Alluring Auroras

With Iceland being so close to the Arctic Circle, the chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights) are great on a clear night. The ability of seeing this dancy phenomenon is one of the attractions that Iceland has to offer!

With Iceland being so close to the Arctic Circle, the chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights) are great on a clear night. The ability of seeing this dancy phenomenon is one of the attractions that Iceland has to offer. There are many companies that offer a Northern Lights tour by bus or 4x4, but demand is extremely high with many tours being sold out. I highly recommend booking early (perhaps week before your trip). The best way to

This is a write-up on my experience with Superjeep.is 

Disclaimer: This review and writeup is based on my own experiences, and is in no way a paid endorsement by Superjeep.is.

What are the chances?

All week prior to my trip, I had been checking the aurora weather forecast, as predicted by Iceland's national weather service (Vedur.is). It showed cloudy skies all week, and our chances looked bleak. The forecast changed everyday, so I bookmarked that page and checked it every day. Our first night was too cloudy to venture out, and the tour was cancelled that evening. On our second day in the country - February 21st, I checked the forecast:

The forecast from the Icelandic Met Office - white shades designate clear skies; green designates cloud coverage.

 

Hours later, I received this email...

Northern Lights Alert 21 feb. 2017

The tour is ON Please contact us around 17:00

to confirm your seat to <redacted email> or call

<redacted phone number>

Thank you have a nice evening

Team SUPERJEEP.IS

YES! We had the potential to see the Northern Lights!! After exploring the city during the day, my mother and I headed back to the hotel to bundle up and get our photo equipment. We waited in the hotel lobby until Superjeep's crew picked us up. We rode in a large 4x4 van with studded tires. As we headed out of the city, I kept my head up and looked at the skyline hoping to see some lights early in the evening. Everything was pitch black.

Superjeep’s crew is comprised of a convoy of six or seven 4×4 vehicles, with one of them being a medic (just in case). We drove up roads to a state park that was covered in ice! There was no way that a bus could get up that giant hill… heck this vehicle made driving in Seattle on a snowy day look easy… we made our first stop at a park named Heiðmerkurvegur to wait for the rest of the crew.

Star Gazing and Waiting

As we waited for others to arrive, I tested my camera settings and set my tripod up. The sky was filled with stars, and there was a distinctly bright star. I thought it was the North Star at first... I checked my compass and it was pointing south. It couldn't have been the North Star, I thought to myself.

Turns out, that it was Venus! My reaction when I found out...

We spent about a half an hour at the park before carrying on to our second stop - from there, the real hunt begins!


That bright “star” is actually Venus! I wonder if you could call it a… Venus Skytrap?

Mountain Woo

On the way to our second stop, our tour guide gave us some background information the northern lights phenomenon. A lot of the information went over my head so I’ll spare you the details (get it? because the lights are typically found in the sky? oh never mind). Our guide was entertaining to say the least, and he opened it up for a Q&A session on our way. Best quote of the night:

Q: What is the country doing to prepare for a volcanic eruption?
A: Right now, the government is building a wall around the giant volcano, and Mexico is going to pay for it

Regardless of political belief, you have to admit that was pretty funny…

At this point, I have no idea where we are. We arrived at some place, and it was somewhere in a mountain range. I’ll let the pictures do the talking – my phone was dead so I didn’t have GPS data, please forgive me.

Around 10:45pm, winds started picking up, clouds were rolling in, and it started becoming cold outside. I thought… oh great, there goes our chances. The crew told everyone to retreat back to the vehicles. Just when I thought we were about to head back to the city and call it a night, the conductor of the convoy said that we were going to make one more stop and beat the clouds before they started rolling in. At this point, I was extremely tired, and almost fell asleep on the way.

I woke up to a little bit of a rumble – we drove around some obstacle on the road, and made another stop in between some more mountains. Here, the skies were a little less cloudy. Is the third time the charm?

It’s Getting Lit!

Shortly after getting out of the car in a somewhat drowsy state, I deployed my tripod and aimed for the sky. My mom pointed outward at what looked like a dust cloud. “Is that it?”, she asked. I pointed my camera at what looked like noise in the sky, set an exposure for 30 seconds, and clicked the shutter.

Was it light pollution? Was it some faint trails of the auroras? I quickly called our tour guides and asked them if those were the Northern Lights. They seemed to dismiss our discoveries from the naked eye. I then showed them the output on my camera, and they thought it was intriguing, but they doubted that they were the lights.

Instead, I continued taking pictures of the area, just in case something developed…

Ever since I was in the 4th grade, I had dreams of seeing the Aurora Borealis. After learning that the only places to see them are far away from Indiana, I told myself that I would travel abroad for the chance to see them. When I took on photography, I made it my goal not to only see them, but to capture the dancing lights. Seeing these in person brought me extreme amounts of happiness.

Some important tips:

  • If you have a smartphone, you will most likely not be able to get pictures like this unless you have a tripod and an app that supports long-exposures. Instead, just soak in the moment!
  • Do not use your phone while on the tour. Your eyes will need to first adjust to darkness before you can see physically see some aurora activity (aka: your pupils should be wider to let more light in). This can take up to 30 minutes
  • Bundle up – it’s super chilly!
  • If you want to take a portrait in front of the northern lights, take a 30 second long exposure. Stand in front of the camera with a pose and hold that pose for 30 seconds without moving. For one second, shine a flashlight across the entire subject, then turn the light off. That brief second of light will be captured in the long exposure, and you’ll blend right in with the lights in the sky!
  • Check the Aurora Forecast at Vedur.is – http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ 
  • Block out some time for the Northern Lights tour on your first night in the country. Cancelled tours roll over into the next day until you either go on the tour or leave the country
    • Refunds are given if you are not able to go on a tour prior to leaving the country

Final Thoughts

Superjeep’s guides were fantastic, and insightful the whole trip. They made an effort by driving us to three different locations and trying to chase the lights. These locations were inaccessible by a charter bus or a rental car, but easily passable by their vehicles. The tour guides are often contractors who are looking to make some extra cash on the side, and they take the time out of their personal lives on top of their day-to-day job to please tourists.

If you’re looking to spend a little extra to be part of a smaller group and reach places where a tour bus can’t get to, I highly recommend this agency. If you’re going to Iceland at a time where the Northern Lights are not visible, they offer other tours near Reykjavík as well – it’s something to think about.

Keep in mind that on many winter evenings, there will be cloudy skies which blocks the Northern Lights. Under cloudy conditions, most tour groups will cancel the tour for the evening. You’ll automatically be rolled-over into a tour for the next evening, but you have to confirm enrollment by email. If you leave Iceland without getting the chance to go on a tour, you will be fully refunded.

Most importantly, do not plan a trip to Iceland on the sole basis of seeing the Northern Lights. Doing so will make you feel disappointed, and may damper your experience. Instead, plan a trip to Iceland solely to explore a new country with beautiful landmarks, and dynamic culture – the Northern Lights is just a bonus if you get lucky! I guarantee you’ll want to revisit.

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