Right now we’re taking a short stop in Stockholm before heading into the cold north in Finland and with a little extra time it’s time for a catch up post.
Back on the 26th of December we headed to the Innsbruk hbf at the early time of 7am, ready for a 15hour train trip to Copenhagen. The pain of the long transits are softened by three things. Firstly having a eurail pass it feels like you’re getting a bargain the more you travel by train (even if you are shattered from travel at least you felt like you made some money out of the trip). Secondly wifi access just makes passing time so easy. Thirdly seeing the countryside roll past and change.
One of the most impressive rail lines to see is supposed to be between Innsbruck and Munich. I say ‘supposed to be’ because when we left Innsbruck it was still very dark. And as we approached Munich a fog had descended. So we didn’t see much of this famous view at all. We travelled on, a little disheartened, but transit excitement was returned to us when we left Hamburg to Copenhagen. We hopped on a diesel train at Hamburg and started watching the King’s Speech just to pass the time on our last leg. About an hour in an announcement came on “In half an hour all passengers must disembark the carriage when the ferry crosses the channel”. We were tired, engrossed in the movie and just didn’t want to pay the notice any mind. So after 15 mins we heard a heavy *THUD*. We threw our eyes outside and saw that our train was getting on a BOAT! I don’t know why it was so exciting then, or now even, maybe it’s just having your ideas challenged of how trains stay on rails and do NOT board boats. I think if I was in a car getting on a Hercules aircraft or getting airlifted by a Chinook I’d have a seizure.
The boat ride was a short 40 minutes and we arrived soon after in Copenhagen. In our three days of Copenhagen the best thing was meeting the people. Not to say that people aren’t friendly in other countries but the Danes take it one step further. We were approached multiple times for strangers making sure we weren’t lost or just wanting to share a bit of Danish history with us.
One time we were just staring at a small building in the middle of a plaza and a store keeper started walking towards us. I thought he was going to start trying to sell us something we didn’t need and wanted to get away but he opened up by asking “Do you know what that building is?” while pointing to the small building we were looking at. “No” we replied. After hearing that he started explaining that it was an old telephone booth setup by a King in the past so the people had access to communication. Then after that brief history lesson he wished us a good day and for us to enjoy our stay in Copenhagen. We were left surprised but pleased by the encounter and I could see how this was the happiest country on earth if everyone was so nice to each other.
We left Copenhagen happy and full from the delicious food (the Danish pasty comes from here for a reason).
After Copenhagen we hopped onto an afternoon flight to London for a whirlwind of being tourists, festivities, and a jam session with our host. We spent new years eve with a mass of people from Perth which for me was strangely comforting. I’ve never met these people before in my life but after a while it was nice to listen to a familiar accent and having a break in conversation about differences in culture.
We stepped through London and Copenhagen quickly as our main goal was the get to Iceland and see the Aurora Borealis or the Northern lights. cue *oooooooo* noises. I first heard about Aurora Borealis as an eight year old when we visited relatives in America. My uncle explained to me that it was a group of lights that show up in the sky when sun flares collide with the magnetic field.I don’t remember how I responded but I remembered those words and the eagerness of wanting to see them then. Fast forward 20 years and now I have the opportunity to see them for myself 🙂
We scheduled arriving in Iceland around new year because that’s during the new moon, during the peak of the 27 day solar activity cycle and it was forecast for clear skies. When these 3 conditions occur you should have a good opportunity to see the lights. So when we arrived we immediately booked a tour for the following night. We would ride a four wheeler which would take us out of the light pollution of the city and into the dark cold and clear skies of the countryside.
The following night we were picked up from our hotel and met our guide Mike who took us and our fellow aurora hunters out of the city. On our drive out Mike enlightened us on some Icelandic landmarks, culture (they actually have 12 days of Christmas here! They start on Christmas day and then go crazy with fireworks on the 12th day) and some background on the auroras (from what I understand fast moving particles ejected out of the sun that get caught in Earth’s magnetic field and the slow down of these particles creates the soft glowy lights we know as auroras). Then he tasked us with our job for the next four hours. Sit and stare out the window and shout out if you see green stuff. I looked back at Anna and told her ‘This is just like spotting sharks again’ and memories of how fun that was made the anticipation of lights all the more greater.
We were going to spend the night travelling ahead of the clouds going from dark spot to dark spot to hope to see some lights. At our first stop we saw no lights but I did get some nice pictures of the night sky.
After 15 minutes of watching and waiting in the cold wind the group grew tired of this location and we hopped back into the car to warm up. Then after a 20 minute drive we caught up with another group and our guide decided to go off road to where they were. Unfortunately after getting 2 meters off the road we got bogged. Then our guide tried to accelerate out of the ditch which just dug us further in.
We spent the next 15 minutes waiting around as our driver and the other car discussed how to get us . The plan ended up being the other car dragging us back onto the road while two “volunteers” stand in the middle of the dark highway with small flashing lights to warn on coming traffic. And for the large part this worked. Unfortunately in the process of getting us out the other car went down the other side of the road embankment which was then too steep to drive up. There was a lot of face palming. Normally I wouldn’t been as calm about the wasted time but it was an amusing sort of calamity and also we had a guarantee that if we didn’t see it on our tour out we could book another tour again for free.
The misfortune turned out to be the highlight of the night because we didn’t see any auroras that night. We spent the rest of the time driving to several spots and just shots of the night sky. Which I had a lot of fun doing despite the numbing cold.
Although I was a little sad that we didn’t get to see the lights I still enjoyed the eventful night. After getting back we rebooked our free tour and two days later we were out again. We followed the same routine and we were out on the road. Although I was still enjoying it I could see myself getting tired of the hunt should we fail again.
But it was a different night and we had a different guide, Gilly. After leaving the city, it wasn’t long till he excitedly shouted “Hey I think I see a lttle green over there” he pulled over into a brightly lit carpark and pulled out a tripod and camera for a long exposure shot over the mountains. The rest of us muttered quietly wondering why were taken to a bright car park when we could drive further out. But in just 20 seconds a shot was taken and our concerns were dashed. There faintly in the image of gilly’s camera was the faint green haze of an aurora! The first time I saw an aurora since my uncle mentioned it to me 20 years ago. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. Gilly said that it was a 0.2 on a scale of 0-9 so it was very weak. Then he ushered us into the car and drove off determinedly. We drove on roads for half an hour and then spent another half and hour off road. On the way he told us we were going to his “favourite viewing spot because nobody else will be there, getting in the way of your shot and having pointless flashes going off”.
So when we stopped Anna pulled out her camera and took a shot. There it was. Excited I set my own camera and took my own shots. We were at that site for maybe over an hour braving the cold but for such a rare experience on the other side of the world we were going to make the most of it. So that’s it for the aurora hunt for now. I’m ecstatic that I finally got to see one and now I’m hoping I can get a few more glimpses of them before I return home. I’ll leave you with picture and a time lapse I put together.