Monday, 9 January 2012

Gazing at the Northern Lights

The first three nights I was in Reykjavik there was no tour to the Northern Lights. The two bus companies that run the pretty much identical tours decide at around 5pm each evening whether the tour should go ahead or not. They decide this based on cloud cover, weather reports, and reports on the activity of the aurora causing particles. Each evening I checked with the hostel receptionist, but no luck.

On the fourth night (30/12/11), I asked as usual, fully expecting the answer to be no as there was pretty heavy cloud cover. But the answer was yes. I was a bit sceptical, but the receptionist showed me the cloud cover report on the internet and it was clear to see that from 11pm onwards the cloud was really expected to clear over the Reykjanes Peninsula.

I booked the tour with Reykjavik Excursions as their tour started half an hour later than the one with Iceland Excursions and there didn't seem any point in hanging around for an extra half hour when it would be too early to see the lights anyway. The tour was 4,900 kronur or about £28.

I got all wrapped up in my layers of thermals and fleeces, made a flask of hot chocolate and packed my tripod. The bus picked me up outside the hostel and then went round a few other hotels and the BSI bus station collecting more people.

Once everyone was on board we headed out on the airport road to the Reykjanes Peninsula. Once we were out of the Reykjavik we began to see the moon and then stars. A good sign as it meant the cloud was clearing. We stopped in a couple of dark places, but had no luck with the lights. We then drove to the end of the peninsuala, by the sea and near a small village and a lighthouse. There was quite a big area for parking here and other buses were already parked up, with others arriving after us. Everyone got off the bus and gazed at the sky. There was nothing to see. As it was cold I thought I might as well as wait back on the bus until something happened. I didn't want the lights to finally appear just as I reached the point of no return with hypothermia and frostbite.

I hadn't been on the bus for long when I noticed everyone pointing and looking at the same section of sky. I got back off the bus and with difficulty could just make out a patch of sky that was slightly lighter in colour. It could easily have been light from the moon, but the driver assured us it was the beginning of an aurora.

As we watched it began to turn green and spread across the sky. Not the whole sky, just a stripe from horizon to horizon. It would widen and darken, and then fade again. Sometimes fading completely in the middle. It was paler than I imagined it to be, yet on the photos people were taking it looked just as deeply coloured as the photos in magazines and tourist brochures. Maybe the cameras just pick up more light or something.

We watched it for about an hour until it pretty much faded completely. It did do a bit of swirling but mainly stayed as a stripe. So it wasn't as impressive as I was expecting, but was still pretty cool. I'm glad I've seen it anyway and feel quite privileged as I know this is something lots of people dream of seeing for themselves.

As for my photos? They didn't come out at all. My amazing new camera which has been so good at taking photos so far, including in low light, just wouldn't pick the aurora up on 'auto'. I switched to manual but couldn't get anything to work properly as I couldn't see the buttons in the dark and I'm not familiar enough with this camera to do everything by feel alone.

Once I realised I wasn't going to get any good photos I lent my tripod to a couple of South Africans who were sat in front of me on the bus. They got some really good photos which they have said they will email to me. I really hope they do. I don't know when they'll be going home to do this, so I may have to wait a while. But whenever it is, I just hope they don't forget me or lose my email address!

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