Holiday to see the Northern Lights – Iceland 2014

We spent last weekend in Iceland, on a three day trip to tour a few interesting sights and try to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. We booked this holiday way back in July, after seeing a package deal. Seeing this fantastic natural phenomenon for myself was a long-term dream, so we even went so far as to plan our holiday for the new moon, so that the sky would have the minimum interference.

We arrived in Reykjavik to rain, which quickly turned to heavy snow. This was a mixed blessing. When we had landed, the sight of miles of black sand and ash, rocks and dead grass had been a little depressing. The snow made everything look magical. However, the rain and snow meant that the weather was totally unsuitable for seeing the Aurora. We were concerned, but not too much so.

On the second day, we went on a full day tour, scheduled to take in the Thingvellir (pronounced “Thingvetlir”) National Park, Gullfoss (the Golden Falls, again the ll becomes more like tl) and the Fontana Spa at Laugarvatn (locals seem not to pronounce the tn at the end that much). However, as the dawn takes until about 10 o’clock to give enough light for part of the tour, they made a stop at Alafoss (pronounced something like Orlafoss). This was a surprise to everyone, and a very nice surprise for me as it is the historical home of the traditional lopi Icelandic wool! So we browsed around the shop for about 20 minutes, mostly spent trying to convert Icelandic kronur into pounds sterling and realising that everything is very expensive, except balls of wool. Reader, I did hold back from buying out half the stock in the shop, but I did manage to get a business card with details of a 15% discount on first online purchase. 😉

Thingvellir is right on the edge of two geo-tectonic plates, which are slowly pulling Iceland in two, stretching it in the middle by about 3 centimetres a year. The tour guide, in a lovely deadpan with classic Scandinavian humour, explained that this is Iceland’s long-term world domination plan… We reached the place itself in time to take some fantastic photos of the sunrise and the snow, the colours so reminiscent of the wools at Alafoss.

We passed through Laugarvatn and Geysir on our way to Gullfoss, which was icy, windy and beautiful. The trick was keeping the camera lens dry and not getting blown sideways on the ice while taking pictures. I took a video or two, and all that was picked up as sound was a deafening roar from the wind, whichever way I pointed the camera. The path up to the falls was started by a rather doughty and single-minded young lady and her sisters in the 19th century, and she is commemorated there.

We returned to Geysir to the roadside cafe and gift shop in time for lunch, and to walk over the road to see the geysers. Many of these are just potholes full of roiling hot mineral water, and many are just jets of steam and water vapour coming out of the ground. However, one, called Strokkur and referred to as if it was a person – “he” – spouts a huge plume of hot water every 5 to 10 minutes. It was possible to stand within a few metres as the underground activity powered this terrific natural water feature.

We ended the tour at Laugarvatn, where the staff showed us how they cook rye bread in an old-fashioned manner by burying it for 24 hours in a sealed steel pan in the sand by the lake. The sand is very wet not from the lake water but from another of the many hot springs in the area. The heat cooks the bread beautifully – we all got to test it!

The spa uses the heat from the hot vents and springs in several ways to create a full experience. The steam is channelled into steam rooms, the water is fed into various pools to keep them at temperatures from 32 degrees Celsius to 41 degrees, and the pools are all outside. It seems somewhat crazy at first to sit outside in winter in a swimsuit, but it is lovely.

On our third full day, we spent the daytime wandering around Reykjavik 101 district, the maritime museum and the frozen lake, anxiously watching the clouds and wondering whether the evening tour would be cancelled. It was not cancelled – the clouds finally parted enough to make Aurora hunting worthwhile. This was the first time in a week that the conditions had been good, so there were lots of tour buses heading away from Reykjavik that night, all hoping to get away from the city lights.

We first saw the lights south of Reykjavik but looking northward, in a layby next to a fairly busy road. It wasn’t ideal, but these phenomena are so random that you have to take whatever chance you get to witness them. Several interesting and frustrating photos later, the coach driver decided that far too many other coaches had stopped alongside us. Our slightly mad tour leader thought he knew a much better spot for watching, and he was right.

We stopped again at Hellisgerdi, a small nature area near a geothermal beach. It was much darker and quieter than the layby, and with a tripod we got some really good long-exposure photographs. I found it almost difficult to believe my eyes when I was watching the ephemeral lights, because the way they move is a bit like a slow gas flame; it is as if a constant optical illusion is at work. The camera is not fooled, and can only show what turns up on the CCD. Taking the photos helped prove to myself that I had actually seem what I thought I saw!

It was a great night – we had an early flight, but at least we had seen what we came for, and we were so grateful. So many people can stay somewhere for weeks on end and not see the Aurora once, and we took a chance on a three day trip and were rewarded.

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