“Are you sure we’re allowed to be in here?”
My other half was probably right to be a little concerned. On the strength of a poster’s recommendation on an online travel forum, we were making our way through a foot of snow into the playground of a school about a half hour from Tromso. This northerly Norwegian town had built a successful tourist industry off the back of the Northern Lights and there were a whole host of ways to view them. You could see the sky dance in greens and reds and purples above a campfire outside a traditional lavvu, an Arctic Circle kind of teepee. You could mush a husky sled through the forest and hope that the sky put on a showing when you reached a clearing. You could even have a Sami herder show you nature’s finest light show whilst his reindeer dragged you across snowy fields on a rustic sleigh. Even without a showing – and it wasn’t guaranteed – each of these experiences would stay with you for a lifetime and had a price tag to match. We needed to find a way of seeing this once in a lifetime phenomenon without using our life savings.
We set ourselves the challenge of seeing how cheaply we could chase the lights for an evening.
Earlier on, we’d found ourselves in Tromso’s branch of Burger King. Shocked at the price of a tiny cup of hot chocolate in the fancy cafes, we’d hit on a plan. Buying a flask in the local homeware store, we purchased several hot chocolates from Burger King, the cheapest place in town, and decanted them carefully. Wearing every layer of clothing we’d brought with us, we loaded up our tripod and cameras into the backpack and crossed our fingers the flask wouldn’t leak.
There was a bus that could take us out of town to Eidkjosen, from where we could pick up another to the village of Ersfjordbotn, out in the countryside west of the city. By car, it would be a half hour ride; by bus, assuming we managed to make our connection successfully, it would probably be an hour. It was.
The bus driver was keen to make sure we didn’t get stranded in the frigid night temperatures, getting off the first bus with us to escort us to the second. They exchanged words which I assumed were instructions as to where to drop us off. Alighting in the centre of Ersfjordbotn, we weren’t surprised that there wasn’t a soul about; anyone with any sense was tucked up indoors, drinking the local firewater with the heating turned up to max. Even in the early evening it was already several degrees below zero, and we were glad to have piled on the thermals.
As the name suggests, Ersfjordbotn was a harbour nestled way back into the crevices of a fjord. On either side, steep cliff faces loomed blacker than the night sky above them. A few stars winked from behind stringy clouds, not completely clear but promising enough, we decided. Ice crunched under the thick soles of our snow boots as we trudged across the school yard. Apprehensive, our voices were the quietest of whispers, fearful of waking a caretaker or a guard dog. We tripped the sensor of a floodlight.
“Shit. That’s done it.”
We held our breath. Nothing. My heart thudded so hard I thought it was going to burst from within my chest, though buried under so many layers of clothing it would have been a while before I’d have known.
“Why are you so worried? You said it was a common tip online. Are you sure we’re allowed to be in here?”
My heartbeat started to return to normal. He had a point. Why was I worrying? The Norwegians we’d encountered so far had been so welcoming that if the caretaker did catch us, he’d be more likely to invite us inside to warm up than throw us out on our ear.
At the back of the schoolyard, we set up the tripod and sheltered against the building out of the icy wind that whipped across the fjord to slap our bare cheeks. It was now a waiting game. We had a few hours until the last bus left, late enough that the lights could make a decent showing. Breaking out the hot chocolate, we played I-Spy and Guess the Capital City as the feeling slowly ebbed from our toes. The ground was so cold you could almost see it creeping up around your ankles like a special effect in a superhero movie. The sky remained resolutely dark and we tried not to be disheartened.
My other half pointed to the west. Wavering green light flicked in a zig zag across the sky above us before withering. Gradually, over the next half an hour, the colour became more intense, and the green scarves danced for longer, ebbing and flowing like the tide before fading away completely. It was mesmerising. While the lights played, we forgot the cold, transfixed, our minds completely absorbed by the magic of this incredible sight. Time passed, an hour, two. The lights turned from green to purple, lighting up the snow-dusted rocks on either side of the rock like a dramatic sunset.
“Look over there!”
This time, the lights I turned to face were headlights and they belonged to the last bus back. Our bus! Grabbing the tripod and the half-empty flask, we ran back towards the main road, skidding on the icy ground, the cold snatching what little breath we had left. As we raced up the path, the driver was already waiting.
“It’s OK. You made it,” he said with a smile. We sank into a seat on the almost empty bus, noses up against the window for one last glimpse. The lights had gone. We allowed ourselves a satisfied grin before getting on with the important task of warming ourselves up. Our budget-busting trip had been a success beyond our wildest hopes.