Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Ever since I was little (or maybe since I saw Twister) I’ve been interested in extreme weather. I often joke with Neil that if we ever win Lotto and want to pack in our 9-5’s we’d move to the Great Plains and chase tornadoes. For real. I’m not sure if it’s the storm part, the chasing part, or the unknown part, but weather gets me excited – I track temperatures with spreadsheets, I stalk the UK Snow Updates Twitter feed and I love a good thunderstorm. It should come as no surprise then that aside from taking a much-needed holiday, the main motivation for our trip to Iceland was to spend a few nights searching for nature’s most spectacular night show – the Northern Lights.

Over the course of the week I’d been busily monitoring the Iceland Aurora forecast and things looked good. It was the perfect time in the aurora activity cycle – 2012/13 is the Solar Maximum in auroral activity (a peak, which only happens once every 11 years), the months of October to March are optimal viewing periods and the forecast was showing little to no cloud cover. Of course things could change, and like Auckland, Icelandic locals joke that if you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes! After arriving too late to join a tour the first night, we waited until the following morning to make a booking. As luck would have it, we woke to rain and our hopes of catching the lights over the next few days were somewhat washed away.

After a little bit of research and a lot of umming and ahhing about the weather we booked ourselves a spot on Super Jeeps Northern Lights Tour with the option to re-book for the following night if we didn’t go or if we didn’t see them the first time around. There are plenty of cheaper coach tours available but we’d heard Superjeep were the real deal when it came to Northern Lights hunting. Not only are they equipped with some of the baddest looking Land Rover Defenders I’ve ever seen, they’ve been chasing the lights for more than ten years and they’ve got a perfect Trip Advisor review score (don’t pretend like that’s not important). Besides, if this was my one chance at wild weather chasing I had to do it in something that looked as close as possible to my Twister dream!

After two cancelled tours I was crossing all my fingers and toes that our last night in Iceland would involve some kind of Northern Lights action – if Superjeep didn’t come through, maybe our hotel would? Sometimes the lights are strong enough you can see them from downtown Reykjavik and many hotels (including ours) offered an aurora alarm service if they should show themselves whilst you slumber. I needn’t have worried though.

At 8pm we were picked up by a modified Land Rover Defender – snow tyres, winch etc and then joined a convoy of six other Defenders (and a Nissan Patrol) and headed out of the city; away from any light pollution and into the Icelandic wilderness. Being bumped around in the back of a  Land Rover is one of my favourite parts of these kind of tours, add a bit of snow and ice to the mix, coupled with the promise of some Northern Lights action and the fun factor was pretty high.

Our first stop was Mt. Esja, a volcanic mountain range approximately 914 meters high and roughly 10 km out of the city. It was a slippery and slightly nerve-wracking ride to top but we were rewarded with an amazing view of Reykjavik, a lot of snow and ice and some excellent photo ops. Whilst I was testing out the non-tripod twilight options on my camera and trying not to fall on my backside the Superjeep boys were watching the sky – snapping pictures with their long exposure cameras and checking the weather forecast (exactly how I imagined tornado chasers would do it).

Before I knew it we were bundled back into the Defender (with a bit of help from Neil – tight jeans and high vehicles don’t mix), making our way back down the mountain range and off out on the hunt again. Somewhere near Pingvallavatn we pulled over and everyone jumped out. Camera’s and tripods at the ready, everyone was eager to see what the sky was up to and whether we were in with a chance of seeing anything tonight. Sadly, aside from the odd shooting star, there wasn’t a lot happening, so it was back on board and off in the direction of clearer skies.

It soon became apparent that chasing the lights is a pretty popular tourist option in Iceland and after several rainy nights in, every single tour company was out in force tonight. Again, like a scene from Twister; we passed busload after busload of people on the roadside looking skyward and waiting. There were so many tours out we were forced to overlook the usual pulling over places and just when we thought we might be in with a chance the wind changed direction and that sneaky Icelandic cloud started to rear its ugly head again. Instead of calling off the tour and delivering everyone back to the warmth of their hotels Axel and his team opted to outrun the impending cloud cover, heading even further south along the coastline.

Around midnight we pulled into a driveway and what looked like the entrance to a farmer’s paddock. A gate was opened and we headed up a hill and onto a plateau that revealed a perfect cloud-free starry sky. Success! We set up again and waited. And waited, and waited. The lights normally reveal themselves between midnight and 2am, and since it was well past the pumpkin turning hour everyone’s hopes were pretty high. After half an hour the guides started handing out hot chocolate and shots of vodka, which went down a treat in the zero degree temperatures but there still wasn’t any sign of any lights action.

Another half an hour in the cold and I’d resigned myself to not seeing the lights but the Superjeep guys hadn’t – “the conditions are perfect, there are lots of predicted activity, why can’t we see them?” We decided to stick it out for another ten or so minutes but unfortunately we had to leave empty light handed and with heavy hearts we headed back towards rainy Reykjavik.

Wanna Chase the Northern Lights With Superjeep?

Whilst we didn’t see any lights we had an amazing time chasing them around the Icelandic countryside. The guides are funny and informative, the Land Rovers are really good fun and we wouldn’t hesitate joining them on another Northern Lights tour or one of their other tours should we ever be back in Iceland.

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