Caroline Elderfield, The Daily Telegraph, October 17, 2014
The northern lights are overhead – swirling ribbons of red, green, white and purple – and I am determined to keep my jaw shut. The Sami people, who inhabit the Arctic area of northern Scandinavia known as Lapland, believe that the night spirits will rush in to claim the soul of those who gaze with mouth open. But it’s hard not to feel awed by such a spectacular midnight display, enjoyed from the deck of a Hurtigruten ship as we edge into the harbour at Tromsø in Norway.
The light show came at the end of a magical journey on board the 822-passenger MS Trollfjord – a round trip north to Kirkenes on Norway’s border with Russia – dedicated to hunting the aurora borealis. All eyes and a vast array of camera kit were trained on the heavens during this five-day odyssey, led by astronomer Dr John Mason.
There was time to kill while waiting to join the ship on its outbound leg. Luckily my visit coincided with the reindeer-racing championships, during which these fabulously ungainly creatures achieve speeds in excess of 37 miles per hour along Tromsø’s snow-covered main street.
The racing scene is well-established throughout Scandinavia and Russia and the championships are held each year in February during Sami Week, a festival of Sami culture. Competitors exit the starting gate in a blur of skin-tight Lycra - not riding but being pulled on Nordic skis behind a wild-eyed, tongue-lolling beast.
By 2pm it was already getting dark and cold – minus 12 as I hurried up Trollfjord’s gangway. Once inside it was clear that this was no ordinary ferry, for the public areas are luxurious, with blond wood, sparkling brass, seal-hide armchairs and original art on the walls.
In service since 2002, Trollfjord is one of a fleet of Hurtigruten ships which, between them, provide a daily service to the remote communities of Norway's west coast. The full round trip from Bergen to Kirkenes takes 12 days, with 34 stops on the voyage north and 33 on the return.
My cabin was functional but cosy, with a large window framing a panorama of snowy tundra bathed in pink winter light. On the desk sat a telephone - rarely used on normal voyages these days, but vital as it could be programmed to broadcast alerts from the bridge whenever the earliest flickers of the northern lights were spotted.
The first of these came just before dinner as Trollfjord approached the Arctic Circle. Grabbing hat, coat, gloves and camera, I rushed to the observation deck. It was surprisingly dark up there, illuminated by a scattering low-voltage bulbs aimed at keeping light pollution to a minimum.
The sky was already glowing with static bands of green. I was faintly disappointed until I glimpsed some of the photographs being taken. It seems a camera can appreciate what the eye cannot. The information desk's crib sheet became essential reading: the best results demand long exposures (typically 10-30 seconds) and a tripod. By setting the camera to take a slideshow of images it is possible to capture the movement of the lights, too.
Now in the grip of obsession, I found myself part of a crowd of new friends who arranged to keep watch all night in shifts of 20 minutes each. One of my companions had had the foresight to download a Nasa app capable of monitoring solar eruptions, which gave us a fairly good idea of whether our vigil would yield results.
It works like this: activity on the surface of the sun releases streams of atomic particles which, when they hit our planet a day or two later, react with elements in the upper atmosphere to produce flashes of coloured light. These tiny particles are funnelled downwards by Earth’s magnetic field, cascading in a ring around the poles – which is why, if you want to see the aurora, northern Norway is the place to go.
What the app can't do is predict cloud. But when it was overcast, there was the consolation of a splendid dinner. Menus on board reflected the culinary specialities of the places Trollfjord visits along the coast. Approaching Hammerfest there was aquavit-cured reindeer and Arctic char (a local fish) to enjoy, while up at the North Cape we were served a splendid seafood buffet including king crab.
Like the rest of the Hurtigruten fleet, Trollfjord is a working ferry rather than a cruise ship. Many of its stops last just 15 minutes and involve a ballet of twirling forklift trucks in a rush to exchange beer and car spares for boxes of stockfish. I witnessed farewells and reunions on the quay, wreathed in clouds of frozen breath, and imagined histories for the protagonists
At larger settlements, such as Hammerfest or Kirkenes, there was time to go ashore for dog-sledding or even a dip in the freezing ocean - or to do as I did and race the ship by snowmobile across country between Kjøllefjord and Mehamn.
Like all natural phenomena, the northern lights cannot be guaranteed. But we saw a breathtaking display while motoring through the snowy darkness, with ghostly coronas of turquoise and red directly overhead. In fact, it was repeated every night bar one - building up to that knockout finale in Tromsø.
Solar activity is expected to remain at its current peak until spring 2015. If you want the best chance of seeing the northern lights, it’s important to be in the right place at the right time. A Hurtigruten winter cruise gives luck a helping hand.
Hurtigruten ( hurtigruten.co.uk ; 020 3627 9535) offers a 12-night Arctic Experience cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes. From £995pp on selected departures this winter, excluding flights. Book an 11-night Classic Round Voyage before November 30, 2014 (for departure between 1 October 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015 and if the lights fail to show the cruise line will offer a seven-day cruise-only Classic Voyage North or six-day Classic Voyage South in an inside twin cabin (full-board basis), departing between October 1, 2015 and March 31, 2016. Excludes flights.
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This article was written by Caroline Elderfield from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.