On my fourth day in Tromsø, I walked to the other end of the island to visit the Vitensenter, a science centre mostly aimed at kids. Once again I decided to walk but it would have been far better to take the bus as the walk was long and featureless and occasionally perilous on the icy pavements. Plus I overshot the turning uphill to the centre and had to retrace my steps through deep snow. The quickest way to the top of the hill seemed to be through the Botanic Garden, which is apparently quite the tourist attraction when it’s not covered by 2ft of snow! The garden doesn’t seem to be visited much in the winter so I followed a single set of footprints in the snow, up through all kinds of exotic plant life (so the signs said) and leafless trees until I arrived at a small wooded area at the top of the hill and stumbled gratefully into the warmth and light pouring from the science centre.
The centre itself is great if you’re a parent with kids as there are all kinds of interactive things to do. The centre has sections dedicated to the weather, the sky, the body etc over four floors which are still interesting if you’re a grown up. I’ll be honest, I only went because it was recommended in the tourist guides, and because they have a planetarium which shows a 25 minute film about the aurora. Having explored the centre a little faster than I expected, I took a seat and rested my weary legs in the little seating area on the second floor. Tromsø looked very pretty in the fast-approaching darkness, lights twinkling across the water and lighting up the snow.
I was interested to see what the aurora looked like in the planetarium show, having seen it in real life the previous evening. The film itself was made by using time-lapse photography which, by its very nature, makes the lights look faster and brighter than they might seem to the naked eye. It was all very pretty and colourful, but I felt glad that I’d taken the time and made the effort to see the aurora for myself. I’ve since found a stunning video on Vimeo from 2010, and another one from 2009, which gives a more accurate impression of the aurora, and were actually made in and around Tromsø.
Having trekked all the way to the science centre, I decided to be brave and get the bus back to the city centre. The bus drivers don’t seem to be bothered by the snowy and icy conditions and occasionally vertiginous terrain of Tromsø, flinging the buses around with gay abandon. I suspect they probably have similar tyres to those used on the aurora-seeking minibuses, with extra texture and maybe even metallic studs helping to keep the vehicle on the road.
After making myself some dinner I set off for the third and final attempt at aurora hunting. We drove down dark roads edged with snow-covered pines, to another middle-of-nowhere spot, ringed by spectacular mountains. The sky had been clear all day, and stars blazed gloriously in their thousands overhead. A fat crescent moon shone brightly near the horizon, creating a spectacular halo in the dark night. A thin ribbon of auroral light swayed gently from behind the nearest mountain but soon flickered out. Another hazy arc appeared to the south, low over the horizon, and I finally managed to get my one decent photo! As the moon set behind one mountain, another long stream of light poured over the closest mountain, joined quickly by a stream to the south, until the light felt like a huge river. Waves and curtains and bands of subtle glowing green spanned from horizon to horizon, bathing us in photons. Light flowed and pulsed over our heads, and it seemed to be so close that I could have reached up a hand and touched it. Shooting stars streaked across behind the lights, enhancing the wondrous celestial display still further…
I had to retreat to the warmth of the minibus a few times, as the
-8°C temperature outside was painful on fingers and toes, despite my special thermal gloves and industrial-strength Arctic boots. The lights were visible even through the tinted windows of the minibus, where several of us huddled in the dark. I ventured outside a few more times but alas, all too soon it was time to drive back to Tromsø. Ivar announced that the display we’d seen was about a three or four out of ten on his arbitrary scale-of-aurora-amazingness, which was good considering the previous nights’ displays had been a one and a less-than-one respectively. I felt a bit sad that it was the last of the trips, as over the week I’d become, in Ivar’s words, ‘a ghost on the bus’, an omnipresent aurora seeker. Still, I had New Year’s Eve to look forward to, something that Tromsø does very well indeed.