You probably have the Northern Lights on your bucket list, but did you know that there are just as impressive aurora light shows close to home?
While tourists flock in the thousands to see the Northern Lights, the Southern Lights are a little more elusive – possibly because of their remote locations, and hence difficulty for travellers to access. There’s an element of magic to any aurora – no matter how perfectly you plan, a viewing is never guaranteed.
Auroras occur when fully charged particles burst from the sun, creating a solar wind that slams into the Earth’s magnetic field and rushes towards the North and South Poles. As the solar particles collide with atoms of nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere, their electrons charge, leaving ions that radiate energy in wavelengths and producing a spectacular natural dancing rainbow. This lightshow isn’t always viewable in all its glory to the naked eye, as our eyes aren’t designed to pick up colour at night. So for the best chance of experiencing these natural phenomena you’ll need a good camera.
Adding to the mystery, there’s no peak time or season to see an aurora, and no one really knows until right before it happens. They could glow for minutes or hours at any time of the night.
The good news is, modern technology and social media is on our side, so there are a number of online resources to check in with that might increase your chances of getting a glimpse – including Aurora-Service.net and the Aurora Australis Tasmania Alert NOW Facebook page. However, the further south and further away from the light pollution of cities and towns, and other obstructions like trees and mountain ranges, the better your chances. In other words – an unobstructed view to the south is your best bet. And though technically an aurora can be seen at any time of the year, the clear, dark skies of winter are often best.
For your best shot at catching the magic in Victoria, you’ll want to head far south. Point Lonsdale, the south side of Phillip Island, Aireys Inlet and Anglesea are all good options. But Wilsons Promontory is a standout for its pitch-black skies and southerly location. A three-hour drive from Melbourne, Wilsons Promontory National Park offers verdant views and nature adventures by day, a serene starscape by night and, if you’re really lucky, an aurora lightshow. You can camp beneath the stars at Tidal River camp ground or check into one of the local cabins or wilderness retreats.
SOUTH ARM PENINSULA
Just a 40-minute drive from Hobart, South Arm Peninsula is a popular destination for aurora photographers. Offering excellent south-facing views combined with little light pollution, this viewpoint also boasts still bays, perfect for reflections. Expect a plethora of people given its proximity to the city and seaside paradise vibes. Head to Clifton Beach or Calvert’s Beach for ideal viewing locations.
A favourite weekend getaway for Tasmanians, Bruny Island is also a short drive (and ferry trip) from Hobart, but feels like worlds away with its abundant wildlife, rural atmosphere and expansive beaches. For the best views of the Southern Lights, climb the stairs at The Neck and point your camera towards the south. Even if you miss the lights, you’ll still be pleasantly surprised by the vast ocean views and starry sky. There are plenty of camping options (many of them free), including a privately owned campground with glamping, and aside from auroras, one of the town’s main attractions is its foodie scene – don’t miss a visit to the Bruny Island Cheese Co.
Famous for its star-gazing, visitors to Satellite Island (off the coast of Bruny Island) need to rent the whole island to experience a stay here, but some might say it’s worth it, and your chances of spotting an aurora when the conditions are right are pretty promising. If not, you get your own private island with expansive skies for gazing. Stays start at $1950 a night for two guests (extra guests $300 per person with a maximum of eight) with a two-night minimum stay.
Nestled in the heart of Lake St. Clair National Park, Cradle Mountain boasts some seriously social-media worthy views and an abundance of natural delights and wildlife. Although beautiful, the mountain peaks and fairy-tale forests will obstruct those aurora views, so you’ll want to head to Cradle or Dove Lake to settle in for the show. Accommodation options are few, so make sure to book in advance. If you want to stay inside the park, book a cabin at Waldheim, a rustic option with everything you need. Or, for a real treat check out Peppers, and make sure to include a soak at its Waldheim Alpine Spa.
Sitting upon the pristine Recherche Bay, at the most southerly point of Tasmania in Southwest National Park, Cockle Creek boasts some pretty spectacular scenery with its sandy beaches contrasted against snow-capped mountains. Given its southerly location, it may even be the best place in Tasmania to catch an aurora. It’s just a two-hour drive from Hobart, but it feels like forever from civilisation. You can camp at Recherche Bay Nature Recreation if you don’t mind roughing it, or there are many accommodation options at nearby Ida Bay. You’ll get some decent views from the bridge at Cockle Creek, but if you want the real magic take the 2.5-hour hike (one-way) to South Cape Bay.
There are a number of popular places for Southern Light searching in New Zealand. Christchurch, Lake Tekapo and Queenstown are popular – and Queenstown records the most sightings of the lights in all of New Zealand. It’s such an aurora hotspot that, just like Tasmania, they have their own Facebook group. But if you’re keen to completely escape the light pollution and enjoy a ferry ride, Stewart Island is the most southerly point, and hence a popular choice for real aurora aficionados. A huge percentage of the island is covered by Rakiura National Park meaning ‘the land of the glowing skies’ – so it really doesn’t get much better than this.
Words by Jessica Humphries for Australian Traveller.