Sunday, 22 April 2012

London Marathon

As I type this, the London Marathon is happening just outside my window.

On days like this, I like London more than just ‘kind of’.

Monday, 16 April 2012

London, 7:45 pm

All day I was craving a cycle ride, but the Barclays bike terminals were down because of some computer failure. In the evening, I could take it no more, and borrowed Saha’s cycle for a spin.

On Westferry Road, there is a small wharf overlooking the Thames. I reached it just in time to see the sun go down behind the Central London skyline.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Chasing the Lights

“Looking for the northern lights,” said our bus driver, as we left the outskirts of Reykjavík and hit Route 41, “is like fishing.”

She did not elaborate, because Icelanders like their sermons short, and because she was simultaneously driving a bus, scanning the sky for northern lights and keeping up a running commentary – activities which left her with little or no leisure for explaining metaphors. But this is what I understood it to mean: Having invested in a fishing-rod and tackle and a day’s outing, if you catch no fish at all, you may be tempted to call it a waste of a day. And this can cloud your appreciation of the sunshine, the smell of grass and the music of the river.

February is not the most popular time to visit Iceland. The days are short, many roads are still impassable, there is limited public transport, and it is – as you might expect – fairly cold. But the Quaker and I wanted, if possible, to see the northern lights. In an earlier post, I wrote briefly about our quest, and promised to apprise you of further developments. The time for a fuller account is now come.

First, of course, you need a project name.

We take our trip-planning seriously, and I enjoy it nearly as much as the trip itself. Occasionally, we get carried away: to plan our Edinburgh trip, for instance, we booked a meeting room in Prakruthi’s swanky condominium.

Needless to say, we have project names for our trips, which are chosen early on in the planning process. Edinburgh was Project Kilt. Iceland, of course, was Project Aurora.

Being sensible people, we knew, project name notwithstanding, that a glimpse of the northern lights is by no means assured. By going in February and spending eight nights in Iceland, we were improving our chances. But aurora displays depend on the interaction between solar wind and the earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, and even when they do occur, you may miss it because of an overcast sky, or the glare of city lights, or simply because you are not in the right place at the right time.

We based ourselves in Reykjavík and Akureyri, but within city limits, chances of seeing the lights are slim. So we signed up for ‘northern lights tours’ – nightly bus trips into the countryside run by tour operators, using weather information, aurora forecasts and their own considerable experience at chasing the lights. Conveniently, they offer you a free second trip if you did not see the lights on your first. We were able to take advantage of this and make two trips from Reykjavík and two from Akureyri.

Trip 1 was from Reykjavík, on a partially overcast night. We went south-east, all the way to the south coast of Iceland, where the sky was supposed to be clearer. We saw the North Atlantic Ocean by night, but although we made several stops – by the ocean, on a deserted side-road outside Selfoss and, of all places, at a KFC – we saw no aurora. Then, around 1 am, just when we had given up hope, we stopped in the middle of a snowfield and spied a faint glow overhead. Behind a veil of cloud, the lights faintly flickered and moved, and vanished after a few minutes. The tour operators were, nevertheless, kind enough to offer us a free second trip.

Trip 2 was from Akureyri. There were not many tourists in the whole town, and only eight of us went on the tour. So we had a van, which was much cosier than a large bus. We were better prepared too, with biscuits, water and more warm clothing than we wore in Reykjavík.

I think it was on this trip that I really started enjoying the whole experience. Seeing the lights was still the main objective, but I began to appreciate other things: the vastness of the scenery, the incredible clarity of the stars, the icy crispness of the night air, the warmth inside the van and the sense of common purpose – something almost akin to the thrill of the chase.

To occupy ourselves during the long hours of standing around in the cold, the Quaker and I would play around with the settings on our cameras and take practice shots, so that when the aurora finally made an appearance, it would not find us unprepared. We have compact cameras and no tripods, but in our efforts to make the best of our limited resources, we left no technique untried. By the end of it, we could have written A Cheapskate’s Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights.

A Cheapskate’s Guide to Photographing the Northern Lights
(condensed version)
Switch to Manual mode.
Set a long shutter speed (on my camera, the longest possible is 15 seconds).
Set the widest possible aperture (f/2.8 on my camera).
Select a high ISO speed, but not so high that the grain is unacceptable (I opted for ISO 800).
Set a 2-second timer, to eliminate camera shake caused by depressing the shutter.
Find a horizontal surface, or failing that, put your backpack on the ground and balance your camera on it.
Learn to do all of the above with gloves on, unless you want to lose a few fingers to frostbite.

It was an almost cloudless night; still we saw no aurora. But we saw the glimmering lights of Akureyri reflected on the waters of Eyjafjörður, and we got another free trip.

Trip 3 was also from Akureyri. There was a thick cloud cover over northern Iceland, and we knew from the start that we stood almost no chance of an aurora sighting. But by this time, it mattered less to us. We drove north, right up to Siglufjörður.

Our guide and van-driver was Inga Svavarsdóttir – a sheep-farmer and part-time tour guide. She kept up a stream of cheerful conversation, telling us about scientific explanations for the aurora, local folklore, the Siglufjörður fish industry, hiking in the surrounding hills, and Icelandic farming techniques. (Long-time readers may recall that this is not the first time I have been lectured on farming techniques.)

In case you’re wondering what an Icelandic farm looks like, here is a photo of one in the daytime.

At one point, after we had stood outside for a while vainly scrutinising an opaque sky and shivering in our shoes, Inga revealed homemade kleiner and thermos flasks full of hot chocolate. I doubt if even a sudden and dramatic appearance of the northern lights could have delighted me so.

Trip 4 was on my last night in Reykjavík. We had briefly wondered whether we should quit chasing the lights and do something else, but we decided we may as well avail of our remaining free trip. It was another cloudless night, but we had learnt not to expect too much. We drove west of Reykjavík, towards the Keflavík peninsula.

Around 9:30 pm, we made our first stop near a church. Excited tourists on their first northern lights tour piled out of the bus, quivering with anticipation and excitedly discussing our chances. The Quaker and I also disembarked, but with a dignity befitting four-trip veterans, with an indulgent smile or two at the over-enthusiasm of the first-time tourists: what did they know of disappointment and of long waits in the bitter cold?

Then the aurora lit up the sky, just like that.

People madly took photos. One dude, for reasons best known to him, pointed a red laser at the aurora. Having finely honed our photographic technique on the preceding nights, the Quaker and I reeled off a few quick shots, which left us with some time to forget our cameras and gaze at the sky.

The display lasted almost an hour. A vivid green streak formed in the northern sky, then a second streak curved into a horseshoe shape.

Some Aurora Myths

A Finnish folktale says that the aurora is caused by an arctic fox flinging fire into the sky with its tail. Some Scandinavians believed that the lights are the celestial reflection of a giant school of herring. Inuits thought they are the souls of dead children. Icelanders, typically, eschewed such romantic notions, holding only that if a pregnant woman gazed at the northern lights, her child would be born cross-eyed.

The Koyukuk Indians in northwest Alaska banged on metal pans to attract aurora – I know not to what end. In Lapland, people were warned not to mock or whistle at the aurora, though I must confess that the one time I saw the lights, it did not occur to me to do either of these things.

The next day, I was back in London.

Icelandair offers Northern Lights City Breaks. Our dispreference for package tours meant that we did not consider it an option, but I still read their disclaimer, because I am sad like that. It says:
Please Note: The Northern Lights are a natural phenomena and therefore their appearance cannot be predicted. [...] If the weather conditions on the evening of your tour are not favourable for searching for the Northern Lights, the tour will be cancelled and you will be given the option of going on the tour the following night. Please note that no refunds will be offered for the tour portion of the package.
How much nicer was the disclaimer we got from our bus driver: chasing the lights is, indeed, like fishing.