The Northern Lights with Hurtigruten
You can feel it in the weather already, autumn is on its way and winter will be with us before we know it. But in the wonderful world of travel, we have the best ways of turning the shorter days and plunging temperatures into a huge positive.
For the ultimate job-lot of winter excitement, look no further than the wonderful Nordic world of Hurtigruten.
Formed way back in 1893, Hurtigruten (language tip - to pronounce it correctly, drop the ‘g’ and roll the second ‘r’ – it means "the fast route") performs a multitude of roles along the Norwegian coast. By strict definition, Hurtigruten's vessels are working ships and adhere to a strict schedule agreed with the government.
Every day, a Hurtigruten ship leaves Bergen in the south and arrives in Kirkenes in the north-east (Norway’s last town before the Arctic border with Russia, which is actually further east than Istanbul!) on the morning of the seventh day. Turning back on itself, it visits the same ports again and gets back to Bergen on day 12. The clever thing with the schedule is this: the ports you visit by night on the way north are visited by day on the way south, and vice versa - so you won't miss a thing.\
This 12-day voyage, often described as one of THE iconic journeys in the world, stops a total of 63 times at ports large (Trondheim & Tromsø, for instance) and small (Mehamn in the far north is home to fewer than 800 people) and passes through and by some of the most breathtaking coastal scenery imaginable.
Most tourists join the ship in Bergen but, unlike any other Norwegian voyages, Hurtigruten also picks up local passengers en route, and carries all sorts of local freight including cars, consumables and anything else that needs to make the journey. Quite often, Hurtigruten is still the fastest route between places, even though most port towns also have their own airports.
But I’m here to tell you about the Northern Lights. I won’t go into the science of it because other people can do that much better than me (it’s something to do with solar winds reacting with our upper atmosphere…), but I will dispel a few myths, tell you about the best time to see them, and how best to get a good photo of the lights to instill envy in your nearest and dearest.
So, when is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
The answer for this has a few errata, but if you’re putting ALL your hopes on seeing the lights, I would personally aim for January to March. Essentially, the best time to see them is when it’s VERY dark. Any sort of light pollution (even a particularly bright moon) will dilute and even mask a showing of the aurora. From Jan-Mar, the weather tends to be better, but also (and this is important for other reasons) there’s a greater chance of snow on the ground. Then, if the lights don't make an appearance, you at least have the chance to indulge in some other winter ‘bucket-list ticking’ activities, such as snowmobiling, husky dog sledging, visiting hotels made entirely of snow, or taking a reindeer sleigh through a virgin forest.
Despite how I started the last paragraph, and as hard as it may be, the Northern Lights (as my friend in Tromsø always reminds me) "is a fickle mistress. She will come out when she’s ready and won’t be forced”. And it’s true. The conditions could be absolutely perfect – you could have a cloudless, pitch-black sky, but if they’re not up there, there’s not a lot you can do. I know people who’ve been to the Arctic 4-5 times in winter and haven’t seen them once. I, on the other hand, have visited northern Norway seven times and have seen them on all but one occasion. I've also seen the lights way below the Arctic Circle (near Trondheim) in mid-September. The odds of that happening are/were so small that the ship's crew refused to believe me when I ran in excitedly from outside to break the news. Luckily, I'd been able to get a couple of quick photos to assure the crew of my sanity.
If you’re lucky and you Madame Aurora DOES grace you with her presence, congratulations. It is a truly wonderful experience. It might sound odd, but I found my first glimpse bit frightening! My wife and I were on the hillside of an island just west of Tromsø, and my brain simply couldn’t comprehend what it was seeing – ghostly green clouds, billowing like curtains, or extending like a luminous scarf arcing across the heavens.
And this is when they get slightly addictive. You see one aurora, and the burst of adrenaline makes you hungry for another, better display. Even when you see, as I have, the Holy Grail of Auroras you feel as though she can still improve with her next display.
The Holy Grail that I speak of is called an aurora corona, and this occurs when the aurora shafts are directly above you so when you look up it’s like you’re right beneath a 'Northern Lights shower head'. It’s really quite something.
Photographing the Northern Lights
So, that’s enough about the lights for now. Let’s talk about how best to capture them for that all-important, envy-inspiring photo to show your friends.
What are you going to need?
1 - A decent camera
And by this I mean one where you can jiggle the shutter speed and ISO levels. If you don’t have something like this, your pictures will probably just be black squares. You needn’t spend £100s, but your phone camera or little pocket camera that comes out on family get-togethers isn’t going to cut the mustard.
2 - A tripod or flexi-grip (such as my Gorillapod)
To get the best pictures, you need to keep your camera absolutely still for the duration of your shutter speed. Tripods are the best, but I’ve had jest as good results with a Gorillapod. Gorillapods are three-legged flexible tripods that you can either grip to an object of your choosing (a hand railing, a tree branch) or use in the manner of a traditional tripod.
3 - And finally, you're going to need a bit of luck. Sorry.
I've set my camera up, the lights are there...what now?
So, once you’ve got your camera set up, and the Northern Lights are swelling and rolling in the skies, you then need to take the picture. BUT here’s the final thing that often undoes a lot of good work. When you use your finger to push the shutter button on your camera, you ‘move’ the camera ever so slightly, and this will cause a fraction of a blur. To counter this, either get one of those shutter release cables, or set a short timer enabling you to click the button with your finger, and then stand back. This essential delay allows your camera to settle before the shutter opens and starts devouring the scene in front of it.
It sounds technical, but practicing (and perhaps saving your camera settings) before you begin your holiday really helps. Trust me, standing outside on deck in the dark in sub-zero temperatures isn’t the time to start reading about and fiddling with your camera’s settings, especially when the lights can be there one second and gone the next.
If the worst DOES come to the worst, buy a postcard of the lights in the ship’s shop.
Northern Lights mythbusting
Isn’t it dark ALL the time in Arctic Norway in winter?
No. It's a common misconception. For a long period of the winter, the Arctic Circle doesn't see the sun above the horizon, but it still gets daylight. For instance, in Tromsø they tend to say cheerio to the sun as it disappears beneath the horizon for the remainder of the year in late November. The next time they see it is on 21st January, and they celebrate by baking 'solboller' (sun buns - a bit like doughnuts). Even at the North Cape (Norway’s northernmost point) you’ll get daylight for about 4-5 hours per day in January. It’s a confusing experience when it’s pitch black at 13:30, though.
Does it have to be pitch black to see the lights?
No. If you get a good, strong showing, you can be in a brightly lit town and still get amazing displays. Pitch darkness does increase the chances of seeing a weaker display.
Can we hear the Northern Lights?
I had to re-write this question because it was causing me some issues. When the solar particles are mixing with the gasses up in the atmosphere, there's a chance that this will generate some sort of low-level sound. However, when it comes to you and I witnessing the lights from terra firma, you won't hear a thing, and their eerie silence really is part of the experience!
On the same day in 2005, Al gasped in awe at the Great Pyramids of Giza in the morning and ate with locals in a small, cheap, back-street grill in Cairo in the evening. He still can’t decide which memory he cherishes more. When it comes to travel, perfect moments come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Alastair | About the author
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