"They’re here!” Warm jackets, hats and scarves were grabbed, and everyone rushed outside. To my amazement the sky, so inky black before, now shimmered and pulsated with curtains of green in every direction.
There are some experiences so extraordinary they make you cry at the wonder of it all – or at least bring a lump to your throat. The first great whale that you see, for instance. Or the sight of a quarter of a million king penguins on one beach. This – the mesmerising sparkle of the northern lights – was another such natural marvel.
An awed hush fell over the three dozen or so people on Nuolja Mountain. Couples hugged and kissed; one girl sat in the snow, her eyes swimming with tears, staring entranced. She was obviously made of sterner stuff than me – I had to rush back inside to warm myself up with another mug of hot chocolate, before venturing out again to find the auroral display still as active.
“It might not be very bright tonight,” said our guide, “but it is one of the biggest this year.” Sure enough, the aurora took up the whole 360 degrees of the sky.
Abisko, high in Arctic Sweden, is the country’s driest spot, so has the best cloud-free conditions for northern lights viewing. Indeed, it is one of the best places in the world to witness this incredible phenomenon. However, I hadn’t been optimistic about seeing the lights – this hadn’t been a terribly good year for them. On the transfer from Kiruna airport to Abisko, the rep was clearly trying to manage our expectations: “We need the sun to come out to burn those clouds off and the temperature to drop quite a lot – by, say, 10°C…”
We’d driven from the airport along a near-empty white road, the tracks of snowmobiles and dog-sleds tantalisingly criss-crossing the otherwise pristine landscape. Dinner at the Abisko Mountain Station hotel – herring, reindeer and berry cheesecake – was served early, and those of us hoping to see the northern lights assembled in reception by 8pm: in Arctic Sweden you’re most likely to see the aurora between 10pm and 11pm. “Put on all your clothes. And then go to the shop and buy more!” joked our guide. “It is -6°C now; it will be much colder later.”
It was a short walk to the chairlift up Nuolja Mountain. As we waited our turn a pale column of green smeared the sky. I decided that, if that was all I saw of the aurora, then at least I’d seen something. The chairlift took around 20 minutes. A bitterly cold wind was blowing, causing my teeth to chatter and my eyes to run. We needed clear skies and a drop in temperature; suddenly that’s exactly what we were getting.
At the top we warmed up with hot chocolate in the café. In one corner there was a room housing an exhibition about the aurora, with talks available throughout the evening. We heard about the many myths and superstitions surrounding the northern lights, and how the occasional Oriental couple, believing it auspicious to conceive a baby under the aurora, had been found (brrr!) procreating in the snow.
We also heard about the colours: so far we’d seen one small streak of green, the most common tone, but red aurora are rarer and considered a bad omen. Indeed, in January 1938 there was a particularly striking red aurora seen throughout the UK and Europe, so bright that it was believed Windsor Castle was on fire; some saw it as a warning of the imminent world war.
Given the legends, I was rather relieved that our display that night was green. But it was still spectacular, every bit of sky taken up with moving shapes, sometimes gently wafting but occasionally swirling as if being tugged, like curtains billowing in the wind.
The next day we followed the road back past Kiruna to the tiny village of Jukkasjarvi, home to more sled-dogs (800) than humans (600), but now world-famous thanks to an extraordinary (but increasingly copied) experience: the Icehotel. In 1990 a tour operator working in the area asked a French artist to design an igloo made from the ice of the frozen Torne River. It became a tourist attraction and, one night, some hardy visitors decided to try sleeping in it. The idea of a hotel made of ice was born.
The Icehotel is still seen as much as a work of art as accommodation. It is built afresh each winter, and artists from around the world are invited to design the ‘suites’, which comprise a third of he accommodation, the rest being plain ice rooms. Even if you’re not staying here, you can still visit to ogle this unique shrine to ice and snow.
I was struck by ‘Sur Real’, a room with a pair of giant toes; ‘Chasing Penguins’ was like the interior of a submarine. ‘Queen of Ice’ was the most chillingly beautiful suite, while ‘Paradise Apple Tree’ had ice steps leading to a bed atop an ice tree – a room to admire, but I prayed not the one I’d have to sleep in.
To be honest, I don’t like snow, or ice, or winter full stop. I hadn’t exactly been looking forward to sleeping on an ice bed, and now that I’d seen the rooms I felt a growing sense of dread. My first night was to be spent in ‘warm’ accommodation (one of the complex’s solid-walled rooms), but the following night would be in an ice suite; when it was time for the daily ‘How to sleep at -5°C’ talk, I made sure I attended.
The guide ran through all the dos and don’ts, starting with the question on everyone’s lips: What about going to the toilet? (Answer: leave the Icehotel and go to the nearby non-ice shower block.) “An artist once made a toilet seat out of ice... I don’t need to tell you more!” smiled the guide. We were strongly advised to wear only one layer of thermal clothing inside the sleeping bag: “It’s your body heat that warms the bag”. We should also wear socks, mittens and a hat.
“Do not wash your face with soap just before you go to bed, or rub on any water-based skin lotions either. You don’t want your face to freeze,” the guide continued. “And do get into your sleeping bag feet first! We had one guest who got in head first...”
I decided to fortify my nerves with a cocktail in the Icebar. My ‘winter mist’ – vodka with pear and pomegranate – was served in a glass made of ice. The bar itself was rather like a church – a chapel of drinking perhaps, and a reminder that there is an Ice Chapel here, popular for weddings. Sure enough, that evening I saw some guests preparing for a ceremony. I didn’t envy the chap wearing a kilt.
I couldn’t drop in on the wedding because I was booked on a snowmobile trip. We climbed onto the machines in pairs, the driver being shown the basics of accelerating and stopping. Heading down the frozen expanse of the Torne River, we then bounced up into the forest, following twisting tracks, zooming up and down inclines. We stopped at a wooden hut, de-thawing around a wood-burning stove with smoked salmon sandwiches, mushroom soup and blueberry cake, washed down with hot lingonberry juice.
Carl, our guide, had been impressed with our snowmobile skills and so took us back by a slightly more demanding route. At one point this seemed a mistake as the snowmobiles took it in turns to get stuck at a bend of slush and ice, but we all managed to push on and were exhilarated by the time we emerged from the woods at the edge of the river.
“Well done!” Carl yelled, before zooming off down the Torne. We opened up the snowmobiles – just 50km/h but feeling much faster – in hot pursuit. The next day brought a more peaceful experience – dog-sledding. A cacophony of barking greeted us as we strolled towards the waiting huskies, but once we were seated on the sleds and the handbrake was off the only sound was the swish of the runners on the ice.
And so from huskies to reindeer. Lapland is home to the Sami people; around 20,000 live in Sweden, of whom 2,000 are still reindeer herders. After a slide slow explaining about Sami culture, we were taken out into a corral where a couple of dozen reindeer were milling. We practised lassoing them, which initially proved difficult until we realised that one especially placid and handsome reindeer, Giriejunni, was resigned to getting caught by us over enthusiastic visitors again and again. “Yeah, yeah, take your photo,” you could almost hear him sigh.
Three reindeer were then taken out and harnessed up to small wooden sleighs, one in particular making his displeasure very clear. We were shown how to kneel on the sleigh, the single rope from the reindeer halter in one hand, and how to give them the command to head off.
One of the reindeer was quiet – so quiet that it plodded along at a snail’s pace. The one that had protested at being harnessed was the complete opposite, bolting off with his handler clinging to the wooden sleigh behind. Fortunately, number three seemed to be a nice in-between, with no noticeable hang-ups: I nabbed him.
I got onto the sleigh and we trotted around the wide track that encircled the corrals. But, just as I was thinking how relaxing this was, I heard stampeding hooves coming up behind and the nutty reindeer tore past us. Mine took off too, galloping with it neck and neck. “Lie down!” shouted its handler, so I threw myself into a prone position.
“This is fun, yes?” laughed the onlooking Sami. Well, if you don’t mind being bounced up and down on a hard wooden platform, with no idea of how and when the torture will stop, then, yes, it was kind of fun. Fortunately my reindeer had clearly had enough excitement for one day and slowed down as we reached the others.
I’d been asking other guests how they had found the experience, and opinion was mixed. Some had been very, very cold, but usually because they’d made fundamental mistakes. They had enjoyed themselves in the Icebar first – but then had to get up in the night for
a pee, leaving their sleeping bags unzipped and open. Or they’d worn several layers of clothes, thinking that would make them warmer.
I planned my evening like a military operation. A nice meal in the warm restaurant, accompanied by enough drinks to encourage sleep, but not enough to make me get up in the night. At midnight I changed down to the one prescribed layer of thermals in the changing-room complex, collected my sleeping bag and made my way to ‘Cheers, Chairs’. The ice bed looked forbidding, despite the reindeer hide covering it. However, the sleeping bag was surprisingly snug, and I soon dozed off.
I woke around 7am, though it was difficult to gauge the exact time. Room service arrived a little later – some very welcome hot lingonberry juice. Back in the changing room area the hot shower was lovely but, to be frank, I’ve had much colder nights camping in the UK. Would I have done a second night? Well, I wouldn’t have exactly jumped at the opportunity. But I had finally cured my aversion to ice.
The author travelled with Discover the World
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