There are not 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 atmosphere's upper layers. However, an average visitor like me says that the auroras are pure magic, and there is no other explanation. Iceland is one of the best winter destinations for chasing the Aurora Borealis.
There are several travel agencies in Reykjavik selling aurora excursions done by bus, boat, jeep, and a customised photo tour. These excursions can vary from a 2-hour ride by bus to a five-day 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. Websites with aurora forecasts 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 park's reception. However, we parked and stayed out freezing for a while, with cameras all set.
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 the 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, the human eye cannot see what a good camera can, so when you snap a white aurora photo, 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.
We felt fortunate, 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 said 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 could not be sure it really happened. I remembered a great description of the 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.
Traveling around "the land of ice and fire" is always a unique experience, as it is strikingly different from anything most of us have ever seen. Chasing the Aurora Borealis during your trip makes it even more unique. Still, if you somehow miss those months of the 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 decide to come back to Iceland to chase aurora one day.
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