Sure, we were fortunate enough to see the Northern Lights the night we arrived in Reykjavik, but we were surrounded by the city and the light pollution, which meant we had to try to squeeze into a dark corner to fully see them.
We wanted to really see the lights, in the middle of nowhere.
Star dreams and Celestron
I’ve always loved the stars. My sister and I have, what we call, star dreams. Now, no one else I’ve ever spoken to fully understands – twitter has confirmed this. But these dreams are awesome in the most literal sense.
It’s not your standard starry sky, but when you dream it’s more like you’re there, in the stars, amid titanic, colossal planets and other wonders of the universe as they whir and spin around you.
It’s so difficult to explain, but these dreams spurred a love of astronomy. So much so we saved up every bit of pocket-money as children, and a few years later paid over £1,000 to buy a Celestron NexStar computerised telescope. Talk about dedication!
Given my love of the stars, and being so close to the north, I wanted to experience a truly dark sky, and hopefully see the lights again.
So, after a stop at the visitor centre, and being talked out of a Northern Lights By Boat experience, we booked a Sternatravel Northern Lights bus for £35 each. Why these guys and not the hundreds of other operators? Why, because free hot chocolate of course!
A northern lights tour itinerary
Most tour operators will collect you from a hotel around half an hour before the tour begins. With Sternatravel, this meant an approximate 8:00pm pick up. Unfortunately our hotel didn’t really have anywhere we could see to check the coach had arrived inside the building, so we opted to wait outside. 8:00 came and went. 8:30. 8:45. Still no coach. Bearing in mind we were standing outside in -7C temperatures, this was not pleasant.
While David waited by the entrance, I asked a receptionist at the hotel to call and check the coach was definitely on its way. After trying to get through once, the line was left unanswered. I asked her to try again which she helpfully did, and managed to get through to someone. The coach was on its way, ‘five more minutes’ we were assured.
9:00pm swung around, and still no coach. After waiting outside for over an hour, the coach finally arrived to pick our freezing selves up. Only to drive two minutes down the road to the Concert Hall we’d spotted earlier in the day, a walkable distance of no more than five minutes, where we were turfed off and asked to exchange our ticket for a printed piece of card with number 1 on it.
We were totally confused. After getting off the coach, walking inside, waiting in line, getting the card and getting back into the same seat on the coach (?????) we were on our way.
Despite the confusion and late start our driver was great, giving us snippets of the city’s history as we passed notable sites until we left the streetlights behind and plunged into the darkness of the countryside. Every now and then the stars would peek from behind huge mountains, and our driver would reassure us it’s a good night for seeing the aurora borealis.
Spotting the Milky Way
Driving for 45 minutes, we finally stopped at the best site for the night – outside the opening of a cave – and walking down the steps off the coach I was astonished. Honestly, I’ve never seen so many stars. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. The sky was the clearest, darkest I’ve ever seen, and I was lost for words.
Planets, galaxies, constellations all jumped out against the void. Cassiopeia and Ursa Major. Orion and his belt. The Pleiades. The Milky Way itself, a hazy fog streaking through the sky, as we stared into the heart of our home galaxy.
I was truly humbled. Standing in the open as flecks of light – comets and meteors – zoomed overhead, it was difficult to remember why we were there.
But with craned necks, we waited for the lights.
Iceland’s weather changes very quickly, and although the night started out tolerable, the temperature soon plummeted. We wrapped our scarves around our heads, and even with six full layers of clothes, the chill soon reached our bones. I’ve never felt cold like it!
With the lights not yet coming out to play, it was time for food. Sternatravel ensure they have more than enough kleina and kakó to go around. That’s twisted doughnuts and hot chocolate to us Brits. We scoffed the lot, laughing at how quickly the steaming hot chocolate got cold in the arctic temperatures – left unsipped it was cold chocolate in a matter of minutes.
After waiting around trying to keep the chill from my bones, I got talking to the driver. While he was explaining all about how we’re actually stood on top of a huge, cavernous underground channel of water and ice, I started to see the telltale signs I saw yesterday.
Again, I asked what the streaks were, and he laughed out loud, before calling the rest of the group around. Holding my hand up high, he proudly proclaimed I was the first to spot the lights! (I got an extra helping of kleina as a prize!)
Sadly, the lights didn’t want to play, and the pale white streak swiftly disappeared.
All in all, we weren’t that disappointed. We were offered the chance to hop on another tour the next day, but as we were looking at a 4am wake up decided that we’ll leave with the exceptional memories of the sky at night.
The lights truly are a natural wonder of the world. And we were glad to have witnessed them on the first night in Iceland. Perhaps when we return we’ll see them again, but it was a great experience.
Totally chilled to the bone, as the clock hit 1am we admitted defeat and started back for Reykjavik before flopping into bed thoroughly frozen to the bone.
Perhaps next time.
What to wearOh my goodness it's freezing! I'd recommend as many layers as you can find.
I wore three vests, as well as a thermal vest, a long sleeved top, a thin jumper, a woollen jumper, a fleece jacket, and my ski coat and was still chilled to the bone.
Wear thermal leggings, woollen tights, leggings, jeans and waterproofs, and bring a thin under-scarf and a thicker woollen one one to wrap around your head.
Thermal hat and gloves are a must, and bring ear muffs if, like me, your ears hurt in the wind. It can be SO WINDY.