The first part of this post was written on Tue 31st Dec.
Susie has found herself making a
40 Before 40 list. Being the same age, I'm tempted to hop aboard the bandwagon, but I won't because I find lists oppressive. All the same, there are a few things that I've long wanted or intended to do and that occur at a point in the future called "one day". My fortieth year strikes me as a time to ask,
If not now, then when?
Some of these are lifestyle changes. I believe that my life would be improved if I took up yoga or meditation, or preferably both. I've wanted to learn hang gliding, or paragliding, for as long as I can remember. Other things are (probably) one-off events. I would love to see both a total eclipse of the sun (I did try, on 11 August 1999, but Cornwall was cloudy that day) and the Aurora Borealis.
This may look like a bucket list or new year's resolutions, but it lacks that sense of obligation. This is me looking at things I want and asking myself, quite straightforwardly,
Why not? What's stopping me? If the answer is money, I'll ask further,
Is there a cheaper way of doing it? Could I save up for it? The answer may still be no, but I'd at least like to think it through.
As I type, I am sitting in a holiday cottage in the north of Scotland. The weather is cold and miserable and there isn't much daylight. The last of those is part of the reason we're here. Other factors include the new moon, sunspots, and the fact that Scotland is cheaper to get to than Norway or Iceland (both places I'd love to visit). Yes, we've come here for a chance to see the northern lights.
It really is only a chance, as it's necessary for the right solar weather (stormy) to occur shortly before the right terrestrial weather (clear), and both are fairly unpredictable, certainly on the sort of timescale involved in booking a holiday. For the first few days of our stay we've had some clear weather, but solar activity has been low. However, it's forecast to increase later in the week and the local weather forecast is for 'partial' cloud on Thursday. It may not be a very good chance, but it's a chance. We shall pack a thermos of soup, put on our thickest socks, head out somewhere with a clear view of the northern horizon, and wait.
By the time I next have internet connection to post this, I may be able to tell you whether the gamble paid off.
Well, here I am, back in Wales, with internet connection. So did we see them? Were we treated to one of the most spectacular cosmic displays visible from Earth? Yes and no. Yes, we saw them... no, they weren't spectacular.
We'd headed north from our cottage to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the UK mainland. We figured that if the chance of seeing the lights was slim, we'd better make sure we had the best possible view of the northern horizon, so that's where we went. We got there at about 4:30 pm due to a petrol panic. That is, we had only just enough petrol to get to Thurso (town near Dunnet Head) - probably - and on a bank holiday we didn't reckon on finding a petrol station open in the rural area closer to the cottage. We gambled on finding one open in Thurso, but thought we'd better not leave it too late. If there hadn't been, we'd have been stranded there for the night and probably not made it to the headland, but there was, just one, luckily.
So... petrol panic over, we parked up at the top of Dunnet Head and settled down to wait, though it wasn't even fully dark when we arrived. We weren't the only ones with this idea. The first couple who arrived thought that the lights were pretty much constant when active, and would be visible as soon as it got dark enough. They were disappointed, and left after a couple of hours. The next couple arrived in a smart looking Audi, but got out to watch the sky. It was way too cold for that kind of behaviour. They didn't stay long. The third couple arrived at around 10 pm, with a tent. This was their third trip to see the lights, the previous two having been unsuccessful. Shielding our eyes from their bright torchlight as they erected their tent, settled themselves down, checked the tent, added more guy ropes, we began to see why. They never turned the torch off for long enough to let their eyes adjust to the darkness.
At 10:20 pm, nearly six hours after we'd arrived, we saw something. It wasn't much, but it was definitely light in the northern sky that hadn't been there a moment earlier. We got out of the car and watched for about ten minutes, until we got too cold and retreated. Hmm, definitely northern lights, but not exactly the dancing sprites we've seen photos of. About an hour later, they came again, this time a bit bigger. Although it was too windy to use a tripod outdoors, Ian managed to get some photos through the car windscreen.
So there we are. We made the effort, we took the chance, and we saw the northern lights. I had the sense that there was one heck of a light display going on somewhere to the north of us, and we were seeing the very edge of it. I'd still like to see the lights
properly, but I'm glad I've seen them at all. There's also a sense of satisfaction that the effort paid off. It took a bit of research and a lot of waiting to see this. If we hadn't done it right, we wouldn't have seen the lights. We might not have seen them as it was, but when there's only a small chance, it's worth making an effort to maximise that chance.
As for cosmic spectacles, there'd been a fabulous sunset while we were driving north, which we didn't stop to photograph because stopping and starting uses extra fuel. The moon was also stunning that evening.
Perhaps this should be a reminder to appreciate the more common spectacles, and not get too distracted by chasing the exotic.