It’s been one of my life’s ambitions to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). What with this year being the best time to see the lights in fifty years, or so I read, I decided to make use of that limbo period between Christmas and New Year and jet off on holiday to try and see the aurora ‘in the wild’.
My research led me to choose Tromsø (Google Map), Norway for my holiday as it’s one of the best destinations for Northern Lights spotters: right in the middle of the aurora borealis ‘zone’, it’s the only city in northern Norway and there are frequent flights to and from the region. Norway can be expensive but I went with budget options for everything and took my own food (food and drink and eating out cost a lot more than we’re used to, and the fish-and-meat-centric diet doesn’t work so well if you’re vegetarian, as I am). The average daily temperature for Tromsø at that time of year is -3°C, so I was a little worried about feeling the cold but it’s fine if you’re suitably wrapped up. The sun doesn’t appear over the horizon in Tromsø from roughly the end of November to the end of January, and the lack of sunlight felt a bit odd at times.
I landed in Tromsø at about 2pm after transferring at Oslo from London. The sky was black and it was snowing heavily, and I was a bit worried that it might be just as dark and snowy for the entire week! As we taxied to the terminal building, I was very impressed to see three massive snowplough vehicles doing formation driving in order to clear the runway. After catching the Flybussen coach to the city centre, I negotiated the icy pavements, found my hotel and checked in, then attempted to recover from the morning’s slightly overenthusiastic 3am start.
I chose my hotel (City Living) on the basis that every room has a kitchenette consisting of at least a fridge, hob and cooking utensils, a great way to stick to budget. My room was small but perfectly formed, clean and nicely decorated and very comfortable. The whole hotel looked very clean and well looked after and was a couple of minutes’ walk from the main shopping street and harbourside. It was ideal for people who want to be self-sufficient and independent (two of my favourite things to be), and was more like apartment style accommodation than your average hotel. There were a few small supermarkets in the vicinity where I bought some perishable items and snacks and tried out some basic Norwegian on the cashiers, with mixed results!
After a good night’s sleep, I headed out to get my bearings and make sure I could find the pickup point for the Northern Lights trips that I’d booked. The pickup point turned out to be about a two minute walk down towards the harbour and was easy to find. Once I’d worked out where I was, I decided to walk to the Tromsø Museum (though there are buses, I generally like to walk when I’m on holiday, and get the feel of a place). It took a little longer than expected, mostly because I was still getting used to the snowy and icy conditions, and I kept getting distracted and taking photos of the mountain/houses/snow/pretty lights. The museum itself was very educational and had an aurora simulator designed by a ‘mad Norwegian scientist’ (not my words!). There are exhibitions about geology, the aurora, Sami history, Stone Age life and evolution, as well as a well-stocked gift shop. I walked back to the city centre through a snowstorm so heavy that I couldn’t see the mountains ringing Tromsø, or the sea surrounding it. I had trouble seeing anything more than a couple of streets away!
I cooked myself some dinner then set about finding some extra layers to wear for the evening’s attempt to see the aurora. Suitably attired, I headed down to find the minibuses belonging to Natur i Nord. I’d spoken to the very helpful Ivar at Natur i Nord via e-mail for a few months before going, asking all kinds of questions and finding out information about the trips. It was no surprise therefore that he knew who I was when I said my name. What can I say, I ask a lot of questions!
Snow was still falling at this point, though not as heavily as before, so myself and the rest of the aurora seekers on the trip clambered aboard the minibuses and set off. After about an hour or so’s drive, we stopped in the middle of nowhere, and Ivar assured us that the clouds above were expected to clear within an hour or so. And lo and behold, they did, slowly revealing a starry sky and a strange sort of smudgey glow. It almost looked like moonlight on the edge of the clouds, but there were no clouds and it was such an unusual glow that it was obvious that this was something else. Sure enough, this was the fabled aurora. I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed but Ivar informed us that it wasn’t a very good example of the aurora. While other people who were more au fait with their camera settings managed to capture the smudge in full glowing colour, I struggled to change the settings on my camera, having forgotten to take the torch I’d packed especially for that purpose. This, combined with the cold causing the batteries to fail, led me to give up on the photography for the evening and just watch the smudge as it pulsated slowly. I’m of the opinion that sometimes one should just enjoy the moment, rather than spending the whole time trying to capture it on a camera and missing out on all the good bits, so that’s exactly what I did.
After about three-quarters of an hour or so, the clouds rolled in again and it began to snow lightly, so we headed off to try another area. Sadly the cloud was widespread so we didn’t find any clear sky, but I wasn’t too bothered. After all, I still had two more aurora trips booked with Ivar, and the weather was set to improve over the rest of the week.