It is a rare occasion that an indulgence on a mostly unattainable bucket list is ever crossed off. Travelling to the Arctic Circle to get a glimpse of reindeer, huskies and the Northern Lights was the one thing we never thought we would be able to achieve.
After months of planning, my husband and I arrive in Rovaniemi. The town is a centre of in the Finnish region of the Arctic Circle. Having settled in, the hour finally arrives for us to go and search for the elusive Northern Lights.
We opted to do undertake the excursion on snowmobiles, reckoning that if we didn’t get to see the dramatic celestial display, at least we would still have a great ride and enjoy the snow-laden trees in dark, quiet forests.
We sign in at Lapland Safaris with a group of other enthusiastic light-seekers. It has been dark for hours when we gather at the centre at 17:30. We can’t help thinking of the long sunny days at this time of the year back home in Cape Town South Africa, where our friends would probably be picnicking on the beach and enjoying the sun until long after eight. Here now (in December), daylight is something you can only talk about. We are buried under layers of clothing, feeling round and uncomfortable like an overstuffed sausage.
Lapland Safaris issues us with snow suits, woollen socks and a scarf, snow boots and balaclavas. This we pull on over our bodies already encumbered by thermal underwear, clothing and jerseys. It feels like a trip to the moon.
Once the dressing and indemnity forms are behind us, we step out into the cold for the security briefing and to get acquainted with the snowmobiles. My legs go a bit wobbly: I suddenly feel uncertain about being able to drive one of the big machines. I settle for being a passenger upon departure from the centre at the edge of town.
We set off first down the frozen river, following our guides. I grip the handles at the back of the snowmobile and let my mind wander as I look up at the night sky. There is still hope that we can see the Northern Lights if the mist and cloud cover lifts.
But after a while the hypnotic murmur of the snowmobile, the comfort of being warm and being close to my husband focus my mind of this magnificent moment.
I watch the snow-covered trees in the darkness on either side of the snowmobile pass by in the darkness. A Simon & Garfunkel refrain pops into my head: “Hello darkness my old friend…” as my eyes try to focus on the shapes of houses partially visible through the trees. Only the twinkle of yellow lights is visible through the muted white and blackness.
Occasionally the hug of the forest gives way and we’re suddenly out on open plains where the only light is the faint moon above the tree tops. The silence in my head takes on its own rhythmic hum.
Soon, we arrive at a snowy farmyard, where two lavvu – the name for a temporary dwelling of the indigenous Sami people – are erected. There are fires burning inside and outside, beckoning us. We help ourselves to hot berry juice and ginger biscuits and get some warmth. Then, we move to the outside fire where wooden benches covered in reindeer hides have been arranged.
It’s the first time that we really get to meet some of the others on the out-ride. The contingent is truly international. Almost everyone had this excursion searching for the Northern Lights on their list of must-dos and realise that it is quite possibly something that will never be repeated. But somehow, it’s OK. The chatter settles down eventually as the adrenalin from the ride gives way to the awe of place. You can’t help feeling small in the face of such the unspoilt beauty. The guides hand out pork sausages to be grilled on a stick over the fire. Drops of yellow and red – tomato sauce and mustard – stain the white snow about the benches. The smokiness of the fire and the sausage clings to your snow suit when you mount the snowmobile again.
I feel a little more confident now; this time I drive. At first, my hand cramps as I grip the handlebar too tightly. I take a deep breath and look up at the beautiful night, where the moon and stars peep through the clouds. If you look straight up, the trees frame the heavens like white lace. I breath the cold night air deep into my lungs. This is what freedom feels like.
There’s a change in the direction of the breeze and I get a whiff of the sausage and smoke on my clothes. The air is icy on my cheeks and the chill creeps in, finding exposed skin deep in my neck under the helmet.
In the dim circle of the headlights, I watch the pattern carved by tracks on our path. There are footprints here and there, sometimes a hint of bicycle tracks and further off in the thicker snow I occasionally spot reindeer tracks.
Here you can hear your own breathing echo in your ears before the quiet digests all traces of noise.
Too soon we leave the stark white forests behind. The town’s lights flicker in the distance. As we approach, another group on their way to our little forest hideaway passes by. I feel a little envious that the wonders we just experienced, must still unfold for them.
But my own heart is warm as I hum softly. I don’t mind that we did not get to see the Northern Lights. In this moment, it’s irrelevant. My bucket list is a forgiving, expandable entity. This moment – being in the Arctic Circle, near to reindeer and huskies and Santa Claus in a village – is more I could ever have wished for.
We return to our room at Rantasipi Pohjanhovi Hotel across the road from Lapland Safaris, where I sip tea and eat ginger biscuits, reliving the evening in my mind. I hear the echo of our guide tell the legend of the Northern Lights; how the fox with the burning tail set the skies alight.
And I know the little fox watched us in that enchanted forest, wisely staying hidden as the magic of this space awakened for us.