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Saturday, Aug 24, 2019

What’s so enticing about the Northern Lights?

Iceland’s surreal landscape is infested with myth and folklore, and the dazzling display of Northern Lights makes it worth a visit

brunch Updated: Apr 24, 2017 11:56 IST
Kunal Pradhan 
Kunal Pradhan 
Hindustan Times
The Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, are a routine occurrence for the Nordic masses
The Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, are a routine occurrence for the Nordic masses(Anuraag Mehandiratta)

So there we were, on a night as cold as death, as black as pitch, sitting on the back seat of a Super Jeep. The GPS said we were no more than three-score miles from the next big city, but we could well have been a million light years from earth, floating in space. The four-by-four monster, with gigantic tyres, was our Apollo 13, desperately trying to make a moon landing. Reykjavik, we thought, we have a problem!

Our journey was neither an adventure, nor an excursion. It was a treasure hunt – a frantic search for a tick mark on our bucket lists. There was something bright and green in the sky, hidden behind the clouds, unseen because of light pollution. We needed to catch a glimpse of it.

The Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, are a routine occurrence for a large section of the Nordic masses.

They also occasionally reveal themselves to inhabitants in the northern reaches of Canada. For them, it’s perhaps hard to see what the fuss is about. For us, finding them, frolicking in their neon glow, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The graffiti-infested roads in Reykjavik criss-cross at odd angles
The graffiti-infested roads in Reykjavik criss-cross at odd angles ( Anuraag Mehandiratta )

The Lights were what had called us to Iceland this winter – in tri-climate jackets, double thermals, balaclavas, long johns and snow boots. We had gone to this European outpost just for them. Two weeks later, we were to return with so much more.

Treasure hunt

On the third morning, it snowed. It wasn’t a heavy downpour but the flakes were large and Disney-like. The kind you lie down and make snow angels in.

By then, we had already explored the four-and-a-half roads that make up downtown Reykjavik (pronounced reyk-ye-vik), the capital city that houses one-third of Iceland’s 330,000 residents. There was Laugavegur, the main shopping street, lined with pubs and cafes, including the Lebowski Bar that enshrines “the Dude”, the Chuck Norris Grill that is an ode to sleazy 1980s Hollywood, and Kaldi (cold in Icelandic), where locals converge during happy hour to banter with tourists over the best beer on the island.

There was Hverfisgata, where government buildings are interspersed with pizza joints and boutique stores. There was Skólavördustígur, which lights up like a Christmas tree every night and is the proud home of the Handknitting Association of Iceland. Here you can buy an intricate Lopapeysa, or water-resistant sweater knitted from local sheep wool. And there was Barónsstígur, sparse and grey but critical to us because it housed our Airbnb apartment. (Yes, in Iceland the pronunciation is sometimes more intimidating than the weather).

Siberian huskies enjoy swimming and running
Siberian huskies enjoy swimming and running ( Anuraag Mehandiratta )

These graffiti-infested roads criss-crossed at odd angles – meeting diverging, meeting again – all eventually leading to the magnificent Hallgrimskirkja (hatl-grims-keer-yk-ya), a stony Lutheran church that resembles Obelix’s menhir and rules the Reykjavik skyline.

A week in this city feels like a month. Two weeks feel like you’ve lived there forever, but not in a bad way. The food is exorbitant, the days are short, but the people are warm – which is important when it’s freezing outside.

Call of the wild

On the fifth day, we were dashing down the snow on a 10-dog open sleigh. Siberian huskies are as large, as fluffy, as naughty, as they are friendly. They enjoy rub-downs, swimming, impromptu bouts of howling. More than anything, they enjoy running.

So, down by the southern coast in Holmasel, on a ranch surrounded by bright whiteness, the huskies took us on a flying lap. Most of them were rescue dogs − abandoned by people who had bought husky pups but didn’t know how to care for them – or the offspring of rescue dogs bred on the farm by our hosts, Siggi and Klara. Among the dogs was the star of the ranch, Brewsky – a hypochondriac who fears he might break into a sneezing fit any minute, but never does.

The huskies live close to Iceland’s most celebrated natural features that come together to form the Golden Circle. A drive through this region takes you to breathtaking views of sparse white plains, disturbed by sudden snow-capped mountain rising between mossy lava fields with no warning. There are no trees anywhere, just grass and wild bushes. The joke is that if you’re lost in an Icelandic forest, all you have to do is stand up.

A view from Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavík
A view from Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavík ( Getty Images )

From real to reel

For all their glory, the Golden Circle’s Gullfoss waterfall, the Strokkur geyser (which explodes with scalding water shooting 100 feet in the air every 10 minutes) and the Thingvellir National Park (where you can see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates slowly splitting apart from each other), cannot hold a candle to the sights hidden in Western Iceland.

There, in the shadow of the Snæfellsjökull volcano, whose crater serves as the entry to the planet’s core in Jules Verne’s The Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Iceland reveals its most magical side.

It’s a land infested with myth and folklore. “Hidden people” live in enchanted rocks and cause great harm to those who disturb them but repay kindness with kindness. Trolls, big and stupid, are impossible to fight but easy to outwit. And the infamous Yule Lads, thirteen prankster brothers, emerge from the shadows to announce that Christmas is near.

In the country’s Western peninsula, under the majestic Kirkjufell mountain, next to the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfalls, a few miles from the black-stone beach of Djupalónsandur, myth comes closer than ever to reality. It is no wonder that Game of Thrones is shot in Iceland’s surreal landscape.

Tjörnin, a small lake in central Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland
Tjörnin, a small lake in central Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland ( Anuraag Mehandiratta )

Which brings us back to the Super Jeep, and to our quest for the neon flash in the sky. To see the Lights, hurtling particles of plasma must escape from the sunspot regions of the sun’s surface. They need to race across the solar system towards the earth, get attracted by the magnetic field of the north pole, slip through holes in the magnetic field, and mingle with molecules of oxygen, nitrogen and other elements to create a dazzling, swirling display.

A series of extraordinary events, visible only on a clear night, only if you’re at the right place, at the right time. On the seventh night, we saw the Lights.

From HT Brunch, April 9, 2017

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First Published: Apr 08, 2017 21:45 IST

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