Seeing the Northern Lights: It’s not as Easy as Driving North and Looking Up

What you really need to know to catch the aurora borealis in Norway. | By Yamuna Dilip Phal

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Aurora borealis casts its magic over Hamnøy, the oldest and most picturesque of the fishing villages in Lofoten, Norway. Photo: lt photo/moment/getty images

I had been working in Sweden for a few months before I decided to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights. Of course I had been dreaming about aurora borealis ever since I’d arrived in Scandinavia; after all this is where people from around the world come specially to witness this phenomenon. I wanted to see it, but I was also obsessed with capturing my own stunning images of this natural marvel, ones that would wow my friends and family back home.

When I started planning my trip, I realized things were a lot more complicated than driving north and looking up. The northern lights are unpredictable, and it’s hard to predict with any scientific certainty when they will occur. Even if they do appear, there is no guarantee visitors will see them— the show might very well be going on behind a curtain of clouds. It seemed to me there was something celestial at play in this game of chance, and that only added to the aurora’s allure.

Aurora borealis, Hamnøy, photo by

Aurora borealis casts its magic over Hamnøy, the oldest and most picturesque of the fishing villages in Lofoten. Photo: southern lightscapes-australia/moment/getty images

My new friends and I finally picked Norway’s Lofoten Islands in magical Lapland as our spot. Here the sun never sets in the summer and a mystical glow lights up the winter skies. The islands are a chain of gorgeous peaks jutting straight out of the Arctic Ocean. The archipelago they form is a three-hour drive from Harstad/Narvik Airport in Evenes, the nearest international airport.

From Evenes we drove to Svolvær, a small town on the Lofoten island of Austvågøya, through long subsea tunnels and amidst jagged snowcapped peaks. The evening sky was a stunning orange that turned pitch black in moments, as night crept in suddenly.

Upon reaching Svolvær we opened the car doors and were assaulted by an overpowering smell. Fish! It instantly reminded me of Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks or the Mahim fish market. Fishing is the main occupation on the Lofoten Islands, and nearly every resident is in the business. Every house has a shack in its backyard to dry out fish, and almost every nook and cranny of the town has drying fish in it too. You can see thousands of them sunning on wooden racks called hjell. The air-dried fish are exported mostly to Nigeria, where they are the main ingredient in soups.

codfish on wooden racks, Lofoten, Norway, photo by Cody Duccan/Age Fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

The pungent smell that pervades the Lofoten Islands is due to the scores of codfish drying on wooden racks. Photo: Cody Duccan/Age Fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

The self-catering cottage we’d booked was nestled, cosy and warm, on a small hilltop with a view of the mountains. It was a two-storey hut with two bedrooms and an attic, and included a wellequipped kitchen and free Wi-Fi. After settling in, we spent the day driving through small fishing villages and taking hundreds of pictures of the clear blue sea; the majestic mountains, bays, and virgin islands bathed in white snow; the waves crashing against the surf-swept shore; soaring eagles and squawking seabirds dotting the skies; the whales resting in the inner shallow fjords; and traditional rorbu fishermen’s huts. As the sun began to set, just before four in the afternoon, we were glad to see the sky was still clear.

Rushing back to our cottage for a quick dinner, we kept our eyes peeled towards the sky the entire time, looking for the slightest hint of a green glow. As soon as we were convinced that the show was truly going to be on, we drove to a spot by a lake, away from the lights of the city, with mountain peaks providing a dramatic backdrop. I set up my tripod, and ensured I had the frame right. It wasn’t easy—I needed to take my gloves off repeatedly to adjust the camera in the bitter cold wind. I wished that while describing the romance of seeing the Northern Lights, somebody had warned me about the cold and that all-pervasive fishy smell.

Mailboxes, norwegian fishing villages, photo by Yamuna Dilip Phal

A series of posten (mailboxes) clustered together under a snow shade is a common sight in Norwegian fishing villages. Photo: Yamuna Dilip Phal

Then suddenly, the skies lit up. The lights were like a swirling dancer floating high up in the air, the green, red and purple of her flowing chiffon dress shifting as she snaked across the sky. The lights twirled, whirled, and swayed until we were utterly spellbound. I had to run to the car every few minutes to warm my freezing fingers between taking time-lapse and multiple shutter speed shots of the lights; the overpowering smell didn’t go away either. But these minor inconveniences simply became part of the adventure. The show lasted for less than an hour, and the clouds started rolling in. But the experience, and my photographs of it, will last me a lifetime.

Appeared in the January 2017 issue as “Light on Lofoten”. 


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Useful Tips

The best viewing season is from September to March.

Based on data from NASA ’s ACE spacecraft, which monitors the solar and galactic energetic particles bombarding the earth, the website www. provides an hourly aurora forecast.

Norway’s weather forecast website is very accurate (

Avoid the full moon and get as far away as you can from the electric lights.

Make sure you have a car, or shelter, where you can warm up very close by.

Rent a car with a seat heating system.

Take snacks like dark chocolate and dry fruit with you.




  • Amrita Lall is a former Web Intern at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves people-watching, reading books, and all the dogs in the world. She strongly believes that the best stories are right here, in our everyday lives.


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