4 days, 4 nights in Kiruna and Abisko, two of the best places on Earth to catch the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. And as I was about to discover, home to many lesser known but no less amazing wonders.
September 12, 2016
After a week hiking alone through Lapland (exploring snow capped peaks, glaciers, and the Kungsleden), I found myself back at civilization in the sleepy town of Abisko, in Northern Sweden, 250km north of the Arctic Circle. Due to the unique geography of Tornetrask lake flanked by mountain ranges, skies are often clear. As such, Abisko is known as one of the best places on Earth to catch the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, luck doesn’t always follow me and the skies were overcast as can be while I was at Abisko.
I arrived at STF Abisko Mountain Station/ Tourist Station the previous night, cold, wet and hungry from a full day hike. I decided to stay for 2 nights to get a better chance to catch the Northern Lights here before heading to Kiruna. At 375 SEK a night for a dorm bed, it was cheaper than the cabins along the Kungsleden. That helped make the decision easier.
It was surreal, finally being back in civilisation with Wi-Fi, electricity and running water, after a week in the wilderness. While I absolutely didn’t mind being back with these little comforts, I think my mind could not adjusted as quickly. I woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweat from a nightmare of being alone again in the middle of nowhere. I was glad when the sun finally rose and I headed for my first fresh breakfast of the week at the mountain station’s restaurant.
The organic breakfast was decent, but the views from the restaurant were superb.
Probably my longest breakfast in months at least. Lazed around in the comfortable lounges for awhile more, then headed out for a walk nearby.
Abisko Canyon/ Abisko National Park
Crossed under the highway and railway to get to the ‘Sami Village’ on the other side.
Interesting getting a tiny glimpse into the nomadic life of the Sami people and how they adapt to the harsh conditions this far up North.
New friends, new stories
Still feeling quite tired from the week long hike, I returned to the hostel in the afternoon to warm up in the kitchen with some hot food and drinks. Late afternoon was time for the sauna, or batsu. It is probably one of the most best things to enjoy in the cold Arctic weather. Nightfall was fast approaching, and the skies were still not clearing, Despite having budgeted 2 nights at Abisko, I had no choice but to accept that I wouldn’t be able to catch the Northern Lights at Abisko this time round. Fingers crossed for better luck at Kiruna, where I’ll have 2 more nights before my flight back to Stockholm.
Later that night, an old man, looking tired and a little drenched, came to take a bed in the same room. I thought he would probably be one of the many hikers getting in and out of Lapland, but as I found out, he was actually a cabin manager at one of the cabins not too far from Abisko. Still required a day of walking though.
He had just closed the cabin for winter and was on his way home. There are no roads in, so he had to lug all his belongings for the past few months (summer season) out. Cabin managers are volunteers at the Swedish Tourist Association, and I thought that’s a really cool job. Not an easy one though, as he was looking forward to his first bath and beer in a few months. He was warm and friendly, and we had a nice chat before turning in for the night.
Skipped the buffet breakfast for another breakfast of instant foods leftover from my hike. Not really nice, but small luxuries such as breakfast add up quickly here in Scandinavia. There was still some time left before my train back to Kiruna closer to noon, and I decided to check out the Naturum Abisko (Natural History Museum). I wasn’t able to visit the day before as it was closed (Monday).
Naturum Abisko (Abisko Natural History Museum)
Entrance is free, and the are a couple of cool exhibits explaining the geology and biology of Abisko National Park. Takes an hour or less to cover the exhibits, which would have been a nice introduction before any further exploration of the area. Just as I was about to leave the center, the cabin manager whom I shared a room with the previous night arrived. He had just finished breakfast, and asked if I had seen the Gate to Lapland. The Gate to Lapland?! I had heard about the legendary valley (actually name Lapporten) somewhere, but wasn’t expecting to see it on this trip. But as it turns out, Abisko is probably one of the easiest ways to catch a view of it.
I asked where I might be able to get a view of it, and he kindly obliged to bring me there. It was a small viewing platform slightly down the road from the museum/ visitor center. With tall trees all around, I could not imagine having a view of the mountains, much less the valley, but as I stepped onto the platform, lo and behold, Lapporten, the Gate to Lapland!
It was just stunning imagining how weather and time work together to carve out such a huge valley.
Couldn’t believe I nearly missed out on this, if not for meeting the friendly man at just the right time. And finally, it was time to leave. Of course, the skies had to begin clearing up just as I was about to go.
Train ride to Kiruna
After about an hour, I arrived back at Kiruna, where I had been a week back just before starting my hike.
Left by bags at the hostel (265 SEK a night) and headed straight to the supermarket to find some intriguing food to fill my stomach with. I returned with an interesting haul:
With a fruitful trip to the supermarket (107 SEK), I decided to take a walk around the area near the hostel before it got dark. First, a stop at Kiruna Church (Kiruna Kyrka), one of the largest woodn buildings in Sweden. With winter approaching, opening hours were shorter and it was closed by the time I arrived.
Across the street from Kiruna Stadshuset, an unusual park which sat between the humongous underground mine and the city itself, with this description:
In other words, the ground beneath Kiruna is sinking towards the mine as the mine goes deeper. In time, Kiruna will cease to exist if it does not move out. So, instead of closing the mine, one of the largest iron ore mines in the world, the city is moving instead, several kilometres further. This ambitious urban transformation will take place over the next decades.
Around the park, there are many landmarks of historical significance. Kiruna’s modern history is closely tied with the mine, and many of these buildings were facilities for mining staff, such as for accommodation or leisure.
New friends, new plans
As dusk approached, I made my way back to the hostel for dinner. Two other guys were in the room then, a Malaysian student who had studied in Singapore and was studying in Germany, and a chef from Switzerland. Couldn’t have asked for better roommates for the night. Probably among the friendliest and easiest to talk to of travellers I’ve met while travelling.
The Malaysian had been at Kiruna for a day already, and had caught an amazing display of the Northern Lights at Luossavaara, the other mountain within Kiruna. Iron was once extracted there alongside the mine at Kiirunavaara, but it is currently inactive as a mine and used as a ski slope. In summer though, it is a great spot within Kiruna to catch the Northern Lights. (and probably the midnight sun). We deliberated on whether to make a trip up Luossavaara, as it was quite a distance (and height) away, and the aurora forecast didn’t look too great. Or at least the forecast was way below the forecast the previous night.
Anyhows, dinner first. I found some little potatoes in the shared food corner in the kitchen and boiled them to add more variety to my dinner. I usually only cook while travelling alone nowadays, and it hasn’t always worked out. Kept it simple enough this time, and it turned out quite well, or edible at the very least,
The forecast had not changed much after dinner, and it was getting cold outside. Nonetheless, we decided to try our luck, and set off on our adventure to conquer Luossavaara, and hopefully the Northern Lights.
It was cold and dark, but the company made the hour long walk much easier and lighter. Suddenly, we spotted a streak across the sky. Not that it appeared suddenly, but we suddenly looked up. That was it! We got excited and much more hopeful that we could have a nice view that night from the top of Luossavaara. Towards the end of the end of Hjalmar Lunbohmsvagen, there were no more street lights, but we were ready. Our Malaysian friend had been there the day before and had prepared us well. With our torches out, we soon reached the end of the road, where the ski slope began, and we began our ascent.
It wasn’t easy, especially since my legs haven’t recovered from the week long hike, but we made it in the end. Still, there were no clear signs of the Northern Lights. There was an amazing night view over the city and the mine though, but I didn’t manage to get a nice picture of it. Northern Lights or not, it was great being on top of Kiruna with great people, having the entire space to ourselves. Out came Coognac from our Swiss friend’s bag, and we had a toast on the dark, freezing summit of Luossavaara.
Having already brought my camera and tripod, I decided to just give it a try to see if I could capture something, despite nothing very visible then. Magically, the faint auroras appeared after adjusting the camera on long exposure (among other settings). We decided to wait it out in hope for better conditions.
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) at Luossavaara
Sure enough, despite the low aurora forecast, white streaks started to appear across the sky. First faintly, then still faintly. They never got too strong that night and didn’t dance like they did in promotional advertisements, but I managed to get a few shots of it. With a bit of simple post processing (adjusting contrast/ brightness), the colours started to appear, and these were the end results:
According to our Malaysian friend, the display the previous night was strong enough to capture with a casual phone camera, without additional settings. Despite the supposedly paler light show, the experience at Luossavaara, with the 360 panorama of Lapland at night softly illuminated by stars and the pale auroras, felt magical.
- A Swiss, a Malaysian, and a Singaporean. Capturing faces against the faint Northern Lights was much harder than I thought, we used a phone light and a few attempts for this, resulting in us looking photoshopped in.
- Us again, camwhoring. Note that with a low aurora forecast/ measure as it was that night (though not entirely accurate), colors would probably not look like that in real life. To the naked eye the aurora would appear much paler. This is with longer exposure, higher ISO and slight tweaking so our faces could be seen.
- Last shot, from a huge rock.
It was gradually getting colder, and finally time to go. As we got to the bottom of the ski slope, another display of the Northern Lights started, this time brighter than what we had experienced at the top of Luossavaara. Another round of camwhoring ensued.
Sweet dreams are made of these
Along the way back, the bright pale streak that stretched to the furthest ends of the sky persisted, till we were deep within the city where street lights outshone it. Luossavaara is a great place to catch the Northern Lights, but I’d recommend not going alone. It will also be a good idea to make a trip during the day to have a look at the way up before night fall. The way up is really dark and with no one else around if anything happens. On the way back, we crossed a pedestrian crossing which screamed out loudly when we approached. Seems like a nice safety feature, but in the dead of the night, gave us all a huge shock. We had a few laughs and soon arrived back at the hostel, where we turned in, satisfied, for the night.
Kiruna Church (Kiruna Kyrka)
The next morning, my roommates decided to make a day trip to Abisko. I had book a tour to the mine in the afternoon and had some time to explore Kiruna in the morning. As the church was near the hostel, I tried my luck again. It was open this time, fortunately, and I was lucky to be able to witness the spectacular interiors of this huge wooden church.
Kiruna Kyrka, over a hundred years old, is a gift from the mining company (LKAB), presented by Hjalmar Lundbom, the first manager of the mine.
Kiruna Mine Visit
After lunch, I headed to Kiruna Tourist Information Centre, the pickup point for the guided mine visit, which I had booked online the day before. It was a little pricey (345 SEK), but I thought I’d give it a visit, since it was one of the major points of interest in Kiruna.
The bus arrived promptly, and soon were on our way.
I was expecting it to be similar to the visit I had to Wieliczka Salt Mine in Krakow a few years back, but this was nothing like that. To summarise, the LKAB mine in Kiruna is MASSIVE. Tunnels huge enough for trucks go a few hundred metres underground, forming a huge network of roads below the city. After what seemed like quite a long drive, the bus reached 540m (counted from the top of Kiirunavaara, the summit of which was long gone). The visitor centre, and the areas covered in the tour, situated at this level, were not as sprawling and stunning as the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which looked like a city in itself. LKAB stands for Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag. Luossavaara and Kiirunavaara are the two mountains in Kiruna from which iron ore operations started, and Aktiebolag is Swedish for limited company.
Rolling in the deep
The ‘finished product’ passes through rigorous processing to improve quality and environmental sustainability.
The mine visit was definitely an eye opening experience. I still feel the price was a little steep though, despite the light refreshments provided. But considering it being in Scandinavia, perhaps not too terribly expensive.
Back where the sun shines (sometimes)
Later that afternoon, I decided to check out the sauna at the hostel. The cold and wet weather made the sauna ever more inviting. With the overcast skies, I thought there would be little chance of catching the Northern Lights that night. I was ready to spend the rest of the day (and night) in the hostel.
After dinner though, I decided to take a peek at the skies outside. Although it was bright in the city, the skies looked clear. I decided to give it a shot (literally) at the church nearby. The was only one thing on my mind- the photo I had taken at the church 2 days ago, the space where I had imagined the Northern Lights to be.
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) at Kiruna Kyrka (Kiruna Church)
When I arrived (after a short 5 mins walk), some clouds still remained, but a hint of the Aurora could be seen from behind the clouds.
And then, the most magical display (at least for me) started.
After the first initial bright streak, many more flashes and streaks started to appear all around. They started to dance across the sky. With the beautiful church in the foreground, these pictures must have been among the prettiest things I’ve caught on camera. The colours were not really vibrant that night though. But the pale streaks, flashes and swirls were all I needed to complete my nearly 2 week long adventure in Lapland, which was to end the following morning.
With the amazing light show over, I found myself suddenly more aware of my surroundings again. I came alone that night, and it was getting colder. The thought of the graveyard just beside the church also spooked me a little. I packed up and started my way back to the hostel.
All that, despite an overcast afternoon and a below average Aurora forecast that night. I had a great sleep that night.
Still a little time left before my flight back to Stockholm. One more stop that had been closed on my first visit, the city hall (Stadshuset). Nothing too fancy in the Stadshuset, but an interesting building with a unique design nonetheless. Entrance is free.
Sadly, the Stadshuset, a landmark from the 50s, will not be preservd when the city moves. Some parts will supposedly be brought over though.
And it was time to go!
That’s all from Lapland
As it turned out, my Swiss friend was also headed for Stockholm that day, his flight half an hour before mine. Bus schedules match flight schedules but in this case there was only one bus for both flights. That worked too, and we made our way there together (110 SEK for the airport bus ticket each way).