Chasing aurora borealis in Iceland

3 minutes to read

There aren't many things more beautiful in the world, than the "polar light show" - aurora borealis. According to science, the Northern lights, as they are known, happen due to the collisions of electrons and atoms in the upper layers of the atmosphere. An average visitor like me, however, says that the auroras are pure magic, and that there's no other explanation for it.

There are several travel agencies in Reykjavik selling aurora excursions done by bus, boat, jeep, some including a customised photo tour. These excursions can cost from 50 euros (a 2-hour ride by bus) to 5000 euros (a five days chase led by an astrophysicist). The truth is, to see the aurora, you only need a very dark place, a car, and... to get lucky. As an extra, take a group of friends to share the enthusiasm with. There are websites with aurora forecast that can help, but generally, aurora can be seen anytime from early September to mid April.

My first ever aurora hunt started one chilly night around 22h when we left Reykjavik in a van, heading to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, which was our first stop. After an hour long ride, we arrived at the park, which was, although quite isolated, not a perfect spot for auroras because there was some light there, coming from the reception of the park. However, we parked and stayed out freezing for a while, with cameras all set.

Thingvellir (Þingvellir)
Thingvellir (Þingvellir)
Islande

And then - it came. First, it showed up just as a small whitish stain on the sky, but then it started expanding into a glorious veil covering the horizon. But wait. It was still white. This is one thing no one tells you about aurora. We all have seen those breathtaking photos of fluorescent green horizons, but in fact, most of the time aurora appears simply white to us. Sadly, human eye can't see what a good camera can, so when you snap a photo of white aurora, it will show up green on it. Nevertheless, even seen with imperfect eyes of a human, the scene was unforgettable. So much that one of the photographers from the group fell into a crack between two tectonic plates hurting herself badly while trying to take a perfect photo.

Picture © Credits to redtea

We felt truly lucky, so we decided to chase further. Another 40 minute ride to find the darkest possible spot to park the car and wait patiently. After only five minutes, it showed up again. At first it was shy, again white, but after another five minutes the skies performed such a show for us that even people born and raised in Iceland were saying that they had never witnessed such a performance.

Time stopped. The lights were dancing, this time featuring different colours - pink, purple, green, white. It seemed those electrons and atoms were having so much fun colliding all over the skies, and so did we. Screaming in excitement, we were happy that we were together, as if otherwise we couldn't be sure it really happened. I remembered a great description of aurora by Philip Pullman. I remembered that when I read it I never imagined I would in fact witness it. But there I was.

As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skillful dancer.

Picture © Credits to AndreAnita

Traveling around "the land of ice and fire" is always a unique experience, as it's strikingly different from anything most of us have ever seen. Chasing (and finding) aurora during your trip makes it even more unique. Still, if you somehow miss those months of aurora, white nights are quite a good consolation prize. In that case make sure you stop by a museum dedicated to this phenomenon - Aurora Reykjavik. Here you will learn everything about it and possibly make a decision to come back to Iceland to chase aurora one day.

Aurora Reykjavik
Aurora Reykjavik
Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland

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The author

Natacha Costa

Natacha Costa

Hello, I will tell you about the south of France, the Azores, Iceland, among other places, here on itinari. Traveling has taught me more than any school, and I am excited to be sharing this passion of mine with you!

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