Chasing the Northern Lights through Norway

TG chased the Aurora through Scandinavia for a better glimpse...

Perhaps the last thing you want to see when your plane touches down in Scandinavia are pictures of the Northern Lights in the UK. In your home town, no less, resplendent in green and purple. It’s certainly not ideal when you have a 500-mile drive ahead of you, purely to catch a glimpse of them.

Not that I begrudge the lucky sods who saw them. Quite the opposite. It’s just the irony of me travelling so far for Europe’s best view of the night sky phenomenon, only for it all to be scuppered by cloud and my social media feed to be full of pictures from back home, is too painful to even consider.

Words: Stephen Dobie
Photography: Drew Gibson

Our car of choice is a Mazda CX-3, and our starting point, coincidentally but somewhat aptly, is Lulea in northern Sweden. It’s the site of the Facebook servers that host all your images and posts, and you can thank the cool Arctic air for the speed at which you ‘like’ pictures of your mate’s tea. Or Aurora Borealis two miles from your home.

We’re heading to what one suspects is a notably less connected part of the world, the Norwegian peaks surrounding the E69 that leads you to the Nordkapp, Europe’s most northerly reachable point if you’re on four wheels. The map on the CX-3’s touchscreen nav shows us heading for practically the top of the world. We’ll be closer to the North Pole than London.

So-called crossovers like the CX-3 are commonplace nowadays, of course, particularly as this one rivals the ubiquitous Nissan Juke. Most people buy them in cheaper, front-driven form. But many, like the Mazda, come with optional four-wheel drive to give credence to their hiked up looks. That, along with some studded winter tyres, is what we’re hoping will get us up that hill to see those lights.

The trip sees us head through Sweden and Finland before entering Norway, and given the snow, ice and slush we’ll no doubt encounter on the way, those 574 miles will take more than 12 hours.

A little over 50 miles into the trip we cross into the Arctic Circle, a pivotal moment if you’ve never done it before (I’ve not) that’s marked by a far from dramatic sign. There’s not even an opportunistic fridge magnet seller. Lulea-hosted selfies are doubtless the new currency in proving where you’ve been, anyway…

While the CX-3’s nav allows a choice of routes in most circumstances, the extremity of our trip means there’s only one way to go. And it’s going to be all single carriageway, with no motorways. It is, in its first half, an almost entirely arrow straight route, with the odd corner we’re presented with long, sweeping, and requiring no slowing down.

That’s only thanks to Stefan, though. Stefan the Snow Plough Man (I’m trademarking that: who needs Bob the Builder?) has every right to give us a good rollocking, as photographer Drew Gibson and I clog up a side road in front of him while parking the car for some pictures. Instead, he’s keen to natter, and it turns out he’s been at it for 35 years. “In the summer I mend them, in the winter I plough them,” he tells us. We’re hoping he means roads.

Roads so straight might lead you to suspect such a lengthy road trip won’t be fun. Wrong. From the CX-3’s point of view, it has inherited some of the Good Stuff from the MX-5, most notably its darty steering, snappy gearchange and wonderfully revvy engine.

With 2.0-litres, 148bhp and no turbos, Mazda dubs the latter ‘right-sized’. If it means eschewing the downsizing trend and give us something we want to rev, those aren’t words we’ll argue with. And it’s ample for overtaking the many lorries we’ll encounter, which travel barely below the circa-60mph speed limit.

Straight roads are also no barrier to enjoyment when the views are this good.  The landscape changes half hourly, going through fir-lined forestry, through barren landscapes where trees are barely clinging to life, and past richly photogenic lakes that lead into stunning gorges.

My eyes are on stalks throughout, but there’s one concern: the sky has not changed all day. It’s intensely cloudy, and we’ve seen no glimpse of the sun to give us any clues as to what time it is. It does not bode well for dazzling pictures of the Aurora, or bragging rights back home.

Straight roads are no barrier to enjoyment when the views are this good.

For all Mazda’s claims of exceptional fuel economy from its ‘Skyactiv’ engine, it’s inevitably going to suffer in harsh Arctic conditions, not least because of the intensity Drew requires from the air con and heated seats after he’s been drudging - on one occasion waist-deep - through the snow at the side of the road.

And you really don’t want to run out of fuel here. Neither do the skidoo riders you end up sharing pumps with. They speak no English, but their disdainful looks at my hiked-up hatchback suggest they’re probably unaware of the clever 4WD beneath, which apportions torque between the axles (up to 50 per cent going to the rear) depending on the slipperiness of the conditions. Which is mostly ‘very’.

It’s all predictive, so you never feel the power shifts. And it proves bloody helpful as we’re deep into Norway, and our trip enters its final furlong, the twisting turns of the E69.

An epic string of tarmac it may be, but I call time on any attempts at skiddy heroics: to our right is the very chilly and deep looking Porsangerfjorden, the coast of which we’re hugging, with only small mounds of snow to temporarily slow an unplanned visit to the water. If it wasn’t for those studded tyres, it might just feel inevitable.

Which makes it all the more inconvenient that, somewhat well ahead of schedule, all my fears from first landing in Sweden disappear. It’s not even 7pm, and there’s a green glow across the sky, Drew is slapping the dashboard like an excitable toddler, and I’m trying to balance keeping our little CX-3 out of the sea while watching the thing we’ve driven half of Scandinavia for.

Daylight may still be visible on one side of the sky, but some of nature’s finest showmanship is on the other. We pull over at first opportunity, and Drew risks frostbite to get some pictures, while I get to focus all my attention on the slowly moving green above me. What’s enjoyable to the eye is plain staggering through the lens of a camera, and all of our travel is made worthwhile in a moment. The excitement of chasing the northern lights around Norway’s dramatic coast is an experience I’ll never, ever forget.

We’d be happy with just one shot, but experts (well, the internet) says the Aurora is at its liveliest between 10pm and 2am. We retire to the hotel for a brief warm up and some sustenance, then plod on to our end goal, those hills above the Nordkapp. It’s no chore to get back into the little Mazda, even after a full day behind the wheel, and being able to hop in something properly equipped to gain some altitude proves priceless.

The picture below tells more of the story than I ever could. The ebbs and flows of that green glint - sometimes faint, sometimes gloriously vivid - is properly magical, as little bursts of wind appear to speed up its sloth-like movement. And, in the desolate car park atop the peak we’ve just slithered up, there is genuine silence, the like of which I’ve never experienced.

Despite the impending fear of limbs lost to the cold, I can’t stop watching, and Drew can’t stop shooting. So we stay up top until around 1am, occasionally driving a few hundred yards down the road for better viewpoints, as the lights move their random, unscripted course through the sky.

I never want it to end. And despite the uncannily good 3G signal in even Norway’s most northern and remote climes, the Facebook brag can wait.

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