About 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, Abisko National Park is the mecca for aurora borealis hunters. The Aurora Sky Station, perched high atop Mount Nuolja, provides an awesome front-row seat for the unpredictable sky show, but I have to get there first. Cocooned in a full-body suit that minutes earlier seemed excessive, I endure a blustery 20-minute ride in an exposed chairlift to the top. The subzero conditions are so severe visitors are warned against wearing water-based moisturisers due to frostbite. The remote station has no electricity or running water and, for those who dare to bare, there is an ice-crusted drop toilet.
A detailed science lesson on the chemistry on the aurora borealis ensues. Put simply, it’s the result of sun particles colliding with the gases in the earth’s upper atmosphere. I’ve settle in for a potentially long and fruitless wait when my guide hollers that the lights are outside playing. I clamber back into my cumbersome gear and rush outside in a tangle with my tripod. Through the slit of my balaclava, I desperately search the sky for my first glimpse. While easily confused as just bright cloud, the wispy white ribbon of light traversing the sky is unmistakable by its movement. Whoops of excitement ring out from my fellow sky watchers and I realise I’ve hit the jackpot on my first night. Lying back out of the punishing winds, my eyes soon adjust to the green tinge in those ‘clouds’. Continually in motion, the sheets of light separate and swirl like oil poured onto water. An intense pillar of light sways toward the ground like a belly-dancing tornado and luminous curtains of colour morph into countless formations before seeping away into the darkness. The performance is exhilarating yet all too fleeting.
A four-night stay equals four chances to witness the no-guarantee phenomenon and plenty of daylight hours to explore this winter wonderland. I sign up to mush my own dogsled through the vast national park. With no optional comfy passenger seat, I’m the captain of four hyperactive dogs stuck in overdrive. I clumsily manoeuvre each wriggling husky into its harness before clipping them onto the towline. Their excitement escalates as the team forms, culminating in a deafening chorus of impatience. A daunting tutorial outlines my responsibilities: avoid obstacles, don’t run the sled into the dogs, and under no circumstances let go. As soon as my foot releases the straining brake, induction is over and we fly into the woods. Juggling the icy footholds and braking system, I soon fall into rhythm with my four-legged ensemble.
Wrestling the sled through the rollercoaster-like terrain in a hammering blizzard is tough, yet the dogs never stall. Their long tongues flap back around their cheeks as they huff along, occasionally snapping a quenching mouthful of snow. The dogs’ passion to race is confirmed with the many indignant looks shot my way when I break their pace. We anchor for a short break and the pups promptly knock me into the powder in a scramble for affection. Each husky is as adorable and unique in personality as their decorative markings. As we sip hot lingonberry juice, the restless bundles are poised for any sign of departure.
That night I return to the sky station hoping for a repeat performance, however by the time I arrive the night sky has deteriorated into a white frenzy. After four hopeful hours napping by the fire, the weather nemesis declares it game over. It’s a taste of the frustrating, yet common, side of the aurora chase.
The key attraction of this region is the original Icehotel, located in the village of Jukkasjärvi beside the Torne River. This natural watercourse provides the 2000 tonnes of ice needed to rebuild the hotel every year. Each winter, commissioned artists transform blank rooms into original masterpieces in just three weeks. The entire set-up is a breathtaking organic art gallery. Every surface has been designed with purpose, stability and aesthetic in mind. Inside it feels surprisingly safe despite being devoid of any conventional materials, and I’m astounded by how many textures and hues are achieved from one resource.
With no shortage of inspiration, I try my hand at ice sculpting, led by a professional artist who guides the class through the basics of transforming a chunk of ice. Armed with only a chisel and my imagination, I find it quite therapeutic whittling away in the silence. But my attempts at a masterpiece are a miserable failure and I soon discover carving frozen water is a unique talent.
I’m left to drown my sorrows surrounded by the artistic brilliance of others at the Icebar. Everything, even the seats, is carved from ice, yet all is surprisingly comfortable in –5ºC. Psychedelic light installations add another dimension to the room, yet, together with the old-school music, it feels reminiscent of an underage disco. My ice glass, chilling a vibrant vodka cocktail, melts in my hand and fuses to the bar. There’s plenty more where it came from though; almost one million ice glasses are carved every year.
Warm, cosy hotel rooms with all the regular mod-cons are available, but I’m in the depths of the Arctic and hardly about to pass up the opportunity to brave a memorable night on the ice. The survival briefing: don’t overdress as sweat will make you cold, any belongings in the room will freeze and avoid drinking before bed. My designated suite is Rain of Memories, a dreamlike space with raindrops decorating the floor and glass straws suspended from the ceiling like an elaborate wind chime. My bed on ice, adorned with a few reindeer hides, seems absurdly inadequate. Dressed only in thermals and a beanie, I scramble into my sleeping bag and pull the drawstring tight. It’s eerily silent within the naturally insulated walls, even if the room is minus a door. While my body remains surprisingly toasty, my exposed face feels like it’s stuck headfirst in a freezer. The burning cold wakes me regularly during the night. My relief in the morning fades when I remember the chilled snowsuit that awaits. It may not be the most peaceful night’s sleep, but sleeping amid 3D frozen art is a whimsical adventure not to be missed. Very few get to join the exclusive club, as soon my suite will melt and flow back to the river.
It’s a harsh environment better suited to the Sámi, the indigenous people of Sápmi, an ancestral region spanning Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Their nomadic culture revolves around herding reindeer, however traditional methods have steadily succumbed to modern influences, like the snowmobile. Reindeer Lodge is the only place in Sweden where you can handle your own traditional sled in open terrain. The enchanting Rudolf icons, with their branch-like antlers and steaming fluffy noses, prove deceiving. As I patt my reindeer, Skivdngi, it rewards me with a feisty sidewards kick – a timely reminder these beasts were originally wild creatures.
The reindeers’ handler, Nils, demonstrates how to bellow directions and be firm on the reins, insisting I assert myself as boss. But I’m not fooling Skivdngi, who ignores my not-so-gentle attempts to rouse him. The old-world mode of transport jars the joints over each bump, even at the maximum pace of a trot. As we track through woods beautified by waist-high snow, it’s surreal to be in the presence of such a fabled animal. I’m captivated by his ornate antlers, which, like a unique fingerprint, regrow identically every year. Nils prepares a traditional lunch inside his toasty lavvu (tipi) while discussing Sámi beliefs and traditions. The trip finishes with a delicious meal of tender smoked reindeer slathered in lingonberry jam, and comes with pangs of guilt as I spot Skivdngi resting just outside.
My final night of aurora hunting finds me going full throttle on a snowmobile as I test out the region’s third curious mode of transport. I fight against the powerful machine as I try to direct its defiant skis through the winding tracks, following a chain of red tail lights snaking through the woods. Restricted to a tunnel of light and deafened by the engine roar, my senses are on high alert as I keep a lookout for any darting reindeer. Eventually we stop at a desolate wooden hut to defrost and stretch our tense bodies. Teases of green dance high in a sky where the cloud refuses to clear. Over a hearty dinner of reindeer and moose stew, we all concede the magic has eluded us tonight.
In the morning on board the airport shuttle, everyone has a tale about the legendary lights. But at least half of the passengers missed out on seeing them in action. The aurora borealis is quite the tease and lives up to its legend. I was one of the lucky ones, yet the addictive spectacle left me wanting more.
Qantas flies from Melbourne or Sydney to Heathrow Aiport in London. Discover The World operates exclusive direct flights with SAS Airlines from London Heathrow to Kiruna, Sweden, as part of a package tour.
The aurora lights can be seen from September to April, but the peak season is December to February.
Discover The World operates three- or four-night tours of the northern lights. Tours depart December to March and cost from US$1680 per person, including direct flights from Heathrow to Kiruna, accommodation at Abisko Mountain Station and the Icehotel, transfers and some meals. Some excursions are optional.