Nature’s most inspiring sight: chasing the Northern Lights in Norway

Sometimes you have to stray a little outside your comfort zone to truly be inspired. Continuing our series of more personal experiences, travel writer Julia Hammond headed to Tromsø in Norway in search of the Northern Lights and wasn’t disappointed.

This was a holiday with a difference. Even getting dressed to go out was a mammoth undertaking. It wasn’t enough simply to pull on a winter jacket and some boots. Visiting Tromsø in December required thermal base layers, numerous fleeces, thick ski trousers and enough socks to kit out a football team. Walking with any dignity inside so much fabric was a herculean effort. Ice, skulking beneath packed snow on the pavements outside the hotel, added an extra frisson of excitement. At least with all that padding there was little risk of broken bones, never mind a bruise or two from the inevitable falls. 

It’s a little bit chilly!
The temperatures by day hovered between -8C and -10C (14-17F), cold enough to be taken seriously, particularly as the sun didn’t quite manage to make an appearance above the horizon at that time of year. Instead, the night would dissolve into a lilac twilight which would hang around for a few hours before fading into an inky blackness. 

You could be forgiven for wondering what kind of person would think this kind of place ideal for a winter break. I thought that too. The idea of seeking out the aurora borealis had seemed a whole lot more sensible in a mild British autumn!

A sledge pulled by huskies
Nevertheless, we were the wrong side of the Arctic Circle to be worrying about that now, and there was no point in staying inside the hotel. A packed itinerary awaited: first up, the chance to mush huskies. My husband and I drew lots for who would mush and who would get the comfy seat on the sledge. He did well, managing to steer the dogs with increasing aplomb, even when fording streams hidden beneath three-foot-high snow drifts.

At the lavvu, a tent used by the native Sami herdsmen, we were served reindeer stew and steaming mugs of hot chocolate. But the lights from within the tipi made it hard to see a dark sky and the flicker of green from the Northern Lights was too fleeting to satisfy us.

Sleigh ride with reindeer
The following evening we decided to try again. This time, we opted for a sleigh ride through the snow, pulled by reindeer. The reality was somewhat less romantic than we’d envisaged. The sleigh, covered with the silky fur of reindeer skins, was as hard as a board—it pretty much was a board—and through it we felt every jolt from the rutted ice beneath. 

To achieve a modicum of comfort we sat back-to-back, barely fitting within the confines of the sleigh. Though it helped having something to lean against, it was my turn to draw the short straw. How I wished I’d been kinder about my husband’s mushing skills, I thought, my face just inches from the reindeer’s backside! The aurora was bolder, though, and commenting on its breathtaking beauty punctuated the grumbling about the discomfort of our ride.

Photographing the Northern Lights
Ironically, it was the evening we ditched the tours that the Northern Lights really came out to play. Packing a flask of hot chocolate, we boarded a bus bound for a schoolyard on the outskirts of town. Trudging across the snowy yard, we set up a tripod and camera by the side of a fjord and waited. The last bus was due at 11pm; if we missed it, we’d have a long cold night ahead of us. 

For two wondrous hours, the sky danced before us, curling into ribbons and swirls of emerald and amethyst, more precious than any gem. It was hypnotic, and we lost track of time, mesmerised by the display. A couple of faint headlights grew brighter as they rounded the fjord. It was the bus! Grabbing our tripod, we half ran, half slid to the bus stop, making it with seconds to spare. “It’s OK,” the driver said, “I’d have waited.” 

As we pulled away in the direction of Tromsø, the only passengers, our fingertips and noses thawed. What didn’t change were the grins on our faces.

Editor’s note: The author travelled independently, flights were with Norwegian Air from Gatwick via Oslo, and accommodation was at the centrally located Radisson Blu. The Northern Lights tours were booked with http://www.lyngsfjord.com