Adventure in Iceland: following the lights

Map of Iceland showing the route taken from Reykjavik to a farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland

‘How long do your hands have to be this cold, before you get frostbite and they fall off?’

Night had fallen on a glacial February day, 493km into our journey north from Reykjavik by car. 1km to go and we were tantalisingly close to our X on the map, our remote Airbnb farmhouse in Öxnadalur, northern Iceland. But our tiny Suzuki Jimny 4×4 (world’s smallest 4×4, surely?) could take us no further.

Alone against a backdrop of darkness. Going uphill. In a snow drift. On foot. Hands so cold I thought I might need to ‘do a Ranulph Fiennes‘. But we’d found our adventure in Iceland and it was time to follow the lights.

1. A journey begunThe tiny town of Varmahlíð, western IcelandWe said goodbye to Reykjavik that morning, disappointed that we’d not seen any sign of Aurora Borealis four nights in to our week long trip. We were confident that we’d have better luck staying outside Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri.

On a clear day it should have taken us 3.5 hours to travel the 294km to Varmahlíð, above. It took us closer to 5 hours, with no toilet breaks and few snacks. In a 4×4 the size of a large wheelbarrow, we began to experience cabin fever. This little petrol station saved lives that day.

The road past Varmahlíð, western IcelandIt really was what I imagined snow blindness to be like, hours of endless scenes like this.

2. Some luckOn our way up through north western IcelandImagine our elation when we entered into some good luck, and sunshine! Everything looked brighter and more wonderful. Our adventure up north was back on track.

DSCN5555We’d already decided (well, some of us had) that after Varmahlíð we would take the long way round to our farmhouse, via the Siglufjörður peninsula. Drunk on sunshine and photo opportunities, we decided to take a further detour, to see Hólar Cathedral. Hólar was, for 700 years, the capital of the north. Worth the extra mileage but it did cost us precious daylight driving…

3. High up near the ArcticPast Hofsós on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic Circle‘Like driving on glass’ was the assessment of road conditions throughout the whole trip, especially true of this completely deserted peninsula route. We followed it past Hofsós (one of the oldest ports in northern Iceland) and Fell, towards our pitstop of Siglufjörður.

Sunset on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic CircleMe making the most of the light on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic CircleStephen making the most of the light on a peninsula in northern Iceland, near the Arctic CircleA beautifully rosy sunset heralded us as we looked out towards the Arctic Circle, so close we could almost pinch it and the furthest north we’ve ever been. For now.

4. A pitstopTower in the town of SiglufjörðurLeaving the town of SiglufjörðurWe could escape the night no longer. Finally reaching Siglufjörður, we stocked up on the essentials every adventurer and northern lights seeker needs: meatballs, sauce, chips, birthday cake.

We were still 93km away from our X on the map, and by this point running on empty. A routine loo stop on the side of a road became a rescue mission to push our 4×4 out of a snow drift ditch.

5. The last kmThe moon behind our farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland.Our traumatised Suzuki Jimny parked up and luggage weighing heavily on our backs, we began the farmhouse ascent. A pair of inner gloves between me and certain chilblains.

But the moon! Everything was so ethereal and I could just make out faint shapes in the sky behind me, dancing every so often.

At the same time I didn’t have a clue where I was going and got separated from everyone else, clawing my way through a wooded area that we later discovered was way off the main track, so deep was the snow drift.

Our arrival through the snow drift to our farmhouse in northern IcelandAfter lots of clumsy phone torch holding and stabbing in the dark to find the hidden keys for the main door, we’d finally arrived at our farmhouse. Adventure complete.

But, hang on, those dancing shapes…

6. Aurora BorealisNorthern lights show as viewed from the door of our farmhouseNorthern lights from our farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland.The sight of northern lights from our farmhouse near Akureyri in northern Iceland.The magic spectacle of the northern lights as they pranced and shimmered in the sky above us, rippling and darting about in every which way.

It had such a hold over us as we stood shivering in the snow. It was 3am before we could tear ourselves away.

Northern lights behind the mountain range near Akureyri in northern Iceland.Sometimes the lights would swirl over our heads and other times the luminescent colour appeared like huge spotlights from behind the distinctive mountain range ahead.

Common as the sight is in northern Iceland, seeing them in winter is never guaranteed. As some scientific opinion suggests, we may be headed for a ‘Solar Minimum’ in 2019 and the chance of seeing Aurora Borealis could reduce.

7. Was it a dream?DSCN5653 2At dawn, a completely different scene before us and, as we wiped the sleep from our eyes, we worried we may never see a show like that again. Had we actually seen them for real the night before?!

We had, and we would enjoy more shows before we left Iceland.

Catch them while you can!

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