Aurora Borealis, also known as northern light or polar light, is a natural light displayed in the sky, predominantly seen in the high latitude regions. Okay, I’m not gonna copy the whole definition in this blog post, so you may read further scientific explanation about it here. You can see Aurora Borealis with your naked eyes in the northern part of the earth between September to March. There’s a higher chance you can see the light when you go to super dark areas (no city lights) and when the sky is super clear (no clouds). During April to August, the long hours (if not 24h) of sun/daylight will disguise the appearance of the light, so it’s not recommended to go to the north in summertime if your mission is to witness Aurora Borealis.
There is also Aurora Australis, which a counterpart of Aurora Borealis. It is the same kind of natural phenomenon, only that you need to go to the southern part of the earth to see it. Aurora Borealis is generally more popular for travellers as the places to experience the light is more reachable than the places to find Aurora Australis. Without meaning to be pessimistic, actually the only place where you have high chances to see Aurora Australis is Antarctica… so yeah, now you know why it’s not so common for people to go hunting this southern light!
As for me, I went hunting Aurora Borealis in Rovaniemi – Lapland, Finland. If you wonder how I traveled there: I took the VR InterCity Train for the return trips between Helsinki (Pasila) and Rovaniemi. Prices can go very low as 30+ Euros per way, and can be super expensive as 130+ Euros per way. It really depends on your travel date, train schedule, and WHEN you purchase the ticket(s). I heard that you can get it cheaper if you buy it in advance. You know… same like all those airline promotions.
For both trips, I had to transfer to another train in Oulu. What I like about these transits arranged by Finnish commuter lines, is that the transit time is very short, like 4-7 minutes only, so you don’t have to waste so much time waiting at your transit station. The trains most of the time depart and arrive very punctual. Normally 1-2 minutes before the train arrived, I always prepared myself: putting on my jacket, carrying my backpack, and checking that I don’t leave anything behind. Afterwards, you just hop off and get into the next train, which is always arranged to be on the platform next to your previous train. Very convenient!
Make sure you also know your assigned coach and place (seat). It’s always shown in your ticket. Oh and also, you don’t have to print your ticket. Just save your ticket on your smart phone, and then show it to the train staff when they do the ticket inspection inside the train. They bring this special machine that will scan the barcode in your ticket, and that’s it. As simple as that. No papers needed. Just in case, always bring your passport, of course, as you might be required to present it to the train staff. Never happened to me, though.
Another thing I like about this VR InterCity Train, is that they have working compartment as well, and most of the time I was assigned to this type of coach. It’s so convenient as they have a small table where I can put my notebook (and food, and drinks), plug, and even Wi-Fi. You also have toilet and restaurant in the train. So yeah, spending total of 8 hours for one way from Helsinki to Rovaniemi (and the same amount of time to go back) did not feel bad at all! To be honest, I really enjoyed it as I got to see interesting countryside view on the way. Yeah, I am definitely much more of a train person than an airplane person.
Arriving in Rovaniemi, my body was shocked by the cold weather. It was -6ºC and snowy… and even though I was well prepared with my winter clothes, still I felt like my face and my hands were freezing. I decided to record myself while walking to Guesthouse Borealis (my accommodation while in Rovaniemi), to prevent my face – my mouth especially – to freeze off, LOL! Luckily this guesthouse is only 600m away from Rovaniemi Train Station, so it didn’t take me long to arrive there.
Guesthouse Borealis is a bed & breakfast accommodation run by a local family. I booked a Single Room for myself and got a rate of 58 Euros per night. Beside rooms, they also have apartments if you travel in a group. Room rates differ depending on the period of the year. You may check their website if you want to see the full rate details.
Since the reception is only open until 9PM, the guesthouse owner left my keys inside their mailbox in front of the guesthouse’s main entrance. I arrived at about 9.30PM, collected my keys and entered the guesthouse by myself. It’s really amazing how human trust is so high in Finland. First, they left the keys (entrance key, room key, and kitchen key) outside. There was no security guard or anything, of course. Second, when I checked-in by myself that night, I haven’t even paid for the room, cause I only made the reservation via email and payment is done in cash. I paid the next day, and no one even checked my room. I was the one who approached them at the reception to complete my booking payment. That’s just amazing, man.
This guesthouse is really cozy and homy. They have a kitchen with all the supplies for all guests to use. They also have a very nice breakfast area in front of the reception. From what I knew, they even have a sauna, but I didn’t try it there. FYI, it’s very normal for houses in Finland to have their own saunas. It’s just like when you see all the houses in Bali have their own temples. It’s a cultural thing.
I got a room that was overlooking the city. Believe me, I spent a lot of time just being in the room, taking photos of the city view at different hours, just to compare how it looks like when it’s during sunrise, midday, and sunset. When I was there, which was on 24-26 November 2016, the sun started rising after 9AM. You could consider it quite ‘bright’ when it was already 10AM. It was a bit ‘sunny’ between 11AM-1PM. At 3PM, the sun started setting, and before 4PM the sun would be completely gone.
I have a feeling that what is actually harder about Arctic winter than its extreme cold weather is the darkness that takes over most of the day. I’ll have to admit that it’s kind of depressing to have such a short period of sun during the day. It will get worse in December to January, and the more north you go, the more chance you won’t even see the sun rises at all during winter. Sun does give your body some energy, though, it’s true.
However, I was not complaining at all about the darkness, since I went north aiming to see Aurora Borealis! The darker, the better. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to see the light from my room window since we had quite a lot of lights from the city, so I decided to book a tour from Nordic Unique Travels. I saw their poster at the guesthouse lobby, and contacted them via email. I booked the tour for the same day (25 November 2016) and I was told that they would pick me up at 9.10PM in front of the guesthouse.
When the van arrived to pick me up in the evening, it was almost full. There were 9 other customers in my tour group, and we had 2 guides: 1 English-speaking and 1 Chinese-speaking. I paid first using my credit card before getting into the van. This “Hunting Northern Lights” tour cost me 69 Euros and the whole trip lasted for 3 hours. This price included pick-up and drop-off at your accommodation, guides, meal, and photos (only if the Aurora Borealis shows up).
We drove to a forest away from the city lights, entering the outskirt part of Rovaniemi. We stopped at certain parking area, and continued walking about 10 minutes – reaching the edge of a frozen lake. It was really dark there, and there were simply nothing in that area but trees, the lake, and a hut. The guides provided us head torches so we did not go completely blind.
Well, and so there we were. Standing by the frozen lake, looking up to the sky, waiting for the Aurora Borealis to appear – even if it was just for a few seconds. The bad news was that it was super cloudy in Rovaniemi during that week, and the worse one was that it even started snowing the moment we arrived there. We waited there for quite some time. We turned off our head torches, and some of the customers started preparing their big cameras to take photos of… nothing, haha.
All of the other customers were traveling in pairs/couples, except me and another girl, so we became friends during the trip. Her name is Wendy Luo, originally from Shenzhen, China. She’s an exchange student of a university in France. She had this bubbly personality, and I was so grateful to have met her there, since the other customers were so quiet and distant. She told me that she also had a good friend from Indonesia in her university, and she thinks that Indonesians are very friendly. Aawww, thanks, girl!
One of our guides finally invited us to get inside the hut to have barbecue together. The guide’s name is Tommy, and he’s Dutch. He had been living in Finland for 5 years as he had a Finnish wife, so he could speak Finnish as well. B1 or B2 level, he claimed. Other than Finnish, he also speaks German, Norwegian, and Swedish – I think. He speaks English totally like a native – and from his accent, I actually thought he was American.
So, back to the barbecue story, Tommy prepared us blueberry tea as a starter. Then, he served us mushroom and moose meat soup. For the main dish, we had reindeer and pork sausages. Tommy also offered us some blueberry liquor. I didn’t really like this one to be honest, but all the other stuff were great! There were 2 vegetarian customers among us, but somehow they forgot to pass this information during tour reservation, so Tommy and the other guide didn’t prepare anything specific for them. Luckily, they brought some marshmallows, so they ended up having marshmallows only for the meal that night.
Tommy told us some stories about Finland… from the Aurora Borealis history to the culture of Finnish people among friends. The Finnish people call Aurora Borealis: revontulet (fox fire), because in the local folklore, it was believed that the lights were caused by some big fox splashing snow to the sky… or something like that. Kind of cute! In Finnish culture, they have what is called “friendly silence”. Basically it means that sometimes, when you are with your friends, you just have a moment when everybody doesn’t talk at all, and just be there with each other. Tommy likes it because it means there won’t be any awkward silence or situation like that, cause it’s totally okay to just be silent. You know what, I might like it, too. Ha!
Until the end of the barbecue, I hate to tell you this, but the Aurora Borealis never showed up. Instead, the snow showers were getting stronger. Of course I was feeling pretty sad about it, but at least the barbecue was still fun and I made a new friend! “So okay, let’s just bury the hope of witnessing Aurora Borealis tonight. I shall just do another trip next time,” I told myself.
“Things don’t always go all pretty during a travel, but it’s the whole experience that counts!” – Misha Johanna (trying to be wise)
When we walked back to the van, it was already covered with snow! Tommy collected our head torches and helped me and Wendy taking some photos together, while the other guide cleared up the snow from the van. We headed back to the city, and Wendy and I were the last ones to drop off, so I got to see Rovaniemi downtown a little bit as the other customers were staying in hotels in the city center.
On the way back, I asked Tommy what he thinks about the idea of staying in the north for a month to hunt Aurora Borealis. He told me I would definitely see the light if I stayed that long, cause at least there would 1 day in 2 weeks where the sky would be clear without clouds. Oh well, maybe then I will just do a special trip next time, maybe go to Svalbard and stay a few weeks there!
Just in case you’ve never heard about Svalbard, you should Google it now. Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and North Pole. Even though it’s part of Norway, it is not part of Schengen. If you come from countries with requirements for Schengen visa (just like me, from Indonesia), just note that you can go to Svalbard only with a Schengen visa as Svalbard does not require a special visa. However, make sure that your Schengen visa is still valid and you are entitled for at least dual entries.
I’ve told this idea of visiting Svalbard to my partner, but he seems to hate it as he’s not a fan of cold weather, haha… So if you’re maybe interested to do this kind of anti-mainstream trip someday, let me know. Maybe we can go chasing Aurora Borealis together. Cheers! xxx
Source of featured image: click here