The Aurora Borealis Travel Guide : Sighting the Northern Lights

According to a recent bucket-list poll, seeing the majesty of the Aurora Borealis is amongst the top ten sights Brits dream of witnessing before departing this life.  But how special an experience is it?  Mark Southern investigated.

As first published in The Exchange Magazine, 2011

The Arctic Circle, it turns out, is chilly.  Actually, it should probably be pointed out that the Arctic Circle is really very cold indeed.

I first discover this upon landing in Tromso in northern Norway when the icy wind whips into you immediately after taking one step off the plane.

I’m here to (hopefully) set my eyes upon one of the world’s most incredible natural phenomena, the Northern Lights – the strange occurrence when the electrically-charged particles collide over the Earth’s magnetic poles, and create glorious colours in the sky.

I say ‘hopefully’ as it can be hit and miss if you’re lucky enough to be there when the Lights come out and, knowing my luck, I feel sorry for the others on the trip that they unwittingly chose to come on the same trip as me.

The tour is being arranged by the excellent adventure travel company, Transun, and they meet me plus the thirty or so other Light-seekers, and transfer us across the Swedish border to Kiruna, passing the frozen fjords en-route.

We arrive at the only hotel in the small town, the Davvi Arctic Lodge – a modern split-level place, with comfortable rooms and a sociable communal bar – where we’re given our very own thermal snow-suits and boots, and then it’s the first trek up the hill to see the Lights.

NL4

The first thing you notice whilst being in the wilderness of the Arctic Circle is the quiet.  Absolute silence fills the frozen air, whilst the two foot carpet of soft, spongy snow surrounds you flattening the landscape in every direction.

But it’s not the ground we’re now looking at, with everyone staring upwards at the sky, hoping to see something, anything, that resembles the famous Aurora Borealis.

However, what these poor people hadn’t taken into account was that I was also there acting as the bad-luck charm, and the sky stayed still.

The following day, when the light returned to the small Swedish village, it was to the SUVs and to a nearby reindeer camp.

The Sami tribes still use reindeer on a daily basis for both food and clothing, and also for getting around, and we learn how to ride a reindeer, plus how to lasso a passing animal.  Useful stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The afternoon is snowmobiling, and it’s just about the most fun you can have in a remote village in Lapland.  We set off on snow safari in convoy, as the tour leaders guide us around the barren landscape, stopping here and there for a breather.  The snowmobiles reach speeds of 30mph, and the sensation of the cold across your face is wonderful.

NL1

Then, it’s back to the lodge for dinner and to prepare for the second of our Northern Lights hunts.

As the darkness begins to envelope the night sky, it’s into our thermal suits and out into the cold again.  This time we lie back on the comfy mattress of snow and stare upwards, willing something to happen.  But, of course, thanks to me, nothing does.

The following day we set out to learn to dog-sled, with the help of half a dozen husky dogs each.  Sitting on the sled with the dogs leading the way is remarkable, and really helps to accentuate the difference between ‘normal’ life in London, and this unique experience.

But, as incredible as the huskies were, we didn’t come all this way for that, and there’s only one thing on everyone’s minds as we once again climb into the thermal suits for the final night.

This time, however, we’re taking the snowmobiles out on our search, and the convoy of machines glides along the white surface like a shining snake of headlights, burning into the blackness.

We stop in the middle of an ice plain, and look hopefully upwards, but still nothing.  We repeat this at the next stop, and still my bad luck ruins the experience for everyone else.

We clamber aboard again for the final stopping point before returning to the lodge, and it’s hard not to feel disappointed to have travelled so far, only to miss seeing the spectacular Lights.

We arrive at the final viewing area, climb off the snowmobiles, and gaze, ever hopefully, up above.

And then, it happens.

NL2

From far, far away, a dot turns into a circle, which turns into a glow, which turns into a shape, which turns into a breathtakingly electric light show in the sky.  Colours whirl throughout the night sky, great clouds of the rainbow jostle with each other for supremacy as the night becomes alive.

Vast splashes of green and purple and red, as big as London itself, dance around as far as the eye can see, whilst the humble human viewers below stare open mouthed in amazement.

For thirty minutes the show continues to build, and then, they disappear.  As quick as that.

We arrive back at the lodge later in a state of euphoric awe, and the chat in the bar is over just one topic.  The distance we’ve travelled seems a minuscule movement across a map, and there is no doubt as to whether the trip was worth it.

The following day we return to London, but there are some sights in your life that you know will stay with you forever, and this is undoubtedly one.

It just leaves time to reflect on the notion that, whilst most polls you read about are spurious nonsense, this bucket list one should definitely not be given the cold shoulder.

Transun offer the Arctic Spirit Northern Lights break on a 3, 4 and 7 night basis from January to April, from £749.  Visit www.transun.co.uk for details.

 

Click the image for full magazine article in PDF