Magic In The Sky

On a quest to see the northern lights, Wilmien Rossouw loses her heart to Odin’s eye, to a jellyfish and to the skies above Tromsø.

There are many types of people in the world, although “they” will often tell you with sure voices that there are “two types of people” in the world. “They” might say something like, “There are those who choose to explore the world outside of themselves, and those who stay at home and explore their inner worlds.”

Some types of people, having explored all the dull, inner landscapes of deadlines for money while seated in front of a laptop for 12 hours straight, get a phone call at 11pm from a friend suggesting a trip to Norway to find the northern lights – in case you both expire soon from stress-related heart disease. Those people do not pause to think about it; they don’t say that they need time before making a decision. They simply whisper a relieved “yes”.

The biggest adventures happen in moments, after all, and “yes” is a double-edged sword in the scabbards of “two types of people” – those who must create change lest they go insane from an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and those who ask the price of a ticket to Norway. I am both types of people.

Oslo is a good place to land. I relate to the open humour of the Norwegians at passport control. Perhaps it’s my natural South African exuberance that amuses, and maybe it is that they know what my expression will be once I learn how much a half glass of Cabernet Sauvignon from a Portuguese vineyard will set me back.

The quest starts in the quaint, rainy city of Bergen, a delightful port from which to launch the search for the Aurora Borealis.

I take the funicular up the mountain which is behind our hotel. It is overcast, as it should be in Norway in autumn. The leaves on trees are burnt umber and burgundy red. A fine mist pervades. The mountain freely offers her moss-covered rock cliffs, birch trees and dangling clumps of berries. I’m euphoric, with not a single thought in my mind, just sailing through air so crisp, so pure, that in moments I feel translucent. The mountain sings water-songs and the streams talk amongst themselves in animated conversation. Here and there, the sun breaks through, illuminating a Japanese party of four students, their language suddenly audible like a curtain raised on a play in a dream, about to begin. They walk on.

I stop when something shiny catches my eye. Half embedded in the fecund soil, a little stone peeks at me, shimmering silver, Odin’s eye, winking merrily. In that moment, I have no past, no yearning, and no regrets. I am part of a huge novel called Nature, and with each step I become part of her chapters called “kilometres”. There’s something freeing about walking blindly, lost and surrendered in a foreign wilderness.

If it is true of walking, it is doubly true of sailing on large ships with names like Polarlys, a feisty vessel belonging to the Hurtigruten group. We board and I am immediately smitten with the porthole in our cabin. It is the sweetest little square that narrows my lens on the world but gifts me with a view of the mysterious Norwegian fjords. Many hours are to come where days, thoughts and weather will be measured through this porthole.

We stop at every port – the Polarlys is a working ship, and work it must. There are 15-minute stops, sometimes twice a day.

I am one of a few rebellious passengers who insistently disembark for exactly 10 minutes at a time, even if it is just to be mesmerised by a brick-red jellyfish that taunts me with its languid movements close to the surface of the water – water so clear that one can count the rocks on the fjord floor.

Only when I hear the boat moan in lugubrious tones, do I look up to see the Polarlys’s fat behind sail off into the twilight like a snotty socialite in a too-tight dress.

I have actually missed the boat.

My cries of outrage turn into pathetic pleas, echoing off the silent fjords, and still she sails on towards Tromsø without so much as a backwards glance. The Vikings who appear collectively from the mist in response to my wailing, laugh me into a car that will take me to a bus that will return me to my ship. It seems they don’t believe in abandonment once one has crossed the Arctic Circle, and it also seems that I am not the first passenger who has been left behind.

I promise my rescuers that I’ll spread the word to the rest of the world. They laugh so beautifully, all glacier teeth and Odin’s eyes, Norwegians.

Still the lights elude us. Every day we speculate. Nights pass where we are ready to run to the upper decks in case the announcement comes to catch the hallucinating sky.

Disappointment grows in equal proportion to hope. A sighting is unlikely but not unheard of, given that it is autumn. The crew assures us that the furious sun has emitted a massive solar flare, and that could be what’s needed to coax the lights into a show.

Then, on a Tuesday, Olga, the boat boss of us all, almost breathlessly bursts into the cabin over the intercom. “Deck seven.”

The miracle that is the Aurora Borealis floods my eyes the moment I step out into the freezing air. It is a living thing. It is the best parts of us – a newly birthed child. It is all the “first times” that have ever happened to make us understand our fragility and the love that runs beneath it. It freezes me to the spot for a moment, then moves through all the molecules in my bloodstream so that, while I sway, it feels like the ship is dancing with me beneath the skies of a living, conscious universe.

With every awed in-breath, particles collide with nitrogen and oxygen, and the reds undulate and brush up against the greens, while the blues dip low, almost courting the others in sweeping arcs. With every overwhelmed out-breath, the lights seem to swell and pulse in rhythm with my heartbeat, so that it feels as if my lungs are connected to the vastness around me. The pulse of the lights mimic the pulse of the jellyfish I’d been so enamoured with, swimming, surging, simply experiencing itself as perfectly pulsing within the mother heart of all existence. It is indescribable. Where my skin stops, the Borealis starts. I stretch a hand towards the sky. The lights dip down and kiss my palm, inviting me to draw courage and overwhelming love into myself. I take as much as I know how, and my eyes water in thankfulness.

It is the only night that we are privy to the Big Show; the complete, uninhibited reveal that is this planet, part of a galaxy, part of a Universe that forever expands. It is enough to know. How many times since have I stood on that deck again, the air pinching my frosted nose, and drawn strength, focus and stillness from the dancing lights?

There are “two types of people”, they will tell you – those who believe that magic is inside and all around us, and those who believe it is mostly in the skies of the North Pole, above Tromsø. I’m both types of people.

Image: ©Shutterstock - 679696936
Image: ©Shutterstock -

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