One of Iceland’s biggest attractions is the Northern Lights. Although you can see them from Reykjavík (and in fact there were some spectacular displays over the winter), it is recommended that you get away from the city lights and get out into the countryside for a better view.
Several bus companies run tours for this, and in theory these tours do not go out if the conditions are not right for seeing the Northern Lights (ie heavy cloud cover). So, if you do go out, it’s because you have a reasonable chance of seeing something. If you don’t see anything, you get offered a free trip the next night or as many nights after as it takes to see them.
I braved one of these trips on a gale-force-windy evening in October. I say braved, because I’m a morning person rather than a late night person and I hate being driven around for hours on a bus – but I needed to at least give it a try because I really wanted to see the Northern Lights. Here is my trip diary:
1. 19:30 – get picked up at accommodation on small bus, drive to tour office. Run, or rather get blown, across street to exchange voucher for ticket, get blown back across street to big bus.
2. 20:00 – big bus departs, people excited to hopefully see something, doesn’t take long to get out of the city into absolute pitch blackness.
3. 21:00 – would have no idea where we are but guide says it’s around Mt Hekla (WHAT?! We are driving around the gateway to Hell in the dark with no one else around and no one knows where we are??…ok, I’ll calm down).
4. 21:30 – hmm, a couple of false starts so far where we’ve headed off in a particular direction where the sky looks like it might be doing something, only it’s not. Eyes getting heavy now from looking at nothing but black. Everyone very quiet now.
5. 21:45 – yay! Stopping at a services in Selfoss. Only, hold on, they aren’t really selling much. Everyone uses the toilet and most people buy something stinky like Doritos to eat on the bus. A little disappointing given that we have passed some nice big N1 stations selling hot dogs and other delights. Strangely, I’m sure that another group trip I went on stopped at these same uninspiring services, who could have made a fortune if they’d have had any meals on offer.
6. 22:30 – morale has perked up again after the stop, and the promise that the Lights are more likely to be seen the later it is. We have gone off on a side road somewhere.
7. 23:00 – everyone is out of the bus and can barely stand up. The wind is absolutely howling and it’s a little scary being out in the pitch black with nothing but us and the bus for miles around. There are some very faint swirls happening in the sky. People watch for as long as they can stand it before staggering back to the bus with some difficulty. Nothing that will come out in photos unfortunately although that doesn’t stop one man and his tripod hanging on for as long as possible.
8. 23:15 – the bus has taken this long just to turn around – for some reason we cannot just turn around in the middle of the road despite the fact that we would see another car’s headlights for absolutely miles before they got to us. We have had to go down yet another strange side road and make a 50 point turn to get back to the original way we were going.
9. 23:45 – I’ve fallen asleep! I think this is the first time I’ve ever fallen asleep sitting up on a bus. Anyway, we’re all off the bus again now as the guide thinks he might have seen something. It’s impossibly cold and windy. He hasn’t seen anything. Back on the bus, 15 minutes to turn around again. I think at this point everyone on the bus just wants to go now.
10. 12:30 – ooh, we just passed Litla-Hraun, Iceland’s only real prison and setting of the show Fangavaktin! That was a little moment of excitement for me and no one else. Unfortunately the guide has had the bus lights on for ages and they are really hurting everyone’s eyes while he goes around and asks where everyone has to be dropped off, which must be a really tedious process for them every night.
11. Arrived back “home” at 1:30 after dropping lots of other people off and feeling very glad I wasn’t staying downtown or it would have been longer.
Technically, we did see the Northern Lights but I don’t think I would do one of these trips again hoping for a better view of them.
I fully appreciate that seeing the lights isn’t guaranteed and part of the fun is not knowing if you will see anything, but as I suspected a late night on a bus for 6 hours isn’t much fun. I also made the mistake of doing this the day I arrived which was very tiring. Next time, I would either stay over in the countryside or go out with a local or in my own car and stay in one place and take my chances.
Or, maybe I’ll stick to the midnight sun – much easier to see.
Have you seen the Northern Lights?