Last year I decided that I wanted to cross of the #1 item on my bucket list; seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). I left nothing to chance and already started planning my trip for early 2017 in August 2016. Tromsø (Norway) was the desired destination and I kept a close eye on the website of a tour guide that was recommended to me by a friend and once his schedule became available, I was quick to decide on the dates. I would spend 5 days in Tromsø, but also wanted to shoot photos at Oslo. I ended up booking a multi-city ticket with Widerøe, which consisted of my flight to Oslo and then 3 days later the flight to Tromsø. I also learned that Bodø hosts the biggest Norwegian aviation museum and is less than an hour flying time from Tromsø. Naturally, I had to see this, so I booked a day trip to Bodø. Added benefit of this is that I might see the Aurora from the plane on my way back to Tromsø. With everything booked well in advance, it was just a matter of waiting now.
Below you can see my journey on the map (image by gcmap.com):
The first few days consisted of nothing but photography at Oslo airport. I won’t write too much about this as the trip to Tromsø is the main part, but I would like to say a few words about this year’s Oslo experience. 2 years ago I visited this place for the first time and fell in love with it. Nice spots, great weather conditions and I had a blast. This year, the weather was less good, but it created nice conditions where the aircraft pulled a lot of vapor trails. The 2 night sessions were pretty fun, mostly thanks to the snowy conditions at the time. Even at night the aircraft created vapor trails and blankets over the wings. Great low light practice for sure!
During my stay, I experienced various weather systems. Fog, overcast clouds, sunny & blue, a mix of everything, etc. But at least I got some cool cloudbursts too, just like last time. I was glad to have a car available to me, because I kept driving from spot to spot, making some good mileage on the perimeter roads. The only thing still on the wishlist is night time de-icing photos from the Southern de-icing pad. So I’ll have to come back another time for that. Oh the horror.. ;)
Time to go to Tromsø! I dropped my rental car off at 11:00 and headed for the terminal. Using the self-service bag drop was quite easy and I headed to the fast lane to clear security. I only realized this after booking my ticket, but the AMS-OSL-TOS flights were actually in SAS plus (a bit of a mix between business and economy comfort I guess). As such, I was entitled to lounge access in Amsterdam (but had no time for that :( ), the priority lanes at the security checkpoint and priority boarding.
Once behind security, I just made use of the airport Wi-Fi while enjoying my lunch. When boarding, it became obvious that the flight was absolutely packed, up to the point where all luggage bins were full and some bags had to be moved into the hold. Oh well, makes sense since Tromsø is a popular destination I suppose.
It was a beautiful day for flying and it was sunny pretty much all the way. Some cloud layers obscured the ground views at some point, but thankfully that didn’t last too long. I think I spent 90% of the flight looking outside, because the view was that amazing. Endless snow-capped mountains as far as the eye could see, the scenery was absolutely gorgeous. Besides that, the flight was quite uneventful.
After a little less than 2 hours, I found myself outside the terminal at Tromsø. I instantly thought back to my trip to Svalbard, as I experienced the same thoughts again when stepping outside and seeing those snowy mountains all around me.
A seat on the bus to the city center was quickly secured for 90 Kr. On the way there, we drove through an immense tunnel system of roads including roundabouts. I was amazed. I did some research about the city of course, but this was very unexpected. Very cool though! Once in the city, the bus makes 3 general stops and your hotel is always near(ish) to one of these stops. Even if you miss your stop, everything is in walking distance. I now know from experience…
When I got off the bus, I was reminded of my trip to Ushuaia (Argentina) upon seeing the city geography. It’s on a hillside and as such, it’s either up or down the hill. Not ideal with a 20 kg suitcase, but doable. Some caution was needed as the roads and sidewalks had slippery spots due to the snowfall. I got a bit lost trying to find my hotel, but the detailed map on my phone saved me, so I was able to get there relatively easy in the end. I checked in and dropped my suitcase in the room. By this time, it was already late afternoon and I headed into the city to find a place to eat as well as trying to book another excursion for the next day.
Earlier in the morning, I received word from my original tour guide that he had to cancel the trip for the next day due to unforeseen events. This meant that I now had a completely empty day. At the hotel reception, I saw a flyer for another Aurora tour operator and I went by their office to check availability for the next day. Thankfully they still had room and I booked it. The weather forecast wasn’t too good (snow predicted), but I took the chance anyway as the Aurora was the main reason for this trip anyway.
With that sorted, it was time to get dinner – I opted for ‘O Learys. There I had a tasty burger and a couple of beers. All this while watching sports on the big screens. Some of the TV’s showed athletics, but I wanted to watch (female) football. Norway was playing USA and I figured this could be a nice match. Turned out I was right, as the score after 91 minutes was 2-8.
After dinner, I went back to the hotel to get my tripod. There is a nicely lit church in the city center and combined with the snow it looked really good. This was the mission for tonight, as I didn’t know if I had time/was up for it in the next evenings. When finished, I headed back to my room to backup my photos/videos taken that day and called it an early night.
I woke up at 08:00 and went for a walk in the city after breakfast. Just having a look at the harbor and the city center by day. The hotel receptionist gave me a couple of options that I could consider as daytime activity and during my walk I would decide what to do. The weather looked amazing, with clear blue skies and sun. It didn’t seem to change anytime soon, so I took the bus to the observation area. It’s located on a hill on the other side of the city and from there you would have a good look over Tromsø and its surroundings. Bus line 26 (50 Kr. for a single ticket) brought me to the bottom of the hill, where the cable car took me up (pretty much the only option and it costs 170 Kr). Well worth it, as the views weren’t good but actually FAN-TAS-TIC!
There was powder snow as far as you could look and as deep as my lower leg at some places. This area is fenced off and I guess you could call it ‘base’ level. I made my (panoramic) photos and video before continuing up the hill. All of this is done on foot and it’s easiest to follow the tracks made by other people. I got to about halfway and just enjoyed the view from the various heights.
There was no wind and with the sun out, it was even quite warm a times. I must’ve spent about 3 hours before going back to the city. I truly recommend this experience to everyone and I hope you have the same weather that I had!
Back in the city, I stopped by a small supermarket to get some food/drinks for the coming days. Back in the hotel, I backed up my files again on an external drive and charged my camera batteries. In the meantime I went to the hotel lobby to utilize the better internet and make a start on this trip report.
At around 17:20 I started my walk towards the meeting area. When I arrived, the bus was already there and I got on after signing myself in. We left at 18:00 and our direction for tonight was West/North-West, in the hope to find clear skies. The valley was quite cloudy, so finding a clear spot proved a challenge. Pretty much like the forecast predicted. On the way to the first spot, the guide explained a bit about camera settings and how the aurora works. And as it turns out, it’s not really an aurora chase, but more like a clear skies chase.
When we set off, the intensity of the aurora was 15 (on a scale of 1-100), but it had an upward trend. However, even at 15 the lights can be well visible.
The first spot was at a bay and we set up by the waterside. We could see the moon and a couple of stars (indication of less clouds), but the aurora was not seen. We passed time by chatting a bit and one of the tour members started singing songs. After 1-1,5 hours we left and drove to the next spot.
On the way there, the guide had a hunch and got out to take a test photo. Turned out he was right and the lights were faintly visible in the sky in front of us. There were a couple of small gaps in the clouds, enabling us to see them (even with our naked eye). Then the clouds rolled in again and gone were the lights. While we waited for them to return, the guide handed out hot chocolate and cookies. Unfortunately the lights were gone again and we moved once more in the hope to find clear skies. But we never did. Several snow showers were sweeping the area and after a while we returned to the city. Of course keeping our eyes open, but to no avail. We got back around 00:30 and I unwinded in the hotel lobby a bit before heading up to my room.
After getting back late-ish last night I allowed myself to sleep in a bit. I slowly woke up at 09:15 and headed down for breakfast. I brought my phone with me as I was going to decide what to do today. The only thing planned was my original aurora tour in the evening, but that didn’t start until 19:00.
The weather seemed to be good again, just like yesterday. So I figured I would go up the mountain again, but this time to go higher. It’s a good hike/workout and I set myself the goal to reach the peak. I timed myself for fun, because I wanted to see how long it would take me to reach the top. I arrived after some 45 minutes after starting the hike from the cable car station.
But the top wasn’t the top, even though it seemed to be from lower levels. Behind this spot was another top, so after a brief stop I continued towards the next goal. Between these 2 points, the snow was really powdery with less good tracks from previous hikers. This meant that with every step, I sank a bit into the snow, making it a bit tough. And of course, when reaching that top, there was another one slightly higher behind it. And after that, there would be another one. It was like peakception up there. I decided that this would be good enough and spent some time up there. It was also lunchtime now and afterwards I ended up talking to a local Norwegian. We had a nice chat and I gained some knowledge about the area. The weather was still nice on the mountain, despite the cloud layers in the valley.
At some point, it was time to head down again. Of course this was much easier and faster than going up, but on the steep areas, the existing tracks had become a bit slippery. There was fresh powder snow next to the track though and you could take very big steps in it, without the risk of stepping on a slippery spot and rolling down the mountain instead. The only downside was that snow was piling up in my boots.
When I got down on the ground again, I went for a relatively short walk to the arctic cathedral. Took some photos from the outside while I waited for the bus to arrive that would bring me to the city center again. From there it was a short walk to the hotel, where I did the same as yesterday before my aurora tour.
For this tour, we met up in front of the Radisson Blu hotel, which was only 3 blocks down the hill from where I was staying. Apparently everyone took the request to be on time seriously, as the group was complete within a few minutes after the guide showed up. A large contrast with the tour from the day before, as that one featured a touring bus, 1 guide and 36 tour members. This time it was a minivan, 1 guide and 6 members.
We drove off well before the intended departure time and heading West, where there were obvious clear skies to be seen. On the way to our first stop, the lights already appeared and we pulled over for our first real crack at it. They were already so much brighter than the day before! After some minutes, the lights faded again and the guide explained that they were likely to reappear later in the evening. In the meantime, we set off in search for a better vantage point. And again while driving, they showed up. So the minivan was parked and we all got out. I ran into a snowbank to set up shop on the waterside.
I decided in favor of a time lapse. So I quickly configured my camera with the right settings, jammed the shutter button on my release cable and just stood back and watched/chatted with the other people. Before I knew it, my 16GB card (520 photos) was full! And that’s when it happened…
Right above our heads, an intensely bright display of green and purple colors unfolded. The lights were getting their groove on, dancing in the sky like the way you only see in those professional films. But it was for real! And I had no more space for photos! I rushed to the car, had to get the cards out of my bag, run back, switch cards in the pitch black, but I was too late. As quickly as the display showed its face, it disappeared, never to be seen again. Even the guide got genuinely excited by the event above our heads, saying that this was the best display of the entire season (thus far). Which is exactly what you would want a seasoned professional to say when you’re there as well.
So what did I learn from this? NEVER EVER shoot until your card is 100% full. Always leave space for the unexpected. I had to learn it the hard way, don’t be like me. In hindsight, I should’ve just deleted a couple of photos that were already on the card, but I simply didn’t think of that. Also, make sure your cards are formatted and emptied before bringing them along. This is what happened to our guide and he missed the most spectacular part as well for that reason.
The aurora still showed herself afterwards, but it never got as good as what we witnessed for that brief minute. I continued to make my time lapses. During the quiet moments, our guide educated us about the stars, constellations and what we could see/tell from them. Not only a fun excursion, but also educational! In addition. I found a huge icicle hanging from the hills behind us and that called for a closer inspection. By this time, half of the group was already quite cold and they were warming themselves up in the van. I can’t blame them though, because of the clear skies it was a cool –7 degrees and even our cameras got covered with a thin layer of frost.
At a certain moment, the guide said that the lights were pulsating, a sign that they’re done for the night. They were already quite weak now and if you didn’t know any better, it would be very easy to mistake them for a thin layer of clouds. Same light gray color. So we called it a night and headed back to the city. Again I unwinded for a bit in the lobby, before backing up my files. I had a short night ahead of me, as I was getting on the plane to Bodø the following morning for a day trip to that city.
After the short night and breakfast, I headed off to the bus stop, from where I would take the direct shuttle to the airport. Everything went pretty smooth and it wasn’t long before I found myself in the departure area. With the sun coming from the left side of the plane, I made sure to get a window seat on the right hand side, so I would have a great view of the mountains in the morning sun. And I was disappointed, the views were just spectacular again!
The flight to Bodø doesn’t take long and clocks in at around 40-50 minutes of flight time. First thing on the agenda in Bodø was the aviation museum. I had heard it’s the largest in Norway and it was kind of the main reason to travel to this city in the first place. The city isn’t very big and everything is reasonably within walking distance. From the airport terminal to the museum it took me roughly 30 minutes.
Outside there were already some aircraft visible and after checking them out, I went inside. First up was the military hall. They had lots of decommissioned birds there, from old props to relatively modern jet fighters. On the other side of the building, you have the civil hall, featuring again old props and jetliners (biggest aircraft there are a junkers 52 and Fokker 28). In the connecting part between the sides, they built a small ATC tower. Because of the very close proximity to the airport, it offers a good overview of it and actually has live ATC from the tower coming from the speakers. As the actual airport is both civil as well as military, there was also a chance to see some fighters. And as luck would have it, when I was chilling in the tower, 4 Norwegian Air Force F-16’s took off! Quite a nice sight, especially when paired with the surrounding scenery. The museum has a good collectiond and I really enjoyed spending a couple of hours there. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood!
Once done at the museum, I walked towards town. That took some 30-45 minutes again and by the time I arrived into the center, I was hungry and needed a rest. I ended up at a Subway (the food place, not the transportation) for a late lunch and a short break. After my break, I headed towards the harbor, which was recommended by a friend. He mentioned that I might get lucky and see the Hurtigruten ship. And indeed I saw it, docked in the harbor. After the harbor visit, there wasn’t a whole lot of other stuff to do in the short time that was still left, so I figured I would just head to the airport. But something made me turn around and there was the Hurtigruten ship sailing out. Already too close to get my camera out and switch lenses. The timing was not on my side for that moment.
I killed time at the airport by watching YouTube and a Dutch show that I missed during the weekend (for those who know it: Wie Is De Mol?). Getting through security was a breeze and soon enough the flight showed up. By this point, I had really set my mind on seeing (and photographing!) the aurora from the plane. During the departure, I took some test shots and the lights were present! Yes! But the landing lights were still on, ruining the longer exposure shots. But when the landing lights were turned off, the cabin lights were turned on for the entire cruise. I had a really difficult and frustrating time blocking out the reflections that the cabin lights caused, but still managed a half-decent photo. I thought that maybe I could get lucky during the approach, but then the landings lights were obviously turned on again. The approach made up for a bit, as we circled over Tromsø to land in a Southern direction.
Once outside the terminal, I got onto the airport bus and it actually took the long way around (so not through the tunnel, but circumnavigating the island that the city is built on. Getting back to the hotel, I went for the ‘usual recipe’ again.
For the first time in a week I felt like I had a good night’s sleep. I guess I started to feel the effects of long days and short nights. For this day, I had reserved a car as I wanted to explore the surroundings and maybe the airport. On the aurora tours, we already covered quite a lot of ground and I thought I had a good feeling of what the surroundings look like. And with another day of perfect weather, I figured I’d just spend it at the airport.
Traffic isn’t very diverse or much, but it’s nice for someone that is not from there. It mostly consists of SAS Boeing 737’s, Wideroe Dash-8’s and Lufttransport King Airs (ambulance flights). Another nice catch was a Dash-8 of Fly Viking, which still had its Canadian registration of the previous owner visible on one side. It was in the process of being re-registered as LN-FVB. It appears that the airline is completely new as well, so that was a cool present for me. I just drove around the perimeter, looking for spots to shoot from. The snow surely helped a lot in that, as there were several heaps of it just outside the fence. They offered a good elevated point of view. At around 17:30 I called it a day and headed back to the hotel. I wanted to freshen up and put on some warmer clothes; I was planning to go hunt the aurora by myself a few hours later.
Earlier that day, the guy at the rental car agency gave me some good tips where I could go. One of them was through the mountains to a place called Lyfjord. It turned out to be a good location, surrounded by mountains and quite a bit of open area. Since it was still not dark enough, the waiting game had to be played. As it got darker, the lights began to show themselves and I had to scout for a good location. I ended up at the waterfront, which offered a good composition with the lake/sea, rocks and mountains. The only downside; I had to plow my way down there through A LOT of snow. At some point literally up to my knees. I was thought so much snow would be fun, but reality has caught up with me a bit after this experience.
I spent some hours there before going back to the car. I needed to get warm again – badly. The temperature dropped to a chilly -9 degrees and I had snow in my shoes from the walk to/from the waterfront. Getting in the car, I drove for a few hundred meters to get away from any artificial light source, so I could still see the lights.
And then, right in front of me, again a really bright streak of the aurora. Almost like 2 days ago, but without the massive purple. I quickly rushed out of the car and set up my camera. It was so bright, that I had to significantly tone down my previous settings by quite a bit to not get a horribly overexposed image. Now that was the real deal! They were dancing again and this is exactly what I came here for. Unfortunately photos don’t always paint the picture that you saw with your eyes, due to the exposure time
I continued to shoot photos for some time, until the lights were noticeably starting to fade without popping up in another location. I felt like they were done and that meant so was I. The road was pretty straightforward, so finding my way back was not a problem. Once back in my room, I started to re-arrange my suitcase and pack everything I wouldn’t need the next day. In the meantime, my backups were running overtime. The following morning was the start of my journey home.
I set off to the airport and wanted to check out that Fly Viking Dash-8 again. The light should be better in the morning and those damn stairs blocking the aircraft would likely be gone too. When I got to the spot I used the day before, I took a quick shot, only to discover there was an insane amount of heathaze over the airport. Very bad for photos and that was that. I brought back the rental car and went through security. After securing some water and a fridge magnet I waited for my flight.
The departure was beautiful, offering a wonderful view of the mountains. Then came the clouds, covering all views below. This was my cue to sleep for a bit. I woke up when we were nearing Oslo and visibility was perfect again. There’s just something magical about snow-covered landscapes.
At Oslo, I had a 4h transfer for the flight to Amsterdam. I killed time by treating myself to a good lunch and working on this trip report. A friend who works at the airport also came by to say hi for a few minutes. All in all, time went pretty fast. The flight to Amsterdam was uneventful and I tried to sleep a bit more. Another successful trip has come to an end. Tromsø, I will definitely be back!
I also tried to take loads of video clips to be able to piece together a trip video. Below is the playlist, consisting of 3 videos;
#1) The journey to Tromsø and footage from my day activities in and around the city.
#2) The daytrip to Bodø, which consists of aviation museum footage mostly.
#3) A timelapse of all the various photo sequences that I made over the course of 2 nights. Be sure to watch in 4K for maximum viewing pleasure!
With the views that I was treated to, it’s hard not to attempt any. So here are the results! (clicking on a photo will open it in a large size in a new window)