High in the night sky, the show begins.
Pale-green clouds like spectral psychedelia stream across the star-filled expanse. One of these shimmering visions hovers for a minute overhead, its fringes flaring in rainbow hues. All too quickly it fades, but soon vivid sheets of pink and yellow light are unfurling across the dark heavens, swaying gently, as if billowing in the wind.
Humans have attempted many explanations for the northern lights, or aurora borealis. Russian folklore linked them with mythical fire dragons, which assumed a human form to seduce women in the absence of their husbands. Ancient Britons, meanwhile, saw them as brave spirit-clans fighting eternal battles.
Modern research, however, has found that the northern lights are vast clouds of electrically charged solar particles, spinning at more than a million kilometres an hour and stretching vast distances into space. When these giant electrical tornadoes slip past the earth’s electromagnetic defences and into the atmosphere near the pole, they emit gases that glow in different colours. Their ‘dancing’ movements, scientists say, are down to the magnetic field buckling as it is hit by the particles’ high-velocity gusts.
Whatever the explanation, the lights are stunning – and most people witnessing them for the first time will find it hard to believe that magic is not at play. If you’re tempted to see the show for yourself, the best time is around the equinoxes (September- October and March-April). Bear in mind displays are notoriously unpredictable, although the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute has a forecasting website at http://www.gedds.alaska.edu/auroraforecast.
To View the Northern Lights one can either go to Iceland, Norway, Canada, New Zealand, Finland.
Southern Iceland – Away from the bright lights of Reykjavík, Iceland, is one of the planet’s best places to see the aurora borealis – it lies in the path of an exceptionally active auroral area. Hotel Rangá is an hour’s drive from the Icelandic capital in the rural south-west, and set under vast open skies; not only is the owner a northern lights expert, but the rooms are eccentrically luxurious – splash out on the Antarctic Suite and you’ll get a whirlpool tub with views of Mount Hekla. There’s a noted restaurant, too, serving modern Nordic cuisine with dishes including marinated trout with fruit salsa and sour cream or smoked goose. http://www.hotelranga.is
Norway – The northern lights have lit up the sky above the Varangerfjord in northern Norway since the dawn of time. The Kamchatka King Crab is one of the area’s more recent attractions – but on this seven-day luxury fishing trip you can savour them both. Night fishing (and tasting) this local delicacy with the lights dancing in the skies above you offers an unusual way to see the aurora and escape the crowds. during the day, you’ll cruise the magnificent sights of this relatively undiscovered sliver of Norway, right on the Russian border, visiting peaceful fishing villages and traditional Saami settlements, and hiking through beautiful scenery. http://www.gox.no
Northwest Territories, Canada – At the lakeside Aurora Village resort, 30 minutes from downtown Yellowknife, aurora-watchers can lounge inside snug teepees with big windows angled to catch the best sights. Others prefer to sit outside, protected only by a roaring campfire and a cup of hot chocolate. Northern Canada’s winter season also includes cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, snowmobiling, ice fishing and wildlife viewing during the short but bright daylight hours – in the middle of winter, the crisp, below-zero air means there are rarely any clouds. Want to go to more extremes? Follow in the frozen tyre tracks of TV’s ‘Ice Road Truckers’ along the world-famous Ice Road, passing herds of migrating caribou along the way. True North Adventures will take you from Yellowknife by 4×4 vehicle to view the aurora from a remote lakeside cabin. http://www.auroravillage.com www.truenorthsafaris.com
Stewart Island, New Zealand – Different pole, same phenomenon – in the Southern hemisphere, it’s the aurora australis that flames across the sky. They are harder to spot as there are fewer populated landmasses close to the South Pole – Antarctica is the prime location. A little easierto reach is southern New Zealand’s unspoilt Stewart Island, a one-hour ferry ride from South Island; its Maori name, Rakiura, translates as ‘glowing skies’, an ancient reference to the aurora. Some 85 per cent of the island is included within the boundaries of Rakiura National Park, which is why it’s so popular with hikers. Winter’s (Jun-Aug) the best time to watch for the lights – the weather can be very settled – while a ‘Great Walk’ hiker’s hut within the park makes a comfortable base. www.realjourneys.co.nz/Main/stewartisland/ http://www.stewartislandexperience.co.nz
Finland – Ice hotels are so last year. Now the Arctic in-crowd are aiming their cross- country skis towards Finland’s Hotel Kakslauttanen & Igloo Village, some 400 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle. Here, you can relax in a futuristic thermal- glass igloo and watch the northern lights through the transparent ceiling (treated so that it never frosts over) from the snug comfort of your bed. There’s also plenty to do during the day: you can head out on cross-country ski treks for a real back-to-nature experience, while guided husky or reindeer safaris, snowmobile safaris and ice-fishing trips are also available. http://www.kakslauttanen.f
words: Mellissa de Villiers