A couple of years ago, I entered a National Geographic travel writing competition. The aim was to immerse the reader in an inspiring travel experience within only 500 words. Other than that, anything went. I decided to write about my experience on a landscape photography trip in Norway, trying to track down the elusive northern lights. I didn't truly write to compete - I wrote because I liked the prompt and thought that by committing my experience to words, I could create another precious souvenir from the trip; a way of remembering it forever. I stumbled across it today, and wanted to share it with you. Leave your desk behind and join me on a dark, cold beach in the Lofoten Islands...
“Watch out!” A disembodied voice barks. “The sand is like jelly here - wrong step and poof - tripod gone, sucked up!”
I take a moment to process all the unpleasant implications of this warning and adhere to the trail of footsteps before me with extra care. They belong to Even: indefatigably cheerful local photographer with a penchant for Swedish snus and megawatt-orange mountain-wear.
Just a few hours ago we had occupied a wooden table at Anita’s Sjømat on Sakrisøy, eating fish burgers underneath a pungent chandelier of dried fish. The winter sun, by contrast, melded to the horizon like a pearl to an oyster, draping the world in a soft, silky glow. It was a pastel dreamscape of pinks and blues interrupted only by my accompanying human traffic cone.
Now, he exists only in the glare of his flashlight, and the rest of him is darkness.
Even’s jolting silhouette is guiding me down one of the many surf-swept beaches that fringe Lofoten’s coastline. We’re hunting the northern lights off the beaten track, in a place that looks like something out of a fairytale: an Arctic archipelago chiselled by glaciers and the sea, where deep fjords and knife-edge mountains form a photographers dream. It's the kind of place that seems more to me like one of Tolkien’s designs, with all the grandeur of a kingdom mapped out on Middle Earth. Mountains meet water everywhere you look, towering between picturesque fishing villages and sheltered harbours where red cabins perch on stilts.
The beach is deserted and the sky is clouded with stars. In the distance, a string of mountains rise to meet them like the jagged spine of some great sea monster. A lick of green here and there is tantalising - to witness the aurora dance around those mountain turrets is a sight few have seen.
I’m crouching, trying to find a square foot of land that won’t devour my camera gear, when Even interjects. His flashlight is off but I can make out his craned neck and wagging finger in the moonlight.
I lift my gaze to meet a single emerald band in the sky. It emerges brighter by the second, as though slowly dialled up by invisible hand. The sea, as still and flat as a sheet of clingfilm stretched over the earth, holds the image of the rippling aurora on its surface. We’re sandwiched between the ethereal trail above and its ghostly reflection on the shore, no longer earthbound but suspended in the cosmos itself. Here, under this ancient magic, I suddenly gain a profound sense of the transience of human glory, of human lives. I hoist my tripod out of the sand and take the shot.