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Chasing the lights


Norway – just like it said on the tin; spectacular scenery, rugged coastlines, colourful houses, fish for dinner and money draining away as soon as your feet hit a fjord.

This trip had been planned to coincide with nature’s big light extravaganza; the wonderful and mystical phenomena of the Northern Lights. According to those in the know, the sun activity which causes the Aurora Borealis to put on its best show is currently at its highest point in its 11 year cycle.

In GCSE physics grade C terms, magnetic storms send electrically charged particles whizzing their way across the solar system. When they hit our atmosphere they are driven towards our magnetic poles, the different colours we see resulting from the different gasses they mingle with on the way.

This gives us the swirling, dancing lights seen on numerous TV documentaries (admired by Joanna Lumley in the Arctic and possibly penguins and the odd lonely researcher in the Antarctic) that you feel you have to see at least once. By the way – the haunting classical music isn’t provided – you have to hum that yourself.

So we did the sums; worked out when the equinox coincided with the full moon and Virgo’s scales were tipping towards Mercury and decided that ‘some time’ this year was the time to go. But where to go and how to avoid endless nights of being driven miles out into the countryside to avoid the city glare to stand, frozen-toed, waiting for the show to begin?

In Norway, considering most life hugs the coast, it seems there is only one way to travel, and that’s to slow everything down via the ‘fast route’; the passenger, post and potential light hunter carrying ‘Hurtigruten’.

This fleet of ships, which is the main lifeline to the north of the country, runs up and down the immense coastline of Norway from Bergen to Kirkenes on the Russian border.

Unfortunately it’s rather difficult to pronounce so I spent much of the preceding month to the holiday looking like I was in pain when I tried to tell my Scandinavian colleagues about my holiday plans.

We embarked in rainy Bergen and spent 6 nights heading northwards on the ‘Kong Harald’, sleeping in our thermals with arctic explorer style jacket hanging by the door, waiting for the middle of the night ‘light alarm’ to alert us to jump out of bed and to hang over the side of the ship staring hopefully at the sky. And we waited.....

Of course the lights aren’t the only attraction. We saw some beautiful coast and island hugging towns and villages; Ålesund, whose Art Nouveau skyline is certainly worth the steep climb up to the mountain view point, the cathedral cities of Trondheim and Tromsø, Ice sculptures on the Lofoten Islands and an unforgettable husky ride (remember to bring ski goggles for this – if you are lucky it’s just the snow that hits you in the face).

We also stood at the obligatory photo opportunity North Cape monument (northernmost point in mainland Europe) and had rather cold and wet ‘crossing the Arctic Circle’ ceremony which involved the on-board entertainment bar singer dressed as Neptune (I think the real Neptune must have his head in a shell to avoid hearing that), ice down my cleavage and a shot of schnapps with a certificate afterwards.

But the hours spent just staring out to sea – enjoying beautiful views and the winter sun (which barely creeps above the mountain tops at lunchtime before giving up and going back down again) means you are forced to slow down – which is a holiday in itself.

Unfortunately, unlike being able to set the record button on the TV to watch at a suitable moment, the lights aren’t prone to coming out when you want them to.

We narrowly missed one light storm on one of the nights due to the ship’s crew leaving us sleeping rollingly in our bunks, having changed shift on the previous day, and so claiming not to know that we wanted to see the lights -what else we would be doing on a ship in the Arctic in the winter I don’t know?

Apparently we also missed a fabulous showing the day after we left. However, not to disappoint, we did get a glimmer. It wasn’t the great waves of light we wanted but there was definitely an eerie glow in the sky as we all pointed upwards, half dressed in a daze at 3 in the morning. And the little bit of light I did see makes me all the more determined to go back and chase the lights again. Maybe we just need to put more coins in the slot next time.

By Joslyn Adcock

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