Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland had been on my bucket list for at least 15 years, possibly longer. I can remember learning about the mystical, magical Aurora Borealis in my GCSE Geography class. I remember sitting in the dark, staring up at the big TV, captivated by the colourful ripples of light dancing across the screen on a video that Mr Dewey stuck on for us. Because education through VHS was still commonplace in the classroom back then (and because the school’s budget didn’t stretch as far as flat screens and DVD players).
But over the last few years, whenever I’d looked at flights, hotels and excursions for Iceland, it’d usually been around November/December, when I’d suddenly realised it was prime Northern Lights spotting time and yet another year was about to pass without me seeing them. Unfortunately this was the time that flights, hotels and excursions for Iceland were super expensive, so I’d always ended up booking somewhere else instead (like when I randomly went to Morocco, or that trip to the Czech Republic).
But last year, I finally made it happen; I visited Iceland and I saw the Northern Lights. In fact, I was lucky enough to see them on two of the five nights I stayed in the Nordic country. But here’s my story of the first time I saw them…
Checking the Northern Lights forecast.
A week before I was due to fly to Reykjavik, I realised that my dream trip had finally rolled around and I was completely unprepared. I’d booked flights and a hostel back in May during a flight sale – but since then I’d been to four other countries, I’d started a new job and I’d bought a house. So planning for my Icelandic adventure hadn’t been top of my agenda. With just a week before departure, I hadn’t booked any excursions, I hadn’t ordered any foreign currency, I hadn’t even bought a guide book or thermal clothes.
A quick sprint around the shops the weekend prior to my trip sorted the latter three issues, thankfully. And then some frantic Googling helped with the former. I found plenty of companies offering guided Aurora Borealis tours and Northern Lights safaris – but which day should I book for? My friend and fellow traveller Kellee (who blogs over at lifeadventurers.co.uk) recommended a forecast app, Aurora. It shows you the current KP index and how likely you are to see the Northern Lights wherever you are, as well as forecasts for the next hour, several hours and several weeks – so you can plan your Northern Lights viewing in advance. I’d definitely recommend downloading this app before heading to Iceland – it’s free and available on Android and iOS.
Booking a Northern Lights tour.
Using both the app and the website www.aurora-service.eu, I decided to book a Northern Lights boat trip with Special Tours for Monday 4 December. I’d been told by colleagues and friends not to get my hopes up, that seeing the lights isn’t guaranteed, even if the forecasts are good. In fact, a colleague had been to Tromsø in Norway just the weekend before, on a specialist Northern Lights hunting tour – but didn’t see them once in the four days he was there.
So with crossed fingers and toes, I booked a Special Tours excursion for my penultimate night in Iceland. I figured that if I didn’t to see them then, I’d still have one final chance to try to see them on my last night. The KP index forecast was a high 5-6 for both nights, so this seemed sensible.
Special Tours also offered a plan B if the excursion had to be postponed because of thick cloud cover: the company would take us to the Whales of Iceland exhibition in Grandi, just a short walk from the harbour. A guide would greet us and talk us through each of the giant whales, with life-sized models and some fun interactive exhibits. After this we’d be taken into the movie hall and shown a 25 minute video of the dancing Northern Lights, full of beautiful imagery, facts and stories. I wondered if it would be the same VHS from Mr Dewey’s class all those years ago – but I never found out, because luckily, when Monday 4 December came around, the cloud cover wasn’t too thick. The trip was on.
I mentioned before that when I booked my flights to Iceland, I also booked my hostel. It was my first ever stay in a hostel (I know, 31 countries visited and I’d never stayed in a hostel before, shocking!), and it’s safe to say, it will probably be my last. The Sport Hostel in Reykjavík was a weird place, with no staff and a grand total of just three guests. There was no one to check me in or show me what was what, and if it wasn’t for one of the other guests walking passed the front door at the right time, I would’ve probably frozen to death on the doorstep (despite looking like this).
I ended up staying there just two nights of the booked five, because I disliked it that much. Luckily however, on my second night I went out with my two hostel buddies for
a few many drinks. In a bar called Dillon we met an Icelandic guy called Björn (of course). Björn had a spare room listed on Airbnb – would I prefer to stay there? Hell, yes. So on my third day, after my buddies had departed for Prague and I was left alone in the massive, empty hostel, Björn came and rescued me, and I moved into his flat. We then went swimming at the local pool, ate a lot of pizza and watched the Icelandic version of Countryfile, because that’s what Sundays are for.
So where does Björn fit into my Northern Lights story? Well, he became my unofficial tour guide, chaperone and taxi driver over the next few days – something I couldn’t be more grateful for. During the day I would go off and do touristy things, and he’d study for his upcoming uni exam. Then, when we were both done for the day, he’d pick me up from wherever I was, and we hung out together in the evenings.
On the Monday, because my Special Tours Northern Lights trip was scheduled to leave the harbour at 9pm, in between studying and exploring, Björn and I arranged to meet for dinner. That afternoon I’d walked from the Perlan, down through the suburbs of the city and along the seafront, where I gravitated towards the beautiful Harpa Concert Hall building. In the distance I could just see this bright blue facade, standing out against the rest of the skyline. But as I approached, I realised that the lights inside were rippling like fish scales – or, like the Northern Lights. The Harpa Concert Hall was putting on its own magical light show, so I stood in the cold watching it for ages. Until Björn text…
“So.. Where u at?”
“Harpa, it’s beautiful”
“Yea its cool”
“And the escalators go really fast when you get on haha! How’s the revision going?”
“Mmjeeaahh.. I pick u up at harpa?”
“If you want?”
“Yea.. l’ll be there in 10 min”
Warming up before the tour.
Having been out walking and snapping pictures in -5c temperatures all day, I was absolutely freezing and starving when we met 10 minutes later. We headed over to Björn’s student union, where there was a funky vibe and a dank smell of BO, ale and charity shop. Pretty grim, but not the worst stink I experienced in Iceland – in fact, I’m sure those who’ve been to the island before are nodding their heads unanimously while reading this, recalling the smell of rotten eggs, yes?
Despite the smell, I ravenously eyed up the fish and chips on the menu. But as soon as I spied the specials board on the bar, knew I had to try the reindeer burger. Vegetarians, vegans and anyone else who dislikes the thought of eating Rudolph should look away now…
Oozing over the top of the massive slab of reindeer meat was melted Camembert cheese and a generous dollop of red onion jam. Paired with some sweet potato fries (and a big ol’ squirt of French’s mustard – optional, but my condiment of choice), the meal probably equated to all the calories I’d burnt during the day, and then some. But who cares, when in Iceland and that?
After dinner, we got back in the car and drove around for a while, chatting about everything and anything. It was too early for the boat tour, and too cold to wait outside. So Björn gave me a mini tour of the city, pointing out where his family, friends and LazyTown‘s Sportacus lives (me: “Ooooh that house with the lights is beautiful, I want to live there!” Björn: “Do you know LazyTown? That’s Sportacus’ house”). I was impressed.
With 30 minutes until the tour, we started to head back to Reykjavík, but Björn suddenly detoured, driving the car to the edge of a cliff and parking up. He turned off the headlights then motioned for me to look up from my phone (where I was checking the Aurora app). And that was it, that was the moment I first saw them – the Northern Lights in Iceland. Pressing my face to the glass of Björn’s car window, squinting through the inky black sky, I made out several wisps of milky white light billowing across the sky.
“Is that them?” I asked, “is that really them?”. Björn nodded. I was jubilant. And now even more excited for my excursion with Special Tours.
Special Tours Northern Lights boat trip.
After Björn dropped me at the harbour and returned to uni for more studying, I got my ticket from the Special Tours booth and grabbed a large coffee from the only bar that was still open. My fingers were icicles and I was beginning to flag after the long day (may have also been a food coma, not 100% sure), so the caffeine was appreciated. I met two American guys in the bar who were also waiting to board the boat. We sat there chatting about how long we’d waited to see the Lights, swapping stories of things we’d seen and done while in Iceland.
And then it was time to board…
The Americans and I made a beeline for the top deck, bypassing the bar and cosy seats downstairs, and ignoring the crew trying to who offer us warm overalls. We were here to see the Lights, and didn’t want to miss a thing by sitting indoors. So we stood at the back of the boat, away from the crowd and held on to the railings as we set off.
It only took about 15 minutes to sail away from the harbour around to the peaceful bay of Faxaflói. Blocked from the bright city lights, we were in total darkness, which meant optimum Aurora viewing. Like Björn in his car, the boat parked up, the engine switched off and we patiently gazed up at the sky. As we waited, our tour guide (a super-friendly Argentinian lady) explained (in perfect English) all the scientific facts about the Northern Lights phenomenon, shared stories and myths from different cultures about them, and answered questions from our tour mates.
While scanning the sky, I happened to notice a weirdly shaped cloud behind us. It was the same milky colour as the lights I’d seen before from Björn’s car, but this time not wispy. It actually had a pretty defined blob-like shape. What was that? I tried to point it out to the Americans (“you see that cloud that looks like a cucumber, it’s sort of below and to the left of that…“), but they couldn’t see it. I figured it was probably nothing, as it definitely wasn’t the blinding green ripples of the Aurora Borealis that I’d seen in photos on Special Tours’ website (or in Mr Dewey’s VHS).
But then I vaguely remembered a conversation with Will from BrightBazar when we went to Finland, that the lights only look green via a slow shutter speed on a camera. Though anything but a pro, I held up my Samsung Galaxy S6, and boom. Disregarding the need for a steady hand amidst my excitement, there on my phone was a blurry photo of a prominent, undeniably green light, like a deep scratch in the sky.
Excitedly, I showed the Americans. And then, just as they turned to look again at the direction I was pointing in, our tour guide also spotted it. Suddenly everyone on the boat turned, cameras were clicked and there was a resounding “oooohhh… ahhhhh” from the group.
What happened on that boat over the next two hours will live with me forever. After the first sighting, they kept coming, thick and fast. Bolts of greeny, yellow light appeared and disappeared, as if by magic. Our tour guide excitedly pointed out as many as she could – we were constantly spinning around and looking up, it’s a wonder no one ended up overboard.
I’m far from a good photographer, so I don’t have those amazing, awe-inspiring brilliant shots that you see on all the top travel blogs – but what I do have are snaps of a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime sight, taken by me, on my mobile phone:
Resembling the lifeline on a heart monitor, this is, without doubt, my favourite photo:
There were other good ones, too. These three were taken in quick succession, just showing how quickly the lights can come and go:
And this one, well this one, if you can make it out, is my blurry, bobble-hatted, Blair Witch-esque proof that I was on that boat and I saw those Northern Lights on Monday 4 December 2017. The night I ticked yet another thing off my bucket list; a night I will never forget. A night I’d waited over 15 years for.