Icelandic chase for Aurora

Iceland - SnowI am sure it’s now getting really annoying and is hardly an overstatement if I say – we travel A LOT! Mrs FOMOist and I have caught the travel bug bad and are fully embracing the symptoms. However, there are still trips that you look forward to more than others and our recent trip to Iceland was just that.

Iceland - Hallgrímskirkja ChurchFirst of all, we didn’t really know many people who have been to this country. Being a Scandinavian country, we knew it would be über expensive. It was also by far the most expensive trip we have ever been on (serves us right for booking the Easter weekend), but it is definitely one of the trips that will never be confused for another.

Iceland - AuroraFor those who know me well, they will agree that I am a planner. If I get something in my head, I try and plan everything around me to make it happen. The reason for visiting Reykjavik, Iceland was mostly to see the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis. So to increase our chances of catching this natural phenomenon, for the first time in our travels, we decided to book a package with Icelandair. The flights, transfer and excursions, all booked and left in the hands of experts that will ensure that we catch them lights. Did it all go as planned? Of course not!

Iceland - ReykjavikLet’s take it from the top. It was my manager’s birthday earlier in the week and to celebrate I decided that it was a great idea to go out for “a couple of pints” on Thursday night. After a few too many, without any food or water, I reached my bed at 12.30am. Even though I had a very luxurious “7-hour” sleep, I woke up, still heavily under the influence and had to pack (because I didn’t think of packing earlier) and get on the tube for our 1 hour 30 minute ride to London Heathrow. With a banging headache and the hangover settling in, I made it on the 3-hour flight to Reykjavik, gasping for air on a very turbulent flight.

IMG_6856Once we landed, the worst of the hangover had passed and I was getting my appetite back, just in time for our Northern lights and Lobster Jeep Tour. The tour started straight after we checked in and dropped our bags. Giddy with excitement, we got picked up by this impressively high jeep and went on our way. After learning a few facts and figures about the country, a quick stop at a black sand beach, we settled for our lobster feast at Fjorubordid, located Southeast of Reykjavik in the village of Stokkseyri. The meal was spectacular, the lobster fresh and sweet, perfectly cooked and piled in a giant bowl for us to share. With our bellies filled, we boarded the jeep and did a bit of off-road over snow-capped slopes. It was all great fun, until the voice of the driver came across his headphones saying that due to the heavy cloud, there is a high chance that we won’t see the Northern Lights and after waiting in the bitter cold for about 30-minutes, we returned to our hotel, long faced and disappointed beyond words.

Iceland - HarbourWe went to bed with a heavy heart and woke up feeling just as disappointed with Mrs FOMOist recounting of her dreams of basking in Aurora Borealis. I realised that this was nature’s way of putting me in my place, slapping me across the face for thinking that I can control everything. On this day, we also had an afternoon booked to go to the Blue Lagoon and while we were trying to get excited, the thought of leaving Iceland without seeing the northern Lights was weighing us down. The Blue Lagoon was not till the afternoon, so we went to downtown Reykjavik for a walk around.

While walking along the harbour in Reykjavik, we bumped into really friendly girls, visiting from Scotland, who had been to the Blue Lagoon the day before and they reassured me that I will feel super relaxed after the Blue Lagoon and will definitely see the Northern Lights tonight. Feeling a bit reassured with this stranger’s prophecy, we went back and booked another Northern Lights tour for Saturday night and went to the Blue Lagoon.

Iceland - Blue LagoonFor those who may not be familiar, Blue Lagoon is a giant hot tub, filled with milky-aqua blue geothermal water that simmers to a pleasantly warm temperatures of between 37° and 40°C. In addition to the Northern Lights, we were also hoping to see our last snowfall while we live in the Northern Hemisphere. As our bus was coming to a halt, the sky turned white, with snowflakes drowning us while we walked to get changed. By the time we changed and came back, we were thawing in the lush mineral-rich water of the Blue Lagoon with the snow falling on our heads. If you have ever read anything negative about the Blue Lagoon, don’t trust it. Yes it is busy, but it’s also vast enough for you to feel like you’re alone, surrounded by the white steam rising from the hot water. Yes a glass of wine is £8, but it’s no different from anywhere else in Iceland and if you meet someone as friendly as Jill (fellow traveler from Adelaide) to take a picture as a white-walker, it makes the whole experience even better.

Iceland - Blue Lagoon White WalkersAfter over 4-hours of soaking in the Blue Lagoon, we took the bus back to our hotel, with barely enough time to get into another bus for our second Northern Lights hunt. This time, the activity level was still at 2 (out of 9), but with clear skies. After driving around for over an hour and a half, out of the city lights, the guide on the bus points to a faint glowing cloud and announces that its Aurora Borealis. First impressions – really? That’s it? To the naked eye it looked more white than green and it was nothing compared to what we had expected. A friend once told me that the vibrant green is only visible in a photograph due to long exposure and very slow shutter speed, but this was a few more notches down from what we had imagined. Mrs FOMOist and I still pretended to be excited at the sight and reassured each other than may be that’s what it’s meant to look like. By now, it was 1.30am and the bus started heading back. Then it stopped in the middle of nowhere and the guide announced “Northern Lights are coming”. Mrs FOMOist was still in her slumber and I forced myself out of the warm bus and into the bitter-cold, to be rewarded with the sky turning green behind the mountains. I rushed back into the bus, got Mrs FOMOist to her feet and out of the bus, by which time the lights were on! They were green, they were vast and they moved across the sky like the twirling ribbon in the hands of a ballerina. They appear in the sky almost as if someone from the ground is pointing a collection of laser lights in the sky, but their majestic dance proves that it is beyond any man’s capabilities. The lights appear light a flash light, spread like silk and disappear like smoke.

Filled with adrenaline, our heads hit the hotel bed at 3.00am and we were getting picked up for the Golden Circle Tour at 8.30am in the morning. With not much sleep, we woke up, checked the Aurora Borealis forecast once again and it showed the activity level of 4 (Active). Being a FOMOist, I didn’t want to miss out so we booked another trip, out for the hunt on our third night. If the activity level of 2 was such a spectacle, we were not going to miss out on higher activity.

Iceland - No man's landThe Golden Circle tour was an all-day affair that started with a visit to a greenhouse farm growing tomatoes and cucumbers. After having the most delicious tomato soup, washed down by Icelandic White Ale, we got back on the bus and went to explore Geysir Geothermal Area where a geyser called Strokkur erupts every 5 to 7 minutes. There is a place called Rotorua in New Zealand which has a similar kind of area, which in my personal and humble opinion is just as exciting, if not more. Our third stop on this tour were the Gulfoss Waterfalls that were dominating and demanded the awe and respect of the visitors. The icy-cold water, carving through the rock. The droplets of water rising and trying to escape the fall, only to get frozen half-way and cling to the rocks on the side, giving an illusion of polystyrene wrapped around the edges. The fourth and final stop was the UNESCO World Heritage site of Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. Donning breathtakingly beautiful snow-capped rock formations, walking tracks consisting of a number of bridges across the biggest lake in Iceland and the world’s first and longest-lasting democratic parliament (903 to 1798), the land around the park is a geographical no-man’s land, neither Eurasian nor North American.

Iceland - Gullfoss WaterfallAfter our Golden Circle tour and a quick nap, it was night 3 of the Aurora Borealis hunt and we are glad we went. Within the 45 minutes of driving outside of the Reykjavik city lights we could see the sky turning green. The bus stopped at Thingvellir National Park and then it started, bigger and brighter than we had imagined. The lights glowing from behind the cliffs, covering the sky from left and right and then meeting in the middle to hold each other, unite in a beautiful waltz and disappeared from the stage of starlit sky.

Iceland - SeafoodFor anyone reading this blog and wanting to book their next holiday to Reykjavik, below is some information you may find interesting and useful:

  • Iceland’s total population is only 330,000 and a lot of the locals you talk to are pro-immigration to stimulate the economy.
  • Majority of the world spends their money to heat up their water, due to high sulphur content in the soil, Icelandic water is dug up at well over boiling temperatures, so they have to cool their water before they can use it. This also makes your showers smell of rotten eggs but deliciously warm.
  • Iceland is the perfect example of the old saying where there is a will, there is a way. They have greenhouses everywhere, growing (wait for it) tomatoes! I couldn’t believe it. Mine barely survive the Aussie autumn!
  • Needless to say, Iceland is cold. It’s not the low temperatures that makes one ice-up, but the strong winds that almost feel like are trying to peel the skin off your face (I know it’s graphic but that’s how it really felt).
  • Reykjavik as a city was fairly quiet when we went. This could be due to Easter break, but I don’t think you need to spend more than a day exploring the actual city.
  • Driving in Reykjavik is not as scary as I thought it would be (not that I did). Yes they do drive on the right (wrong) side of the road, but the roads are not as icy, making it fairly safe to drive.
  • Rather than doing group excursions, hire a car for at least one of the days you’re there to explore the island. If I get a chance to go back, I would definitely like to do the Golden Circle at my own pace.
  • When packing, make sure you bring snacks like muesli bars, crisps, etc. You have to drive long distances (at least an hour) and it’s good to have something to keep you going in between distances.
  • Seafood in Iceland is some of the best I’ve ever had. My top recommendations for places to eat are:
    • Sandholt Bakari, their pastry less salmon and spinach quiche was to die to and the tomato and pumpkin soup was just what we needed to warm us up.
    • Fish & more in front of Hallgrímskirkja Church has only 5 items on the menu and everything is delicious!
    • Icelandic Fish & Chips, located near the old harbour serves up one of the best seafood soups. It’s across for the more pricey MAR, and came with high recommendation from a local.

Now just a few quick notes on Aurora Borealis:

  • Two good websites to check the forest cast are:
  • Best time to catch the lights is between late-September till mid-April.
  • If you base your expectations purely on the internet photos, you’ll be disappointed. While the Northern Lights are noticeable and spectacular, they are nowhere near as bright and vibrant as they look on the photos.
  • If you’re going for the first time to hunt for them, I highly recommend doing a group tour so you know what you’re looking for.
  • If you’re wanting to take pictures, make sure you have a good camera that you can manually control. iPhones or any other smartphone cameras, however powerful, do not work. Alternatively, you can do what we did, nicely ask the tour guide to take your picture and get him to email it to you.

Personally I don’t have a bucket list because I find it a bit restrictive. However, if I had one, Aurora Borealis will definitely be high up on it. So if I ever get the chance to go back, I will again be chasing those lights with the same level of enthusiasm as we did on this trip. The Northern Lights are a sight to behold and really makes you appreciate the world beyond your eyesight and imagination.

Iceland - FOMOist with Aurora

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