Iceland by Night (or What Happens When the Northern Lights Don't Come Out).

Drive away from the city lights into the darkness.
Drive through the darkness and stare at the shapes of the mountains.
Keeping your eyes peeled, looking skywards.
Everyone piles out into the freezing pitch black night.
Set up the camera, and wait.
Everyone piles back in.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

The arch in the sky
After the third attempt, it started to get frustrating. And that was just one night of hunting for the lights. The women sat on the opposite side of the aisle from me had been out every night of their trip, bar the night before. 

Ah yes, the night before I'd arrived. When The Lights had been visible in downtown Reykjavik. People in the hostel I'd stayed in had told me they could see them from the roof terrace the night before. Other's had shown me photo's they'd taken on their phone's. They'd told me there was no way, after a display visible in spite of the city's lights, I'd miss them. 

Yet here we were. In a minibus, somewhere on Reykjanes peninsula sans Northern Lights. 

Rúnar had only said to me earlier in the day that there were no guarantee's of seeing The Lights, and that I should take every opportunity to view them whilst I was in Iceland. I'd already been booked onto the following night's trip before we'd left that evening, that should've raised alarm bells to me. 

The bus was packed, just a seat next to me remaining. Aside from the two ladies opposite me, there was an English / Polish couple and a Canadian women's hockey team on the bus, the majority of whom had seen the lights previously in Canada. I'd never seen them, and I had such high hopes, and high expectations. 

"Peak times," Runar told us on this third attempt of stopping, "are between 11pm and 1am. That is when the Earth has rotated enough for Iceland to be on it's darkest side."

It was 11,30pm. Still nothing.

Our journey that night had taken us around various places on the Reykjanes peninsula. We'd driven for half an hour out of the city stopping on a lava field, to begin with. We'd started driving towards places, only to get phone calls saying the lights weren't there, and headed for different places. Our second stop saw us visit a café. Parked outside were 3 large tour buses, our minibus and another minibus. Rúnar had walked away from the light and set up the camera. 

Driving towards it, it appeared to be the only lights on for miles, amongst the silhouette's of mountains around us. We all piled out to use the toilet. Freezing cold, and grabbing coffee to keep us awake. Looking around it reminded me of Douglas Adams' description of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. On it's own, barren, surreal and full of traveller's. Still no one had seen The Lights that night. 

If we couldn't see The Lights, then we'd do Iceland By Night. We drove through a mountain pass, taking us higher, and hoping to get above the pollution. The sky was hazy that night, caused by the ash in the sky from the Bardabunga volcano which has been bubbling away for a couple of months now. No matter how high we got, the lights were nowhere to be found.

We got out of the bus on the black sand beach, the Canadian hockey team, who were tired and cold (they'd arrived early that morning and had now been awake for more than 24hrs), stayed inside. We watched hopefully as the camera did it's thing, but still nothing. Instead we ran across the sandy beach in the cold, kicking at the black sand. In the grey light, everything appeared in shades of grey and black, the sand, the sea, the sky. 

After driving for a bit longer we pulled up in a car park. Rúnar explained that we were at Kerið crater, the only natural sight you're charged to see in Iceland, but at night time there would be no one in the office. So three of us, the three of us who ended up doing the Golden Circle tour together two days later, climbed the edge of the crater, and looked down to the lake below. Even at night time, the water glowed an opaque steely grey. 

We drove back to Reykjavik, having not seen The Lights that night. The Canadian's had gone from tired, to frustrated to down right grumpy. They even read a poem as dark as The Raven on the ride home before we all fell asleep (they weren't the only ones who'd been awake for 24hrs). I woke up as we drove back through Selfoss, disappointed that I didn't see the lights. Yet, we'd visited a lot of other places, instead of being dumped outside and forced to wait for something that didn't happen. I was lucky enough to see The Northern Lights the following evening, but Rúnar is right;

You need to take every opportunity to see the lights when you visit Iceland

Both photos on this post are credit to Rúnar.

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  1. Northern Lights ARE breathtaking and worth the wait! I really like your style of writing; very engaging.

    1. Aren't they just gorgeous? And thank you :)

  2. Oh wow, what a night! The Northern LIghts have to be on the bucket list of anyone with a sense of wanderlust! Love your photos! Those Canadians sound like a barrel of laughs!!

    1. Definitely, it was great when we got to see them, but not seeing them was super frustrating on the first night!

  3. Man I would be SO bummed if I didn't see any lights. This is definitely a bucket list and dream country to go to for me. Everything about it sounds amazing

    1. Some people didn't see them, I would have been gutted if that had been me!

  4. I was in Iceland for three nights end of September 2012- the night before we arrived, so I was told, was the best show of the year. And all three nights I was there? Cloudy and rain. I was so bummed. Guess it's a good excuse to go back though!

    1. Oh man! That sucks! But you can see them in Canada tho' ?

  5. I'd be so sad if I didn't get a chance to see the lights. I guess you just need to be prepared the whole time while in Iceland and just keep trying and trying. Glad you were able to make the most of your outing though.

    1. Yeah, I think that's it :) but I'm glad I got to see them eventually. It was so frustrating not seeing them the first night!


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