Adventure

The Best Way To See Aurora Australis, Tasmania’s Own Southern Lights

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Visiting Tasmania in the off-season doesn’t mean you are in for less of an experience — in fact, it means quite the opposite. 

After witnessing the Northern Lights dance across the Arctic sky off the coast of Norway, I was determined to catch Australia’s very own light show, Aurora Australis. And the best place to do this? Tasmania.

My 40th birthday was fast approaching and that was all the excuse I needed to go in search of the Southern Lights. The grand plan: to celebrate the last day of my 30s, and begin my fourth decade, on Cradle Mountain and hopefully spot the lights of nature’s own nightclub.

Hunting down the lights was hit and miss. It turns out, the universe does not guarantee clear skies and on-point weather conditions just because it’s your birthday. However, I was not left disappointed by my journey across the state, as I chased down the illusive lights.


Shedding Light On The Lights

The Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, occur when fully charged particles burst from the sun, creating a solar wind. This solar wind is drawn to the North and South poles, producing nature’s finest light shows. You can actually see the Southern Lights year-round in Tasmania, however the colder months of May to August are the best time to see the spectacle, as night falls earlier at this latitude. 

There’s no way of knowing exactly when you can see the lights, although space weather maps and predictions are helpful. There are a number of apps and Facebook pages that have fantastic information for newbies and are a great way to keep up with real-time sightings. I found the Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook page very helpful on my search, along with the apps Solar Monitor, Aurora Forecast, and Aurora Australis Forecast & Southern Lights Alerts. 

The auroras are hard to see with the naked eye though, so you’ll need a camera. Using your phone camera can be tricky, although there are some apps around that can help. If you’re serious about capturing a decent aurora image, you’ll need SLR camera and a tripod, preferably with a remote, so there’s no movement affecting your photographs. 

Where To See The Lights (And What To Do If They Don’t Show Up)

So, where is the best place to witness nature’s night club? Well, like any nightclub, if it’s pumping then you can expect to see it busy — even on remote beaches in the dark of night. If there are whispers of a possible aurora, you won’t be alone out there, so do your research first and consider visiting your viewing spot in daylight first, so you know exactly where you need to be once darkness falls.

Your best chance of witnessing Aurora Australis is to be as far south as possible. Outside of Antarctica and New Zealand, Tassie turf is a prime position. You have to find an unobstructed view to the south and be as far away from light pollution as possible, which also means hunting lights on a full moon is a no no.

Whether you’re lucky enough to see the lights or not, Tasmania is always worth a visit. Here are some of the best places to see the lights in Tassie, and a handful of things that will keep you pleasantly satisfied if they decide not to show up during your stay.

Hobart

While the city lights make it hard to see the Southern Lights, it isn’t impossible to see them from Hobart. A good starting point is to head just 10 minutes out of the city and up to Mount Nelson. Mt Wellington is also popular, but rug up as it can be very chilly. If you head to South Arm Peninsula, about 40 kilometres south-east of Hobart, you can find less light pollution and still bays, ideal for reflections. Other spots the local avid light hunters hit up are Rosny Hill, Howden, Dodges Ferry, Seven Mile, and Tinderbox.  

Where to stay
Movenpick Hobart is a great base in town. It has a funky art vibe and you can easily walk around town and down to the harbour from here.

What to do if the lights are a no-show
Head to Mona, the Museum of Modern Art. You may miss nature’s light show, but there’s lots to explore here. Mona is a museum in Hobart, created by David Walsh and can only be described as going down the rabbit hole. The Museum has regular and one-off exhibits, guaranteed to leave you feeling inspired. There’s a lively entertainment and dining area out on the lawn where you can spend a lazy Sunday session having a few drinks while kicking back on bean bags.

Cockle Creek

Drive 148km south of Hobart and you will be at the end of Australia’s most southern road, Cockle Creek. On Tasmania’s far south tip, it’s a prime position for the light show. The beach at Recherche Bay is a good starting point, then continue to the Fishers Point Navigation Light and Pilot Station ruins and take the well-marked track to South East Cape for stunning cliff-top views of the Southern Ocean and Maatsuyker Island. The beaches at nearby Dover also offer viewing to the south without any serious light pollution.

Cockle Creek

Where to stay
Castaway Cottage at Dover is a little haven by the sea. This charming cottage is your home away from home, overlooking beautiful Dover Bay. This little gem is within walking distance of historic Dover’s town centre, and only a few steps from the beach.

What to do if the lights are a no-show
Can’t see the lights? Then head to where there are no lights at all: Hastings Caves. Formed tens of millions of years ago, Newdegate Cave is the largest dolomite cave open to tourists in Australia. Discovered in 1917, today you can explore the caves and the fascinating stalactites, columns, and other unusual formations. 

Bruny Island

Bruny Island has some of Tasmania’s most beautifully preserved natural environments with abundant wildlife and stunning cliff top views. It is also a prime spot for Southern Lights viewing due to limited light pollution. The island is about 50km long, but appears to be two islands with North and South Bruny joined by a narrow strip of land called The Neck.

South Bruny National Park’s towering cliffs and long sandy beaches offer loads of spots to set up a spot to see the lights. Bruny Island is accessed via a 20-minute crossing on vehicular ferry from Kettering, around a 35-minute drive south of Hobart. The service runs seven days a week. To get some elevation, head to the lookout at the Neck and you can also watch the penguins come in to rest for the night.

Bruny Island

Where to stay
You can’t go past the eco-friendly and sustainable Free Spirit Pods. The delightful, luxurious pods are situated on the waterfront with beautiful views of Quarantine Bay. Set on eight acres to enjoy and explore, you will even have some friendly local wildlife come visit. The open-plan studio-pods, Flying Duck and Blue Wren, feature double-glazed floor to ceiling bi-fold doors leading onto your spacious private deck. Each pod sleeps two adults, and has room available for a couple of kids.

What to do if the lights are a no-show
Missed catching the lights? Then catch a boat with Pennicott Wilderness Journeys. The three-hour Bruny Island Cruise explores the rugged coastline of Bruny Island, taking in some of Australia’s highest sea cliffs, and pass through the narrow gap between the coast and ‘The Monument’, feeling the power of nature at the point where the Tasman Sea meets the might of the Southern Ocean. You can expect to see some coastal wildlife too, such as seals, dolphins, migrating whales, and sea birds. 

Huon Valley

Located in Tasmania’s South, the Huon Valey is a no-brainer for where to head to spot Southern Lights. The area is more rural and the unpolluted night sky is dark and sparkling with glittering constellations and the glorious Milky Way — it’s the night sky as you’ve never seen it. Find yourself a high point and look South. Or head to the beaches in the area, as they offer uninterrupted views over the water. Some notable beaches are Randalls Bay Beach, Eggs and Bacon Bay (yes, bacon!), and Mickeys Beach.

Where to stay
Why not stay up on the mountain in the Tahune Forest. Set amongst the tall trees, the Tahune Cabin offers private, self-catering accommodation for up to four people. You can even bring along your dog. There is a fully equipped kitchen, bathroom, and lounge area but you will need to bring your own supplies as there are no dining options and the mountain is closed for the night. This is the perfect spot to sit around the fire and star gaze, even if you can’t see the lights.

What to do if the lights are a no-show
You can still get a wow out at Tahune Forest with Tahune Forest Adventures. Take a walk high above the forest canopy on the Airwalk and look down to the place where the wild waters of the Huon and Picton Rivers mingle. You can also take it up a notch and kayak on the river and see the forest from a completely different angle. King River Rafting’s Twin River Winter Adventure will have you paddling, drifting, and splashing on a raft or kayak through bouncy rapids and quiet stretches of the Picton river.

Cradle Mountain

If you can catch the Southern Lights up at Cradle Mountain, you have hit the jackpot. Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park is much further north, offering a high vantage point. Add to that the flat, mirrored lakes, and you have the perfect backdrop for the Southern Lights. 

Cradle Mountain

Where to stay
Discovery Parks is set on the edge of world-heritage listed Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park. There are self catering cabins, campsites or caravan sites (powered) to choose from. Either way, you will have a true wilderness experience that is on the doorstep of your cabin, tent, or caravan.

What to do if the lights are a no-show
This national park is teaming with rich habitat for wildlife, including Tasmanian devils, quolls, platypus, echidna, and several bird species. Perhaps instead of shooting the lights with your camera, set off for a walk and capture some photos of the local wildlife. With a range of fantastic walks ranging from easy to difficult, there are plenty of opportunities to experience the beauty of Tasmania’s wilderness first hand, while chasing wildlife and some truly stunning scenic photos.


The author travelled as a guest of Tourism Tasmania.

(Lead image:Pierre Destribats. Featured images: Kate Webster)