. It must have been one heck of a solar flare! –Curt

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  22. My Dad saw them quite a bit from RAF Lossiemouth in the 1940s, but they did spend a lot of time flying about in the dead of night and my Dad was the crew member next to the radome on the top of the aircraft fuselage. Winters during this period were extremely cold. Uplifting phenomena for me included the total eclipse when we went down to Start Point. It was cloudy but still extremely striking!

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    • I would like to experience a total eclipse. I remember a partial eclipse some time ago. The event itself I recall as being rather disappointing but what I remember most is how quiet everywhere became and that the birds stopped singing. Spooky!

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  23. What an awesome display, Andrew! Definitely on my bucket list and it’s just gone up a couple of notches.😊

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  24. Iceland is one of the countries I’ve never visited. I had almost made up my mind to go there when Trapped appeared on the small screen and as a fan of Scandi-noir I was hooked from the start. But what an agonisingly awful setting it proved to be, putting me off visiting! Your account has now stimulated my travel urgings for Iceland again, a really good article, thank you.

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  25. Absolutely brilliant Andrew.

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