Chasing auroras in Tasmania

Hunting the Light

A couple of years ago, I found myself standing on the top deck of a Norwegian coastal liner, the Hurtigruten. The night was pitch black, it was way below zero degrees, and we stared at the sky, our necks cricked in the cold as we attempted to capture the Northern Lights.

Then, another Australian reemerged from the warm cabins below to show us a magnificent photo of the aurora phenomenon. Where’s this? we all asked. It’s in Tasmania, he said. The Australians in the group noted it was a good 15 degrees warmer and 23 hours closer to home. So on my list for this year is to see our own Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights.

I got in touch with one of Tassie’s best-known aurora chasers, Margaret Sonnemann, founder of the Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook group and author of The Aurora Chaser’s Handbook for her tips.

Happily, she says, you can see the Aurora Australis all year round in Tasmania, one of the landmasses closest to the South Magnetic Pole, which is where aurorae originate from. She shares camera tips as well as her favourite viewing points.

Click here to read the full story, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age‘s Traveller website.

Search for the glow: Norway’s Northern Lights

The Aurora throws out a curtain.


EDIT: I am very pleased to note that this feature, originally
published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, has won the Australian Society of Travel
Writers’ 2014 award for Best Cruise feature.

Dodging trolls and and black ice, Belinda Jackson rugs up to hunt the Northern Lights. 

Boarding the MS Midnatsol, the first thing we see is a tall
Norwegian woman welcoming us on to the ship. The second spectacle is of a
tall English woman being stretchered off the ship.

“She slipped and fell on the ice,” reports one of the crew.
Instinctively, I want to crawl. Happily, the lady reappears several days
later, smiling but in a wheelchair. Norwegian winter cruising, it
appears, has a touch of the blood sport about it. Forget bikinis and sun
loungers: there’s a layer of difficulty travelling in the far northern
winter.

Actually, there are many layers. Going outside for anything more than
a quick photo on the promenade deck becomes an epic exercise in
wrestling with thermal underwear. And two pairs of socks. Fleece.
Waterproof jacket. And the boots with ice grips (hmmmm – the casualty).

Crown it all with a tight beanie that will resist the wind’s
insistent fingers. Some people even pull on a balaclava, but that’s all
just a little too Douglas Mawson for me, though I am sporting a dangling
pompom that holds a 90-degree angle to my head in prevailing winds.

We do it because we’re hunting the light: the Northern
Lights. Yes, there’s reindeer sledding, midnight concerts and hot
tubbing on the top deck while it snows. But right now, our sun is in the
midst of exceptional solar activity, and boffins say that this winter
and next are the best in a decade to see the elusive Aurora Borealis.

Norway is one of the world’s top viewing locations and
doesn’t require frostbitten fingers, drinking sterilised wee or eating
your own dogs to get there.

Light-hearted: the Aurora from the deck of the Midnatsol.
Photo: Bob Stephan

In fact, it’s all rather civilised on the Midnatsol, one of
12 Hurtigruten ships that undertake an 11-day round trip that traverses
the length of the Norwegian coastline. A ship sails every day.

The coastal express mail and goods run started in 1893, with
passengers hopping on and off between farming villages and port towns.
Norwegians still use the Hurtigruten as public transport, but they are
now outnumbered dramatically by tourists keen to cruise the fiords and
wild coastline as the ship pushes up into the Arctic Circle. There’s a
healthy showing of Aussies among them, forsaking a southern summer for
temperatures so low, the locals don’t even bother to say “minus”.

You can pick the Norwegians: they’re the ones glued to the
live chess tournaments on the television in the main lounge, silently
sculling black coffee from tall thermo-mugs. The rest of us have our
noses stuck to the ship’s panoramic windows, waving at fishing trawlers
and making such blindingly obvious statements as “Gosh, it’s cold!”.

Doing nothing to dispel opinions of Norwegians as a teensy
bit boring, Norway’s national TV station NRK’s home-grown programs
includes 12-hour documentaries on stacking firewood, knitting and a
minute-by-minute program of the Hurtigruten journeying down the
Norwegian coastline, from Bergen to Kirkenes. It was a 134-hour,
non-stop broadcast, and it rated!

“Did you see the program?” the urbane concierge at Oslo’s
beautiful Grand Hotel asked me several days before boarding. “It was
great!” His patriotism makes me almost forgive Norway for being so
expensive that it makes my muscular Aussie dollars wimper and
hyperventilate.

Back on the ship, it’s time to throw out all my cruising
expectations: there are no little towel animals at the end of the bed
each night, the theatre hosts astronomy lectures instead of chorus
girls, and all the staff are locals.

It’s a dramatic change from the United Nations of staff that
you meet on most cruise ships, and it’s lovely to have locals’
experience and advice (“It’s Sunday night. This town is dead. Don’t
bother getting off.”)

But hey, it does a mean buffet. Scandinavians invented the
smorgasbord. The Norwegianised breakfast buffet features caramelised
cheese, mustard herrings and salmon done three ways (roasted, smoked,
cured) every morning. There’s reindeer pate and cloudberries at
lunchtime and a local salmon served, classically, with dill steamed
potatoes at dinner. And yes, there is a gift shop, full of hideously
misshapen trolls and heart-breakingly expensive snowflake knits. The
Hurtigruten is undeniably Norwegian.

The total journey from Kirkenes to Bergen is 2465 kilometres,
stopping in at 33 ports, some as little as 15 minutes, just long enough
to sling a crate of parcels overboard. After a few days, we slip into
the routine of busy mornings exploring towns and afternoons of quiet
contemplation and panoramic viewing.

It’s dark by 4pm but we don’t care: we’re here to see the
light. The Japanese say a baby conceived beneath the lights is a special
child. The Sami believe the lights are a trail left by a fox scampering
across the sky. Everyone from ancient Chinese to American Indians have a
theory: the lights are souls, they’re a bridge to heaven, a good omen, a
bad omen.

But let me blow a few myths: if you were standing on deck in
sub-zero temperatures at midnight waiting for a ray of green light to
zap you between the eyes, you’d be waiting a long time. Guest lecturer
and British astronomer Dr John Mason says most of the colours in the
Northern Lights are invisible to our eyes: we just can’t see the red and
turquoise bands with the naked eye.

MS Midnatsol

“You probably won’t see colour, but
you will see movement.” Green is the most apparent colour, followed by
violet, but even then they’ll most likely show up as a hazy grey cloud
against the clear black sky, he warns.

Point a camera at the grey clouds and you’ll see the eerie
green rays appear in your final photo – and even then only when you open
the lens for up to 15 seconds or more.

To see the lights, the sky has to be dark, with no light
pollution. You also need a cloudless sky and your eyes also need to be
dark adapted, which can take up to 10 minutes, which is a long time on a
windswept ship’s deck in the black of a polar night. “When the lights
appear, we’ll make the announcements over the ship’s PA, and you have to
hurry,” Dr Mason says. “We don’t know how long they’ll last – You’ve
got to be ready.” We’re all so ready.

“We’ve been on six nights, from Bergen, and haven’t seen
anything yet,” says glass artist Bob Stephan, from North Carolina. Armed
with a fish-eye lens and balaclava, he helps me lash my camera to a
deck chair in lieu of my lost tripod.

There are two important things to note from this
conversation: one is that most tourists tend to stay on the ship for the
entire 11-day round journey, from Bergen up to Kirkenes and back again.
The second is that the Northern Lights are fickle.

But we strike it lucky: second night on board, and the show
is on. The deck is jam-packed as people point cameras to the sky. The
sky swirls and a soft grey-green light gusts and drifts into view. It’s
not the “hit-me” colours of the brochures, or a white night. But the
wild wind, the snow gusts and the dancing sky leave us light-hearted and
light-headed: we are but mesmerised little people dwarfed by the glory
above.

The Lofoten archipelago.

The serious photographers are rugged up and settled in for
the night, but the crowd drifts off after an hour or so. The next night,
the lights show even longer, a static display that has the astronomers
scratching their heads, though the ship is pitching wildly.

It’s also cold enough to bite your nose off.

We dash down below decks to thaw out, when one of the
astronomy tour members, Patch, pulls out his phone. The Aurora Australis
has been putting on a spectacular show in Tasmania, just an hour and
$100 from my Melbourne home. Groans from we Australians. Tasmania?
That’s next year’s plan.

The writer was a guest of Bentours.

AHOY! Norwegian Getaway has a three-storey sports complex that includes an eight-foot over-sea “walk the plank”.

FIVE MORE GREAT PLACES TO HUNT THE AURORAS
TASMANIA The Aurora Australis has been seen as close to Hobart as
Seven-Mile Beach (near Hobart Airport), on the Overland Track and Bruny
Island. Get viewing tip-offs from this local alerts page facebook.com/groups/215002295201328/.
ALASKA Fairbanks and nearby Denali National Park are Alaska’s
playground for aurora hunting, and boast an 80 per cent chance of
spotting the lights from August to April, see explorefairbanks.com.
ICELAND Make sure you’re in the glassed-in bar of the Ion Hotel when
the lights deign to shine. The new eco-hotel is an hour’s drive from
Reykjavik, see ioniceland.is.
CANADA Head for Whitehorse, Yukon, on the edge of the wilderness and
hunker down in a yurt while you wait for the performance to begin, see arcticrange.com.
FINLAND Tuck up in a snow igloo in Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, in Finnish Lapland, a thousand kilometres north of Helsinki, see kakslauttanen.fi.

TRIP NOTES
GETTING THERE Fly Sydney to Oslo via Bangkok with Thai Airways or via London with British Airways (britishairways.com). From London or Bangkok, book early to catch Norwegian Air’s cheap flights (norwegian.com).
CRUISING THERE The nine-day Best of Norway Cruise departs daily from Bergen
or Kirkenes, with astronomy tours available in winter. From $2877, twin
share (winter) to $4448 (summer), 1800 221 712, see bentours.com.au.
MORE INFORMATION visitnorway.com.

Bill Clinton, Norwegian chess and the depths of the polar night: on the Hurtigruten

The view from the Panorama Lounge on
decks 8 and 9, MS Midnatsol.

This morning was spent eavesdropping on two old fellas from San Diego: from taking photos with Bill
Clinton, to Russia as a re-emerging military power and car parking in downtown San Diego.
On this
journey on the Hurtigruten, from Kirkenes in far northern Norway to Bergen in the south, the guests are predominantly British, American and German. I catch Australian accents more times than I
expected, many drawn by the lure of spotting the Northern Lights.  

There is also a substantial
smattering of Norwegians using the ship for its original purpose: as a means of transportation between the country’s coastal towns and cities.

The
Hurtigruten is a route, not one particular ship (‘hurtig ruten’ = fast route’). A ship leaves Bergen every day of the year and has
been doing so since 1936, interrupted only by wars. My ship is the MS Midnatsol,
(Midnight Sun) built in 2003 and with 644 berths, can take up to 1000
passengers.
One of the many lounges on the MS Midnatsol,

The oldest
ship, the MS Lofoten, was built in 1964 and takes just 153 passengers.
Apparently it’s very popular with tourists, though locals fight to understand
why. “It’s just an old barge, compared with the Midnatsol,” one tells me. 

Our cabin
is a cosy little affair: two couches fold down to make comfortable beds,
there’s a little desk and a bathroom. There are hooks and nooks to tuck your
gear away in, though the ship’s lounges, cafes and libraries are preferable,
with their panoramic windows and wi-fi which, undestandably, gets a bit shaky when the weather is tossing the ship around on the stretches of open sea.
“You won’t
starve on the journey,” a waitress tells me sorrowfully. Our induction to the chef’s
hand is lunch, with five types of fish including roasted cod, gravalax (smoked
salmon), tubes of Mills Caviar and yes, today features a reindeer casserole
with onions and mushrooms.
The dining room on the MS Midnatsol.

Stopping at
coastal habitations, sometimes for less than 15 minutes, we’re encouraged to
jump off and explore, be it a polar bear museum, taking a dip in the Arctic pool on the open Deck 9 or listening to a midnight concert when we reach Tromso. With restaurants, gym,
auditoriums, laundry and saunas, it’s a floating world, yet unlike the global
cruise liners, all the staff are local or from neighbouring Sweden. 

And with reindeer pate
and caramelised cheese on the menu, live chess broadcasts on the local tv station and a gift shop full of toy trolls and
snowflake knits, it’s undeniably Norwegian.

Catching the light fantastic: the Northern Lights in Norway

The view from deck 9, MS Midnatsol. Photo: Belinda Jackson

I have seen
the light! The Northern Lights! That shimmering curtain of luminescent green
that cloaks the Arctic Circle in the winter months. 
Coy and as unpredictable
as the Sydney bus service, we struck it lucky by spying the lights on our very
first night on the ship. The lights made a brief appearance before dinner –
which only keen watchers managed to catch – but put on a post-dinner show for
all. They reappeared around midnight after the crowds had gone to bed, to dance
and skate across the sky for just a few of us well-rugged travellers on the
Hurtigruten, here in northern Norway.
“We waited
six nights before we saw anything,” a fellow cruiser told me, while helping me
set my camera to catch the phenomenon, which is the result of solar flares
hitting the Earth’s atmosphere. ISO ramped up, exposure 10 seconds, manual
focus, camera tied to a deck chair: for we photographic amateurs, it’s really a
case of pointing, shooting and hoping that something shows up at the end.
But let me
blow a few myths: if you were standing on deck in sub-zero temperatures at
midnight waiting for a ray of green light to hit you in the face, you’d be
waiting a long time. According to the ship’s guest lecturer Dr John Mason, most
of the colours in the Northern Lights are invisible to our eyes: we just can’t
see the red and turquoise bands with the naked eye. Green is the most apparent
colour, followed by violet, but even then, when you look into the sky, they show
up more like a hazy grey cloud against the clear black sky.
Point a
camera at the grey clouds and you’ll see the eerie green rays appear in your
final photo – and even then only when you open the lens for up to 15 seconds.
It’s not always like this, otherwise the Lights wouldn’t be in Sami folklore, long
before cameras became a natural extension of our arms.
The band of
green light was a bridge between earth and heaven upon which departed souls
would travel, a mystical, powerful force that is as strong a lure for us today. 

Norway asks: what does the fox say? ‘Brrrrrr.’

The new Astrup Fearnely museum, by too-hot architect Renzo Piano.
“I hear
it’s a bit of a backwater,” says an unnamed expat living in Sweden, looking
across at neighbouring Norway. Talk about winning friends… but I’ve heard this before, Swedes sniffing at what
they see as hard-smoking, hard-drinking Norwegians who are rich from oil, not
from hard work.
It’s the classic ‘fight-with-your-neighbours’ scenario. Think Britain and France. The USA and Canada. Australia and New Zealand.

If you
tuned into Norway’s national tv station NRK, you’d probably agree. Previous
programs include 12-hour features on stacking firewood, knitting and a minute-by-minute
program of the cruise/cargo ship route, the Hurtigruten, which makes its way up
and down the Norwegian coastline, from Bergen to Kirkenes. It was a 134-hour, non-stop
broadcast from one of the ships, and it rated its pants off.
“Did you
see the program?” an urbane concierge asks me at Oslo’s beautiful Grand Hotel. “It
was great!”
Elkburger at the face of new Nordic food, Kolonihagen,
in Oslo’s gritty Grunerlokka district.

“Sorry, can’t
say I did,” I reply. “But I’m going to be living it instead.”

After a day
in Oslo, where the nonsensical Norwegian hit song ‘What does the fox say?” blares
from cosy-looking bars, we fly to icy Kirkenes, way up in the northernmost tip
of Norway, in the Finnmark region, to start our trip.
To give you
an idea of the locale, Kirkenes is two hours’ flying time from Oslo, heading
due north, in the Arctic Circle. It’s 7km from the Russian border and 37km west
of Finland. Murmansk is 250km away, about four hours’ drive.
Looking out
of the plane window, the blackness is spotted infrequently with orange lights indicating
some sort of dwelling. The ground is white with snow and ice, slick with
running water and while the temperature reads a relatively balmy 2.2 degrees
(positive), the wind chill factor drags it down somewhere below zero.
“It’s quite warm for this time of year,” the
taxi driver tells me. “A few years ago, it was -20C in early November.” My face
starts to crack just at the thought of that cold.
Dinner is a
very red chowder with pepper, king crab and chunks of cod, and a reindeer
burger the size of a side plate: for all its insanely low temperatures, this is not a desert. The land provides.