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The Northern Lights, and the countries that reap the benefits of tourists searching for the sight, is a prime example of just how tied geography is to the tourism industry.
‘We have a saying here in northern Norway,” our guide says. “Never invite a man or woman to spend the night in winter. They could stay for two months.”
We’re on a fishing boat in the Norwegian Sea, inside the Arctic Circle. In winter, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, so though there are a few hours of light every day it’s technically still night.
The boat chugs out of the harbour, past the 11 triangles of the Arctic Cathedral and under the bridge. We are going to a spot away from the town’s light pollution, a spot where if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to see the northern lights. Through the cabin’s windows the yellow glow of Tromso gives way to silhouettes of the surrounding mountains, their slopes plunging into the water.
Our hosts for the evening are a guide, a chef and a skipper. We are a group of 10, hoping to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis. Our chef serves up a delicious dinner of poached Arctic cod (caught that morning by our guide and skipper), with boiled potatoes, carrots and swede. There’s also a hearty baked onion-and-bacon dish, most welcome on an Arctic winter’s night.
Halfway through dinner, our chef comes down from the deck. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she says, “but the lights have made an appearance. They’re faint, but they’re there.” Cutlery clatters on to the table as we dive into our down jackets and scrabble for hats, cameras and tripods. We hurry up the steep stairs on to the deck. The photographers among us set up tripods, the rest of us scan the horizon.
It was snowing until the start of the boat trip, and a thin layer of grey cloud still hovers above. But we can see the stars through breaks in the cloud, and the full moon shines brightly. Then, on the horizon, there’s a wisp of something, like smoke from a chimney. Only it is a shimmering green, billowing and changing shape like a curtain in a gentle breeze. We stand staring, mesmerised, and then as silently as it appeared it fades, and the horizon is black again.
Our skipper comes out of his cabin. “Have you seen the lights? Look over there.” This time the luminous green plume is overhead, dancing to a noiseless tune before vanishing. “It’s stardust,” says our guide. Again and again, the strange light appears and disappears, brush strokes across the night sky, teasing us, never in the same place, never the same shape, but always an other-worldly fluorescent green.
Soon the last light fades. We wait, hoping there is more to come, but the show is over. We climb back down the steps to finish our dinner, which our chef has thoughtfully warmed up for us. “Now,” says our guide, settling into his armchair, “have I told you about the time there was a polar bear on the streets of Tromso?”