The Northern Lights are a crazed phenomenon. If you live in Europe or in North America, you’d be a hermit not to come across travel propaganda which didn’t try to sell you a trip up to the North Pole or near-abouts to catch a glimpse of the green lights in the winter black sky. People call it a trip of a lifetime, armed with cameras and selfie sticks, jumping onto snowmobiles and or reindeer sledges to capture those moments for Facebook and Instagram and to remember them for the rest of their lives.
Here’s what I learned when we attempted out very own Northern Lights sojourn in the very peak of winter, chasing the lights way up in Lapland, supposedly where Father Christmas calls home!
- Never, I mean this very seriously, make a trip up north during your Christmas break. It’s definitely appealing to make wise use of the 2 week holiday period, but if the Aurora Borealis is on your bucket list, Father Christmas and the weather has colluded to keep them away. The best season to view the Northern Lights is the 6 week window between 1 February and 10 March.
- We are extremely independent travellers, having always made our own choices on location, itinerary, flights and hotels for pretty much all out travels. But when visiting Lapland, this is something I would advise against. The Northern Lights are visible at the farthest tip of the Northern Hemisphere – the extreme Northern end of the Nordic region, northern parts of Russia and of course Iceland. These regions are remote, with limited public infrastructure, limited language options and a select few hotels most of which are booked out way ahead by tour operators. Coupled with these factors and the difficulty in getting regular flights to take you up north, the most convenient option is to research the tour operators who provide tailored journeys during the Northern Lights season and book yourself in with one of them. There aren’t too many of them either, so the choice isn’t difficult.
- It is bitterly cold out there. I mean cold enough to die. So do take Mother Nature seriously. Our normal London every day winter wear is peanuts in this weather. You would need thermal underwear, balaclava, thick down parka, woolen socks, snow suits, thermal boots, a whole host of clothing, which if you set about to buy would actually end up costing more than your entire trip itself! Hence another advantage of booking a tour is that all tour operators have joined with the Finnish Tourist Board to provide you with snow suits and snow boots for the duration of your stay. You would still need to ensure that you had adequate warm clothing, underwear and socks to wear underneath your snow suits. I would recommend a> a layer of thermal underwear b> a layer of knitwear c> a pliable jacket where you can move your arms freely d> two pairs of socks to be worn underneath the snow boots e> a balaclava and most importantly f> thick heavy leather gloves with a woolen interior. If you have the option to wear contact lenses and not your glasses, do exercise that option. Breathing through the balaclava can mist up your glasses, interrupting your view too often. We learnt the hard way.
- Us intrepid travel love to venture out into the unknown. We love our little alleys and tucked away cafe in Paris, Barcelona, New York, Cairo, Beirut, New Delhi, London, Zürich or even the smaller villages dotting Europe, North America and Asia and Africa. Not Lapland. Yes we did venture out, but the most we walked was a hundred metres down the road in front of our hotel. The small town of Hetta had just one large department store and a church and a few hotels. Anything beyond that was sheer wilderness. If you strayed more than a few metres on either side of the main road, you literally ventured into the Arctic wilderness. Walking down the main road, and keeping the lights of the hotels and the department stores or cafes in sight is possibly the way to be, as if you venture too further out into the wilderness you may find yourself unable to make your way back. A week before we visited the Finnish Lapland in Enontekio, a rare murder had happened in that area and the murderer was forced to turn himself into the police when he saw their snowmobiles because he couldn’t survive anymore in the wilderness as his own snowmobile had broken down and he was almost frozen and in agony from the chilling winds. So the warmth of the jailhouse was more favorable than the wilderness!
- Possibly the biggest downside of visiting Enontekio was the complete and utter lack of restaurants and cafes to explore. You are left to the mercy of whatever is prepared in your hotel kitchen. If food is a major element of your travel, visiting Lapland will make you severely disappointed. The Nordic region isnt majorly known for their gastronomic conquests and the further north you go, the more basic it becomes. In a strange way, the Sami people (who make up the majority of the population in Lapland), are people of the land, tending to their reindeer flocks in winter or reaping the summer crop and food for them is nourishment and not pleasure. So you would get hearty and hot meals, but don’t count on the appearance or the taste and gourmet factor! And a first for me – you get a selection of pickled fish for breakfast! Whoever would want that!
- Whilst the knee deep snow and complete darkness in Lapland in winter is a big draw for tourism, an opportunity to experience the life of the local Sami people and understand how man co-exists with the beautiful but harsh winters is available through the many adventures planned as part of the tour. Top of the list is definitely the Northern Lights sojourn late into the night. Ours started at 9 pm and by the time we returned back to our hotel room it was past 3 am! Disappointed though we were, the freedom to drive my own snowmobile (albeit you need a valid EU driver’s licence or an International Driving Permit) through absolute pitch black wilderness was one of the highlights. Driving own huskies dog sled through the Arctic wilderness was possibly the most surreal experience of all, but for the people of that land, that is their primary mode of transport! We came across a young lad from Leeds, Yorkshire, who had given up his desk job in Leeds to come and live with the Huskies in Lapland all in the hope of owning his own tribe one day. A long conversation with him left me perplexed and analysing my own life and my day job!
- And finally some of the miscellaneous! In order to survive the 4-5 days that you might have willingly put yourself into this extreme wilderness, it is highly recommended that you carry your own stash of dry food e.g. biscuits and cookies as dinner is served and wrapped up by 7 pm. Venturing out to see the Northern Lights can bring you back to extreme pangs of hunger and nothing to appease it for the next 4-5 hours! If you enjoy your fizzy drinks and cigarettes, make sure your carry own supply. They are prohibitively expensive in the lodge that you may be put up at. Alcohol and beer are equally expensive, so decide whether you need to carry them with you (keeping within your airline weight limits) or whether you can survive without them or possibly spend something closer to 10 quid for a small glass of chardonnay. Your choice. Carry your own stash of toiletries and bathroom electronics as what you would get at these remote hotels wouldn’t be sufficient.
The Arctic Wilderness is wild, crazy and dares you to be different. If travel is in your blood, a voyage to the northern tip of the world is something dreams are made of. Complete darkness for close to 20 hours, wading through knee-deep soft snow, snowboarding through the small hillocks, temperature hovering around the minus 20 degrees, intermittent sharp snow showers, wandering off in your snowmobiles in search of the northern lights into the complete wilderness, reindeer sledge rides through an open frozen lake, the absolutely adorable huskies pulling you through the snow laden forests, and so much more awaits you at the land which Father Christmas calls home.