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Mussenden Temple Aurora & Wild Night - October 10th 2013

I was feeling the blues, mood swings, impatient and very unsettled but I had experienced these symptoms before and new exactly what they meant, this was what I call 'no-camera blues' or in other words - I hadn't been out with the camera for what seemed like a very long time. It was a crazy Summer with day after day of storm chasing, NLC hunting and various other shoots however now that Autumn had arrived that active period seemed like a life time ago. Granted, I had done sporadic day and night shooting however nothing that I would call 'serious' - the kind which pushes me to the limits with a main course of exhaustion and pressure testing followed by a wonderful dessert of thrills and that glow which comes from an exciting adventure out in nature while trying to capture it on camera, I needed my fix once again so I watched and waited for an opportunity to rise it's head then the universe provided me with my first chance of Autumn on October 9th/10th.

A night shoot was beckoning, a weak CME had left the Sun several days ago unfurling a compact but dense plasma cloud of charged particles which would impact Earth's magnetosphere on the 9th or 10th, I studied the STEREO spacecraft CME animations and from these I estimated that the impact would happen late on the 9th around 23.00 UT with the after effects continuing well into the 10th, furthermore the sky was forecast to be clear with the exception of a few showers however the television forecast cautioned viewers about coastal winds which could be gusty at times, add to this an early setting moon and dark skies and the ingredients were all there for an exciting and promising night under the stars.

I wasn't the only one pondering this night's potential, my storm chasing mate and Omagh photographer Paul Martin sent me a message on facebook discussing the very same thing and also because of the same blues-related reasons as myself so we agreed we would meet and go aurora hunting. Paul and I think alike, have similar instincts, and at times I feel like I can read his mind or else he is reading mine, whatever the case when we both get a vibe about something we tend to commit ourselves to it and nine times of out ten we are proved correct and always come home with the photographic rewards. However once the word 'aurora' is mentioned on the internet these days it seems like hundreds of front doors open and all the photographers in the country head out in the hope of catching it too, facebook and twitter was very active with posts alerting everyone to the potential while many photographers openly discussed where they were heading. In the north of the country Downhill, Dunluce, Giant's Causeway, and Ballintoy were already booked however Paul and I decided that we would stay inland closer to home and try out a local spot which could produce the rewards and so it was set in stone.

During the course of the afternoon an internal voice or instinct told me to reconsider our aurora hunt location, my logical thinking was that if it's going to be clear and there was a real chance of some decent activity then perhaps it would be best if we gave it our 100% attention, push the boat out so to speak and went further. As I was considering this option I was updating the banner image on my facebook page and selected an image I had taken in the past of Downhill Estate and aurora from October 2012 and then it hit me, that would be a cool location, the Estate and Mussenden Temple would be a good bet because I have always wanted to re-try this location with an aurora and with the added security net being that even if the aurora didn't happen we could still shoot the stars over those cool historical structures which would be great fun. I kept these thoughts to myself as Paul might not want the plan changed however it wasn't long before I got a message from him saying that he was thinking the very same thing and not only that, he also saw my new banner and all of a sudden felt a compulsion to visit the Temple, it was almost as if it was calling him. It was amazing yet again that we had been thinking the very same thing so we laughed and quickly decided to go to the coast and shoot the Temple and make a night of it.

Paul arrived at my house after dark, it was a very unsettled night with periods of heavy drizzle, cloud, and beautiful clear gaps, a classic Autumn night in N. Ireland were anything could happen. We hit the road with high hopes and headed north and eventually made it to the north coast between Downhill and Castlerock beach. We had a quick flask of tea, a few snacks, then got out under the sky which was wide open with stars and Milky Way which got the blood pumping. The first of the two structures was straight in front of us on high ground completely exposed to the weather, it was cold, very windy and uncomfortable however despite this we spent a good hour or so shooting the Estate then when content and feeling in tune with the night we moved around the back and headed for the Temple.

Mussenden Temple Aurora

OMG what a difference!, if the Estate was bad that was absolutely nothing compared to the elements at Mussenden Temple. The weather was savage with strong winds, not the occasional gale but non stop harsh wind blowing hard across the cliff top from the ocean straight from the north, it felt like we were getting attacked by the wind. It was incredibly uncomfortable, cold, and it buffeted my tripod and even me, Paul and I looked at each other and shouted out loud over the sound of the wind that this was nearly impossible to do photography in however we fought against it and became one with the night. We spent hours here doing non stop photography and I mean non stop, once one exposure was completed another began as we shot the Temple at various angles with the stars while combating the wind.

Around midnight we spotted a very faint glow with the naked eye to the north and our cameras confirmed it as an aurora which slowly intensified with time and which lasted for several hours. At it's peak we could see it easily with the naked eye as an enhancement to the sky extending N to NW 20 degrees above the ocean horizon. On camera it registered as a faint green band with red upper canopy however it never developed into anything spectacular, but we were far from annoyed, we had come here for an aurora and we had caught one, faint or bright it doesn't matter as it was still an aurora so we had achieved our goal. Knowing that it was never going to turn into a major show we just kept on shooting it with the Temple at various angles which was great fun and time was flying in despite our hardship with the wind.

Mussenden Temple Aurora

This was my favourite angle and these are my favourite images from the night located on the W side of the legendary Mussenden Temple. This is an ultra wide angle long exposure using a 10mm lens showing this magnificent night landscape. Here is the ancient Temple which once served as a library - and for those interested - some paranormal activity has been reported inside the structure too which makes it even more interesting. To the R of the Temple is bright planet Jupiter rising in the NE within Gemini and straight ahead facing due N is Ursa Major the 'Great Bear', Draco 'The Dragon' and Canes Venatici 'The Hunting Dogs'. The green and red aurora can be seen above the horizon accompanied by orange clouds which blew rapidly across the sky from ocean to land which made this nice streaming effect in the exposure.

The view of the ocean over the cliff towards Downhill beach was magnificent in the dark with surreal white wind-swept waves getting sheared into flat forms in the gales like the updraught of a thunderstorm forming an anvil across the Tropopause. If only you were standing here with us taking these images to realise just how intense the experience was in such harsh conditions, because of the constant wind and gale force gusts, which at times knocked me off balance, I literally had to grab the tripod with both hands and lean on it forcing it into the grass while at the same time trying to hold it steady during each exposure as the Atlantic blasted the area and my face. These images were very hard work to get however I am happy with the results, sometimes it's the hardship which makes the images I reckon and I noticed with a smile that no other photographers appeared here the entire time which made the experience all the more memorable.

Mussenden Temple Aurora

This one was taken near the wall facing N. Before I climbed over the fence to get here I witnessed a fantastic auroral beam shooting upwards into the sky to the NW in the direction of Donegal which must have reached 40 degrees high which lasted for several seconds then vanished, the ray appeared between exposures so I missed it however it was a very nice visual treat. After hours of shooting we walked back to the car, had more tea, then walked back to the Temple again for round two however the aurora was fading and it was clear we had seen it at it's best so we decided to call it a night as it was already the early hours of the 10th. It was a long drive home mentally as we were both absolutely shattered, I was already suffering from a stomach bug and all that exposure to the wind sapped every ounce of energy I had left, I felt like I wanted to throw up and sleep. When I arrived home I felt like I was too tired to reach the front door and could have slept in the garden, I felt sorry for Paul who still had to drive all the way home to Omagh. I was in the house for 04.20 and the proper cup of tea I made at that time tasted like heaven!.

I had used up two batteries on location and after much deleting I still had 70 images which I wanted to keep from this location so here are three of my personal favourites from this memorable night. The blues had gone, I had got my fix, my earlier negative emotions had gone and I was now feeling on top of the world, exhilarated, at peace, content, happy and buzzing once again from that wonderful warm glow which one can only get from mother nature and from doing what you love, however it's like a drug and I want to feel it again so I'm already on the look out for my next fix. Thank you nature for my 114th aurora display and thanks to you the reader for checking out the images and report. Next time it will be a major aurora!



Martin McKenna

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