Norway: Getting the green light

By Judy Skatssoon

Judy Skatssoon keeps cool on a search for the stunning Northern Lights.

Northern Lights. Photo / Getty Images
Northern Lights. Photo / Getty Images

It all started with one of those hypothetical "what if" games.

"If you could travel anywhere in the world where would you go?" I asked one night over a bottle of red.

My husband thought for a moment and replied, "I'd like to see the Northern Lights."

He later joked he was probably drunk at the time.

But the seed was planted.

A bit of research on where to see the lights led me to Norway, land of the midnight sun, cod and the Aurora Borealis.

More specifically, to the Lofoten Islands, a rocky, windswept archipelago off the country's northwestern coast.

The Northern Lights seem to be on everyone's travel bucket list, but you never know exactly when they'll be visible, or if they're even going to be active.

It was clear this trip wasn't going to be cheap - were we prepared to fork out the money? The lure of seeing the lights proved too strong, even if it was a remote chance, so we bought tickets to Norway's capital Oslo and set off on our quest.

The first mishap occurred the day we landed in Oslo. Somewhere along our jet-lagged ramble through the city that afternoon we managed to lose the camera.

By the time we'd tracked it down we were on the train headed north to Trondheim, Norway's coolest city, where rows of colourful houses are reflected in the water and too-hip-for-words young things with facial piercings whizz by on bikes or sit indolently in cafes smoking and playing Scrabble.

The next day we'd crossed into the Arctic Circle and arrived at the port city of Bodo.

To get across from Bodo to Lofoten we jumped aboard a Hurtigruten coastal cruiser, which was stopping at Lofoten's capital Svolvaer on its way up to Kirkenes, in Norway's far northeast.

The light was fading as we approached the islands but after about three hours the craggy rock faces of Lofoten suddenly rose before us, massive and monolithic, shrouded in mist. An awesome sight.

We disembarked at Svolvaer at 11.30pm. A lingering smell of fish was everywhere.

We trudged along a road in the darkness and over a bridge to the islet of Svinoya where a cluster of log huts, or rorbu, perched over the water, our home for the next few weeks.

Out on the wooden deck we scanned the sky hopefully. There was heavy cloud cover and no stars were visible.

If there was any activity from the lights we weren't going to be seeing it tonight.

The next night it was cloudy again and I was beginning to despair of seeing the lights.

I'd heard there was a man in Laukvik named Rob Stammins, who operated a Polar Light Centre. I figured he might be able to help us.

But when we arrived in Laukvik after a 40-minute drive in our rental car, passing arctic tundra and majestic mirror-like fjords, it looked as if Stammins' centre might be as elusive as the lights themselves.

After driving around in circles we finally stumbled across it. A small building with a modest sign. We knocked and out came a wiry man with a wild grey beard, every bit the mad scientist.

Inside, in a room jammed with all manner of machinery and bristling with knobs, buttons wires and graphs, Stammins talked to us about how he'd been seduced by the lights and I asked if he thought we might see them.

"Tonight the lights could come, yes," he said.

There had been a lot of solar activity lately, which boded well for our chances, apparently.

Back at Svolvaer at around 9pm, I stuck my head out of the window of our cabin.

There it was: an unmistakable thin sliver of luminescence arching across the sky. We raced outside.

The band widened and intensified and all of a sudden the aurora launched its dance. Great sheets of rippling light were moving across the night sky, pearly white or tinged with pink and pale green.

The lights were above, behind, in front of us, throwing the mountains into silhouette, rippling and sighing, coming and going in waves of intensity; appearing here, then there, descending on top of us like some sort of pulsating alien spaceship.

We stayed watching the spectacle until our teeth were chattering and we were ready to drop from exhaustion and cold.

We saw the lights again the next night, when we drove out - with duvets wrapped around us - to the middle of the golf course at Gimsoy to avoid the light pollution; and the next, on the deck of the boat as we left Lofoten behind.

In Oslo, we picked up the mislaid camera, which had zero photos of the lights, before jumping on the plane back home.

But who needs photographs when you've experienced the real thing? I mightn't have anything to post on Facebook but I'll carry the memory with me forever.

The Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles discharged into the Earth's atmosphere during solar activity.

Auroral displays can appear white or in shades of pale green, pink, red, yellow, blue or violet.

It's hard to predict exactly when the lights will be visible, but the best time to see them is in northern polar latitudes between August and April.

They can be seen from the Arctic, Greenland, northern Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia.

Dark, clear conditions are best and the peak time is between 11pm and 2am, although they can come out earlier.

For live updates on auroral activity go to aurora-service.eu.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies daily between Auckland and Oslo via its Dubai hub. You can fly to Lofoten from Oslo or Bodo or go by train and cross to Lofoten on the coastal cruiser. Rental cars are available on Lofoten.

- AAP

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