Wrapped up in a ski coat, woolly hat, and layers-upon-layers of thermals, you only had to take one look at our getup on that frosty January evening to know that we were serious about finding the Northern Lights in Iceland.
I’d been desperate to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis ever since I’d read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights novel back in the ’90s. Whilst I wasn’t expecting to find witches and daemons lurking in Iceland, I was hoping to experience a touch of the mystery and magic that is synonymous with this natural phenomenon.
As we made our way from our hotel to the central Reykjavik bus station to meet our driver, we talked in hushed, excited tones at the thought that we just might catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis, arguably the world’s biggest natural wonder. It was something we were most looking forward to discovering when we booked our winter trip to Iceland, but with only a 3 night stay in Reykjavik, we didn’t give ourselves much room for failure.
Frozen fingers and toes crossed that we were in for a clear night, we asked our driver with trepidation as we buckled our seatbelts, “what do you think of our chances?” His reply, “there’s a good possibility, but the weather can change in the blink of an eye.” Definitely maybe was a good enough answer for us, and as we set off on our journey out into the Icelandic wilderness, we were hopeful we’d be among the lucky visitors that get to experience this magical marvel.
The Northern Lights are only visible between September – April, on a clear evening and under a cloudless sky. With three out of three boxes ticked, we hoped tonight would be our night. The driver explained that we needed to be as far away from any light pollution as possible to give ourselves the best chance of a sighting, so we ventured deep into the countryside, past snow topped hillsides and tiny towns with lights twinkling in the darkness.
After driving for a couple of hours, we pulled up at a secluded hut, surrounded by a thick covering of fresh snow with acres of stark, open space visible as far as the eye could see. The driver advised us that, as we were still early, we were going to try out some ice-caving at Raufarhólshellir as we waited for the optimum time to see the lights.
Pulling on our crampons and fastening our hard hats, we followed our guide into the cave mouth to start our caving experience. Upon entering, our jaws dropped to the floor in amazement. Open-mouthed as we wandered inside, we were stunned by how truly magnificent it was. The astonishing size and beauty was enough to leave us speechless.
The impressive cave had formed thousands of years earlier, due to a volcanic eruption. Streams of lava had carved a warren-like maze which had hollowed out over time, thanks to the powerful Icelandic elements. The dark, cavernous space was littered with icicles glistening in the moonlight and the rusty red crust left by the lava formed intricate nooks and ridges along the walls. When the guide turned out the artificial light, we were left in complete and utter darkness. The intensity of the pitch-blackness was unlike anything we had ever experienced before.
By the time we’d explored the cave and marvelled at our surroundings some more, it was getting late and the moment had arrived to get back in the car to try to find a place to view the Northern Lights. Making our way back to the cave entrance, we spotted our driver waving frantically, and a crowd of people gathering and pointing to the sky. Looking up, we noticed beams of white light dancing across the sky. It was the northern lights! Running out into the snow, we couldn’t believe our luck, and we whooped and hollered into the night as we watched the wispy, cloud-like spectacle appearing before our very eyes. Everyone around us was chattering excitedly and pulling out their cameras at lightning speed to document this incredible experience.
Although they look green in our pictures, to the naked eye the aurora borealis are actually a milky white colour, but they were no less impressive. Huddled together for warmth as the wind whipped and swirled around us, we watched the lights leap across the sky until just as swiftly as they had appeared, they were gone.
When all was calm and quiet again, it was almost like it never happened but I can still remember the feeling of watching the sky igniting before my eyes for the very first time. This dreamlike evening was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I still pinch myself that this little moment of Northern Lights magic will always be mine.