Chasing The Aurora Borealis

Holiday on ice: Winter in the Arctic Circle. An experience like no other fortified with reindeer sausages, lumpfish caviar, moose meat, cod and whale meat.

4/13/2018 9:41:43 PM
written By : by Susan Tsang Print

As holidays go, winter in the Arctic Circle was decidedly strange: the temperature was -20 C, with a wind blowing, yet four of us were out of our car, standing in snow and staring intently into the night sky. The freezing temperature was not even a consideration.  We were chasing the aurora borealis.

The cycle of sunspot activity was on the wane when my brother, a master of ‘judicious cost’ holidays, spied a discount fare to Norway. If we missed it, we might have to wait 11 years for the next cycle of high solar activity – the solar storms and sunspots which birth the dancing lights in the sky. So we exchanged the bustle of Chinese New Year at the Equator for the silence of the Arctic Circle, because the further north you go, the better your chances of seeing the phenomenon. 

Our viewing destination was Alta, the “city of the northern lights” where our Airbnb house came with heated floors. Our hostess showed us where to find the scraper in our rental car (to scrape off the ice from the windshield in the morning) and gave us advice on seeing the aurora – go inland where there are less clouds, and if you can see lots of stars, the sky is clear enough to see a display.

With our focus on the nights, the days were almost an afterthought. In the extreme cold, activities were limited anyway. Just walking out for a few minutes to take photos was uncomfortable, much less racing through the frigid air on a dog-sled or a snow mobile. Even getting closer to something that caught the eye was impossible if there was snow in the way – feet would sink into the white stuff, and walking was impossible. We opted for the shelter of our rental car, admiring the scenery of snow, frozen lakes and rivers, trees either sprinkled with snow or encrusted in ice, with picturesque houses dotted across the whiteness. We were blessed, however, as the weather forecasts, which had predicted overcast skies (very bad for aurora watching) were proven wrong – we enjoyed crisp days, with the sun so bright on the snow it could be blinding. 

We drove to the town of Kautokeino, the winter base of the Sami people. The Sami are native reindeer herders, who move their animals with the seasons. After spotting wild moose crossing the road, and a herd of reindeer foraging in the snow, it was time to warm up in the Rema 1000 supermarket. Lucky for us, it has a corner where we could drink coffee and rub shoulders with the locals, many of whom still wore traditional dress, complete with reindeer skin boots. 

Also, we found reindeer tongue in the supermarket! With our Airbnb, we could cook, and so avoid eating expensive restaurant meals or roughing it with sandwiches and instant noodles. Our arctic kitchen even had oyster sauce. With activities limited to driving and walking short distances into buildings, meals took on great significance. 

We concentrated on cooking with local ingredients. So breakfast involved reindeer sausages with our eggs, or liver paste, lumpfish caviar, and the heavier meals had reindeer meat and tongue, cod, moose meat, prawns boiled
in seawater and, after a visit to the Bergen fish market, whale meat (no fat, lots of ligaments to remove, tasted like good beef).   

We visited the Alta Museum, a Unesco World Heritage site housing thousands of rock carvings dating back 7,000 years. It is Norway’s most visited summer museum. Of course, the key word is “summer” – in winter, the carvings, still outdoors, were buried under snow – we had to make do with a solitary rock with a primitive human that was housed in the building itself. There was also the Cathedral of the Northern Lights. This main church in Alta was opened in 2013, and is clad in shiny titanium sheets to literally reflect the polar lights after which it is named. 

Our second night in Alta, we saw the lights. After dinner, the northern lights app said the aurora were strong, so we headed out on a road that led inland, making haphazard guesses as we drove. “Is that it?” “No, that’s a cloud.” “What about that?” “Or that?” 

Finally: “That’s it! It’s a bit green! Quick, drive into a lay-by!”

Then it was agony and ecstasy. Fumbling to get the tripod open, taking off gloves to get the camera onto the tripod, ripping off the balaclava because it was causing the breath to freeze on your glasses, and finally taking that first 15-second frame, followed by triumphant shouting when the ghostly green lights appeared on the camera screen. The Sami believe that making loud noises when the northern lights are moving quickly invites death, but either they weren’t moving very fast, or the lights had mercy on excited tourists, who were trying to solve the problem of taking pictures of themselves with the aurora (light the people up with a torch). 

Eventually the lights, which looked greyish to the naked eye, faded, and we nipped back into the car for a restorative thermos of cocoa, and tried to get the feeling back in our hands. The experience lasted about half an hour.  Cross one off the bucket list.

The lights graced us for two nights in Alta, and two more on the next leg of our trip – a four-night cruise on the Hurtigruten line, on a ship aptly named Nordlys (northern lights). Hurtigruten, literally “the fast route”, developed as a freight service, that took passengers as well. It still transports cargo from Bergen up the coastline into the Arctic Circle, and down again, stopping at three or four ports a day, often just for half an hour. We caught it on the way back down from Hammerfest, which, at 70 degrees north, is the world’s northernmost town.  

 “The World’s Most Beautiful Sea Voyage” took us past islands, fjords, and even a glacier – unlike other cruises’ monotonous ‘see nothing but sea’ experience. It even had an expedition team that organised activities during port stops, like dog sledding, hiking and guided walks, or a midnight concert at
a cathedral. 

They delivered daily talks, on arctic exploration, Norse mythology, Ibsen and Grieg, and would invite passengers to the sun deck (freezing!) as we passed interesting landmarks to hear legends of how these features came to be. The Seven Sisters mountains were actually troll maidens that got caught by the dawn and turned into stone. 

As we headed past 66 degrees 33’N, they conducted a ceremony to mark crossing the Arctic Circle, where everyone was given a loving spoonful of cod liver oil in a souvenir spoon.

Buffets for breakfast and lunch, and a sit-down dinner meant that we had a taste of restaurant-grade Norwegian food, with locally sourced ingredients like birch salt and arctic char (a kind of salmon). As we reached Bergen, everyone was offered a glass of champagne to toast the end of our voyage together.    

An arctic blast had resulted in the same sub-zero temperatures down south, so sightseeing in Bergen was limited to a walk past the wooden houses along the old wharf and visiting the fish market to buy whale meat. 

Icicles decorated the rocks like trolls’ beards, and as we drove through fjord country on our way to Oslo to catch our flight home, only the deepest fjords remained unfrozen. All in keeping with the strangeness of an arctic winter holiday, where the main activity was seeing rather than doing.

And one more sight occurred on the way to the airport – a small nacreous cloud – a mother of pearl cloud only visible near polar regions, and only in winter. Well, when the sights on this strangely passive holiday were so rare and marvellous, who needed to do anything other than admire?

1 comment for “Chasing The Aurora Borealis”

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