Icelandic Saga and the Northern Lights

Before I say anything, let me confirm this, Iceland isn’t completely Icy.

Haven’t you all seen the bollywood song Gerua from Dilwale ? The amazing picturisation, the background, the scenic spots. They all seemed to be so unrealistic, didn’t they ?

Well, hold on, they were all completely realistic, existing and natural. That’s how the Iceland truly is.

With no pre-plans whatsoever, I decided to visit Iceland to witness the spectacular Northern lights. Aurora borealis popularly known as the Northern lights is a natural phenomenon caused due to collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as ‘Aurora borealis’ in the north and ‘Aurora australis’ in the south. The lights appear in many colors, pale green and pink being most common.The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow.

Now you’ll know what the Northern light is but let me tell you the difficult part of it: These are an unpredictable phenomenon which has best chances to occur during winters. Can you imagine how the winters would be when you are in a place close to the northern hemisphere? Icelanders themselves say that one should be really lucky to witness the Northern lights. Sometimes with no efforts people see these lights from their balcony of Reykjavik and most of the times people have to go on the Northern Lights hunt. They have named all their Northern light tours as Northern lights Hunt which itself defines what we are really trying to catch.

Without thinking much about the chances and risks, i boarded my flight from Manchester, UK to Reykjavik, Iceland in the month of January.  I had all my trips booked in advance which definitely is a good Idea because you wouldn’t want to be looking for trips in the freezing cold. I should mention the hospitality of Iceland air, they were exceptional. I started to get good feeling about my trip and felt fantastic. I could see the floating Icebergs over Atlantic ocean from inside the plane, the colors of the sky were unusual may be because we were going up north. The whole feeling of the flight journey was different and the landing was even more exciting.

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The moment I got out of the flight, I realized how freezing it was outside. The sky seemed to be unusually low and there wasn’t a hint of sunlight. The thick dark clouds just stood still giving a feel that everything beneath it is on a standstill too. Although I had seen a lot of snow, I had never seen such an unusual environment which kind of created a fear in my mind. I remembered the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” which only added up to my fears. I was more concerned about the Northern lights as I was aware that to see the Northern lights, the sky must be clear without clouds.

My ride from the Airport to the hostel in Reykjavik was booked in advance. The best idea is to book a bus journey which takes passengers from Airport to their drop points. I booked one from Reykjavik Excursions which costed me 4500 ISK(2600 INR) for a 1 hour journey. These buses are well heated up inside and their tyres are made for all weathers.

Well to my surprise the city of Reykjavik is much similar to any other cities in Europe except that it survives extreme conditions. There were glassy buildings and a happening down town, with traffic jams being common. But it was apparent that the city authorities had a hard time clearing off the snow from roads. My hostel ‘Reykjavik City Hostel’ was in the city out limits which i purposely booked hoping that the chances of an unexpected Northern Lights could be seen directly from the hostel.

Although the temperature was always below freezing, the hostel was kept warm inside. The wooden walls and floors insulated the heat to stay within the walls. I turned on the tap in the bathroom expecting some cold water to flush out before the hot water could come. To my surprise the first drop of water from the tap itself was crazy hot. But the stench of the water was awful that I had to call the reception complaining about it. Only later did i get to know the smell  was actually of Sulphur which is good for health. How did Sulphur get mixed in water?  Iceland is a Volcanic nation which presently has the most number of active Volcanoes in Europe. The hot water which runs through the pipes is in fact heated by the Volcano which adds Sulphur into water after heating it up in the Geothermal Power plants of Iceland.

I did not have much time to spend at the hostel as my Northern Lights hunt trip was booked for the evening. I was picked up from my hostel along with others and were taken to the bus stop from where all the excursions started. There are several tours and excursions starting from Reykjavik but all my bookings were from Reykjavik Excursions.

We were briefed about the excursion we were about to take and the safety measures that must be followed. Believe me, It wasn’t an easy one. We were told to be optimistic about sighting the northern lights and were also given a detailed information about the Northern lights. There were people from all around the world wishing to see the Northern Lights. We were first taken to a Light house outside the city limits of Reykjavik where we had our dinner and bought some eatables for later use.

From there we started our Northern lights hunt. We went to places far and beyond looking for the spectacle of our life time. All excursion buses were interconnected through satellite phones and they kept communicating to each other about the possible sight of Northern Lights. As the night got darker, the temperature went way below my down jacket’s capabilities. Even though our bus was heated from inside, it seemed to get surpassed by the temperature outside. I heard our excursion manager saying that the temperature outside was -20 degrees. The night went on and we kept hunting for the northern lights. We stopped at several places for short breaks mostly uninhabited and close to nowhere. Things weren’t going as planned, all of us were completely disappointed and tired. People started sharing their stories among which I remember the one told by a Mexican. It was his 6th attempt to see the northern lights in past 5 years and he was still hopeful to see it one day. With an optimistic note we decided to end our excursion and return to Reykjavik at around 2 AM in the morning. By the time I was on bed, it was already 4 AM and my next excursion was booked for 7 AM in the morning.

Today I was taking a day long trip to Snæfellsnes peninsula which is popularly called as the Miniature Iceland due to many National Sights. The most famous sight is the Snæfellsjökull volcano which is depicted in the famous novel Journey to the Center of the Earth by the French author Jules Verne based on which there came a Hollywood Movie series. With less than 3 hours of sleep I started my day’s journey with a wonderful sight of sunrise over Northern Hemisphere. I was so mesmerized by the colors of the sky and the calmness in the surroundings. We first stopped at a sea shore Ytri-Tunga unlike anything I had seen in the past, to see the Seals. But due to high waves we could not spot any seals on the shore. We had some time to go around and click photos.

There was snow everywhere and it felt like the sky and the land had a connection and shared the color. Surprisingly I spotted a house at a far distance. When i asked our excursion manager about the house he said “nobody lives there but they leave their horses to feed and breed”.

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We continued to our next destination Hellnar located on Snæfellsjokull Glacier. The glacier is said to be one of the seven great energy centers of the earth and has been attributed towards various mysterious powers. The Hellnar area is a true natural wonder  with Snæfellsjökull National Park, Djúpalónssandur and Dritvík close by. The area offers stunning lava arches and beautiful cliff coasts where Orca whales are regularly spotted swimming in the ocean.

We had our brunch at Fosshótel Hellnar which is the only available option in the area and we headed towards the cliff.

It is a unique Lava formations formed when the Snæfellsjökull volcano touched the sea water. I should admit that the sight was more terrific than beautiful. The sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs was very loud.

There is a view point from where we get to see the best views of the Sea and the Glacier.

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We can go on a small trail from Hellnar port towards nearby villages. There is a small fishing village Arnarstapi which has a huge statue of Bárður Snæfellsás built by the local legend and one of Iceland’s most renowned sculptures Ragnar Kjartansson.The statue is his interpretation of the giant character that dominates the area around Snæfellsjökull glacier – ‘Bárður the half man half troll’.

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Bárður Snæfellsás with  Snæfellsás in the background

Our next stop was at Snaefellsjoekull National Park. This is the first national park of Iceland which stands at the foot hills of a Volcano and a glacier. This is where we got to see the black sand beach-Djúpalónssandu with the ruins of a shipwreck a true evidence of the weather conditions in the area.

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Our next stop for snacks and tea was at Hellissandur which was once a major fishing center. We got time to go on a small walk around the city, its port and also see the old fishing huts.

We then arrived at the famous Mount Kirkjufell which is the most used Cover picture spot in Iceland. During summers and autumn there are walking trails around this peak and also a guided hike to the top of the mountain where fossils of birds and fish could be found.

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Do you remember the scene from the movie ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ where Mr Mitty begins his adventure when he meets a helicopter pilot at a bar in Stykkio, a remote village in Stykkisholmur, Iceland. After a few beers and small talk, he fights with the pilot and he’s ready to repel off a helicopter into shark infested waters. Go big or go home. This is the same village where the scene was shot. Stykkishólmur is a capital of Snæfellsnes Peninsula. There are many local pubs where you can grab a quick drink and go walking on the streets and the ports of this fishing town.

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Although I so much wanted to spend an evening in one of the pubs, it was soon getting darker and my plans for later in the evening were already made.

We headed back to Reykjavik, the colors of the sunset amused me as much as everything else I had seen throughout the day.

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The last night’s Northern lights hunt was unsuccessful which was disappointing. I was not ready to give up until the last minute I was in Iceland. So tonight I was again going on another Northern Lights hunt excursion. I felt the generosity of Icelanders when I was offered a free excursion because my previous one wasn’t successful. I reached Reykjavik at 6 PM and my next excursion was scheduled at 6.30 PM. With just 30 minutes to get fresh and dress up for the dreadful cold, I was all set for what could be the most anticipated moment of my entire trip.

I had only slept for 4 hours in past 2 days which started to drain out my energy on tonight’s Northern lights excursion. I was still high on hopes to catch the action of Northern Lights. The protocol was same as yesterday, we were briefed about the excursion. For a change, today we were told that there is a confirmation from the meteorological department that the solar activity required for Northern lights was intense. We went to different places looking out for the Northern lights. Even though it was confirmed that there was going to be action of Northern Lights, it was almost impossible to say which part of the Iceland will get to witness it. Hence we went on to several places in  search of lights.

It was already 12 AM and still there was no sign of the Northern Lights. To be honest, I had no hopes left and all that I wanted was a good sleep. We stopped at few places but I hardly bothered to get down from the bus as the cold had suddenly intensified and was closing -30 degrees. I even told my excursion manager that I  was feeling sick due to lack of sleep and extreme cold.

We were at the Þingvellir National Park area, the time was 1 AM. We had stopped for a last break of the excursion after which we were heading back to Reykjavik. I was inside the bus not willing to go outside in the bone chilling coldness. The driver of our bus was inside when he received a message on the satellite phone that a possible Northern Lights appearance is expected at the national park area. Wasting no time, the driver called our Excursion manager to inform everyone to head towards the peak(not sure which peak was it). Suddenly I was again back in action, I stepped out of the bus. It was a dark open area full of snow and at far distance there were few mountains. It was snowing quite heavily but we were asked to walk towards the mountains and stand on safe surface and to keep looking towards the mountains.

All those who had their Tripods setup up their cameras and adjusted all the settings required for the low light photography. Several other excursion buses arrived meantime and more people started coming towards us, trying and finding a safe surface to stand. The quite dark place was suddenly filled with people and buses. Few of them sang songs, few played in the snow and the rest waited staring at the mountains. We were even taught an Icelandic song which had to be sung upon seeing Northern Lights.

It was unbearably cold outside, my feet was submerged under snow and the heavy snow fall blinded my vision. I had a camera in my shivering hands which required protection from snow.

Being exhausted and sick, I managed to look up the sky once again. The clouds were moving on and the sky was getting clearer every minute. I heard people cheer at a distance, I couldn’t grasp the reason at first but there was something different in the sky over the mountains. It wasn’t clear whether it was the Northern Lights or just a cloud passing by. My doubt did not last long, soon the Icelanders started chanting the song which was supposed to be sung when there was a sight of Northern Lights.

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It was confirmed, The Northern Lights action had just began. To this moment in my life, I was never as astonished as I was when for the first time I saw the Northern Lights dance. What had just began as a small ray of light overtook the entire sky and the whole sky went green. Soon all the clouds were cleared and the only visible thing in the sky was the Northern Lights.

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It painted the sky with the infinite patterns. I let my imagination go crazy over the possible things I could imagine out of those patterns. I had never seen or ever imagined something like this. The festival of Lights, Diwali, which lights up the Indian sky with colors was just a small man made illusion in front of the spectacular Northern Lights.

I was proud of myself and thanked my luck for not disappointing me. I just stood there and enjoyed the best display of Nature’s Carnival.

We were at 6600 feet which further enhanced the colors and brightness of the lights. I was determined to take few good pictures on my camera even though my hands were shivering and I did not have a tripod. Adding to it, it was impossible to take off the hand gloves due to cold and on a contrary  with the hand gloves on, it was highly impossible to click the button on camera. I was getting frustrated with the kind of pictures I was taking. This type of photography in low light needs a different set of settings in the camera(Lowest shutter speed) and a Tripod is must to avoid any vibrations. I did finally manage to click few pics which I am not satisfied but have kept them to remember and cherish the moment.

By the time I realized that my feet was submerged under the snow , they had already frozen. I had a bad frost bite which kind of practically paralyzed me. I wasn’t able to move my legs and had to call out for help. Few guys helped me get back into the bus and made me sit next to the heater. It is when I pulled out my socks I realized the intensity of the frost bite. For once I thought I was going to lose my toe. I was told to rub my toes as much as possible and breathe heavy. After a lot of care I was able to move my toes with a sigh of relief.

Our excursion manager told us that we will stay for 15 minutes more and then everyone should get back into the bus. I decided to go back outside and get the glimpse of Northern Lights for one last time. Because if it was not then, it might never be again. I filled my eyes and thoughts with Northern lights to remember it always throughout my life.

At 3 AM we started our journey back to Reykjavik. I was still able to see the Northern Lights through the window of the bus. I don’t really remember how I fell asleep but I do remember that the last thing I saw was the Northern lights.

With another 4 hours of sleep my next morning excursion started at 7 AM. By now my energy level was record low and all that I wanted from my life was SLEEP. I knew that it was my last day in this scenic country and I shouldn’t be giving up. I had an entire day to visit as many places as possible.

So today I was going on the Most famous excursion of Iceland, The Golden Circle.

Our first stop was at Hellisheiði Geo Thermal Power Station which is the largest Geothermal power station in Iceland catering power needs of 67% population of the country. It was an informative visit where we also got a demo of a Earth quake.

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We then stopped at Skálholt Cathedral which through 8 centuries has been one of the most important places in Iceland. When we arrived there was a religious ceremony taking place hence we were denied entrance for 1 hour.

One of the Iceland’s most active Volcanoes, Mount Hekla is clearly visible from Skálholt. Its eruption in 2000 had shutdown aviation across Europe for over a week. There are hiking trails available to Mount Hekla although the danger of its re -eruption has been prominent.

We then arrived at the most famous Gullfoss Waterfall which was frozen during winters. For years this waterfall has been a landmark in Iceland tourism. The waterfall is located in the canyon of the Hvítá river.

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Did You Know: This waterfall was owned by Tómas Tómasson and Halldór Halldórsson which they sold to the state of Iceland. At the view point of the waterfall, there is a statue of Sigríður Tómasdóttir who was a daughter of the previous owner of the waterfall. It is believed that she saved the waterfall from being sold to a private Energy company by jumping into it.

There are Hotels near the waterfall, the most famous one being Hotel Gullfoss. To get to the view point of the waterfall one needs to walk for 10minutes which is definitely challenging in winters due to high winds.

Although the waterfall was almost frozen there was still a little flow of water mostly in the form of Ice Bergs.

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After our Lunch at Hotel Gulfoss we went to our next stop at Geysir which has the most famous Geyser of Iceland, Strokkur, erupting once every 6–10 minute its usual height is 15–20 m, although it can sometimes erupt up to 40 m high.

Did You Know: The English word Geyser comes from the Icelandic term Geysir.

We had an ample amount of time to watch Strokkur Geyser burst. It was so much fun to see a bubble of water burst into a fountain of water. Apart from Strokkur, there are many hot springs in the area and few small Geysers. The entire area is geothermal active with steam coming out from the cracks in the ground.

The entire place was Steaming with Activity, if I can say so !!

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Our last stop for the day was at þingvellir national park. This place is special culturally, historically and geologically. It lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Althing, the national parliament of Iceland was established at Þingvellir in 930 and held its sessions there until 1798. Due to its Historical importance, this site has been added to the UNESCO world Heritage sites.

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Þingvellir is notable for its unusual tectonic and volcanic environment in a rift valley. The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be in the cracks which traverse the region. Þingvellir is situated on the northern shore of Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake of Iceland. The lake freezes in the extreme winters and could be seen from the rifts of the national park.

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Whats more interesting about this National Park and the Iceland ? Well, for all those Game of Thrones Lovers, few scenes were shot at this place. The fourth season of the television series “Game of Thrones” was partially filmed in  Þingvellir National Park near Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir hot spring. Þingvellir was featured in the season’s very first episode. Scenes for Season 3 were filmed during the winter in Iceland in 2011.  The beautiful and unique Thingvellir National Park featured in Game of Thrones as the narrow path leading to the Eyrie, as well as the location of Arya’s and Sandor Clegane’s journey. The rare ‘Dragonglass’ here – obsidian, a piece of cooled lava, is used in the series to mimic the precious resource

After talking a short trail of an hour  we came to the end of our Golden Circle Journey. Along with this all my Icelandic excursions were completed. There was a sense of satisfaction from all aspects, especially the Northern Lights . It did not once come to my mind that I hadn’t slept well for 3 days in a row. Every bit of this journey was so unique and unexpected. There are still few things which I could not manage to do during this trip, like the Blue Lagoon, Snorkelling in Silfra, Whale watching etc which i have decided to do sooner or later.

Located in far north with such extreme weather Iceland is among-st the most happiest nations in the world. Icelanders have learned to live and admire the nature in the form it is. Iceland’s tourism has multiple reasons to attract people of all ages and interests.

The song of Ice and Fire played in loop as my flight took off from the Reykjavik airport.

The hard winds of Iceland’s extreme weather kept the Iceland’s flag fluttering

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