Sunday, 30 December 2007

Iceland: The Search For The Northern Lights on Our Winter Holiday

The Aurora Holiday in Iceland: My Quest to Find the Northern Lights

Wow, what are those! I thought, as I leafed through a travel book about Alaska on my lunch break. I had five minutes left and I desperately wanted longer so I could find out what that curious picture was all about. The library had to open at half twelve so I had no choice but to put the book down. Shaking my head and standing up, my thoughts gradually returned back to the now. I unlocked the door to let the customers in and prepared myself for a long, uninspiring afternoon.

After a heavily anticipated home-time, I finally got in the car and let my thoughts wonder back to Alaska and that amazing photo. A shimmering turquoise glow in a deep blue starry sky with silhouettes of fir trees and mountains, all reflecting in a glassy lake.

After a little more reading I discovered that this was what is known as the ‘Aurora’ or ‘Northern Lights.’ I read that it is a phenomenon occurring in the night sky around the time of the winter solstice in the geographic Polar Regions. It is caused by the Earth’s magnetic field attracting particles from solar flares and the reaction of the particles with different layers of the atmosphere as they create an electric charge. The result is colourful glowing shafts of light appearing in the night sky on cold, clear winter nights.

Whatever it was, it was beautiful, and I had to see it.


I worked and I saved, and I worked and I studied, but I just wasn’t getting anywhere. I had my rent and bills to pay on a part-time wage, whilst at university, despite funding the lazy lifestyle of a layabout boyfriend, for reasons I still don’t understand.

Eventually I got tired and moved back home. I made plans to go travelling for a year after uni and carried on working weekends and holidays to save up for it. My savings account slowly grew, but I had to be patient and it wasn’t easy… 


One Friday afternoon in June I had finished uni for the day and had only two more weeks of lectures to go until our girly holiday to Halkidiki, Greece. Three-hundred pounds poorer, but extremely excited, I drove home in my clapped-out Renault Clio after booking it with Kim.

Since meeting Richard I had decided not to go travelling, but to visit the places on my list as individual holidays with him instead (apart from this one excursion to Greece with Kim and Caz). Being a sweet and protective bloke, he told me he would miss me and naturally expressed his worries that I would run off with a Greek and never come home – most women do this of course.

As the holiday drew closer Richard began to feel insecure about how I felt about him. I racked my brains for things I could do to make him feel better, when one Saturday morning I checked my Ebay account. I had made £250 in the last two months and it occurred to me we could finally book our planned Christmas holiday to Scandinavia. That would show him I was serious. Shivers went up and down my spine at the very thought of seeing the magical sights after all the hoping, planning and dreaming.

I decided to book a Christmas holiday in Iceland as a surprise for Richard to open whilst I was away. I booked a 3 star hotel in Reykjavik, a flight with Icelandair and printed off a list of possible activities such as horse riding, swimming in the geothermal blue lagoon and snowmobiling. I put them in an envelope and gave it to him to open when I was gone.

On the third day of my holiday in Greece I sent Richard a text telling him to open the envelope. Wow! Iceland! Amazing! I can’t believe we’re actually going! He hadn’t been on a holiday like this before, especially not somewhere so cold and bleak, I really hope he enjoys it!


After landing in Keflavik airport in the evening, it was pitch black. We hauled our small bags to the Hertz desk and picked up the keys to our little hire car. The airport doors opened and the cold air bit our faces. I looked straight up to the sky in anticipation, my hair blowing about my face, obscuring my vision. There was a full moon and a thin layer of haze covering all the stars. No unusual colours in the sky though. Never mind, we have a whole week.

It was snowing and the cars were all covered with a glistening white layer. We found our car and climbed inside, shivering but wrapped up warm.


The next morning we woke up in the dark and turned over to go back to sleep a few times. With the day getting lighter so slowly and so late, it was impossible to know what the time was. At 10:30am the moon was out, glowing and lighting the deep violet sky. The white mountains shimmered out across the bay. What a view. We had our horse-riding trip booked, so we got up and got ready. Fleeces, hats, gloves, boots.


For the next two nights we took the car out of Reykjavik into the vast, open wilderness to search for the lights. They are best seen on clear nights, with no light pollution and around the hours of midnight. The total absence of light pollution from the city or any other town makes the sky totally natural. The only light source came from the moon. 

trying to find the northern lights - full moon and cloudsWe drove around looking for gaps in the clouds, but the moon was so bright and there were too many clouds. How amazing the snow covered landscape looked under the light of the moon. It was surprising how much we could see.

On the second night the sky was clearer, so we parked up again and watched the night sky intently. The sheer amount of stars was so impressive. Never had we seen so many stars on one night. The air was clean and crisp, but no aurora.

After arriving back at the hotel, I started to wonder if we were doing this right. Perhaps we should stay out later? Perhaps we should go out earlier? Or maybe we weren’t far enough North to see them? We would have to wait and see…

After two more nights driving out in the snowy wilderness, the thick clouds unrelenting, I gave up thinking we would see a clear night sky for the next few days. Trying feebly to find gaps in the clouds, we drove North of Reykjavik, inland and towards the coast. Nothing.


It had been an exciting jam-packed day of sight-seeing. Perhaps we would be lucky if we were a little more patient tonight. After consuming a large amount of noodles at a Chinese restaurant in Reykjavik town, we stepped outside, hoping the sky was as clear as it was when we went in. No such luck. Thick snow clouds had formed, pressing in from all sides. Huge flakes slowly began to tumble to the ground, increasing in size and frequency, and by the time we had arrived back at the hotel, a full-blown blizzard was in motion.

I shook the snow from my hair and Richard rubbed his red little nose. We trampled upstairs in our boots and decided to make use of this snowy evening and go swimming at the blue lagoon. How amazing it would be in the snow again.

Laying back and floating in the intensely warm milky water, the night sky looked pitch black. The steam from the water made it impossible to tell if the clouds had cleared. It had stopped snowing at least.


Our last full day had arrived. It was a lovely morning, the sky was clear and the moon was reflecting brightly over the bay. We had planned to drive to the South of Iceland to see two beautiful waterfalls. Throughout the week I had gradually started to accept the distinct possibility that we would not see the Northern Lights. I eventually felt it would have been an enormous stroke of luck to see them in the one week we had been staying in Iceland, and got on with enjoying the other exciting parts of the holiday. Having not seen the lights cast a weight of disappointment in my stomach, however I was prepared for this and I knew we would return to Iceland - we were under its spell.

The waterfalls were extremely impressive, and the climb to the top of the biggest one provided exquisite views South towards the sea. The sun was on the horizon at midday and cast a soft glowing orange light over the frozen landscape.

After another exhausting but exciting day, we headed home around 3:00pm. The sky had turned a deep blue, but it would take a number of hours before the first stars would begin to appear. The clouds far out at sea had stayed just where they were, leaving the sky totally clear. I felt a renewed tingle of anticipation.

We drove North West towards Reykjavik and stopped to get something to eat at Vik. Everything was closed apart from KFC…. KFC! What a sham – we’re supposed to be on an adventure. We were so hungry after the long drive we decided to bite the bullet and just eat there, just this once, and never do it again.

When we had finished eating it was just a tiny bit darker. The North Star could be seen, brightly glowing straight ahead. The moon had not yet risen.

We drove further North and stopped at a petrol station to buy food to keep us going through the evening. If we were going to stay up and look for these lights again we would be out for a long time. We had to make the most of these clear skies. I hoped against hope that no rogue clouds would appear. After all, the weather in Iceland can change with no warning.

The sky seemed to take ages to darken, longer than usual. By 6:00pm the stars were out and just a faint blue glow could be seen to the West as the day retreated. The clouds had kept their promise and stayed away, and I had a good feeling about this night.

We drove along towards the site of the ancient Viking Parliament – Thingvellir. The landscape was covered in thick clumps of snow and looked totally different from the last time we had seen it. We played in the snow a while and got back in the car to warm up. Minus ten degrees outside. Engine on. Heating up.

By 8:00pm the moon was up, but hiding behind a large mountain. The sky was still clear, and the air crisp. We drove along a straight road with black mountain silhouettes rising up on each side. The stars looked brighter than ever with the moon hidden. I looked to the side and out of the window was a strange, low, misty shape clinging to one of the mountains.

Wait, what’s that? Richard said as he leaned towards his window to look in the wing mirror. I whipped my head around to the front, hearing the strange tone in Richard’s voice, like something in him had just woken up from a deep sleep. What! Where! I exclaimed, frantically looking out of the windscreen, then realising foolishly that Richard was looking behind us in the mirror. Pull over!

On the side of the road in the pitch black cold, Richard stood next to me and pointed down the road, back the way we had come. There, above the horizon was a streaky white-green glow, sliding, almost dripping slowly downwards in the black sky. Do you think that’s it? Richard asked. There was no mistaking it.

YES! YES! That’s the Aurora! Wow! Look at it…. Wow!

searching for the northern lights - green aurora
I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The lights got slowly brighter and appeared to glide slowly down towards the horizon, fading before they reached it. We stood in awe, watching this strange phenomenon change, willing it to stay and get brighter.

Just as a new streak of light appeared, two bright headlights materialised and drowned out our view entirely, driving towards us. Damn! The car was within thirty metres of us and appeared to be slowing down. It stopped adjacent to our car, the windows wound down and a man popped his head out. Are you okay?

Yes, thank you, yes – just admiring the Aurora!

Ah, okay, have a good night.

How nice of them to stop. After all, this is a very rural location and we hadn’t seen another car for well over an hour. The wonderful sight had faded, but I knew this was only the start of things to come. It was only 9:00pm. I was full of excitement, all charged up and I knew I would see them again…

We drove North for around half an hour and Richard kept his eyes focussed on the road. I peered out of my window intently eyeing up the bright stars, willing more glowing lights to appear.

We parked up at a dark and quiet gravelly area down the road from some secluded little houses. There was nothing else around. We both stood outside the car in the pitch black, wrapped up in our fleeces, scarves, hats and coats, staring up at the silent night sky again. I had never experienced such absolute silence.

Just as I was about to suggest driving to somewhere flatter so that the surrounding mountains didn’t obscure our view, I noticed a lighter patch of haziness just above a mountain fell. I waited for it to drift, confirming my suspicions that it was a cloud, but it remained there. As my eyes strained to see in the blackness, I was slowly able to perceive a green tinge – this was the Aurora again! Richard! There! I nudged him and he spun round. As I pointed into the sky at the green smudge, it became clear this was going to be a spectacular show. The green glow had become more defined and stripes of brighter green slid slowly downwards. It appeared to be getting closer to us, growing in size and spreading above us. It slowly got brighter, a long, wide curtain of green light in the starry sky, rippling in slow motion. We stood in amazement, simply watching.

It was extremely cold and we had started to shiver, so we climbed back into the car to put the heating on, watching through the windscreen.

On the horizon two bright headlights appeared yet again, totally obscuring our view. This time I was so irritated, the aurora had been drowned out and it was all I wanted to see. Instead, all I could see was these invasive ugly headlights, growing and invading our dark, silent little corner of Iceland.

Tell them to piss off! I irrationally exclaimed to Richard. It’s alright, they’re not doing any harm.

They are! They are, they’re ruining it for me!

After I got off my high horse, the car turned down a tiny gravel road and parked up. It was two photographers. I felt terrible for being so unfair, they only wanted to do what we were doing. They had massive cameras, they must be experienced, I thought to myself. I wondered whether the photos on my measly digital camera would come out. I turned my attention back to the ever-changing streaky green shape in the sky and blindly held my camera up, clumsily pressing the shutter.  

After twenty minutes or so of watching in silent awe, the aurora faded and disappeared, leaving us staring into the black sky…

Driving back towards Reykjavik on a main road, it was just after midnight. There were hardly any cars around and the street lamps drowned out the view of the stars. After a while there was a break in the street lamps. Taking this opportunity, I looked out of my side window and there, above the mountains, floated a long bright green curtain of Aurora. How long had it been there? Stop!

We pulled over and there it was, brighter than ever before, shimmering and lighting the baron snow-covered landscape in a faint green glow. Although this was the most civilised place we had seen for hours, there was nothing around for miles apart from a secluded little house, the roof rimmed with green fairy lights. A car drove past. I stared up at the bright green shape, changing and growing in the sky, and I ran towards the snowy field, down a bank and away from the road. WOW!

Careful! Richard shouted, and followed. We stood there yet again, watching this amazing show and hardly daring to believe our luck. The bare mountains behind the little house glowed faintly and appeared to waver as the aurora changed shape, casting its moving green light.


After the aurora had faded once more we trampled through the snow back to the car at the roadside. I hadn’t realised how far I had ran, or how steep the bank was, but climbing back up it I thought how silly I had been to careen carelessly down with no thought for what was under the snow. Everything was frozen but if there was water down there I may have fallen through. How crazy…

After driving through Reykjavik, the lights of the city rising up on the surrounding hills, we arrived back at the hotel at 1:00am. Richard parked the car and we walked tiredly up to our room, to finally sleep. What a night! We were leaving tomorrow…


Waking up in the early daylight at 11:00am, I felt peaceful. It felt like ten years had passed in just five hours. I had been idly dreaming about that one experience for months, even years, and it had finally happened - just in time. Looking out across the bay, clear blue skies reflected in the still water and I could not believe my luck.

For more information on Iceland visit my destination article:

Text and Images Copyright © Lise Griffiths, 2012
All Rights Reserved

Iceland, northern lights searching, winter holiday, Reykjavik, blue lagoon, aurora

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