The first Norwegian word I learnt before heading to Bergen to start an eleven day cruise was Nordlys. It means Northern Lights, and it was the reason I was going. Five days into the cruise I’ll admit I was starting to lose hope.
We’d somehow managed to get on a ship that was a magnet for clouds, which rather get in the way when you’re trying to see the magic of the night sky. I was on Hurtigruten’s MS Midnatsol as part of a Bentours trip which included a series of talks and star gazing with astronomer Ian Ridpath. There were dozens of us, from Australia, the UK, America and more and as much as we tried not to dwell on it we were here for one thing. The Aurora Borealis. The lights.
I learnt a lot in Ian’s daily talks, including how the northern lights are caused by solar activity, and how there’s a Kp index of activity, which is a bit like the Richter scale and ranges from zero to nine. Zero being nothing going on, around a four being good to see them, and nine is a perfect northern lights storm which could be seen as far south as Italy (it was Galileo Galilei who coined the term Aurora Borealis in the early 17th century, the name meaning “northern dawn”, so he must have been watching something like a Kp9 to see them down there).
So to say it was frustrating to come down to breakfast and discover there had been a Kp8 behind the clouds the night before is a bit of an understatement. I knew this was one of the best years in the northern lights eleven year cycle to see them. I’d decided to head to Norway during solar maximum to up my chances, and the lights were performing just as I hoped they would, but we just couldn’t see them past those darned clouds.
I started getting superstitious. The goddess of the Aurora in Norse mythology is Freya, and she had a chariot drawn by two cats. I also have two (slightly less industrious) cats, and wondered if I could appeal to a fellow cat woman. I thought she might just give me a break and so went to bed early and set the alarm for 2am to get up and see what I could see.
I’d just woken from a very strange dream and was getting a glass of water when the announcement came over the tannoy. Messages always came in Norwegian first, then English, then German but as soon as I heard the word Nordlys I was scrambling to throw a pair of jeans and a jacket over my pyjamas and get out the door.
As I ran to the railing I realised I was the only person on my section of the deck. It was silent, it was magical and as I watched them ripple in the night sky it was like greeting a friend I had only known in my dreams. A rush went through my body, as I was finally able to say “there you are!”
After watching from my solo spot on deck six for a while, I wondered if even more could be seen from the upper deck and so raced for the stairs and bounded up to level nine. There I found most of the astronomy group on their own aurora highs, and we were able to watch some together before they faded away.
But here’s something I didn’t realise. The human eye doesn’t see those incredibly vibrant greens and reds that you see in so many photos of aurorae. In fact there are times when the lights will look like a grey whispy cloud to our naked eye, and it’s only when you take a photo that the greens or reds may show up. More than once we turned to our cameras to find out if we were looking at a slightly odd cloud or an aurora, and more than once green came up on the photo that we couldn’t see in the night sky. But fortunately there are times when the colours show through and leave no doubt.
For those wondering how to take photos of the northern lights you obviously need to turn to manual and turn your flash off (it’s amazing how many people leave their flash on when trying to shoot something in the distance). You want to have your ISO set to 800 or higher, open the aperture as wide as you can, set the manual focus to infinity and remove any polarizing filters. Shutter speed of 10 to 30 seconds if your camera can handle it.
Personally I didn’t take my camera out that first time I saw them. I didn’t want to be distracted by trying to get a shot or looking at it through a lens. I just wanted to look with my own eyes and feel the awe. And that I did. Fortunately one of my fellow astronomy group travellers, Spencer R Rackley IV, also known as Astronerd, managed to take some on the night and has been good enough to share them here on my blog. Then of course there are those stunning images that you see at the beginning of my story from Bentours.
Sadly over the course of eleven days the MS Midnatsol and all who sailed on her barely saw a patch of blue sky, or stars, or indeed much more of the Northern Lights we’d come so far to see. There were nights it tried to come through and we could see patches of vague green, but I only had the chance to see those dancing lights on the one night.
But I’d always thought even if I didn’t see them it would still be an incredible chance to see Norway, a country I had wanted to visit since I was a small child on a farm in Australia. And it’s true we saw so much more than the night sky, including stunning fjords, beautiful countryside, autumn gold on the trees.
We also got to travel with a company that has been seeing those sights for 120 years. When they started in 1893 Hurtigruten (which means The Fast Route) was the first to run a regular service up the coast of Norway. Today one Hurtigruten ship leaves Bergen every day to make its way up the coast, and you see sister ships passing back the other way throughout the journey.
Our ship, MS Midnatsol, is one of their latest. She’s 10 years old this year and at just over 16,000 tonnes and carrying up to 1,000 passengers in 298 cabins she’s as big as ship in their fleet can get, as they need to get into little spaces.
This is not the sort of tourist cruise that many may be used to. We had around 70 stops in the 11 days we were on board, some in the middle of the night and some for only half an hour or so, as the ship is used to ferry goods as well as people. You can spend more time exploring on land by taking one of the excursions Hurtigruten offers, but if you think of the cruise as more like a cross between a tourist ship and a ferry and you’ll have a better idea of what to expect.
This means you also have a mix of people on board. Some are just joining for one day, or a few days. Many go one way to the top and then fly back. Personally I found it hard enough to say goodbye after 11 days, and I wasn’t even close to being done when we farwelled a lot of the guests at the turnaround point of Kirkenes.
By the time we’d returned to Bergen I had no interest in leaving the ship. Saying goodbye to the new friends I’d made on board, and to that cruising lifestyle where everything is so easy and taken care of was a tough one. There’s only one thing for it. To plan another cruise. Who knows what that one may have in store.
You can also check out some travel tips from Ian Ridpath as he answers Ten Questions