For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. As a sci-fi space geek I just had to see it once in my life. Thing is though that its not easy to see. It’s like travelling to the UK in the hope of seeing a rainbow. They happen but you need to be in the right place at the right time. Generally Iceland is a good place but not till winter. We were there mid-September.
A few days before we left for Iceland the forecast was rain. Every day. Rain. If you don’t know rain comes from clouds and clouds block the sky. I’d pretty much given up on the idea we would see anything. We arrived to rain and the bus ride to Reykjavik felt like we were inside a cloud the entire journey. I thought our entire trip would be a massive waste of time and money. Sure I like to photograph in the rain but this was like being in a cloud.
As the days went on the weather improved to the point of sunny blue skies. We were out near Thingvellir at sunset and we drove past a sign for the ION Hotel. It’s a rather funky looking hotel that was on our list of things to see. I checked the aurora forecast for the night and it was at grade 4, active. The website says “Aurora forecast shows expected activity at your selected date. Even grade 2 (low activity) can be beautiful and grade 3 (moderate) can be dazzling.” So grade 4 could be stunning and it was a very clear evening. I suggested we have tea at the ION Hotel so we would be out in the landscape just in case. It was about a 40 minute drive back to Reykjavik so if there was a chance of seeing it we would be out there ready.
Tea was nice and we exited the hotel into complete darkness. I mean absolute darkness like I’ve never seen… because it’s dark… I now had a 40 minute drive in pitch black conditions. Total darkness. The only thing to help was little reflective strips either side of the road. Admittedly these were a great help. The ones in Iceland would stretch far into the distance so it helped you see where the road was going. The real problem was not knowing anything beyond that. It felt like I was driving along the most dangerous road in the world with 1000 foot cliff edges either side. One wrong move and we were dead. Our day time trip had included moments like this along with suicidal sheep who would jump out at any moment causing me to slam on the breaks. I have never been as terrified as I was that night. It was a 40 minute drive but I was doing about half the speed limit which didn’t help. Constant terror. I can’t really explain why I felt this way but I did and it took me by surprise at how terrified I was.
After 5 minutes I wanted to drive back to the hotel and see if they had a room for the night, at one of Iceland’s most expensive hotels. I was that scared. But we pushed on. I had to get us back. 10 minutes in and I missed a turning which required me to turn the car around. It was a big car. I had no idea where we were or what was behind us. In my head we were on a cliff edge. I took a long time to turn that car around. I carried on driving. Slow and steady wins the race according to Terry Wogan. It was slow. To the right of us was a pipeline which was freaking me out for two reasons. Firstly because it was there and I was so stressed that a pipe was scaring me. Secondly because we hadn’t driven past it on the way to the hotel, so Apple maps was now taking us into completely unfamiliar territory. “Where the hell were we?!”
If I had to describe the feeling I imagine it would be like standing on the top of a bridge ready to do bungie jumping but unable to jump because you’re paralysed by fear, but for an hour. My wife doesn’t drive so it was my responsibility to get us home alive. That was all that kept me going.
After a while I noticed that the clouds were, shall we say, funky. I stopped the car and looked out the window. The clouds were green and streaking across the sky. They weren’t clouds. It was the aurora and it was right above us. I found a place to safely park the car and set to work trying to photograph the aurora without throwing up. We were completely alone in the middle of nowhere.
I got the above photo after a few settings tweaks and was super happy. My wife and I stood together watching this incredible display of colour dancing above us. It was completely silent and just so unreal to watch. The photo doesn’t do the full display justice. Right above our heads was this pulsating circle of greens and purples that quickly changed to a wibbly wobbly curtain like effect which would whoosh off into the distance like a cinnamon swirl.
Below is a time-lapse I quickly produced before the aurora faded.
On the horizon we could see the glow of Reykjavik which was incredibly comforting but when photographed made me glad we were away from it.
One thing I hadn’t noticed until I processed the images was the amount of stars in the sky. Before travelling to Iceland I knew it might be possible to see the Milky Way and photograph it. This is also a big dream of mine. It may have been possible that night but with the cloud rolling in and my anxiety levels at near breaking point I just wanted to get home. A shame as I’m sure we could have got some more interesting photos.
A therapist would say if you’re scared of something exposure therapy is a good way to get over it. I know that to be true but on the next two day trips out in the 4×4 I raced home before it was dark. I did not want to go through that again which was heart breaking for me as I knew I was missing out on photos. This was unacceptable to me as a photographer but unfortunately fear, well sheer terror won out. My dream of seeing the aurora did not include pushing myself in this way. I was completely unprepared for the way my silly monkey brain reacted. We were in Iceland to see the landscapes and have a good time. Terror wasn’t exactly on the list. My responsibility was to make sure we had fun and drove around safely. Daytime off road driving was bloody good fun. Night time knife edge driving wasn’t, so I decided to skip that and enjoy the nightlife in Reykjavik instead.
All in all though achievement unlocked. Aurora seen and photographed. I can’t think of any better way to celebrate my wife and I’s first wedding anniversary. Love you Mrs Carr :)
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