Northern Lights and a broken wrist: How not to celebrate your 40th birthday.
For my 40th birthday I wanted to do something really special. Something unforgettable, something I’ve always wanted to do. And with a birthday in January, I decided to embrace the winter theme and go searching for the Northern Lights.
I researched the different options as there are so many. Choice of country; Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Northern Canada or Alaska. I don’t know why, but Norway just popped out at me.
Before even thinking of booking I asked my parents to look after Delilah. Whilst I love travelling with her and would have loved her to experience the Aurora too, at nearly 3 years old I genuinely felt the experience would be lost on her, not least because she’d likely be sleeping when she needed to be up, and then how do we see it?
So with my parents on board for a 5 night sleepover, I began researching the type of trip we wanted. One option was to book with a company who does everything for you. Definitely a good choice if you prefer to sit back and relax after handing over your money. However, it’s a lot of money. I found the companies doing tours to be way out of our budget.
Another option was to book flights, a hotel in somewhere like Tromso and then book Aurora-seeing tours when we got there. This would involve booking locally and then ‘hunting’ for the aurora by travelling in a vehicle with other tourists and a guide. I wasn’t too keen on this as I didn’t fancy the hours in a car throughout the night with no guarantee of seeing the lights, and then having to do the same the next night if we were unsuccessful.
Then I found the Aurora Borealis Observatory in Northern Norway. Situated in the Arctic Circle, the website boasted almost guaranteed views of the Aurora, based on a 4 night stay, where all you would have to do is step outside your apartment and look up. I was sold.
I booked the flights and accommodation in mid September 2018, just before my health went haywire (see blog post “2018 was a massacre” for more details!) but luckily I recovered and was super excited to do something spectacular for my milestone birthday. I wanted unforgettable and, with what ended up happening, I’m pretty sure I wont forget my 40th in a hurry!!
The plan was to drive to London on the Saturday, stay overnight in a hotel and then fly first thing Sunday. We’d be there from Sunday to Thursday and my birthday was on the Tuesday. We would then drive straight back on the Thursday and be home for Delilah’s birthday on the Friday.
Our drive from Wales to Heathrow was wonderfully uneventful. There’s usually a bit of road rage (Jon) and gasping and back seat driving (me) but we were actually nice to each other the whole journey! It took 4 hours 20 mins in total to get to the hotel with two short stops, an excellent time. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Heathrow and parked the car there for the duration.
We were both very impressed with the set up. Plenty of car parking space, friendly check in, lovely big room with a seating area and separate desk. The bed was comfortable and the room warm. The bathroom even had a solid wood door!! I hate the usual frosted glass doors on bathrooms you get in more ‘boutique’ hotels.
We used the spa and pool facilities which was a lovely way to unwind after the journey and chill out together and is something we don’t normally get to do.
We had dinner in the Orwell’s brasserie and surprisingly, the food was top notch. I had the lamb shank with roasted root vegetables with mash and gravy, a meal that I wouldn’t normally choose but Jon would be all over. Weirdly, he chose the burger and instantly regretted it. It wasn’t big enough for his monster appetite.
We woke at 4.15am after a fairly good sleep for Jon (unusual for him) and a more fitful sleep for me. I think I was just worrying about missing the alarm. But we got up fine and catching the bus to Terminal 5 was quick and easy.
Bag drop was self service. I don’t know when that first happened but they had the same at Oslo airport and the tiny Bardufoss airport. A BA steward helped us out and actually it was very easy.
Going through security without a toddler was bliss! Although I had to wait for Jon to have a pat down.
We had bags of time (another benefit of not travelling with a toddler) and decided to have breakfast at Giraffe. Big mistake. The milk for my tea was oily, they mixed up our order, didn’t bring Jon a new fork when he dropped his so had to pinch one from another table, his sausages were anaemic, his toast cold and then the surly waitress cleared Jon’s plate whilst I was still eating. A massive bug bear of mine!! Oh, and the cutlery was clearly made for children as they were tiny. Very annoying!
They also didn’t serve us within their stated 15 minutes so ultimately we didn’t have time to mooch in Duty Free, which I was very much looking forward to without Delilah.
Boarding the flight was stress free and we had a free seat in our row so Jon moved to the aisle seat giving us the space in the middle. Practically business class! Lol.
While Jon happily put on his headphones and stuck his head in his iPad, luxuriating in a child free flight and the bonus of not having to talk to me, I felt an empty feeling in my gut, this nagging feeling that something was missing.
Delilah, of course.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the ease of travelling without a boisterous toddler, but leaving the country without my baby just left me with a mild sense of panic and unease.
We were travelling on 6 January which was the fourth anniversary of Jon’s proposal in Javea, Spain. Last year, on our third anniversary we were in Valencia and this year we are in Norway. 6 January is also my late Nan’s birthday. She would have been 81 this year and this is my mum’s first year without her mum so I’m glad Delilah was with my Mum as she would definitely have made her smile!
And little did I know that 6 January would become an even more memorable date for a completely different reason!
We flew from Heathrow to Oslo with BA and then had a 3 hour layover before our domestic flight to Bardufoss with Norwegian Airlines. We initially thought that Oslo airport and chilling there for three hours would be a doddle. But when we accidentally went though the doors for international flights things got interesting! I didn’t even realise we were in the wrong place until they refused to serve me in Duty Free because I had the wrong kind of boarding card. Well, I say we ‘accidentally’ went to the wrong part of the airport but before going through those one way doors Jon kept saying it wasn’t right but did I listen? Hell no, I could see Duty Free beyond those doors and I was going in!!! Those doors, of course, were for international flights only. We had to exit the airport and go back in through security and this time it was my turn for a random body check!!.
Considering we were going to what seemed like a very remote place, the airplane was massive and completely packed so no spare middle seat this time. I slept for a bit and Jon watched Netflix whilst cooing at the most beautiful baby sat in front of us, playing peekaboo, and making me miss Delilah even more and get broody at the same time.
Bardufoss Airport is tiny. They have three flights landing a day, all Norwegian flights from Oslo. I had been a tad on edge about making sure we got on the right bus but I needn’t have worried. Even in the pitch black snowy weather it was simple. One bus for everyone which waits until everyone has their bags.
It cost 620 NOK (around £58) for two returns. We each took a double seat and I watched Instagram stories while Jon did some music production. The journey time was just over an hour.
We were greeted by the owner at the pick up point and driven to our accommodation. The apartment itself was on the first floor of a 6 apartment block built on their family land. The interior was classic skandi cool and the apartment surprisingly warm, which was very welcome.
It was a self catering apartment but as we arrived on a Sunday, none of the grocery stores were open. Adrien, the Aurora Guide, however, was on hand to drive us to the local garage to pick up a few bits for dinner.
We were back in the apartment cooking dinner when we were called to say that the Aurora had started developing. ON OUR FIRST NIGHT!!! How lucky could we get???
Well, not very!!
As I was heading down to the observatory to get my place to watch the aurora I slipped on some black ice, and landed on my right hand and broke my fucking wrist!!!!! On the first day! Within an hour of getting there!! WTF!!
Weirdly I didn’t cry. It wasn’t even hurting that much but I knew something was very wrong as I couldn’t feel let alone move my hand. Jon was just behind me and rushed over to check I was ok and he fell too!!
I managed to get up (no idea how) and get inside the observatory. I told the owner and his wife came to assist. I took off my coat and was nearly sick when I saw that my hand was located about an inch higher than it should have been.
A lovely couple from New York who were guests and who had medical training helped put my arm in a splint and fashioned a sling from a scarf. Now it hurt like fuck!
I was driven about 10 minutes to the local A and E and was seen immediately. I was worried about the language barrier but I needn’t have been. Every medical professional I saw spoke perfect English. It was such a relief and I was so grateful.
I was given two doses of morphine and then an injection into the hand before the doctor manipulated the bones into place. I was dreading that but actually, putting the line into my veins for the morphine hurt more. The local anaesthetic injected into the bones stopped the pain and all I felt was relief at feeling my hand move. He then put me in a cast.
The doctor wanted me to have an X Ray but the nearest hospital was in Harstad, a 3 and a half hour car ride away! Luckily, the Norwegian NHS takes care of its tourists as they paid for a taxi to take me to the hospital, wait and bring me back. The total cost was NOK9,000 about £800 and all I had to contribute was £27! I didn’t even have to pay the doctors, except a contribution of £23.
The drive to Harstad and back was probably the most scared I’ve ever been. It was a complete white out and in places it was so quiet because we must have been gliding over the snow. I know Norwegians are used to the extreme weather and they must have special tyres but I was terrified. I kept repeating positive affirmations like ‘I am safe’ ‘I am loved’ to try and get into a meditative state to stop myself from freaking out and imagining myself dying in an arctic car wreck and being buried in the snow. I tend to catastrophise!
But we got to the hospital safely and the X Ray confirmed the break. While waiting to see the doctor we watched what can only be described as soft porn on the TV in the waiting room. A very discombobulating experience! I’m glad we were the only ones in there as otherwise I wouldn’t have known where to look. I know the Europeans are more sexually liberal but this program was weird!!
The doctor was junior and whilst she thought I’d need surgery she wanted her more senior colleagues to review my X Ray during their rounds at 8am the next morning. At this point it was 3am and we were knackered, having been up nearly 24 hours. We decided to take the taxi home and await the call to tell me whether I’d have to go back for surgery.
The call came at 9am and the need for surgery was confirmed. However, my arm was too swollen to operate on for a few days and by then we’d be home, so I would have to wait until then for surgery. I was gutted. I’m really sick of hospitals and was devastated that I would need yet another operation under general anaesthetic, my fourth in 8 months!
For the rest of the trip I tried to be positive, but it was hard. The pain was intense and I was just so disappointed. We saw the hosts the next day and was told that the Aurora had come out that night and was incredible. Fuck you, I thought!
That Monday it snowed all day and we were confined to the apartment. Not that I could have done very much. We had planned to go Husky dog sledding and take a tour of the island, but both were no longer possible because of my injury. I couldn’t even use my new DSLR camera so no point taking their night photography courses.
All we could do was stay in the apartment and wait to go home, and hope that we’d see the Aurora.
Now, being in such close quarters was going to be a very big test, especially under such difficult circumstances. It would have been very easy to snap at each other and be short, and believe me, there were times I wanted to rip Jon’s head off for absolutely nothing. But I think we tried really hard.
It was definitely a test in communication and patience. Jon felt bad for me but was also in pain himself as he fell too and that jarred his already bad back. And whilst he’d normally tell me how much pain he’s in fairly constantly, he wisely kept his gob shut as broken wrist trumped his bad back! But, to be fair, he was in a lot of pain and by the end of the trip could barely move. I was genuinely worried he wouldn’t be able to drive the car when we got back to London
With my dominant hand out of action there was a lot I couldn’t do for myself. Jon had to dress me, help me shower, cut my food and put my hair up. Oh the laughs we had with him trying to tie a pony tail! I had to learn to vocalise what I needed Jon to do and give him time to do it rather than expect him to read my mind and just know, goddamit!!! That was hard! That takes patience, empathy, understanding, when all I wanted to do was scream ‘NOT LIKE THAT FOR FUCKS SAKE!!!’
But what would be the point of that? We were stuck with each other in practically perpetual darkness (they only had a kind of twilight from 10am to 2pm and then it was pitch black), snow and ice everywhere meaning I was too frightened to walk very far, in a one bed apartment for 3 more nights. It would have been hell if we hadn’t been kind to each other. We both made a massive effort. And I don’t mean it takes an effort to usually be kind to each other, normally its easy, its just under these circumstances, any other hideousness would have broken us.
And then it was my 40th birthday.
I woke up to find Jon in the living area, surrounded by balloons and a Happy 40th Birthday banner on the window. It was a wonderful surprise and I hadn’t been expecting that effort since we were away.
I opened my cards and loved reading them all. Jon’s card in particular was a triumph. Inside he’d had laminated a poem he’d written about my life, from being born to the present day. I didn’t even realise he knew so much about me but it was all spot on and I balled my eyes out listening to Jon read it to me. I’m such a soppy git when it comes to thoughtful and personalised gifts. And that poem was my favourite gift.
Everything else I received will all have to wait to be enjoyed until after I have my hand back. Jon had bought me my DSLR camera and a tripod, Delilah got me a beautiful garnet ring and my parents and sister both bought me necklaces. All to be enjoyed soon I hope.
Jon cooked a fabulous breakfast and the owners brought me a cake. Jon sang happy birthday and, as he didn’t have any candles, I blew out the zippo lighter! We also went for a walk in the grounds whilst it was light, and I even managed to put some make up on!
I missed Delilah immensely on my birthday. I desperately wanted to FaceTime but decided against it. Mum had said Delilah was very settled and when I had called a previous weekend when mum had Delilah it unsettled her, made her remember that I wasn’t there and she got upset. So I didn’t want that to happen again. But I did get to see her face as Dad sent me a video of her singing me happy birthday and giving me a kiss and cuddle. Wonderful.
We had missed the Aurora on the Sunday and it was too cloudy on the Monday. We spent the whole of my birthday sending out vibes to the universe begging the Aurora to show that night. It was the only thing that could save the trip from being forever known as The Worst Holiday Ever.
The Gods heard our prayers and delivered!
We were called at around 9pm to say that the Aurora had started. But all we could see was a faint green colour in the sky which just looked like a weird looking cloud, nothing special. It was very underwhelming. But we were assured that we just had to keep watching and it would be worth our while.
We took photos, thinking that we’d better, in case that was all we’d get, but they were crap. The Aurora actually comes out clearer in photos and what looks like faint lines to the naked eye are bright green in the photo but at this point it wasn’t anything special.
We spent about 3 hours moving between standing outside, sitting in the observatory and in the waiting area by the jacuzzi (something else I couldn’t enjoy because of my broken wrist). We met a lady called Emily from Northern Ireland who was there on her own celebrating her 60th that night. She was using her nephew’s GoPro and took some amazing pictures.
I’d obviously planned to take my own photos with my new camera but that was now impossible. Jon had a go but wasn’t comfortable using it and we hadn’t had a play with the tripod yet so basically a disaster in terms of trying to capture the Aurora. All I had was my iPhone and a slow shutter app. Luckily, Emily shared her GoPro photos with us and they’re great.
True story: Jon was planning on buying me a GoPro for my birthday but I had my heart set on a DSLR and begrudgingly Jon bought that. Had I shut my gob and allowed Jon to surprise me with the gift he wanted to buy I could have taken photos with the GoPro even with a broken wrist!!
We’d been facing a certain direction most of the night waiting for the faint colour to get brighter, all the while not realising that a new line of Aurora was building above our head. We then realised that there was a massive arch above us and without any kind of warning, it was suddenly dancing above our head!
It was incredible. All of us were just in awe. Despite the silence (other than our ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and occasional expletive) it was almost like they were dancing to music.
I felt so privileged to be seeing this wonder and beauty of nature dance for me on my birthday. Emily and I both shed a tear and it was very moving to share such special birthdays with a stranger. Watching the delight on Jon’s face and having a cuddle in the cold was bliss and I felt so happy that I was finally seeing this phenomenon for myself. And no matter how amazing photos and videos look, it really is no substitute to seeing it in person.
We went to bed on a high that night. Both so grateful that we got what we came for. I know that Jon was really worried that not seeing the lights would ruin my birthday, broken wrist aside of course. He wanted it to be special for me and it was.
We had one more day in Norway before we travelled home on the Thursday and we were hoping for another show but unfortunately, my birthday was the only night we saw it. We spent the day just chilling and packing. Amazingly I was still able to pack both bags with one hand!!
By the time Thursday came round Jon’s back had worsened. He spent most of the day stretched out on the floor. Seriously, anyone looking at the pair of us, broken and decrepit, would have had such a laugh!
Travelling home on the Thursday was an experience. We started with a taxi, then a coach and then the flight from Bardufoss to Oslo. I genuinely thought we were going to drop from the sky. The take off, in this snow, was the scariest of my life. But the Norwegians, who must use this service regularly, were chilled as you like.
I was also worried about my cast and having my arm swell in the air. But apart from some mild pain it was fine. I thought I’d have to show my Certificate of Fitness to Fly but no one asked to see it.
Everything was fine with the BA flight to Heathrow and we actually got in 40 minutes ahead of schedule! Then it was another bus to the hotel to pick up the car.
By this time Jon’s back was killing him and he could barely sit in the car, yet we had at least 5 hours ahead of us. And even without a broken wrist I couldn’t have helped as I don’t have a licence.
But, despite some crazy fog on the last stretch, we got home by 8pm, just as Mum was putting Delilah to bed. I desperately wanted to see her but knew she’d be too excited and wouldn’t then be able to sleep.
But hearing her call ‘Mummy’ the next morning was magic and I’ve never felt so happy to get out of bed to go and see her! And just like that, my baby turned 3!!
So, was seeing the Aurora worth it? Absolutely. Did it make up for a broken wrist? In a word, No. I went on to have surgery (a blog post for another time) and the pain was fucking agony, and I’m writing this with my left hand as my right is still in a cast. If someone had told me that I could see the Aurora on my 40th birthday but I’d have a broken wrist I’d have said ‘thanks but no thanks’. I would have waited to see it another time! But that’s just it, we can’t ever know what’s round the corner for us. Life can change in a second, decisions made which change the course of your life. The trick is to roll with it I reckon. I could have wasted time berating myself for stepping on that patch of ice, regretting my choices, wishing things had turned out differently. But unfortunately we can’t go back with the benefit of hindsight. You have to own and embrace your choices and deal with adversity with courage, a positive attitude and a bit of humour. Life’s short, enjoy it any way you can.