The great light show

Fin­land of­fers ad­ven­ture in the quest for na­ture’s sky spec­tac­u­lar

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - GARRY MARCHANT

Our bid to view the world’s great­est nat­u­ral light show be­gins with a train ride from Helsinki one frosty au­tumn morn­ing. The spec­tac­u­lar North­ern Lights (aurora bo­re­alis) ap­pear ran­domly in north­ern lat­i­tude skies, mainly in win­ter. Shim­mer­ing in the sky in fan­tas­tic, seem­ingly supernatural, danc­ing swirls and shards of green­ish light, they are a stun­ning sight — but they are hard to pre­dict.

I have seen these awe-in­spir­ing lights in Man­i­toba, Canada, but my wife has not. And Fin­land is one of the best, most re­li­able places for the ex­pe­ri­ence. So, co­cooned in this warm, bright rail car, the wall speedome­ter mea­sur­ing 200km/h, we race north through ever­green and po­plar forests and past rush­ing rivers not yet ice clogged. Sum­mer cab­ins along the many lakes and a few farm houses are the only signs of hu­man habi­ta­tion in this wild land. The daz­zling win­ter won­der­land is fa­mil­iar from the train scenes of the movie clas­sic, Dr Zhivago, which were shot here. By 4pm this Novem­ber evening all we can see are shapes of the trees and some mod­ern wind­mills against the dark­en­ing sky. The rail line ends in Ro­vaniemi, just 10km south of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, so next day we con­tinue our jour­ney through North­ern La­p­land by bus. For hours we pass a rugged, scenic land of sil­very birch for­est, moose cross­ing signs and oc­ca­sion­ally rein­deer scam­per­ing away, hoofs spin­ning on the icy road. The brood­ing skies are not a good omen for North­ern Lights watch­ers.

Our des­ti­na­tion is the small town of Saariselka, 250km north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle and about 1000km from the south­ern cap­i­tal, Helsinki. Nearby Kak­slaut­ta­nen Arc­tic Re­sort, with nu­mer­ous log cab­ins and glass “igloos” scat­tered around the for­est, pro­vides prob­a­bly the most re­mark­able ac­com­mo­da­tion for ad­ven­tur­ous trav­ellers any­where in the Arc­tic. It is an ex­ten­sive wilder­ness re­sort, with snow in­stead of the in­evitable sand found in bet­ter-known beach des­ti­na­tions.

This is not rough­ing it in the wilder­ness; the spa­cious cab­ins have kitchen fa­cil­i­ties, gi­ant fire­places, even pri­vate saunas. The many op­tions for “soft ad­ven­ture” in­clude snowshoeing and cross-coun­try skiing, rein­deer sleigh rides and snow­mo­bil­ing.

On our first bril­liant, clear sunny morn­ing, we join in the most pop­u­lar ac­tiv­ity, which is dog sled­ding. With an in­ter­na­tional group in­clud­ing hon­ey­moon­ing Asian cou­ples and two young Aus­tralian women now liv­ing in Lon­don, we bus out to the husky sa­fari ken­nel.

There, the staff out­fits us all with a full snow suit, heavy gloves, boots and a bulky snow hat. It is 20 be­low zero, but with the low hu­mid­ity and bright sun­shine, plus our bulky at­tire, it feels in­vig­o­rat­ing.

The husky wran­gler demon­strates how to drive a sled, with one per­son a pas­sen­ger in front and the driver stand­ing on skids at the back, hold­ing on and work­ing the sim- ple brake. “These dogs re­ally love to run,” the wran­gler says, and the huskies are ea­ger to go, howl­ing in an­tic­i­pa­tion. Five sleds with six dogs each take off, fol­low­ing the wran­gler speed­ing along a trail through the win­try for­est on a snow­mo­bile.

The dogs yelp with en­thu­si­asm as I bal­ance un­steadily on the sled. It is a bit bumpy at first, but I quickly get the hang of it and it is a real rush rac­ing along the trails, the in­cred­i­ble morn­ing light shin­ing through the snow­cov­ered trees from the low-hang­ing sun.

“Driv­ing” is easy enough, the only prob­lem slow­ing down the ea­ger dogs by step­ping on the prim­i­tive brake, and the two hours pass far too quickly.

Back at the cen­tre, peel­ing off their snow suits as they sip hot crow­berry juice and munch cin­na­mon buns, the sled riders are ex­u­ber­ant about the ex­pe­ri­ence. These out­door ac­tiv­i­ties build up a fierce ap­petite for the tra­di­tional Lap­pish cui­sine served in the re­sort’s 500-seat Aurora Res­tau­rant, which em­pha­sises in­gre­di­ents from lo­cal farms or the sur­round­ing forests and lakes. The var­ied menu in­cludes del­i­ca­cies such as Ro­que­fort cheese soup with smoked rein­deer, char­coal-grilled salmon with creamy wild mush­rooms, fil­let of elk, sauteed rein­deer or wild boar fil­let. It can end with a for­est berry cock­tail or cloud­berry tartlets. The dis­tinc­tive cui­sine, re­ly­ing on lo­cal in­gre­di­ents rather than spices, pro­vides a sort of culi­nary “soft ad­ven­ture”.

That evening, we try snow­mo­bil­ing, the mo­torised ver­sion of the dogsled. Be­sides the snow suits and boots, we don bal­a­clavas and hel­mets. “I feel like an as­tro­naut,” one woman says as she wad­dles out to the snow­mo­biles.

The guide gives us a quick les­son on how to drive the ve­hi­cles: very sim­ple, with just ac­cel­er­a­tor and brake con­trols on the han­dle­bars.

Climb­ing on, two to a ma­chine, we take off, fol­low­ing the lights of the sleds ahead. Although it is night, the trail through the for­est is clearly vis­i­ble, with the moon re­flected off the bright, freshly fallen snow. “It’s like a mango pie in the sky,” says my ex­hil­a­rated com­pan­ion. With these pow­er­ful ma­chines, a slight twist of the han­dle sends us surg­ing ahead, another thrill in the snow. Deep in the for­est, we stop for a break.

And there, above the trees, we see a slight shim­mer of the North­ern Lights, a green­ish glow in the night sky, a prom­ise of more to come.

That night we move into one of the igloos, a ther­mal glass ge­o­desic dome with good heat­ing, com­fort­able beds and pri­vate toi­lets, but no shower fa­cil­i­ties (pro­vided nearby), so most guests stay for only one night. It is won­der­fully cosy and peace­ful when we turn out all the lights and gaze in won­der at the daz­zling dis­play of the stars above. Fi­nally, about mid­night, we nod off to sleep.

Next day, in the bus to the air­port, we agree it has been a fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, even with­out the light show. But the two Aus­tralian women are giddy with ex­cite­ment. “It was fan­tas­tic, the colos­sal lights, all shim­mer­ing and danc­ing in the sky,” one says. And when was that? “About 3am. We stayed up all night, and fi­nally saw it.”

At least my wife and I have a good ex­cuse to re­turn next year.

• vis­itfin­ • kak­slaut­ta­

Kak­slaut­ta­nen soft ad­ven­ture op­tions in­clude dog sled­ding, mid­dle, and snow­mo­bil­ing, above

Kak­slaut­ta­nen Arc­tic Re­sort igloos, left and above, of­fer­ing guests a bed­time view of the North­ern Lights

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