Not all those who wander are lost - but I'll be disappointed if I don't get lost frequently!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Hunting the Northern Lights - Part 2

Last week I set off to Iceland with the hopes of fulfilling one of my Bucket List desires: Seeing the Northern Lights. Trying not to get my hopes up too much, I flew into Reykjavik with four days (or rather, four nights) to try my luck at seeing the heavens dance with green lights.

The first two of nights in Iceland were met with mixed success. Now, the hunt continues.....

Day 3 - Clear Skies

Good news!

I was sure that the tour would be cancelled again, as I had spent the day leaning into the strong winds and sleet in an effort to remain upright and not get blown over. 

Happily for me though, the heavens were forecast to clear at around 9pm. With my hopes welling up again, I boarded the tour bus and the evening's hunt began. 

We drove for about forty minutes or so, heading south. As the weather man had predicted, the skies cleared and the stars were out in full force. The bus pulled up near a small church, a short walk from the beach in the bay between Reykjavik and Keflavik. A perfect spot for stargazing and aurora watching.

It had turned into quite a pleasant night in contrast to the horribly wet and windy day. But it was still the middle of winter in a country straddling the Arctic Circle! I was wearing three layers of pants (sports leggings, woolen leggings and jeans) and an equal number up top, as well as a thick woollen jumper under my coat. Paired with three pairs of socks and a hip flask full of good quality whiskey, I was certain I wouldn't be cold.

The city lights of Keflavik reflect off the low clouds, but the stars are still visible. 

Almost like lemmings we piled off the bus and walked in line down to the waterfront. With four coaches filled to the brim with eager aurora gazers, there certainly was a lot of people and nearly as many cameras lining the shore. 

I set up my brand spanking new tripod, attached the dSLR, adjusted the various settings and waited. And waited. And waited some more. 

The lights were a no show. 

Despite that, I had a fantastic night. Yes, it's hard to believe that one could have a great night standing out in the freezing cold for hours on end, searching the skies for the star of the show who has failed to turn up. But it was a fun, memorable night.

Between taking the odd photo of the bright stars, I chatted with Ben and Jack, two other young solo travellers up in Iceland to try their luck at spotting the elusive lights. I handed round the whiskey flask and we wiled away the hours talking about everything from soccer to Sigur Ros to stargazing to solo travels. We had a discussion about which constellations were the same in the northern and southern hemispheres. I proudly pointed out the Big Dipper, a constellation I had only discovered a few months before.

As it turns out, I was right about not getting cold. It was only in the last half hour of the three hours standing outside that the cold started to creep through my boots and coat. The whiskey probably helped by producing it's own little fire on my insides! 

Eventually we realised the three of us were among only a dozen (if not less) others who hadn't felt the cold and returned to the coaches. Somehow they had all slipped past us as the night wore on, while we were busy  nattering and handing round the hip flask. 

It was closing in on 1am when the guides came out with torches and directed us back to the coaches. I was a little bit sad that the party was over. While not a successful night in terms of seeing the lights, it was a memorable one nonetheless!

Day 4 - Bingo!

This was it. My last night in Iceland and my final chance to see the lights in all their glory. And what a glorious night it was!

The deal with our Northern Lights tour was that if you didn't see the aurora on the night of your tour, you could keep coming back on subsequent nights, until they either graced you with their glowing presence or you left the country!

Thus, 9pm saw me back on the coach en route to the same viewing spot we'd been to the night before. This time, I'd worn an extra pair of socks and another knitted skivvy under my coat. There was no way I was going to even think about being cold! In fact, I was sweltering on the bus ride down there.  Sadly, the whiskey supply had run out after the previous night's efforts, so I had filled my flask with Amarula.

Barely half the people were off the coach when the aurora made her presence known, starting as a faint but distinctly moving green mist. I bolted for the beach, leaving behind Jack, Gemma, Charlotte and Stewart. No way was I going to waste a moment if the show only lasted ten minutes!

As I was waiting on my first thirty-second exposure to take, I heard a British voice piping up out of the darkness.


'Over here!' I called, which was followed by the laughs of the four others who'd thought they wouldn't have a hope of finding me amongst the forest of bodies and camera tripods lining the shore.

Probably my favourite photo from the night. Swirly!

They arrived just in time to see the result of the first photo of the night. A suitable amount of oohs and aahs followed, with me silently praising my good sense in purchasing the tripod while the others decided to not even bother taking photos with their own cameras. Instead they took turns pressing the button on my camera. Picturing this still makes me giggle!

The lights started as a smudge of green, slowly brightening as the night wore on.

It truly was a magical night. Thirty second exposures meant plenty of time between pressing the shutter button and the final click, which also meant plenty of time to gaze at the ethereal lights, pass round the Amarula flask and chat the night away with great company.

My improvised flash technique for illuminating our faces during a thirty second exposure - turn your iphone on for two seconds - then sit very still for the next 28 seconds!

With a little bit of cunning ingenuity on my behalf (I'll admit, I'm pretty darn proud of this), I even had a little photography studio going at one point. The procedure was as follows: I set up the shot while someone posed on a rock beneath the aurora. Press the shutter, direct my 'assistant' to turn on the iphone flash torch, then off again two seconds later. Chat for a bit while the camera did it's thing for the remainder of the thirty second exposure. Miss the sound of the final click and let the unfortunate subject sit stone still on a cold rock for much longer than required!

One very happy me sitting beneath the Northern Lights.

Please, if you do one thing in 2013 - go hunting for the Northern Lights yourself. This year is supposed to be one of the best in over a decade, and there is something magical about basking in the unearthly green lights on a cold winters night.

Check out the aurora reflecting off the calm Icelandic waters!

Experiences like this one are what inspire me to keep travelling and enjoying the great beauties our world has to offer. You can't help but marvel at nature. And you can't help but appreciate the amazing people you meet who make these moments truly special, taking them from pretty cool to unforgettable.

Forgive me if I'm being a little sentimental!

At 11:45pm, the guides came out to tell us that it was time to head back to the city. If it wasn't for the fact that the clouds were slowly drawing across the sky and obscuring the aurora, I think they might have had a mutiny on their hands!

The clouds roll in, great curtains closing the night's show. 

I slept with a smile on my face that night. Well, for the whole 1.5 hours I could sleep before I caught the bus to the airport. But that's a story for another day!

Oh, I almost forgot! If you are keen on chasing the lights and trying your hand at aurora photography, I'll have a post up soon offering my very amateur advice to those other amateurs out there! Lessons learned, what camera settings used, you know the drill! In the meantime, here is a post about the absolute bare basics of Northern Lights photography. Particularly useful if you are standing under the aurora RIGHT NOT and have no idea what you are doing!

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