Moonbeam Trippin'

Way up in the Arctic Circle at the very top of Norway, solar storms spin the celestial magic we call the Northern Lights. Marc Andrews falls under their spell.

Seeing the Northern Lights is a dream many have long held close to their hearts. Many obsessed and possessed people have ventured to the North Pole to pursue these mystical moonbeams yet fail to find them after fruitless days of searching. It’s hard to say for sure if you’ll get to see them if you do come all the way to the northern tip of Scandinavia, but you significantly increase the odds if you’re in northern Norway, in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night – and have the patience of a saint.

In late February, my boyfriend and I joined the world’s first gay travel group to chase the Northern Lights. We set off from London to the Arctic Circle city of Tromsø, which is actually an island, via Norway’s sleek capital of Oslo.

There were 11 of us, including our host and guide, Niko Martikas, whose boutique gay travel company, Martikas, pioneered this trip. Getting the chance to view the Northern Nights is truly something you will never forget. These celestial sky streams of stunning coloured lights are out of this world and so extraordinary that photos and videos simply do not do them justice. They change form, they change colour, they create shapes, they shimmer, they create showers of light and they completely take your breath away.

These otherwordly beams of light have been the subject of delight, and, surprisingly, dread, for thousands of years. Many of the witches burned in Norway in the Middle Ages were in the north of the country and the Northern Lights were believed to be the wrath of their spirits. For centuries the local people were scared of this night sky magic they did not understand and did not see it as something of beauty. Children were not allowed out when the Northern Lights were about to make sure those evil witches didn't snatch them away. To this day, Norwegian children are taught to wave a white scarf at the Northern Lights as a way of warding off evil spirits (and perhaps waving to Santa on the way home, too!)

The Sami [Lapps or Laplanders in English], considered the last indigenous tribe of Europe, practised shamanism and believed the Northern Lights to be actual messages from the dead. However, the scientific reason behind them is much less spooky, but has to do with solar storms projected into our galaxy. The earth’s magnetic force repels the forces, except at the poles, which is why they can only be seen in hard-to-get-to, suitably snowy, spots.

The Northern Lights themselves are generally bright green, but can also take on orange, pink, red, brown, or even blue hues. Winter is the time to chase them as the northernmost part of Scandinavia boasts 24-hours of sunshine each day in summer and to see the Northern Lights clearly and optimally you need total darkness (which is why visibility is poor in the cities or towns). The sky also either needs to be clear, or with clouds clearing. They can’t be seen in cloudy or snowy weather. You’ll also need patience and time.

Our group of gay men, plus our gay Greek tour leader, was a truly international bunch: British, German, Australian, Indian, Turkish, Irish and Dutch. Friendships were quickly forged – there’s nothing like sipping chilled Prosecco in a hot tub in the snow to help break the ice. Needless to stay, by the end of the trip there were a number of romantic, and less romantic, attachments made.

The trip wasn’t cheap, but it’s hard to put a price on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In all we saw the Northern Lights three out of four nights – and that’s only because we decided on a night out in Tromsø on the Saturday. We were invited to see a show by hot local talents F.A.C.E. who were supporting the Norwegian lad gone global, Todd Terje. The band’s handsome lead singer Per got in touch with our group through gay social media and put us on the guest list. We had been told that Tromsø was full of ginger muscle boys, but it was really full of Viking-like gods, many with blond beards and a bi-curious nature. Everything is mixed here at the clubs with no exclusively gay space (apart from Grindr, Scruff and the Norwegian gay site, Gaysir).

The concert was a true slice of Scandi-pop with a pulsating dance beat – think Robyn on steroids. Some of our group continued on to the after-party and were looking more than a little bleary-eyed at breakfast the next morning. The only good thing about everything being so hideously expensive in Norway, double so for alcohol, is that you need to make a drink last a very long time, or else you’ll be emptying out your wallet of Norwegian Kroner.

Our trip wasn’t only to chase the thrilling Northern Lights, or hot Norwegian pop stars. We also got to take a spine tingling husky ride on sleds (not for the faint-hearted) and spend a night at the chillingly fabulous Sorrisniva Igloo in Alta. This ice hotel is rebuilt every year anew for the winter season. Sleeping in one of its cosy, if frosty, 26 rooms you receive a sleeping bag and a pillow, and sleep on a mattress covered in reindeer skins on the ice. It’s an experience you’ll probably want to do just the once, as it does not provide for the best, or warmest, night’s sleep. That said, the photo opportunities and Facebook bragging rights are priceless.

During our five-day Norwegian expedition we also had the pleasure of tucking into some of the local fare such as reindeer, elk, whale and a small pizza that cost $40. This is the world’s most expensive country so don’t forget to account for that. As for clothing, pack ski pants, gloves, hat, scarf, thermal layers and good hefty boots for walking on snow, ice, or slush. To best chase and capture the Northern Lights you will need a good camera (forget your iPhone), a tripod and a trusty guide to lead you to the best places in the forest to see them.

Was the trip to the Northern Lights worth it? If a picture tells a thousand words – and we got some spectacular pictures – it also more than makes up for a thousand dollars, or how much it cost to chase them!

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