My friend Martin is responsible for this one. En route to the wedding in Lidkoping in September, bragging about how I’m finding a more outgoing, adventurous side of myself these past months, he chuckled: “You should definitely come to our UFO safari next week then”.
At first I pretended I didn’t hear anything, because what I thought I’d heard sounded like UFO safari. When he repeated himself, I answered with an eloquent:
As it happens, the UFO Safari is a thing, and has been for at least ten years, more if you have the audacity to attach the name to the scientific excursions made in the area by researchers looking into the documented light phenomenon that has everybody in the area sleeping with one eye open.
So I said “Yes”, because I’d been all swagger not ten minutes before, and because he promised me there would be a real toilet in this place. This was a lie, but it got me there.
Take warm clothes, be patient, bring good food and company, clean up after yourself, take good film equipment, don’t be disappointed if you don’t see anything, connect with other like-minded folk & researchers, most people are skeptics but enjoy the mystery.
Hessdalen, lurking about five hours south of Trondheim and eight hours north of Oslo, is a pretty place filled to the brim with fat sheep, undulating mountains, excellent camping spots, and oh! UFOs. U-F-Fecking-Os.
Sightings have been recorded since the 1930s; strange lights in the sky hovering around the valley and doing funny tricks for their audience; and although very little activity has been observed in the last few years, it has been well-documented and researched over time.
Research groups setting up camp there to better understand the lights are the reason I went there at all, because it’s thanks to them that a little toilet hut was erected. Not having to poop in the wild like an animal was the deciding factor, without a doubt, when Martin first asked the question: “Do you want to drive seven hours to chill out on a cold mountain and look for aliens next weekend?”
A photo from the Daily Mail (urg, I know, but it is from somebody’s Flickr account that I find right now) of the phonemena.
These are temperamental motherfuckers and tend to appear at no particular time, for no particular duration and behave in no particularly predictable way. They might pop up (white or yellow in colour) and hover a little bit at any time of the day, or they may shoot around like sugar-high toddlers in all sorts of directions. One of my hosts for the weekend, Stein, successfully recorded the lights a few years ago starting below the horizon, hovering above it and then moving horizontally at some speed before falling again. Having filmed this at one or two kilometres away, he determined the light to be the size of a car, challenging the many comments on the video that this was an ordinary paper sky lantern that was being mistaken for the phenomena. Sky lantern or no, the Hessdalen lights are documented curisoities, and scientists hope to understand why this region puts on these pretty light shows and freak out its locals.
The video above is Stein’s video of one of their sightings.
There are many theories about why the lights occur, few of them taking too seriously the idea that they are from extra-terrestrial sources. From the mineral content of the area’s rocks (rich in copper, zinc and iron) interacting with the humid atmosphere in the valley, to the ionization of the air and dust particles; scientists have a few theories about why these lights occur and I’m sure they have great fun testing these hypotheses.
Just as we had loads of fun trying to spot them!
The UFO Safari Group
Here’s the setting. It’s 2010. Two guys, chilling out during night shift on the job, discussing all things peculiar, are watching sci-fi movies. One of them remembers his dad talking about this strange place in Trøndelag where UFOs may have been sighted, and realises he and his dad never did venture out to camp in this strange place as they’d wished. The two guys, always up for a good laugh and some adventure, think: “let’s do it” and get a little group together for a mission out to Hessdalen to see what they can see.
Luckily for them, there were already scientists occupying the barren mountaintop. Well, not quite barren, but covered in some kind of scrubby, wind-resistant plant that I’m sure has its own beauty but is hell to hide behind when you want to pee.
In fact, the Høyskolen i Østfold officially launches the opening of its research station this Friday at Øyungen. It’s worth looking at their site dedicated to images and videos of the Hessdalen lights.
The scientists took them on a tour of the area after they had been up there a few times, and they were introduced to Hessdalen proper. Their little group grew, thanks to the enthusiasm of the original pair of sci-fi geeks, and despite their skepticism, they even manage to attract a few genuine believers in extra-terrestrials. It is my personal belief that one cannot rule anything out ever, but certainly one should pursue scientific investigation first. So in this scenario I’m a firmly team Scully (I actually can’t think of a scenario in which I wouldn’t be Team Scully): i.e. aliens, schmaliens, but if they’re really out there, I’ll be first in line for a tourist visa.
The as-yet-unnamed Hessdalen UFO safari group visit the camp at least once per year. Usually around autumn or spring, when the light in Norway attempts to behave like normal light and goes down at night and up during the day. They have attempted a few winter visits (if you meet them, let them tell you personally how these went). They are, if nothing else, dedicated.
Fortunately for me, their dedication was not really the defining feature of this group (though it did rather impress me). Made up of people from a variety of professional backgrounds and personal interests, it was really their inclusiveness and their commitment to making the weekend a fun experience that really left its mark on me.
I had not camped before. Not really, in the true sense of camping. I’d pitched a tent on my birthday out in a Goodwood caravan park once and watched my friend’s boyfriend get stoned with his BFF. I don’t dare presume that that counts as camping. I was also woefully unprepared for the realities of the Norwegian climate. For warmth I took my old winter coat with the missing buttons, a pair of jeans I now realise are made of paper, and a hoodie. Without even looking at me, Martin handed me a thermal suit, gloves and a military sleeping bag. Then his sister arrived and gifted me with all the other things one needs in the cold. Side-note: some of her incredible knitwear is made out of the brushed hair of one of their adorable dogs, and despite what I thought this would look like, the clothes are gorgeous, warm, and smell nothing like dog.
Making the most of a weird situation
In Norway, people generally don’t shy from unnecessary exposure to the elements (it’s the bane of my social life). They hike, they ski, they bike, they swim in every possible puddle they can find. The world is their camping ground, and that’s assisted by legislation that states that you can pitch a tent pretty much anywhere in the country, even on private property. All as long as you’re a certain distance from a dwelling, not being a nuisance, and not camping in the middle of someone’s nice barley field.
Camping in the hope of seeing a UFO is probably not the most common reason to do so, but it probably isn’t the weirdest, and so the group has been well-received by locals over the decade that they have been visiting. Their very first visit to the region was met with a large welcome-party, complete with a vehicle of drunken musicians. The locals are exceptionally warm toward visitors, and have set up special tourist-friendly accommodation spots and a pub.
But if you’re not camping for the nature or the hikes or the isolation, you should learn to camp like this safari group. I asked Stein, one of the first organisers of the trip for some tips on UFO sighting in Hessdalen, and his best piece of advice was:
BRING WARM CLOTHES (It can be sunny, but the weather can turn), and… BE PATIENT.
It’s good advice. You might not see anything the first time, you might see something and be a little uncertain, you might get lucky and see lots of activity. He likened it to fishing. I agreed, though I’ve never been fishing, and now have another thing on my list of things to do next year.
For my part, here is what I learned from the UFO safari group about camping in Hessdalen:
1. Bring A Lavo (tent)
I mean, obviously you don’t have to, because a normal tent is fine, but this was so much fun! I didn’t know that such tents existed except in Star Wars movies. They can sleep a whole group of people, takes one pole to put up, and in some of them you can have a little warming stove/cooker in the centre. Sleeping in a group has the benefit of keeping everyone warm, but also maximises the social atmosphere. In dire weather, you retreat to a cosy spot within the tent, fire up the oven, drink booze, sing songs and generally ‘ha det gøy’ (have a good time). Our campsite had 3 or 4 such tents, including one very large one in which we all congregated when the weather turned bad.
Naturally, I refused to sleep in the Lavo, and instead exiled myself to a one-man tent that nearly took off in the strong winds, but there were just too many new experiences for me to give up my privacy as well. Like the troll I am, I grumbled as I retreated in the cold to my temporary domicile, and glared out across the windy landscape to make sure they weren’t still having fun without me after I’d left.
2. Bring great food
On our first night, one of the happy campers brought not only some excellent wine, but proper wine glasses to drink it from as well. This set the tone for the weekend, and we enjoyed great food (not camp food) on our stay. You needn’t bring it all with you from home, but the nearest store is about 30 minutes’ drive away and is closed on Sundays, so do make sure you stop there before heading into the valley. Also: bring water. There is no water. Bring water. And as usual with Norway, liquor is hard to come by from Saturday afternoon until Monday mid-morning, so do bring that with you from home and don’t rely on reaching the stores before liquor sales close. If you aren’t a teetotaler, you will really want a drink to keep the cold at bay.
Drinking fine wine around the campfire. | Image: T. Thorne
3. Get out of there
Hessdalen itself has lots of lovely trails, I am certain, but the surrounding towns are worth seeing, so it’s a great idea to use some of the time to check it out. Our hosts were incredibly accommodating and took us to see the creepy copper mines, as well as the UNESCO-protected town of Røros, which I might write about in a separate post.
4. Choose to believe
No, I’m joking, I’m still Team Scully (circa 1993 to whenever she starts swallowing the conspiracy), but it’s worth considering that those who believe in the supernatural have far more fun. On the way to Hessdalen there is apparently a haunted petrol station (I know, they could have chosen a more romantic location), but I enjoyed just knowing it existed, adding a little nonsensical excitement to the weekend.
As I mentioned, this group is largely made of skeptics and science nerds, but they are open enough to everything so as to make life quite fun.
5. Bring the tech
Stein set up his camera and tripod in a bid to catch some of the fickle lights in action, and although we didn’t see much during our stay, his camera got some excellent shots of the Northern Lights. They’re excellent because as we stood there in the howling wind, with our bellies filled with whisky, all we saw was a faint white glow in the sky that I confused with cloud cover. The pictures, however, revealed the true colours of the light, and when I saw them, I realised that this was my first sighting of the elusive Nordlys, in all its emerald glory. So it is worth having some high-quality recording equipment to capture what you can of the skies, because standing outside in the cold for hours at a time will get old quick.
There was also a recent article published about some French researchers in Hessdalen who captured some curiosities on his camera. It’s open for speculation, but I shall link the article and the picture.
6. Don’t you dare forget the boller
I’m now well and truly hooked. On the way – very early into the journey from Oslo – is a funny little place. A petrol station perched atop a hill alongside a fjord. It is quite hideous to behold, with is garish yellow and red signage, and it does not look like the sort of place in which magical things are produced. But go inside and you will, well, you won’t change your mind because it’s just as ugly within. But that’s clearly the aesthetic they are milking. So if you embrace the decor and insane merch (which includes yellow Bolleland-branded bikinis), place a nice big order of boller in varying flavours (sweet buns), you will, like me, become an instant addict. Martin is the boller-Santa (OK, this word is really fucking with my ability to take myself seriously) bun-Santa? No, there is no good way to talk about this cake. Anyway, he brings bags and bags of these treats to their safari weekends, and if you have never tasted caramel-flavoured boller before, then you have to make the trip to Bolleland to do so. Get yourself a bikini or a stuffed toy or a baseball cap while you are at it.
The Truth is Outchea
People are still buzzing all over the place about the Hessdalen lights, and interest is growing. People travel now from far-off places (not just Norway) to come to this lonely valley to see what it’s all about. I do wonder if I’m one of the few Africans to have made the journey, since I was only 7 hours away, but with the multitude of students they now send up there, I suspect not.
But don’t get me wrong. Despite the interest, the place is not thronged with visitors, and you can still enjoy a nice, isolated gander up in the Hessdalen mountains, with your family, your thermal underwear, and your imagination.
- There is a fee for each car coming into the mountain area, and it’s cash only or VIPPS (the payment app).
- Clean up! This shouldn’t need to be said, but you must clean up everything after yourself and leave the place in the exact state you found it in. There are recycling bins at the entrance, at the same place you pay the entrance fee.
- You can, if you wish, rent a cabin or luxe tent directly, and though the views might not be as good (because these are lower in the valley and less isolated), you will enjoy warmth and Amenities.
- The toilet we used was one set up for the research facilities. Be kind to it (despite how rough it is on you).
- Pets are welcome!
- This is a mountain, not a proper camp site. There are no facilities apart from the toilet, which is a hole-in the ground with a toilet on top. There is no running water and no cleaning facilities. Bring everything you need, especially water.
- Cell reception isn’t too bad.
- It’s hella creepy in a tent alone at night in the wind. Seriously. It was awesome.