Our guide was trying to put a brave face on the figures in Alta in northern Norway. The low percentage forecast had been similar for the past couple of nights, she said, and yet customers had gone away satisfied with one of nature’s most spectacular shows. Still, it didn’t look good: the charged particles that caused the Northern Lights would be up there, that much was sure — the main problem was cloud cover.
She refused to be downhearted. The van was warm, coffee and snacks were on offer, and she was prepared to stay out all night.
We nearly did, and it was cold. My companions on this trip had come all the way from Indonesia and — even though they’d bought the right clothing, and the engine was kept running — they became quieter and quieter. We spent a lot of time gazing at a blank sky, willing it to do something.
I had to admire our guide’s stamina and, in the end, she was rewarded. The sky cleared long enough for a trail of powdery light to dust across from one side to the other, like celestial icing sugar.
For a full 15 minutes it stayed with us, vibrating gently overhead. To the naked eye it looked white, but our cameras picked out a greenish tinge. On good nights, our guide said, there’d be other colors too, but that night we were grateful for what we got. The Indonesians had what they needed for their Instagram pages.
Fast-forward three days and it was a different story. I was in northern Norway for a dog-sled journey, which involved sleeping in a remote hut at the edge of a frozen lake. The hut had a separate toilet shed, and a late-night call of nature that dragged me reluctantly from my warm sleeping bag.
I am grateful it did, because outside, on that silent, frozen night, the sky was putting on a show just for me. It looked as if the firmament had been strung like a harp, but with strings that melted and dissolved, only to reform again in another part of the sky in fretworks of lace. As if some kind of music was being played above my head that only the gods could hear.
This time I could see green, and a sort of orangey hue too — rivulets of color snaking all the way to the horizon. I thought about getting my camera, to prove what I had seen, but that would mean disturbing the others, and besides, I wanted it for myself. So I stood there for 10 minutes, head thrown back, drinking it all in. Then my bladder reminded me of my reason for getting up in the first place and I headed for the shed.