The idea of the Northern Lights was one we had for a long time but for some reason, it never materialised. And so last year, we said “OK, we’ve talked about it enough. Enough talk”.
And because we’re both “blessed” with A-Type personalities (some might say A+), we took this particular adventure very seriously. By the way, the A-Type personality can be a great plus on adventures.
That’s also when heard the stories. How is was all dependant on your luck, the weather, how Rudolph was feeling, whether Santa was onboard with the idea and apparently, if the God of Lightning was getting some action. The list goes on but you get the idea - it is not guaranteed. You literally go on a hunt and you have to be incredibly patient.
So here’s where the A-Type personality kicked in… big time. We decided to take a very calculated approach to this quest of ours. Oh yes, we made it a quest. We thought, let’s create an itinerary that maximises every single opportunity we had to see the Northern Lights. The result? Two Asian girls from the tropics (average temperature 35 degrees Celsius daily) ending up as far North as one could possibly get, without going on a NatGeo expedition, where they faced temperatures of up to -35 degrees Celsius.
1. Get close to the Northern Lights. Where are the Northern Lights? North! (Duh…)
2. Get rid of people. The less people, the less artificial light. The less artificial light, the brighter the Northern Lights.
3. Get away from civilization. Less pollution means clearer skies and the more intense the Northern Lights
And the last? 24 hours darkness. By now, I’m sure you get the idea that the Northern Lights can only be seen in total darkness, right?
So either Rudolph, Santa and the God of Lightning had a really good week with us or our “kiasu-ness” worked (do click on the link to discover this delightful South-East Asian word).
Because from the moment we dropped our bags in the lobby of our first lodge right up until our last coffee, where we waited for our ride to the airport, the skies were ablaze with the Northern Lights. The show did not stop. Morning, mid-afternoon, evening, midnight - while we were dogsledding, snowmobiling, walking, showering, eating, sleeping - it was just there. And then there was also that one afternoon where it came out during the blood moon. Totally eerie but a phenomenal experience. We sat there and just stared in silence for hours.
But we would be remiss if we made this article solely about the Northern Lights. Because while it was that which we were seeking, it was the combination of that, the raw extreme landscape and the people which made our trip. We bonded with the huskies that showed us their beautiful country when we went dogsledding. We drove out onto a snow plateau in complete darkness with a researcher at Svalbard University and sat there quietly together to watch the stars. We fat-biked out of the city limits with only a guide and her teeny rifle (to defend against polar bears, no joke!). Reindeers kicked snow into our faces as we got near and we sat with the Sami people to hear their stories.
And this is quite possibly the one common thread we’ve found in all our adventures - while we are zealous in our pursuit of grand experiences, it is almost always the people we meet that elevate it. That, and just letting go when you arrive. Travel has a funny way of reminding you to “unclench” once in awhile. And you know what? It’s so much more fun when you do.
Timing: December - when the snowfall begins. In the north, you get about 3 to 4 hours or less of daylight in this period. In the northernmost parts, polar night (24 hours of darkness) occurs. The best time to visit is when it is snowing - anytime between Dec to April
Oslo - Alta: After a weekend of merry making in the city, we jetted off to Alta - the crown jewel of the Finnmark county that is also known as the City of the Northern Lights. From Alta, we travelled inland about 20 km where we set up base in the Gargia area.
Alta - Svalbard: After Alta, we flew into Svalbard via a connecting flight in Tromso. We stayed in the capital of the region, Longyearbyen. (We have a guide to Svalbard in our mini stories link below!) Guide to Svalbard
Where We Stayed
Trasti & Trine AS - Alta, Norway.
The property is beautiful, super cosy and tastefully decorated. The rooms are spacious and well-appointed. Bathrooms are huge and the breakfast spread is something else - jams made from berries picked wild, fresh organic produce and freshly baked breads. Ask for specialized dog-sledding and outdoor activities. Gargia Fjellstue - Alta, Norway.
Cozy and straight out of a mountain-adventure postcard experience. Big family-living style rooms that are equipped with self-serving kitchen and there's plenty of common social space in the main building. Excellent food.
Mary-Anns Polarrigg - Svalbard, Artic Pole.
These were former quarters for coal miners and it was a slightly kooky but a good experience. Rooms are small but clean and comfortable although the shower stall is a bit cramped. If you're looking for an experience, this will deliver. Mary Ann is friendly and helpful.
What We Did
Northern Lights with Peskatun - Alta, Norway.
This is a personalised on-the-go safari with the guides of Peskatun. After being picked up from our lodgings, we were given a short briefing about the evening's weather and Aurora Borealis forecast based on the local radars. We then head off to the Peskatua base camp as the starting point to view the Lights. The guides will then drive you out to select locations based on the evening's forecast to chase the Lights. This is a really good time to get to know the locality as you travel around the area and chat with the guide.
Dog Sledding with Trasti & Trine - Alta, Norway.
We will be sharing more on Trasti & Trine and dog sledding in another mini-story post but just as a highlight - dog sledding is a must do when you are in these parts of the world. You don't need any prior experience or any special skills, just a good sense of balance and some basic fitness level (aka, being able to stand on a sled for at least an hour). You will be introduced to the dogs who will be leading your sled and you will get to help put the harness on the dogs and set up your sled for the adventure. The guide will then lead you out into the surrounding paths and hey, look who's dog sledding already! There are sessions for varying levels so start off with a basic 1 hour session if you just want to test the waters. But be warned, we are pretty sure you will be back for more!
Sami Experience - Kautokeino, Norway.
In the Sami cultural capital, Kautokeino, we got to meet a local Sami family who warmly welcomed us into their lavvu (the traditional Sami tent) as we sat around a fire and drank coffee. Here, we got the 101 on the culture and way of life of these indigenous reindeer herders and got serenaded by some awesome traditional singing aka yoiking in Sami language. These days, they herd the cute animals with snowmobiles as opposed to dogs and only a minority of them remain nomadic although the migration of the animals between seasons still continues with division of labor between different Sami families. We also tried our hands at some friendly reindeer sled racing and lassoing - activities that are highly competitive for them.
Fat Biking - Svalbard.
Just like ordinary bikes but with fat tyres specifically for the snow! This is a great way to cover Longyearbyen and its surroundings without venturing too far out into the Artic wild and learn about the history of the coal mining settlement. It does take a little bit of work as cycling on snow is akin to walking on sand and especially if you are on routes where you are cycling against the strong wind. We did it during the polar night period and it was quite an interesting experience of trying to make our way in the dark. Want to experience it? We managed to GoPro it, complete with a little tumble in the snow! Click through to the Video
Snowmobile Adventure - Svalbard.
Dogs, reindeers, bikes and of course the experience has to be completed with a snow mobile adventure. Imagine crossing snowy and frozen terrains that are green plateaus and rivers in summer on a roaring engine to hunt for the Northern Lights. And what better way to do it than with a guide who has a Masters in Space Physics? Chris (our guide from Better Moments) was equal parts science geek and fun-loving guide which made the experience an enjoyable one. He shared his experiences of Svalbard (complete with his polar bear & German tourist encounters - both equally harrowing, from the sounds of it) while making sure we had lots of fun on the snowmobiles. The Better Moments basecamp is a real treat with a storied past itself so be sure to hang around to take a look and ask questions.
What To Wear
If you are a regular ski bunny in the Northern parts (Canada + Northern Europe) then you already have the essential gear for the day-to-day. Ski jackets and pants, fleece mid-layer and wool base layers are the minimum standards. Most of the activity operators will provide you with a special snow suit and snow shoes for the outdoor activities (in which you will end up looking like a space man but you won't complain because it keeps you r-r-eal warm) but it would be wise to watch out for your fingers and your toes. Invest in different layers of good socks and gloves, preferably mittens as opposed to ski gloves. A good fur hat will also keep your head and ears warm!
Mini Stories (Coming Soon)
How to Pee in the Snow
People We Met