Europe

Tromso, Norway: Chasing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

The northern lights have always intrigue me. Looking at pictures and videos of the dancing lights, I’ve always dreamed of actually seeing it for myself. It’s something we all have on our travel list, right?

Well, I finally decided to take the journey to witness this natural wonder (and got my entire family to agree with me)– so I did the research, came out with a budget, and planned this faraway family holiday. I picked the city of Tromso, as it is one of the most northernmost cities in Norway and just along the edge of the arctic circle. Since we were going to use all that time and money, I wanted to make sure we have a high probability to see the northern lights!

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What are the Northern Lights?
There are proper scientific explanations and terms used to describe how the northern lights happen, but I will describe it in the most simple way possible.

Here’s how: The hot sun releases charged particles from the collision of gas molecules on its surface. These particles are blown towards earth by solar winds, and clash with the earth’s atmosphere. Most are deflected by earth’s magnetic field, but because the north and south poles have weaker fields, some particles are able to enter the atmosphere. They end up colliding with earth’s gasses. This causes the colorful lights seen dancing in the night sky.

In the north, they are called the aurora borealis.

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The Arctic Explorers Tromso
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see the northern lights in the city of Tromso. However, during my visit the sky was cloudy and it was raining; and with the bright lights from the city; there was little or no chance of it appearing. The best way to see it is to travel far away from all the light pollution, and in search of clear skies– and you can do that through one of the many tour companies in the city.

I chose the Arctic Explorers Tromso from their glowing reviews on TripAdvisor; and I have to say, the service was impeccable. From the time my family and I were picked up from the hotel, till the end of the trip– everything was smooth and well-planned. The company provided us with winter suits and boots, and went all out to ensure that we had the highest possibility of spotting the lights. They even showed us the route map and the weather forecast from the Meteorology Department in Tromso. The 1-day tour cost us NOK1,450 (US$165) per person.

Our guide, Aurore (yes, that’s her name!), was friendly and knowledgeable. I enjoyed talking to her as she shared interesting information about the northern lights, as well as Tromso and the surrounding areas.

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The Journey Inland
We started our journey in search of the northern lights just before 6pm in the evening. It was winter so the sky was already dark. According to the weather forecast, clear skies and geomagnetic activities were expected further inland in the remote north of Finland– so that was where we were headed. It was another country, so we had to bring our passports with us (they hardly check at the border, but it was just in case). Our guide, Aurore, told us that the journey to get there might take 3-5 hours. We took 4.

All throughout the drive, we helped Aurore scout the skies for stars. She told us that we were not exactly chasing the lights, but chasing clear skies (we don’t want those clouds blocking our view). The double lane straight road was mostly dark and empty, and on the way through the wilderness, we were lucky enough to spot several arctic animals like the red fox and reindeers. Apparently herds of moose make their way onto the road as well; but we didn’t get to see any.

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Chasing the Northern Lights
The night sky slowly cleared as we made our way across the Finnish border town of Kilpisjarvi. Aurore informed us that the northern lights are more visible in this part of the north as the air is drier, and there is no light pollution. We drove in pitch darkness for about 50km inland into the remoteness of Finland.

It was already amazing looking up at the sky filled with a thousand stars. I saw the orient’s belt, the big dipper, the northern star… and that was when I first spotted the green. My first glimpse of the northern lights. It was greyish at first, like a huge cloud (sometimes they just stay a dull grey to the naked eye)– but it slowly turned a light shade of green. It was like witnessing a child paint on a white-dotted black canvas. It was absolutely beautiful.

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The Northern Lights
We finally found the aurora borealis. I wanted to stop there and then in the middle of the road, but of course, our guide Aurora drove a little further inland until she found a good spot for us to camp for a while.

Upon arriving, we trekked a short way through the snow until we reached a small opening surrounded by some barren trees. It was about -1 degrees Celsius but that didn’t bother me, I was too excited. I immediately plonked myself on the snow (Aurore gave us mats later), and looked up into the gorgeous sky with the fluorescent green, and a slight tinge of purple. I have to say that we were extremely lucky to be given a fantastic light display– the shapes moved from a straight line, to curves and arches and spirals, and eventually spread out into a crazy frenzy in the sky. It lasted for about an hour or so, so we had a lot of time to admire it, take pictures of it… and had ourselves in the pictures as well.

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Picnic in the Cold
With the northern lights accompanying us and lighting up our night, it was time for a picnic! The Arctic Explorers Tromso promised us some warm food– and it came in the form of a cup of hot chocolate and packed soup. A simple meal, but in the freezing cold, it was just about the best supper I can ask for. Aurore had a whole box of different types of soup for us to choose from– chilli con carne, fish, beef, reindeer, chicken and lamb stew. I chose the reindeer soup, and it was a little tough and chewy, but still quite delicious.

After filling our tummies, it was time to leave the freezing cold, the thick snow, and the northern lights. It took another 4 hours back to Tromso, and by the time we arrived at our hotel, it was about 5am. No matter how long or how far it took, the Arctic Explorers Tromso made sure that we got to witness the northern lights. It was the best 12 hours spent.

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A tour to chase the northern lights may be expensive, but it is worth the money– especially for this once in a lifetime experience. If you’re heading to Tromso (or are already there), you have to do it!

My entire family had the most amazing time, one that I’m sure neither one of us will forget for a long time to come. Who can forget such beauty? Of course, getting to witness the aurora borealis depends on the time, the weather and lotsa luck (sometimes you have to take the tour for a couple of days)– so on your upcoming trip (yeah!) to see the lights, here’s wishing for clear skies.

 

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