Iceland 2011: Northern Lights at Þjóðvegur

I was picked up along with three other people from the hotel door and we made the now-familiar journey to the city centre for tickets and got on a coach this time – lots of people wanted to see the Northern Lights.

Our guide also commentated for the first half hour and is also overly proud of her ability to pronounce a word in her own language – amazing how many times the Icelandics feel the need to say Eyjafjallajokull in a sentence. She also decided to teach us to pronounce it. We were heading for a place about 30km from Eyjafjallajokull where we could have coffee and “go in and out”.

We took the same route as in the morning, Ring Road east and down into Hveragerthi although we stopped at the side of the road at the top of the hill where I could finally take photos of the weird glow. No Northern Lights there do we headed down. We went through Hveragerthi and through Selfoss and stopped at a little petrol station. Here was the place. It had two little shops – one for car stuff like oil and polish etc although it also sold barbecues and horseshoes and a mini general store joined on. We took shelter in here and drank hot chocolate and a hardy few went out the back to look for the lights.

It was freezing. It was sheltered at the front but windy at the back and Iceland is cold enough by day. It was also very snowy. I kept stepping into ankle-deep snow without realising it, then I got myself stuck in knee-deep snow which managed to get into my boots.

The local staff opened the restaurant, not to serve food but to let us sit down inside. It wasn’t very warm but it was better than being outside and we knew if any lights did show up that someone would come and get us. There had been a couple of Americans on the coach behind me and they started getting giggly and taking photos of each other with postcards of the Northern Lights.

A woman from my hotel decided to go outside and she took her phone and promised to phone her mother if anything started happening and by about 10.40 she phoned. Everyone ran outside. No signs of the lights but there was a weird orange glow on the horizon. No one knew what it was and I concluded it must be a volcano in the distance because that’s what I conclude any orange or red glow without an immediately obvious cause is. It turned out to be Moonrise and the moon was vast and bright orange.

Unfortunately our guide chose that moment to order us back onto the coach but only, it turned out, so we could go somewhere in complete darkness.

We went back through Selfoss and turned right towards Thingvellir and stopped in a little u-shaped lay by up in the mountains. For half an hour we stood there. There was no wind so it wasn’t quite as cold but it was cold enough. I experimented with camera settings and discovered I could get quite good photos of the sky if I used the Starry Sky mode with a 60 second exposure and used the self-timer so as not to blur the photo by pressing the button. I lay it on the ground looking at the sky as I have no tripod and got some lovely night skies.

After half an hour it was time to go. No lights tonight. They’re not guaranteed, they only show up about on about half the nights, “we can’t just push a button, y’know?” (our guide definitely had her catchphrases). We got back on the coach and I took off my boots and put my feet on the heater to defrost and that was the moment our driver spotted the Northern Lights off to our left.

We all leapt off, me trying to get my laces half done up so my boots wouldn’t fall off. In an attempt to find a spot to watch the lights I managed to step into knee-deep snow again and found I couldn’t get up. No matter. I half crawled half swam to more solid ground, positioned my camera so it was pointed at the sky and set off a photo. I only managed five because each takes two and a half minutes to take but they were good. At least, they look good on the camera. The first photo had a green curtain and a red glow to the left, the others had glowing green lines and red and orange glows. I’ve since discovered the colours don’t show up nearly as well on tablet or phone screens but look at the pictures on the camera, they’re great.

The Northern Lights are not quite as impressive to the naked eye. It looked like a yellowish cloud where there had previously been clear sky although it did do that vertical line thing that makes it look like it’s coming through from another world. The red and orange was absolutely invisible to my eyes but I could make out a hint of the green in the sky.

We stood there for quite a while, just staring and taking photos – ridiculous number of people seemed to think using the flash would make a better photo.

Then they faded away completely. We got back on the coach and went back to Reykjavik. The four from my hotel and four or five from another had to transfer to a minibus because we live on narrow streets and that didn’t have the nice heating the coach did. We got back just before two in the morning.

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