The Night We Didn’t See the Northern Lights

Our Trip to Reykjavik, Iceland

I stare out the side window of our oversized, overpriced rental car, the Beatles faintly playing in the background, gazing out at… well, nothing.

Like everyone with a set of eyes, it’s been my dream to witness the Northern Light firsthand, and with our trip to Iceland, I fully intended to tick one more item off of my bucket-list. Unfortunately for us, we would inevitable miss the Aurora Borealis by just under two weeks.

The Northern Lights will be visible in Iceland until early April” is what the guides said.
Poppycock” is what I said. “I will find a way to witness the Northern Lights with my own eyes.

But let’s back up a moment, and fully deconstruct the events that led us to this rather uneventful evening in Iceland.

DAY ONE

We left for Iceland under trying circumstances. Unfortunately, the airport we were catching our 6:30am flight from was over one and a half hours drive from our accomodation, not the breezy 15 minute cab ride like I had previously though. This of course meant we needed to leave the house at at least 4am, meaning we set our alarm for 3am. Despite our early wake-up call, we were still in an anxiety-riddled rush when we arrived.

We checked in our luggage 10 minutes before closing, and made our way through security at a frustratingly slow pace. With only 5 minutes to go before our gate closed, we ran through the airport, knocking over suitcases and pushing past the dawdling crowds of duty-free shoppers. Upon arriving at supposedly closing gate, with less than a minute to spare, we found out that the plane had not even began to board. Call it luck, call it poor wording on the ticket, but we made it to the plane, gasping for breathe and probably 2 kg’s lighter.

***

Once we had arrived in Keflavik, we ventured into the arrivals lounge in search of Firefly Rental Car company, only to find they were the only one that didn’t have a booth within the airport. This was not the best sign. After a slightly frustrating search, we ventured outside, totally unprepared for the cold weather that greeted us.

With no signal and no clue of where to go, we wandered aimlessly through the airport carpark, in hopes of somehow stumbling across the location of our rental car. Luckily for us, Keflavik is a curiously small airport, so we found Firefly in about 15 minutes.

We quickly rushed inside to escape the sheering wind that was striking against our bare skin, only inside was not much more pleasant. Upon trying to actually pick up our rental car, we were informed by a young man, quite indifferently, that we could not pick up the car without a credit card.

We don’t have a credit card,” we insisted. “Can’t we just use the debit card we used to pay for the car?

ADVICE FOR ICELAND: No.1 – Always read the fine print.

    “No, we do not accept debit cards,” the man responded in broken English. “Only one car company here does.

Well that’s no good! Why did you let us pay for the car using a debit card if we needed to use a credit card?

This actually happens a lot” the man told us, I suppose hoping to soften the blow.

Oh what a relief. I’m so glad there are many other fools out there in the world, stuck in a foreign country with no mode of transportation. Solidarity!

The man went on to tell us and another family who were in a similar situation that we could try our luck with Geysir (or as he pronounced it, Gayshit), the only car company in the country that would allow us to rent a vehicle using a debit card. He also told us to contact the company in hopes of getting our deposit back on the car we had already rented.

As of yet, we have not gotten our money back.

UPDATE: We did not get our money back. Here is a warning NOT to book through CarRentals.com (they had a very flimsy excuse as to why we weren’t refunded) and to avoid Firefly

***

We eventually hit the road in a relatively expensive station wagon (the only vehicle with an automatic transmission), and made our way to our accomodation. We stayed in the Igdlo Guesthouse, a rather quaint hostel in the heart of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. Our lodgings were simple; we had two beds and shared a bathroom with the rest of our floor, but I only spotted one other person on our floor throughout our entire stay, so it was relatively cosy. The guesthouse was also a 5 minute drive from the centre of town, which would’ve been handy if we’d actually visited the city more than once (but more on that later).

On our first night, we turned to the receptionist from the guesthouse for advice on how to spend the remainder of the evening. The man recommended Hveragerdi Hot Spring River Trail, a 3 hour return hike that concludes with a swim in the geothermal river that runs down through the valley. Unfortunately for us, one of Iceland’s more popular hot springs, the Blue Lagoon, was closed for exactly the period we were visiting, so we were excited at the possibility of taking a dip in a more natural hot spring.

So we drove out to Hvaergerdi and began our ascent at around 4pm. While a 3 hour hike might be unadvisable elsewhere in the world, Iceland was experiencing extended daylight hours during our stay, so as long as we made sure to descend the hike before 7pm, we would easily reach the base before nightfall.

hike 2

As we made our way up along the trail, we found ourselves becoming inexplicably exhausted, though the hike itself wasn’t particularly strenuous. Was it the fact we’d spent all day sitting down on a plane and a car? Was it our body adjusting to the harshness of the Icelandic weather? Perhaps it was the double crunch quesadilla I consumed from the dodgy looking Taco Bell/KFC hybrid coming back to haunt me. Either way, we quickly realised that there was very little we could do to relieve ourselves because we had forgotten one of the most essential items you take with you on a hike.

ADVICE FOR ICELAND: No.2 – Always bring water.

While it may seem obvious to anyone else, it didn’t seem obvious to us. So we did what any parched and ignorant tourist would do in our situation: we drank water from a nearby stream. In what will perhaps be the only act of Bear Grylls-ian bravado we would choose to commit on this holiday, we swallowed our pride… and a few handfuls of Icelandic stream water. If only there were a few deers nearby and birds chirping happily in the distance, Disney would probably sue us for copyright infringement. From what I gather, stream water from Iceland is perfectly safe, and from my experience, perfectly delicious. I would highly recommend to anyone hoping to get a true Nordic experience to any wild water you come across in Iceland. [REDACTED: My lawyer has informed me that drinking water you find in the wild may cause me to liable for spreading harmful information. Please do not heed my advice.]

Iceland 12

We trekked up the trail at a staggered pace, stopping at frequent intervals to snap the landscape on our cameras and to quench our thirst from the stream, but there was no real way you could ever truly capture the immense beauty and scope of what we were seeing. The journey also took longer than anticipated as we were forced to trudge through the muddy terrain that we were not nearly equipped for.

ADVICE FOR ICELAND: No.3 – Bring hiking boots.

Do not, as we did, try to undertake this hike in Nikes, unless you don’t mind them coming back covered in mud. Throughout the hike, as anyone who’s visited Iceland can probably confirm, the weather changed from rainy to sunny to windy, seemingly at random. This means that, although the ground was dry and dirty when we embarked, it was now wet and muddy, and our shoes unfortunately paid the price.

After a few hours of trekking, we reached the hot springs. Spewing out a foul smelling cloud of sulphuric fog, we slowly waded along the path, blinded by both the smell and the density of the smog. I am not exaggerating when I say that these hot springs were probably the most revolting smell my nostrils have ever suffered through. Imagine a concoction of rotten eggs, spoiled milk, and diarrhetic farts, and you might get close to how these hot springs smelt. It was an assault on all of my bodily senses, and rest assured, I was no longer excited to bathe the river at the end of the journey.

Shortly after the hot springs, we finally made it to the summit. For most of the trial, we seemingly had the entirety of Iceland to ourselves. Without a soul to be seen, we could talk as loud as we wanted, play our own hiking playlist (my album of choice, somewhat inappropriately, was the Hateful Eight soundtrack), and generally soak in the atmosphere without interference from other travellers. But at the summit, we were forced to share the wilderness with a barrage of tourists and hikers alike.

Hike brad

Once we got to the top, we couldn’t believe our eyes. There were people actually swimming in the river. We’d brought swimwear and a towel, just in case, but we assumed people only used the springs during the summer. Maybe the water WAS really warm.

ADVICE FOR ICELAND: No.4 – DON’T SWIM IN THE RIVER!

Yes, against all of our instincts, we decided to take a dip in the river. Even though the air temperature was 2 degrees celsius, despite the fact that we would need to practically strip down in the middle of a forest to change into our swimwear, regardless of the fact that it had started raining; we decided to go for a swim in Iceland’s infamous ‘hot springs’.

Iceland 13.jpg

There’s not really much I can say about the river itself. Once we were in, it wasn’t terribly cold. Imagine taking a bath in water that was hot maybe 2 hours ago: the water is tepid, but obviously warmer than the outside air, which I suppose was an interesting juxtaposition of temperatures. The problem was, of course, getting out of the water.

With the rain coming and going, our clothes and towel were now drenched, and we feared exiting the relative temperate safety of the river.  Through kicking and screaming, we ran to our soaking wet clothing and began our descent, much to the amusement of the onlookers who were not foolish enough to get in the water. Making our way down the trial was not nearly as painful as the journey upwards was. There were less pictures to take (especially now that both of our phones had ran out of battery), and we now had a clear motive: get to the warmth of the car as quickly as possible.

Overall, I would highly recommend the Hveragerdi Hot Spring River Trail, if not for the hot springs themselves, then for the amazing views of the Icelandic landscape that the hike presents.

***

Are you still with me? I’m sorry, I know this article is a complete bait and switch and extremely self indulgent, but I swear we will talk about the Northern Lights in just a moment.

***

DAY TWO

Our second day in Iceland was to consist of driving the Golden Circle, a 300 km tourist route that takes you through many of the famous sights that Iceland has to offer. In lieu of being able to travel the Ring Road, a week long journey that takes you across the entire country, the Golden Circle seemed like the obvious choice, and it often tops the ‘Best of Iceland’ guides. After all the walking we had undertaken thus far, we were quite excited at the possibility of an Icelandic road trip, so we grabbed our auxiliary cord, an external charger, and we hit the road!

Unaware of what the actual tour consisted of, we constructed a bastardised version of the tour based on one we found online. Our first stop led us to Þingvellir National Park, a historical rift valley that houses the world’s oldest parliament, as well as having the added bonus of literally being torn apart by a continental rift.

parliment house

Þingvellir gave us our first taste of what had already been explained to us by other people; Iceland looks like another planet.

national park

We quickly realised that we weren’t going to be alone on this self-tour of Iceland’s most incredible sight. We were joined by several guide busses, patrons of which would inevitably accompany us throughout our entire journey. Of course the Golden Circle would be full of tourists, what did we expect? Well the only solution was to take a detour off the beaten track for our own Icelandic Adventure. A short 5 minutes north of Þingvellir, we found a small paddock full of Nordic horses, and scarce of people!

Iceland 7
Fun Fact: Icelandic horses are amongst the purest in the world, being direct descendants of the horses that were imported over 1000 years ago.

horse

The paddock allowed you to freely pet the horses, as well as giving you the option to buy horse feed (which unfortunately we were too broke to purchase). After Ruby had finished fawning around with the wildlife, we made our way to the next stop on our itinerary, the Geysir Hot Springs.

Upon arriving at the Geysir parking bay, a familiar smell hit us, one remarkably similar to the pungent wafts we experienced at the hot springs. Clearly we must be close! And alas, a short walk up the road brought us to the great Geysir’s of Iceland. We wandered towards a huddled mass that gathered at the foot of a hot spring, eagerly awaiting the explosion of Strokkur, one of the most active geysirs. Believing that the geysirs only erupted a few times a day, you can imagine our surprise when Strokkur spouted water at least 30 meters high as soon as we sauntered up to greet it.

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We watched the impressive display at least 5 times, gasping in amazement at every eruption: it was truly a sight to behold.

We had little trouble locating our next destination, the Gullfoss Waterfall, all we had to do was follow the tour buses. Yes, I was not kidding, the tour followed us literally every turn of the way, which did lead to some annoyances as we were quick to realise. Upon arriving at the lookout point for the Gullfoss, we were forced to flank a large group of tourists.Whilst most people made their way to the front of the lookout, took in the horizon, snapped a few pictures, and moved on, this group was content to block the front and have a casual 10 minute conversation.

waterfall

The waterfall itself was an incredible (when we were eventually able to see it), and we slowly strolled alongside it, throwing stones into the water from the cliff face until we were finally free of the masses and able to enjoy Iceland in isolation. However, noticing that the crowds were making their way to the buses, we quickly rushed ahead of them in an attempt to finally escape the tour groups once and for all.

waterfall river
Gulfoss translates to ‘Golden Waterfall’ in Icelandic and is one of the largest volume falls in Europe.

Waterfall

We drove to the next location, Kerið Crater Lake, which thankfully was seldom visited by many of the Golden Circle tours. Having both wanted to see a volcano at least once on this journey, we were overjoyed to finally be making our way towards the base of the crater. After paying an entrance fee (seriously), we walked around the once-great volcano and finally down to the lake that sits at its core.

Brad Crator
Kerið Crater Lake is unique in that the lake was not formed from an explosion, like most of its kind, but instead formed when the volcano’s magma depleted itself.

Crator 2

Our stop at Kerið was relatively brief, probably completed in less than half an hour, and thankfully so! Who knew you could get so exhausted sitting in a car all day! At this point, it was getting late so we decided to head back into Reykjavik, grab some dinner and formulate our plan to see the Northern Lights!

(Told you I’d talk about them)

Iceland 11.jpg

Back in the city, we agreed to try and find the best fish and chips in Reykjavik, and after our (admittedly extremely brief) Google search, settled upon the appropriately named Icelandic Fish and Chips. Would you believe it, not only did Icelandic Fish and Chips not have the best fish and chips in Iceland (at least from the two restaurants we ate at) but they didn’t even have fish and chips at all! Although the waiter couldn’t offer up an explanation as to why the store was so ironically named, he did inform us that we had a 40% chance of seeing the Northern Lights if we headed back to Þingvellir National Park. So we purchased the rather expensive cod and potatoes, and slowly explored the harbour while we waited for nightfall.

Iceland 10.jpg

We were intrigued by a lighthouse on a wharf in the distance and decided to investigate, but what was interesting about the Reykjavik harbour was it’s ability to magically turn a distance that seems easy to walk into an hour long journey.

Harbour 1 This turned out to be a blessing, because in the time it took to make it there, the sun was finally beginning to set… at 9pm in the evening. The lighthouse itself provided some interesting views of the distant valley ranges, and seemed to shut us off from the rest of the city, but whether it was worth the walk is still debated amongst by scholars to this day (Ruby says it is, I say it isn’t.)

brad lighthouse

So we head back to the car, passing a practicing rock band in a dingy garage and an empty street of busy desert stores.

***

And that brings us back to where we started. Was it worth the read? Probably not, but if you’re still here, I assume you must REALLY want to read about our experience with the Northern Lights!

It’s around 10:30 in the evening and the sun has fully set behind the valleys of Reykjavik. We have a portable charger, a few snacks, and my phone open to the Aurora Borealis forecast. We drive at slightly above faster than safe speeds along the empty roads back towards Þingvellirwith a 45 minute drive ahead of us, we don’t want to dawdle anymore than necessary.

As we get closer, we notice that the clouds in the distance are presented with a tinge of green. Could the renowned dancing lights be hiding behind them? We were warned that we would not be able to see the Northern Lights if the cloud cover was too heavy, and the waiter thought that Þingvellir would give us the clearest view of the sky. Even though the forecast stated that their was still moderate clouds overhead of the national park, we continued to see cars driving in our direction, which gave me a false sense of hope.

If people are driving back from the national park, at this late hour“, I foolishly explained to Ruby, “than they’ve probably just come back from seeing the Northern Lights!

But alas, I was wrong. We parked in the now empty parking bays of Þingvellir National Park for over half an hour before moving to a grass field just alongside the highway. At midnight, no one was driving past anymore. What little traffic that had earlier passed us had now ceased to exist. We were alone, in the middle of an empty field in Iceland, staring at the sky, with only each other and the soothing sounds of Paul McCartney to keep us company.

I stared out at the horizon, hoping to catch at least a glimpse of green flickering across the sky. Every plane that flew overhead, every time my electronic watch face glared against the window screen, caused my heart to skip. The closest we got to the Northern Lights inevitably turned out to be the warm hum of green we saw far off towards the west.

An hour had passed since we parked up, and I was starting to get worried. At 1 o’clock in the morning, who would be there to save us if our car ran out of battery. How could we call for help when I couldn’t even call the car company and sort out our refund (300 minutes of international calling, my arse.) What would we do if we could no longer listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? So we decided (more appropriately, I decided, Ruby had long fallen asleep) to cut our losses and drive back to our cozy accomodation.

Even in the middle of a deserted national park, with no pollution in sight, we had great difficulty differentiating the cloud from the sky, the sky from the valley, and the valley from the floor. At that level of darkness, everything blended into the horizon. So no, on that faithful Wednesday night in Þingvellir, we were not able to tick ‘saw Northern Light‘ off of our bucket list, but we did earn ourselves fairly worth titles…

‘Brad and Ruby: Aurora Borealis Hunters’.

 

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