Saturday, 8 April 2017

Bucket-Listing in Search of the Northern Lights

Hunting the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for some time and when the opportunity arose to make this a reality, it was too good a chance to miss. Then we let our friends Ebabe and Wheezy into our plans, and suddenly and brilliantly our weekend for two became a weekend for four! We could only allocate two days (and more importantly, two nights!) to our Icelandic adventure due to my beloved's work commitments (ho...hum...) so it was a very early start to get the easyJet flight from Manchester to Keflavik on Saturday morning. Tourism in Iceland is massive now and although it seems an unusual holiday choice, it is now a very popular destination. After a slight delay we took off taking the most spectacular route up the west coast of Scotland on a beautiful clear day, only hitting cloud cover when we were well north of the Scottish coast. But there was plenty of cloud cover from then on and when you're in search of the Northern Lights, cloud cover becomes very significant as we were to discover! 
Keflavik airport is very clean and efficient and we had been advised to buy wine and spirits there because once you are in Reykjavik, alcohol is very expensive. Once our 'essential shopping' (wine, more wine and snacks) was done we were bussed into Reykjavik to our hotel, the Alda, which is on the main shopping street in the centre. Stylish and chic with very helpful staff. Curiously, the hotel foyer contained an independent restaurant and a barbershop!

On our first afternoon we headed out to eat and see the sights of Reykjavik. There are plenty of things to see but we only managed Hallgr√≠mskirkja, the uber-modern Lutheran church and the Sun Voyager sculpture. The narrow streets are charming and although there are signs of the boom times before the Icelandic banking crisis in 2008 with some stunning new buildings, much of the city is reminiscent of a seaside town, but with the amazing backdrop of the snow-capped mountains on the horizon. Of course, we learnt only too late that there was a penis museum which we could have visited so we had to leave the joy of that experience to Ebabe and Wheezy to enjoy (or not) after we had left as they managed an extra two nights after we had headed back to Blighty. 
Our first crack at the Northern Lights was that night. Although it had been sunny in the afternoon, by early evening there was heavy cloud and seemingly our chances were very slim indeed. However, our driver from East West Tours, Carrack (I've got no idea how to spell or pronounce any person or any place's name in Icelandic so you'll have to bear with) turned up at the hotel regardless (and nearly an hour late) to collect us. He then took us round a number of hotels in Reykjavik to pick up other tourists taking another hour and a half. As we discovered, the tour companies think nothing of leaving you waiting in the minibus for an hour or more whilst they track down stragglers. Considering the cost of these tours (over £100 each) this seems greedy but this happened on all three tours we took and on one occasion, we were half an hour out of the city on our way and had to turn back to collect more guests.
All the tours head out to areas with little or no light pollution, but with heavy cloud cover, despite driving around until 1.00am, the Northern Lights refused to be seen. Our driver, however, threw himself into the task and his driving style proved much like a bull in a rodeo trying to dislodge his passengers. Added to this, he would often turn off his headlights whist travelling at 50 mph in case there was a break in the cloud! One good thing was that if you don't see the Lights on your first attempt, you can go out again the following night at no charge. I spent much of the following day saying heartfelt prayers that they might send another driver!). 
Very little sleep before getting up early on Sunday morning with a pick-up at 8.30 from Christian Inky (renamed Tinky Winky for the rest of the day - Teletubbies is very big in Iceland apparently) for our Superjeep tour which proved to be a fabulous day of unforgettable sights. We were six in the jeep (all coincidentally from Yorkshire which made for some fine Northern banter!) and we set off first for Faxi which is a small but beautiful waterfall and on the way to the much larger and absolutely breathtaking waterfall at Gullfoss. This latter is regarded as the queen of Icelandic waterfalls and as well as the heavy rain which was now falling, the spray from the waterfall meant that we arrived in the cafe above the waterfall absolutely soaked through and ready for our Icelandic lamb soup which is a speciality here and delicious - especially warming when your jeans are wet through! Adventures with Ebabe and Wheezy always seem to include getting absolutely soaked - on a previous occasion, we went out in a speedboat in Portugal to look for invisible dolphins and I finished up crouching on the vanity surface on a public lavatory in Lagos drying my jeans whilst still in them! 
Then it was off to the glacier Langjokull which took us over some very rough terrain and by now, there was an effective white-out so quite difficult to see anything but snow - but the ride was tremendous fun and Tinky Winky was very entertaining. After lots of chats over the radio with fellow drivers, Tinky Winky decided we should head back rather than risk getting stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere. Our next stop was at Haukadalur for the geysers which shoot boiling water 100 feet into the air at intervals. The air smelt of sulphur and when the geysers blow, it is a truly spectacular sight.
Our final port of call was Thingvellir National Park where the Icelandic Parliament was founded over 1000 years ago. Here we saw how the earth is ever so, ever so slowly pulling apart along the North-America and Eurasian tectonic plates and stood where the Viking settlers stood centuries ago to edict national laws. And where they film great chunks of Game of Thrones, of course! The scenery all day was incredible and totally unlike anything I had ever seen before (although apparently reminiscent of New Zealand - still on the bucket list!). As we made our way back to Reykjavik, watching the Iceland ponies graze on the side of the road, you can only marvel at Nature and how extraordinarily different it is less than three hours from the UK.
Back at 6.00pm and out again at 9.00pm to have another crack at the Northern Lights and I'm still thinking 'I hope we don't get the same driver!' but, of course we did but he was marginally less erratic on the roads and took us off into the hills where he confidently said we would see the Lights. We waited outside on the road, drinking hot chocolate and trying to stay warm whilst he assured us that they were coming and, yes, eventually, what initially looked like a dark bank of clouds yet was completely clear, moved across the starry sky before lights shone out above it as if like spotlights behind a theatre curtain. Not green but definitely light enough to put the birds into dawn chorus mode. We would have loved to see the amazing colours but that was not to be but at least we saw them and an extraordinary and alien sight it was too (humming to myself the theme to Close Encounters of the Third Kind!)
Back at 2.00am and up again at 4.00am to pick up the bus to Keflavik airport where everything is amazingly efficient and clean (UK airports please note!) and then on to our easyJet airbus back to the UK. We arrived at Manchester early which clearly threw the ground staff into a frenzy because they couldn't find a set of stairs to disembark from the front so everyone had to get off at the back at which point the pilot asked us not to rush to the back in case the plane fell over! I'm still not clear whether this was an attempt at humour because we had been on the ground for twenty minutes by then with no sign of going anywhere but we were being very British about it and no-one was complaining.
Worth the trip? Definitely! Expensive when you get there? Yes. But this is an extraordinarily beautiful place and another twenty four hours to go the Blue Lagoon and maybe have another crack at the Lights would have been good. And apart from our Northern Lights driver, everyone we met was helpful and courteous and made our visit an absolute pleasure.

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