The Northern Lights

March 4th 2019, Blue Mountains, Iceland

Despite our modern world of scientific understanding, the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis still evokes a spiritual connection with the universe. Gazing up at the night sky swirling in colour, surely our distant ancestors would have had little doubt in the belief of a higher existence.

To see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights as they are often known, is a life dream of many an explorer and I am no exception. Although considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world – it is unique in so much as one can’t accurately predict where and when it will occur. We had given ourselves the best chance – organising the dates of the holiday around the new moon (for the darkest skies) and keeping our evenings flexible whilst monitoring the solar flare activity and cloud cover via the Icelandic Met Office website.

Perhaps fate smiled kindly since on the first possible night, the conditions looked good. So with many warm clothes and my camera gear checked for a final time – we set out to head for the Blue Mountains.

Our 4×4 was organised through a local company called Superjeep and we left the hotel at 8pm to drive inland from Reykjavic and into the Blue Mountains. Dusk had turned into night by the time we reached the area our driver thought would be the best viewing which was off a dirt road somewhere on the way to the Bláfjöll ski resort. In must have been a well-known spot since a few other vehicles were parked nearby and before long the small, rocky hillock, many miles from anything except the endless lava beds, was feeling quite cramped. But it was a good spot with no artificial lights visible in the wide open views to the north and west, and the nearby slopes of the Blue Mountain ridge to our east provided some protection from the chill winds.

There was no Aurora activity to be seen as yet but the view of the sky at night was awesome. In the blackness of our surroundings and without any clouds – there were more stars than I’d ever seen before. I used the time to set up my camera, playing with the settings to work out what might give the best results. Long exposure photography is not something in which I have much experience but I took advice from people who looked like they might know what they were doing and finally managed to get some nice looking pictures.

The Blue Mountains at Night (15secs at f/4, 20mm, ISO3200)

A few people from other cars seemed determined to takes pictures with their smart phones with the flash on whilst wandering in front of my own camera setup. So I decided to re-base myself a little further away which wasn’t easy in the dark. A few other people decided to join me and before long I was passing the time with an Italian couple who had spent many holidays and many weeks travelling all over Iceland so I picked up many a good tip – albeit some we will have to save for a future break!

It was cold. Despite my thermal trousers and many top-layers – the chill was seeping into my bones and the standing around wasn’t helping. Anyone using a torch light was rewarded with unfriendly mutterings and the rocky terrain and invisible black tripod legs made moving around treacherous. Rach had retired into the warmth of the jeep to wait for any sign of the lights whilst did my best to warm myself with my limited repertoire of exercises-to-do-whilst-standing-on-the-spot.

The first signs of movement in the dark skies above were hard to discern but a faint white clouds gradually became firmer and began to trail across the horizon. However it was the live-view screen of the camera which picked up the sea-green colours and confirmed our first sighting of the Northern Lights. Rach emerged from the car (after a brief episode involving not being able to find the door handle and fearing being locked inside and missing the event!) and we watched the beautiful show unfold.

No one can predict how long the lights would last or how much we would see – but I understood from most of the conversation around me that we had done well. Over the course of the next hour, the clouds filled most of the northern sky changing in shape every few minutes and varying in colour from white to hues of purple, orange and green. I took many pictures but knew that they wouldn’t be able to capture the spiritual beauty of what were lucky enough to witness.

Northern Lights (5secs at f/4, 15mm, ISO3200)
Northern Lights (6secs at f/4, 15mm, ISO3200)

As midnight approached, the lights began to dim and finally fade to the star-lit back-drop. We were thrilled with what we had seen and despite the cold, I could have stayed there all night for a chance to glimpse another show. However, the jeeps were leaving and we had to leave this place of wonder with our memories and perhaps new questions about the mysteries of our beautiful planet.

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