You Really Have To Be There

Around 1.30am, my phone pings loudly. 

I curse – I thought I’d put the wretched thing on silent mode. Not so much, it seems – and so I’ve been woken up by one of my friends sharing something with me on Twitter, or Duolingo reprimanding me for missing my vocabulary goals for the day, or…

Wait. It’s the Aurorawatch UK app. “216.5nT: IT IS LIKELY THAT AURORA WILL BE VISIBLE FROM EVERYWHERE IN THE UK,” it shrieks at me in red.

I leap out of bed, drag my clothes on in that inept way that flustered British people do in movies (including hopping around and tripping over my own shoelaces), and race out the door. I already know it’s a clear night: this week Britain has had a mini-heatwave, and the sky over Scotland is that deep inky blue that only comes from a total lack of cloud cover. But it’s not blue in every direction. Even though the sun won’t rise for hours yet, the sky is much lighter to the north. Is that…?

I sprint down the road and scramble over a hill that overlooks the beach, giving me a clear view all the way up the western Scottish coastline to where the sea curls round and turns into the Clyde river, running west into Glasgow over the horizon. 

And across the water, far to the north, the sky is on fire.

Beautiful Aurora Borealis in Scotland
Beautiful Aurora Borealis in Scotland

I’ve spent my whole life looking at photos of the Northern Lights – and over the last decade, thanks to the rise of YouTube and Vimeo, I’ve seen hundreds of videos of it. I’ve learned about the science of them, and how their colours tell you about the composition of that layer of the atmosphere. This is how I know that the glowing bands of deep red lining the horizon right now are from unusually high-energy and high-altitude electrons, very different from the lower-energy ones that form the pulsating green waves so familiar to all of us…

But in my case, the aurora is only familiar in a third-hand way, via other people’s experience. It’s only this year, at the age of 51-and-a-bit, that I’ve finally seen them in person: first as a dull wash of pale green flickering over the mountains at the start of the year, and now this livid wash of scarlet that can be seen as far south as England.

Aurora in Callanish Stones, Scotland
Aurora in Callanish Stones, Scotland

Us travel writers would love you to feel you’re having an experience of a place through our words that’s just as potent as being there. There’s even reliable neuroscience on the power of a well-written story to fool your brain into having this kind of vicarious thrill. But mainly, it’s a regrettable fib. However much you think you’re imagining it, the reality will have so much more to say to you.

For a start, there’s the sense of scale. Ever visited a famous ancient building and your first thought was, Huh, I thought it was bigger? That’s one way that scale can catch you unawares, and I’d say it’s pretty common. It’s not a disappointment as such, just a readjustment of your imagination, along with a renewed awareness that yes, actual people made this thing, because look, it exists at a human scale.

And then there’s the opposite, which is one of the great attractions of travel: those times when the world opens up before you and you had no idea how far it really goes. These experiences are at the heart of the fledgling sciences of awe and wonder, championed by researchers like Professor Dacher Keltner, and there is much to learn. But long-term travellers don’t need persuading – they’ve felt that difference. It’s why they keep travelling.

In today’s massively online world, it’s not hard to pretend you’re elsewhere. Not just sat at home on your device or home computer, staring at a screen, but truly elsewhere. Swept away by someone’s vacation photos or camcorder footage, or drawn into the depths of some truly incredible travel photography. Or you’re listening to a soundscape from a forest, or a beach, or high up a mountain, and that ambient noise is such a balm for your blood pressure right now, and you really feel like you could close your eyes and you’re there

These things are powerful. I’m sure advances in virtual reality will accelerate things even further. But they’re still going to fall so far short of the real experience that they’re like comparing a photograph of a chocolate brownie to biting into the real thing.

And that’s the key here: those extra senses, and what the rest of your body is experiencing. You’ll never smell or taste a travel story (at least, it seems very unlikely). You’ll never read a story about walking the hot streets of Athens where you actually feel the Mediterranean sun on your skin. Your whole body will never be in the story you’re reading: your legs pleasantly tired from walking for the last few hours, your stomach happy from some of the best and most surprising food you’ve eaten for years. The smells, the temperature, the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your hair…

Acropolis of Athens at sunset
Acropolis of Athens at sunset

Everything that tells you that you’re really, truly here.

As for tonight, with the magnificence of the Aurora Borealis at play far to the north, I’ll remember the other stuff: the alarm getting me out of bed, the excitement when I saw what it was, the mad scramble to get out the door – and now, the pinch of the cold through my jacket (even June in Scotland isn’t exactly warm after sunset) These are part of the story, these are the absurd little details that made it real, and these are the sensory experiences that will make the thing itself stay in my memory, and make it special enough to feel, that warm glow when you remember it.

So, you have to be there in person. You really do have to go. If you’re fascinated by other people’s images of a place, if they gently haunt you during your waking moments and creep into your dreams at night, I think you have to go. If a short trip feels enough, then go on one. If you love the idea of staying there and really feasting on a full month-long banquet of really-being-there-ness, how about a LiveAway stay? You could even do something crazy like – hear me out – emigrating somewhere for a while…

But however it’ll work, it’ll involve your experience of that place. Other people’s experiences will never be enough, no matter how many you eagerly consume. They won’t scratch that itch. However gently, it’ll just keep tormenting you. That restlessness will only intensify, that curiosity will only furrow your brow even harder… 

Yeah – I think you should just take that trip and go see this thing for yourself. Nothing else will get close.

Scroll to Top