Recently I visited Iceland in search of the elusive and beautiful Northern Lights and came back without seeing even the faintest hint of the cosmic firework but totally and utterly mystified, mesmerised and equally convinced that Nature is undoubtedly more powerful than Man.
The most important lesson learnt on the trip was whether or not you see the Lights, is not important.
It is the hunt, the experience, the journey which is more important.
It is the expectation, anticipation and possibility and endless staring at Iceland’s vast expanses, hoping anytime the clouds will break apart and the sky will open up to show us the finest and the jazziest Broadway show on earth. That in itself made it a worthwhile experience.
About a dozen buses, loaded with tourists, travel with a common goal – all collectively having faith in the power of positive thinking, embarking on a journey with the hope that they get would get lucky and experience the wonder of nature.
The tour companies in Iceland make an excellent job of selling the tour – “Northern Lights Mystery Tour” as they rightly call it – to scores of enthusiastic tourists who are mad enough to brave well-below-zero temperatures and blazing blizzards to go looking for this magical natural phenomenon.
When, after purchasing the ticket, my friend and I learnt that it’s an open ticket for two years, we should have taken the hint.
However, being the eternal optimists that we are, we were sure that we would get lucky and the lights would dance for us. But did it dance? Not really.
In pursuit of catching a glimpse of the mysterious Aurora Borealis, we went looking for it two nights in a row, in various locations from a National Park through the sea side to a lighthouse, in the middle of raging blizzards and suicidal driving conditions and in impregnable darkness and did the sky drop its veil to reveal the colourful cosmic drama?
Given the results one would without hesitation rate it as a total failure. But I would pause right there and refrain from such a hasty deduction.
We came back richer.
Richer with experience, richer with myths and legends about the Lights, ghost stories, told to a bus full of people to keep them entertained while we waited with baited breath that anytime it will be “it’s show time folks”.
We came back with inside knowledge about the selection process of a probable spot for sighting on the day (all swear that they consult the NASA website to determine the level of solar activities as sighting of the lights is largely dependent on them but I wasn’t convinced) but most importantly we came back feeling closer to Nature and completely in awe of the tumultuous geography of this isolated island, its severe winter storms, its arctic temperature, its erupting volcanoes, its moving tectonic plates et all.
And that important lesson reaffirmed “You Are the Boss” (“Jahapana tussi great ho” in Three Idiots-style).
We were in Iceland for four days in January and were quite intrigued to notice a late Christmas spirit lingering on with lights in every houses and streets and the sound of fireworks going off in the distance.
The guide on our first night out was a friendly Dutch lady, a professional photographer, who came to visit Iceland and stayed on and with whom I struck up a friendship and started exchanging travel stories (me selling Incredible India).
The guide on day two was a romantic story teller, who with his flowing golden hair and husky voice retold the myth of dancing elves and Northern Lights.
He informed us that Icelanders celebrate Christmas till the middle of January and they believe that elves can be seen on the 7th January, in the dead of night, at crossroads.
On 7th Jan, when everybody is fast asleep, little elves move house, from their winter abode to spring and they are happy that the days are gradually going to grow longer, that warmer weather is not too far away and the snow will melt away.
In anticipation of spring the elves dance with gay abandon at crossroads.
Iceland’s landscape is as dramatic as the Northern Lights
Now you have to imagine a land of which only 40% is habitable and the current population is little over three hundred thousand – the very notion of cross roads, as commonly understood by dwellers of populated metropolises seriously needs re-configuring in Iceland.
Instead, imagine this pretty picture: a frosty, chilly night, covered with fresh snow, pin drop silence and elves dancing at a crossroad on their way to their new home.
Their pure joy is so contagious, it even reaches the sky and the Northern lights watching these merry elves are so filled with sheer joy that it is compelled to emulate their dance and therefore you see the swirling, dancing Northern lights in the night sky.
The story lends a mysterious tune to the whole Northern Lights experience.
It brings you closer to understanding the Icelandic people and their belief system.
Even to this day, Icelanders strongly believe in not planning for anything. How can they? When the weather and geography are so variable?
Icelanders firmly believe that everything will fix itself in its own time…so relax.
The Icelandic people, more than any other inhabitants in any other parts of the world, understand all too well that they are mere tenants with no control over their environment.
Its fiercely independent Northern Lights with a mind of its own, its glaciers, its erupting volcanoes, its slowly drifting tectonic plates serve as reminders.
So romantic light seekers go with an open mind, enjoy the exhilarating experience and if you do get to see the Lights, it’s an added bonus.
As for the meticulous planners, before planning that once in a life time trip don’t forget to consult NASA and a host of other websites predicting probable sightings and places.