Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland and realising a dream

Seeing the Northern Lights was a dream come true.

Seeing the Northern Lights was a dream come true.

Technically, I have a qualification in drama. But if you saw the grade I attained in the subject at GCSE you’d assume I wasn’t very good.

Perhaps you’d be correct, but to come out with a D wasn’t really a fair reflection on the work I’d done.

This may seem like a case of a disgruntled schoolchild, but when it is considered that I got a higher grade in the practical part of the course and it was the examination – which was re-marked, at no personal cost, countrywide for our entire year due to initial mistakes in the grading process – that dragged the overall result down considerably, then my frustration becomes a little clearer and that D sits with an asterisk alongside it.

Yet there was, ironically, some theatrical success to come out of my schooldays. Not so much in the way of acting merit, but it did help craft a future goal of mine.

If we rewind to Year 2, when I was just six, I played the part of famous astronomer Sir Patrick Moore in production that, aside from my scene, I can’t recollect.

My part was around the beginning of the play and when it came time to shine I rose from my seat, adjusted the suit I was wearing and peered through my prized monocle to see the 200-strong crowd comprising mainly of parents, teachers and siblings.

It was at this point my attention rose upwards and I pointed before bellowing “Look everyone, it’s the Northern Lights,” with aplomb.

Now the Northern Lights are a foreign concept to most six-year-olds, me included, and with a curious mind, a younger me was eager to find out what my character was shouting about.

So off I took to the family computer and opened up Microsoft Encarta – the ultimate pre-Wikipedia resource – and began to learn about an amazing phenomenon.

I was enlightened, both figuratively and literally, at this enigma, the ‘Aurora borealis,’ a string of dancing light appearing in the clear night’s sky due to collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

The green hue against a starry black canvas had this unique allure which was amazingly impressive on a computer screen, and I imagined that it would be even better in person.

At that point I knew that this was something I had to see with my own eyes.

It wouldn’t be until a decade and a half later that I would get my own Northern Lights experience, but it was always ingrained on my mental bucket list. I wanted to see the lights, but I wanted to go to a certain destination to see them – Iceland.

Iceland is a country of natural beauty and this is one of its features - Gullfoss waterfall.

Iceland is a country of natural beauty and this is one of its features - Gullfoss waterfall.

Why Iceland? The land of water, ice and fire has been long-known as one of the ultimate Northern Lights spotting locations along with Norway and Canada. But there is just something about Iceland that is that much more appealing.

Its scenery is stunning, the menu of things to see and do is among the world’s finest and I knew in my heart that it was the right place.

So when I decided to head north to Reykjavik in March, the first thing I organised was pretty obvious.

I did just that, booking onto the Northern Lights Mystery Tour with Gray Line Iceland for the night we arrived, which was the first of five.

When we landed at Keflavik International Airport the first thing I did was dart outside to look up at the sky to check the weather, in the same way a kid would run down the stairs to check whether Father Christmas has left any presents under the tree.

It looked okay, patches of cloud here and there, but nothing too drastic. As we boarded the bus from the airport I took my phone out and checked out the Icelandic Meteoritical Office’s (IMO) website. Before we left I had read that there would be some chance of seeing them, a three-out-of-10 on the probability scale which wasn’t as bad as it sounds because, as the website duly notes, it rarely ever reaches about five.

So you can imagine how much my face dropped when that three had disappeared and had been replaced with a point-blank zero. No chance of first night Northern Lights.

It was worrying, not just because we couldn’t see the lights that particular night, but the forecast wasn’t great for the rest of the week, and two of the remaining four evenings we would have been unable to do.

Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of Gray Line’s Northern Lights guarantee, which lets you rebook any cancelled or failed tours free of charge. We took the gamble and booked on for the second night.

In the build-up to the rebooked tour, I was half-glued to my phone, flitting between the IMO website and Gray Line’s, checking for cancellations or any updates. That particular day, a Thursday, also read ‘three’ on the scale. Hopefully tonight would be the night.

Come 1600 hours, a decision had been made. The tour would be going ahead, and we just had to be ready at our hotel for eight at night. It was as simple as that.

Later on, we were picked up in a minivan from our hotel which transferred us to a regular-sized coach which wouldn’t fit down the narrow streets of the city centre.

Sure enough when we arrived at the first stop the coach was there, ready and waiting, pointing the way of the motorway leading out of Reykjavík.

It was getting darker and we boarded. I felt the first rush of excitement wash over me. We sat down and took our seats and the whole coach was greeted by our tour guide.

We were headed for an outpost called Lyngbrekka, over an hour north of the capital, and learned some lights lore along the way. Did you know that Icelanders believe that if pregnant women look at the Northern Lights their babies become cross-eyed? Well, you do now.

As pitch black descended on Iceland, we took a stop at a service station. The snow started barrelling down and it was ice cold outside, but our half-hour layover was spent indoors in the warmth. It also presented the perfect opportunity to open up the IMO website once more. Yet again that three rating had gone and another zero was in its place. My heart sunk. Surely we weren’t going to come all this way without seeing the Northern Lights.

But I chose to keep the news to myself and not let my girlfriend or any of the rest of the travelling party know, and held hope that we’d get a bit of fortune.

And so, we carried on with the journey, eventually arriving at the destination – the only notable infrastructure being a car park, a main road and a house.

According to our guide, we were supposed to be able to see the lights from our tinted windows on approach, but I wasn’t so sure about that. We were then treated to a crash course in low-light photography and were then allowed off the bus once it had parked up.

When we got outside, it was unmistakeable.

There, in all its glory, were the Northern Lights. Prancing around like reindeer in the sky, providing what little light we had. After all, we were in the middle of nowhere and aside from the odd car coming down the road with its full beam blazing, there were no other sources.

Along with the group I bounded into the field that bordered the car park and couldn’t stop looking up. Here it was, something I’d been looking forward to the years and I was experiencing it.

It was breathtaking to see the green light cutting through a star-studded night’s sky, with no light pollution to interrupt it.

We even saw a shooting star, yet I didn’t feel the need to make a wish – one had already come true that evening. Maybe it worked in reverse.

As I soaked in the view I thought back to that time I was on stage as Sir Patrick Moore. I could have bellowed: “Look everyone, it’s the Northern Lights,” and this time it would have been the truth.