Seeing the light

Travel Posted 14/04/15
Liz Parry experiences an Arctic adventure on a trip to Tromsø to see the Northern Lights

Many people have a ‘bucket list’ of places they want to visit and adventures they’d like to have in their lifetime. Seeing the Northern Lights was at the top of my bucket list and this winter I had the privilege of experiencing them during a trip to Tromsø in northern Norway.

The Northern Lights appear in a circular area around the Magnetic North Pole. As Tromsø is situated in the middle of this zone it offers a high chance of seeing this spectacular phenomenon, particularly between the autumn and spring equinoxes (21 September to 21 March) when the aurora borealis appear most frequently.

Getting there is fairly easy thanks to the airline Norwegian, which has direct flights to Tromsø from Gatwick and flights via Oslo from Edinburgh and Manchester. Once you touch down, a regular bus service will ferry you to the town centre in 15 minutes and affords you the chance to travel through the Tromsøysund Tunnel, notable for the fact that it has a roundabout in its centre.

During the four days I spent in this delightful town, I stayed in self-catering accommodation, which was particularly useful as I had a number of activities planned. Since there is no guarantee of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights, I felt it was best to book some other excursions to ensure that I didn’t leave disappointed.

I soon discovered that my first activity was not for the faint-hearted; a morning spent learning how to ‘mush’ a team of huskies certainly gets the blood pumping.

My guide for the next four hours, Per-Thore Hansen, picked me up from the centre of Tromsø, and drove me out into the mountains, where I met his noisy and excitable pack of 100 Siberian huskies.

During the hour-long journey we travelled past snow-topped mountains and the many colourful wooden houses that characterise the landscape of Tromsø, the oldest of which dates back to 1789. We also passed the city’s most famous landmark, the Arctic Cathedral, a modern church from 1965 which bears more than a passing resemblance to Sydney Opera House.

Following a safety briefing in which we were shown how to drive the sleds, Per-Thore’s wife, Hege, fetched me a heavy thermal suit and weighty boots. It wasn’t the most glamorous of outfits, but absolutely necessary in the freezing -5°C winds.

Feeling somewhat nervous I climbed aboard my sled and followed Per-Thore’s instructions to always keep my foot hovering on the brake, lean away from the corners to balance the sled and give the dogs a hand by pushing when going uphill.

My apprehension soon evaporated as my hardworking team of huskies pulled me and my partner along at an impressive speed through pine forests thick with snow and under the shadow of imposing mountains.

It was both surreal and beautiful to be whizzing along in the heart of the Arctic Circle, and quite a way to forget the daily problems of my nine-to-five life. After an hour’s ride, I was exhilarated, smitten with the huskies and more than ready to warm up with a hot chocolate in Per-Thore and Hege’s traditional lavvu. This huge tipi-like structure is a traditional dwelling used by the Sami, Norway’s indigenous people.

Factfile

Useful contacts: The writer experienced: • A snowmobile safari with Lyngsford Adventure, (www.lyngsfjord.com) • Went dogsledding with Arctic Adventure Tours (www.arcticadventuretours.no) • Chased the Northern Lights with Arctic Fishing Adventures (www.arcticfishingadventures.no)

Having got a taste for adrenaline-pumping activities, I spent the following morning learning how to drive a snowmobile in the dramatic heart of the Lapland tundra. Our guide, Morten, gave our group a thorough safety briefing before we again donned huge thermal suits and boots.

In pairs, we climbed aboard our snowmobiles and headed out into a vast white landscape, bordered by huge mountains, deep blue fjords and the occasional snow-tinged forest. The snowmobiles were surprisingly easy to drive and soon even the most nervous of drivers was revving along on the thick carpet of snow.

Stopping at a frozen lake, our guides gave us 20 minutes to play around on our new toys, with many of the group whizzing along at top speed, whooping with obvious excitement. The combination of stunning landscapes and heart-racing activities was certainly hard to beat.

On my penultimate night in Tromsø, I set out for the one activity I had been looking forward to most of all – searching for the aurora borealis with professional Northern Lights ‘chaser’ Marcus Åhlund.

It soon became apparent that this is an activity Marcus takes very seriously indeed. Chasing the Northern Lights isn’t just a case of driving around and looking up at the sky; it involves careful monitoring of the weather conditions using dedicated apps. He was also in constant radio contact with colleagues around the country, who alerted him to the best places to catch the lights.

After a couple of stops in which the aurora borealis eluded us, Marcus announced that our best chance was to drive over the border into Finland. This took us three hours, but Marcus thoughtfully provided us with the ubiquitous thermal suits, boots and hand warmers so that we didn’t freeze.

When we finally arrived in Finland it was nearly midnight so Marcus and his driver Magne built a campfire for us, cutting seats out of the snow and cooking up a delicious tomato and fish soup. With perfect timing, just as we finished our meal, the aurora borealis slowly began to appear over our heads. At first a tentative plume of green crept across the sky, unfurling itself like a ribbon before other swirls appeared, dancing playfully across the night sky in ethereal shades of green and white. The finale was a cascade of pink and white rays that shot across the sky leaving us gasping with delight and amazement.

As we stood, agog, Marcus was busily setting up his tripod, capturing pictures of the display and helping others with their cameras. He later emailed us a selection of stunning pictures, including individual images of the group members with the spectacular display behind them.

The three-hour drive back to Tromsø in the early hours of the morning was tiring but undoubtedly worth it. Seeing the Northern Lights was a truly magical experience and a once-in-a-lifetime Arctic adventure.

Gallery photos: www.northernnorway.com

Tweets from @SEBmagazine