Five nights, 1,800km and a few frayed tempers; Sarah Marshall goes to Iceland in search of the Northern Lights

It's barely gone 10pm, the sun disappeared hours ago, and chaos has broken out in car park of South Iceland's upmarket Hotel Ranga. Belly down on the tarmac, people are crawling between the wheels of stationary vehicles, feeling their way through the darkness, while other bathrobed guests are dripping wet having leapt straight from the hot tub.

All have their gaze set in one direction: skyward. None are fleeing a raging fire or a terrorist attack, though. Instead, the cause of such commotion is a luminous green streak rippling like a Mexican wave across the night sky.

Enjoying a riverside location miles away from any light pollution, four-star Hotel Ranga was the first property in Iceland to famously offer its guests an aurora wake-up call, with a night watchman ready to raise the alarm should the Northern Lights decide to put on a display.

Avoiding the hard and often painful graft of standing in sub-zero temperatures for several hours, guests can emerge from their centrally-heated rooms to view the performance in the same way they might turn up to a theatre show.

For my photographer boyfriend Renato and I, though, a slithering light beam illuminating a gaggle of hysterical tourists isn't going to cut it. We've been fortunate enough to observe the Northern Lights on several occasions, and while the novelty never diminishes, our appetite for getting an awe-inducing photograph only seems to grow.

For us, foreground is everything, and with a wealth of dynamic waterfalls, gaping volcanic craters and crystal clear glacial lakes, Iceland is the ideal choice for a photographic hunt for the Northern Lights.

Eager to escape the crowds, we jump in our 4x4 and try to navigate a minefield of blanket-wrapped bodies and flimsy tripods.

"Turn off your lights! Turn off your lights!" screeches an American woman, advancing towards the right-hand side of our car, seemingly unstoppable, like Terminator with a Texan twang.

"Can't you see?" she hisses, as I begin to wonder if there might actually be metal plates and electrical wires underneath her snow white padded jacket. "Something is happening here!"

"Yeah, the four horseman of the apocalypse are riding on the horizon," I sigh under my breath, and while I'm tempted to suggest Renato reverse the car a little further to the right, I conclude that running over an American tourist's foot will only delay our hunt for the lights even further.

Leaving an artillery fire of camera clicks and abuse behind us, we head in the direction of darkness, unsure of exactly what we might find.

Driving along Route 1, the main highway which rings Iceland, I can just about make out the faint outline of colossal mountains, some so vast they swallow up the starry sky. After an hour of taking false turns into private farmland, we find a suitable setting for our aurora light show: Skogafoss waterfall.

Wearing head torches, we hike for 45 minutes to the top of the falls, following the sound of water crashing against the rocks. But it appears we've turned up too late for the light show, as only a dim green glow can be detected in our cameras. An anticipated encore never comes, and we finally return to Hotel Ranga at 3am, relieved to find Terminator and her friends have retired for the night.

It's tempting to spend the following day recovering in bed, but with so few daylight hours at the time of year, there's an urgency to get outdoors and explore. Plus, we have some important work to do, scouting out a suitable location for this evening's performance.

Perpendicular cliffs shape the southern coastline, with colonies of gulls and gannets gathering in the crevices along Krysuvikurberg.

At Dyrholaey Cape, I feel the full force of the Atlantic Ocean, as waves smash against the basalt rocks, spewing an eruption of white foam above my head and drenching me in the process. Fulmars glide past, their compact, torpedo-shaped bodies casting heavy shadows on the satin black beach below.

Crashing water becomes a soundtrack for our days of exploration, as we shift from wild and battered shores to the slim cascade of glacial melt at Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

But still, we haven't found a suitable location for tonight.

Last year, I met photographer Ellen Anon at the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year exhibition, where her images of the Northern Lights above Jokulsarlon were on display. She convinced me I should visit the iceberg-filled glacial lake one day and as it appears to be only a few centimetres away on my map, now seems an appropriate time.

But after two and a half hours of driving, we've only covered a few millimetres according to my scale, and I can see Renato's patience is wearing wafer thin. Fortunately, the roadside attractions are plentiful, with the setting sun sweeping a drowsy haze across lava fields carpeted in a spongy layer of lichen.

Arriving at our destination four and a half hours later, there's barely any light, and we scramble over a hill to find icy debris scattered in the smooth, viscous water.

The pleasure though, is short-lived. After ten minutes, its dark, snowing, and clouds have suffocated the sky.

"Right," says Renato, doing very little to disguise his irritation that I don't have a driving licence. "I suppose we'd better drive back."

There are two essential prerequisites for viewing the Northern Lights: clear skies and a high level of electromagnetic energy in the atmosphere. Using Icelandic Met Office website, which gives forecasts for both, we try to find the optimum spot. Disappointingly, most of the country is covered in dark green, meaning heavy cloud, and white spots (clear skies) seem to be few and far between.

In search of alternative landscapes, we travel northwest to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula National Park, where a ridge of snow-streaked mountains, compressed like a concertina, dominates the open grasslands and only a few solitary houses brave the battering winds.

Our focus for the night is Kirkjufell, a sci-fi setting of waterfalls framing a swirling, Walnut Whip of a mountain, that repeatedly features in award-winning photos. Scrambling over rocks and slipping on patches of ice, I question the sanity - and safety - of climbing a waterfall at 4am.

With the lights being fairly uneventful, we agree to return at sunrise, when we're joined by four more equally unhinged photographers.

As our final night approaches, we've clocked up 1,200km on the mileage gauge, burned through nearly £200 of fuel, and still we don't have a satisfying Northern Lights photograph.

We debate returning to Jokulsarlon, which irritatingly promises to be cloud-free, but both agree that a 13-hour drive and night spent sleeping in the back of a car might finish us off.

When we arrive at Hotel Budir, a remote, romantic property that gazes out to sea, I'm glad we decided to stay; and when the alarm goes off at 4am, I'm secretly relieved to find it cloudy outside and accept our hunt is officially over.

Instead, a few hours later, we stroll along the Budir beach, where angry waves have since retreated, leaving soft ripples in the sand. In that moment, we have our own aurora wake-up call: the Northern Lights are sublime but in Iceland, daylight hours are equally enigmatic, if not more so.


:: Iceland specialist, Regent Holidays ( offers an eight-day Iceland South and West fly-drive from £1,185 per person (two sharing), including flights with WOW airlines, eight days hire of a 4x4 and accommodation in a choice of excellent hotels and guesthouses along the route, on bed and breakfast basis.

:: WOW air (; 0118 321 8384) currently flies 10 times per week from London Gatwick to Reykjavik, with twice-daily departures on Monday, Thursday and Sunday. Fares start from £49 one way, including taxes.