In a darkened, near-empty plane, the pilot's voice rings out: "There is a fine display of the Northern Lights on the right-hand side." Why am I am the only one who struggles across the rows of seats to look? I feel uncool and then disappointed, because there's nothing to see except black sky and the stars. I've seen stars before. All my life I've loved to look at the heavens and trace the outlines of bears, dragons and hunters from those twinkling points of remoteness.
For nearly as long, I've wanted to see the aurora. I know the theory: charged particles, electromagnetic fields, oxygen emission lines (greenish-yellow) and nitrogen (red). But there's thinking it and being it, and right now, I want to be that aurora. Here, on this 'plane, I've had the chance and it's dropped through my fingers, like trying to grab hold of a veil of nothingness dropping eerily from the stars, moving to the music of the spheres with an inaudible swirling and a silent swishing.
This year of all years, it's the solar maximum and it's the best chance of my life. But I'm worried. Sunspots are few and the magnetic field lines are all nice and tidy. That's not good for aurora hunters.
On the first evening we eat reindeer steaks, and drink reindeer tears. We talk, we drink, and I mention that there are too few particles around to make a good aurora. That tickles them, these hardened men from the frozen north.
The next day dawns bright and cold. My hosts aren't worried by temperatures of -30°C, but my lungs are. Minus thirty means the breath is short. You breathe in, and your lungs don't understand what has hit them. They were expecting oxygen, but got ice. You gasp a bit, but it takes time for your lungs learn that the air has not turned traitor.
Running is impossible. I have my mountain gear on, because that keeps me warm, even on top of a Scottish mountain. Then I have my motorbike outers on top of that, because that's the warmest gear I have. I'm staying warm, but I can barely walk, let alone run.
Minus 30 means when your nose drips, it's almost solid before it gets to the ground. Minus 30 means ice can bind your eyelashes together.
But that is not important, because you have never seen the world like this. The air is so clear and so bright that it almost sparkles: covering everything with the tiniest hint of fairy dust. You can only see it out of the corner of your eye, but it's there. No wonder these people believe in spirits. Sami, Inuit, Native Americans, they look like they share ancient blood, and they are closer to the spirits than we are. We might be clever, sophisticated city-dwellers, but we have forgotten how to see the world.
On the way to the test track, we watch the in-car thermometer. It finally hits -40° in a dip in the road. Too cold to test tyres. That needs warmth: around -5°C. But since we are here, we start up the cars and have some fun on the track, power-sliding on the snow and pirouetting on the ice. Then we go indoors to talk about life up here, north of North, where rivers become roads and trees take a hundred years to mature. In Summer this track is a swamp, and a billion flies need to suck blood before they can reproduce. In Winter, it's used to test cars and their tyres to make sure they can handle in the worst conditions
Because the track is not being used, I get a couple of hours to look around town as dusk falls. In the tropics, day flips to night quicker than a Singapore Sling. Up here it's the opposite. Dusk starts around 3, and goes on until 6. Gradually, imperceptibly, the harsh, cold whites and blues of snow and sky become flushed, the colours warming up as the air starts to freeze. Day gives way slowly, gracefully to night, allowing time for each to greet each other, converse and finally after a suitable time, take their proper places.
I have an appointment with a snowmobile. I am wearing my mountain gear, my motorbike gear, and a fur-lined one-piece overall. I am not going to get cold tonight.
We start the 750cc engines. It's a hand pull. Ten pulls, twenty, and the first, brief signs of life. Thirty pulls and the engine is finally running, belching half-burned hydrocarbons until the whole car park is worse than a London pea-souper. Another skidoo, and a third. The stench is a shock after breathing purity and clarity all day.
I go between the two experienced guys. I think I can handle it. I'm a biker, after all. The leader takes off, and I follow. This is quick. I'm at the limit of my comfort zone. We go down a forest track. He speeds up, and I know I'm going too fast. Then I misjudge a corner, and end up with the skidoo on its side in a drift. No harm done.
It takes ten minutes of awkward, strenuous lifting to get the machine back on its skis. I've worked up a sweat. We take off, even faster than before. The sweat on my brow has filled my goggles with vapour, and within seconds it's a frozen white mask. I can't see. I'm sweating, struggling to make sense of the blurred, half-illuminated visions rushing toward me at impossible speeds. Those heated hand grips are too hot. I sweat more. Am I going into the forest, or down the track? The leader is way out in front, and I'm following no 2. I pitch into a deep hole and out the other side without even seeing it. My spine feels crushed and I nearly lose my grip on the over-hot hand grips, but still I keep going. This is madness. Finally, my brain takes over and I ease off the throttle. Once stopped, I try to clean the goggles, but the ice is so cold and so hard, I can only scrape a small window. As soon as we start off again, the ice re-forms, and I'm in purgatory. This is not fun. I'm going to do this, and survive, but this really is not fun. It's taking every ounce of courage and concentration and self-control.
The guy in front suddenly shoots up in the air, and then disappears from sight. Up and over a foot-bridge. Can't stop now: got to follow. Here goes: to infinity, or perhaps beyond. Twist the grip, rev the engine, The feel of the machine changes as the tracks leave the snow behind and bite into wood. I shoot up the 45° slope, Throttle back, and down the other side. This is not fun.
At last it's over. We have arrived at the hotel and it's all your dreams rolled into one. Some colleagues join us. They drove here in 4x4stoo sensible to ride snowmobiles in this cold.
We do The Tour. I've seen hotels in nearly every country of the world, and they are all the same. But this one is different. Completely different. If you book a room, you get an igloo for free. We look inside an igloo. You can sleep on a block of ice, covered with reindeer skins and quilts. The ice does strange things to electric light. The walls are neither opaque white, nor transparent ice, but half-way in between, the light seems to come from within the ice itself, shining from the crystalline heart of the walls. This is a building material more magical even than glass.
They have built a chapel from snow and ice and I have never been in a more serene building. The walls are like the purest white icing on a thousand wedding cakes, but clearer, sharper, with a million tiny facets to bend and reflect the light. Ice sculptures awe the spirit and calm the mind. Here a 6-foot high eagle, catching a jewelled salmon in its talons. Every feather detailed by caring hands. Every scale chipped away and shining in the reflected light. Above, an angel watches over the congregation. Her body is clear ice and if the angels in heaven are as beautiful, I'll be happy to die. And at the head of the chapel, two thrones, cut like slabs of purest Carrera marble. Our guide tells us the sculptors work in the Murmansk shipyards and my prejudices shatter like the light dusting their creations.
Returning outside, I move away from the group to find a spot deep in the shadows and look to the heavens. The sky is darker than I have ever seen it. Darker than velvet. Darker even than night, it seems. I've never seen so many stars. I can see down to 5th magnitude, maybe even 6th. I am in stargazer heaven. My colleagues want to go on, and call for me to re-join them. The spell is broken, and reluctantly, still wanting to linger in the embrace of the stars, I return to the group. I am silent as we walk to a more private part of the grounds, and find high-tech igloos made from triple-glazed geodesic panels. They are designed for lovers, wrapped tight in each others' arms, to watch the stars and the aurora and the sun rise. No curtains needed here, even for honeymooners. I envy them.
We go for a sauna. Ten men. Swedes, Finns and myself. All colleagues, one way or another. It's a wood sauna. Less harsh, apparently than the normal electric stove.
We walk into a kind of changing room made of Lapland pine. This is not Ikea softwood, but trees that grow slowly in the short Lappish summers. Their wood is as hard as iron, and most of the trunks are twisted in a long, slow spiral. The mark of a good tree, says Timo, our host.
We take off our outer gear and Timo, hands around bottles of beer and we talk in front of the log fire. Eventually, we take our clothes off. Normal for the Scandinavians, but new for me, and I am not comfortable. I feel defenceless, unguarded, insecure. The sauna itself is next door, across an open passageway. One by one we step out of the cosy, fire-bright warmth, into the bitter night-time cold, and, as quick as we can, into the sauna. There is a problem, etiquette demands that we sit on a paper towel, and the guy in front of me is trying to help by picking one from the dispenser for me. He fumbles, and leaves me standing naked in -40° temperatures for too long. Eventually, he lets me do it myself, and we walk into another world.
The sauna is hot. How many degrees? I have no idea, I am living this, not thinking it. My hosts are Finns, so they go straight to the top deck, and immediately throw ten, twenty, thirty buckets of water on the hot rocks. The temperature soars and the sweat glistens on our bodies. The conversation dies down. That defenceless, vulnerable feeling turns imperceptibly to calm and harmony. There are no barriers in here.
Just as I am getting really comfortable in the sweat and heat and steam, one of the guys gets up, and goes to cool off. One by one we get up, half sorry to leave the dark, sweaty, over-hot room, half glad for the blessed relief of cool night air. And a relief it is. We stand, naked, chatting, and barely even notice the bitterest cold you can imagine. The sweat has turned to beads of ice, clinging to the hairs on my legs and chest. I am one of the last to return to the changing room. We shower, have another beer and talk a bit more. Two of the guys say they went for a dip into the lake water. I can't believe it, but it's true. There is a trapdoor, which leads to the open surface of the lake.
We return to the sauna, more water bubbles and boils off the hot stones and that sweaty, drowsy togetherness takes over again. All too soon, it's time to cool off for the last time.
It's once in a lifetime, I think, as I make my way down 50 metres of snowy track to the trapdoor in the lake. I open the door, and there's 2mm of ice. It breaks with a few kicks, and I have to go first. "The water is only 0°," I tell myself as I step onto the top rung. "A lot warmer than the air," I try to convince myself as the water gets to my waist. And then I'm in and find I'm enjoying the cold. That's long enough, and up the ladder as quick as I can. Once out, the cold suddenly cuts through me, and I run back to the changing rooms, not waiting to share the experience with the others. One of them calls out, "there's a party of Japanese women coming round the corner." I have enough presence of mind to call back, "Let them, there's nothing to see." We all laugh.
We change, and go for a meal. We are relaxed. The energy from the sauna has refreshed us and brought us together. The conversation flows easily as we share our food, exchange experiences, tell stories into the night.
As we walk out of the restaurant, I see a shimmering, green curtain high up in the heavens, clear enough that the stars still shine through it, and hissing imperceptibly in the sparkling night air.
Thank you Timo. I'll never forget this day for as long as I live.