All of a sudden the magic lantern’s
wick burst into flame
And lo, God’s flaring torches
joined in a beautiful game.
Far and wide they soared through space
and waded the depths of blue,
and the darting flashes of colour
lit the path to Earth through
No mortal tongue can truly
make God’s glory clear
but my heart found at once
how holy heaven was near.
And there my weary soul lay down
by life’s estuary so bright,
and drank up in an instant
all those northern lights.
Matthias Jochumsson 1835-1920
translated by Bernard Scudder
After our trip to Finland, the Northern Lights had become something of a dream for us. You so much want to see it and yet you know it is not up to you. So, even though we had not come to Iceland solely to see it, we certainly made plans to try our best. And of course at this time of the year, there was every chance that we would. By now, we had worked out that you need just two things to catch the aurora borealis. A good aurora rating and clear,cloudless skies. One without the other is not enough. And finally somewhere not too bright but dark enough so it is easier to see.
On the first night, our tour had been cancelled as it was deemed too cloudy. That was a disappointment but it was also good as we were quite jet lagged. Staying up late would have been a stretch. The second night was better with clear skies forecast. So after a lovely dinner at Þrír Frakkar restaurant, a favourite of Hafdis who worked at the reception in our hotel (and apparently also of Jamie Oliver’s), we were picked up in a minivan by Gunnar from Gateway to Iceland.
He was the most cheerful guy we had met so far in Iceland. On the way, he entertained us with tales of himself and also some interesting points about Iceland from the sulphurous water to local hot pools which Icelanders love. Looks like everyone enjoys hot springs here. I wonder if it would still have been him if the tour the night before had not been cancelled due to the poor conditions. Anyway, he was simply great.
To get away from the lights, Gunnar drove us back towards Keflavik airport but swung out onto a side road somewhere in between Keflavik and Reykjavik. When he got to where he thought it was dark enough, he switched off the engine and we waited in the minivan. This was one thing we were thankful for. In Finland, we actually waited outside in the cold! There was no one on this road but us. The clouds in the sky were clearing as the forecast predicted and soon we could see the moon and some stars. But there was nothing. And we waited a bit more. Still nothing. Gunnar tells us that his son had taken some visitors to Vik on the South coast and they are also doing the same thing tonight. So he decides to call him to ask if they are seeing anything.
We have been through this before in Finland, where we just waited and waited and nothing appeared. This time round, I guess was no different. We just had to wait.
After Gunnar gets off the phone with his Son in Vik, he tells us that they can see something towards West. He starts up again and repositions the van in a different spot and we all get out this time to look. Another van turns up and parks not far from us. All the while we continue looking into the sky, and then Gunnar points out a faint silvery streak. We could hardly work it out. He says it is the lights. It has finally come! And he was right. I could scarcely believe it.
The faint streak gets clearer. We were ecstatic! Soon, more of them appeared and they stretched overhead like jet planes leaving their trail in the sky. It was what we had hoped to see. The Northern Lights! And tonight we finally saw it!
The northern lights start to appear
During our time in Iceland, we were fortunate to see it two more times. The second time near Selfoss and finally in Jokurlsarlon glacier lagoon which we caught only a short glimpse before the forecasted clouds moved in like curtains at the end of a show. Neither was as good as the first time and yet each time I was thrilled by it. It is such an enchanting sight. So much so that I seem to want more of it. I can believe now how aurora chasers get hooked and turn this into an obsession. Once you are touched by the aurora, you never look at the night sky the same way again.