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Published: October 20th 2015
For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger;
At whose approach ghosts, wandering here and there,
Troop home to churchyards.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Five. The number which filled us with such incredible excitement…Five. For the previous week we had been tracking the Aurora Borealis forecast for both cloud coverage and of course the number which determines the likelihood that the Northern Lights will actually appear. A three is considered a good chance to see them, anything from zero to two is almost impossible. On our first full day in Iceland, we had woken up that morning and checked the forecast to see a five…or in other words, a near certain chance of seeing the Northern Lights if we could just find some clear night sky, unobstructed by cloud coverage. And as it happened, the online map forecast an incredible amount of clear sky about 45 mins from our countryside cabin on the south coast.
Late that night, we dressed warmly - Iceland is a bitterly cold place, even more so at night. We packed snacks and boiled some water for tea.
Our watches showed 10.30pm as we climbed into our car and with an intense sense of anticipation, headed out into blanket darkness, in search of the light.
On we drove into nothingness, the only thing visible being the twenty meters of so of road in front of us lit up by our headlights and the vague silhouette of the mountains and hills on either side of us. About fifteen minutes outside of the tiny village of Vik on the South Coast of the island, we pulled the car to the side of the road and stepped out into complete blackness, the only visible light that of the brilliant, moonless night sky above our head, the Milky Way fully visible. And freezing, there we waited.
Atop any bucket list that we had ever conjured, altered, agonised over and discussed over the past few years, one thing retained its membership – the Aurora Borealis. Various other wonders of the world, both natural or man-made had made their way on and off our respective lists of desired travel destinations and activities but we each remained steadfast in how much we both wanted to observe the Northern Lights. Of course doing so
could take years to achieve – some have been to places like Iceland, Norway, Northern Canada etc numerous times at seemingly optimal times of the year and failed to see this natural phenomenon. In visiting a country whose weather is as maddeningly unpredictable as Iceland, this only compounds the difficulty of seeing the Aurora – but thankfully, wonderfully, as has so often been the case on our travels so far together – fortune favoured our voyage.
Ethereal feint greens and purples faded into view over the mountaintops. In the darkness and cold under the Aurora, we embraced like so many times before on our travels in moments of such beauty. There we remained alone, silent watchers. After twenty minutes or so, when the lights had started to shift east, we climbed back into the car and gave chase. Twice more we stopped in similarly secluded, dark mountainsides and watched as deeper greens and purples appeared, and then departed.
After almost three hours of searching out and being mesmerized by the Northern Lights, we retreated back to our cabin for the night. Once more, the fortune we have enjoyed on our travels was apparent as the skies had cleared
over our cabin when we arrived and there, seemingly waiting for our safe return, was the Aurora for its farewell.
We arrived into Reykjavik airport to clear blue skies, sunshine and the sight of snow-capped peaks and glaciers in the distance. After collecting our car rental, a sturdy Kia Sportage, we hit the road in search of our accommodation. We wanted to be out of Reykjavik to give ourselves the best chance at spotting the northern lights, so opted for a cabin along the south coast some two hours outside the capital.
For lovers of the road, driving in Iceland is pretty special. Incredible scenery aside, and I’ll certainly get to that, outside of the capital and away from the Golden Circle, the roads are empty, save for the odd tractor or wandering pack of Icelandic Horses. The lack of traffic affords you more time to truly take in the breath-taking scenery through which you are driving – more than once I had the thought that it’s a wonder tourists get more than 50 miles in Iceland given the temptation to pull over every five minutes due to some other spectacular sight that you may happen
across. At various times on Icelandic roads, the landscape, which can be completely devoid of all life in all directions, gave me the distinct feeling that we were driving on a completely different planet.
En route to our cabin, we passed the beautiful Seljalandsfoss waterfall, dramatic and easily visible from the road so decided to stop to get a closer look. Not particularly caring that we were soaking wet, we looped under and behind the falling water, snapping pictures as we went before retreating to the car to head to our home for the next three nights. After a warm welcome from our host family of Icelandic farmers, we got a warm night’s sleep in our secluded corner of the world in order to get an early start on the following day. Would we ever need it…
Our target was to drive along the south highway 1 for 200 kilometres or so in search of Jokkulssarlon, the beautiful iceberg filled lagoon on the south coast. Little did we know upon beginning our journey that these would prove some of the hardest miles of driving we’d ever done. Barely thirty minutes down the road, the snow began – Iceland
it seems doesn’t do a simple snow fall. Falling snow quickly gave way to full blizzard conditions and we had barely cleared Vik, with a couple of hours driving still ahead.
The blanket snowfall and subsequent lack of any clear road markings made visibility close to impossible – with the complete lack of traffic on the roads, there were barely any tire tracks on the snow covered tarmac to guide our way either. We were driving into complete nothingness – a confused blend of white and grey with only our sat nav remaining confident that we were still in fact on the road and heading in the right direction. The only reason we didn’t turn back is that we’d already drove an hour by this point, and the weather was going to be equally hazardous behind us as it would be in front, so decided to solider on in search of our destination.
A further hour or so down the road however, the snow suddenly ceased and the gorgeously stark scenery returned, mountains, waterfalls and all. Jokkulssarlon itself literally appears from nowhere from the road with barely any warning on your approach. We pulled over, made sure we
were sealed in our thermals and down jackets, grabbed the camera and headed out into the freezing cold.
Thankfully, on our drive back west towards our cabin, the weather had cleared and we made a stop near Vik down by the ocean. There we wandered along the black sand beach of Reynisfjara, where the Reynisdrangur and Dyrhólaey formations jut from the water. The wind whipped off the Atlantic, punishing us as we walked, and the cold became unbearable pretty quickly. Still, we found brief shelter in the rock organ-like cliff formations to stop and take in the view before we retreated back to the car and our cabin some 50 minutes away for dinner and rest before we went out that evening to hunt down the Aurora.
The following couple of days were spent between the Golden Circle and Reykjavik itself, as well as ensuring that we stopped for a dip in the Blue Lagoon. It’s very touristy of course but a great experience. Our final night in our cabin, we were returning from the Geyser and Gullfoss on the Golden Circle and close to our farm, we were stewarded home by a large pack of Icelandic Horses,
who had taken residence in the middle of Highway 1. For about a mile these hardy creatures guided our path back to the cabin, where we slowed and drove next to them and they galloped aimlessly along the road, another incredible experience to see of many in just a few days. At the cabin, we filled up the hot tub ready for nightfall and a well-earned rest.
Of things well earned, Iceland’s reputation as a country of astounding beauty is well deserved and it is beyond doubt that we’ll return to this isolated nation in the freezing Atlantic in the future.
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