Why the Southern Lights should be on your bucket list

The Northern Lights might be on most people’s bucket list but few people know the Southern Lights are equally spectacular. Tracey Withers takes her family to southern Australia in search of the natural wonder.

  • Tracey Withers
  • October 2018

I have been told we might hear the Southern Lights before we see them. When beams arc through the black sky, coalescing into coloured curtains in a humbling display of splendour, watchers are said to cry out in thrilled wonder.

It’s one of the most spectacular natural phenomena our world can witness. And on this kind of night — clear, still, a slim crescent moon — aurora chasers will be out here, waiting in the dark.

I’m nowhere near Norway, the country tourists usually flock to in winter to catch sight of Aurora Borealis — the bright, dancing colours in the sky known as the Northern Lights. I’m on a crescent of beach at Ninepin Point Marine Nature Reserve, about 58 kilometres south of Hobart on the edge of the Huon Valley.

I got the hot tip from a chaser I met in a café today (ask around: everybody in these parts has a lights story). By night, this foodie paradise is “bloody amazing” for watching the aurora and from this beach, you can see it float over Bruny Island in the distance.

The Southern Lights over Betsey Island, Tasmania
Nothing beats the exhilaration of witnessing this natural wonder. Here, the Southern Lights are in full glory over Betsey Island, Tasmania.

I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about catching the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) ever since a time-lapse photo of electric green sky ripples showed up on my Instagram feed a year ago. Assuming it was someone ticking their bucket list on a trip to see the Northern Lights, I was shocked to see the post was tagged to Tasmania. Who knew?

The Southern Hemisphere has its own lights and, as Margaret Sonnemann, author of The Aurora Chaser’s Handbook, has told me, from June to August, Australia — close to the South Magnetic Pole the lights are drawn to — is one of the best possible places to see them.

What is an aurora, anyway?

So I’ve flown from Sydney with my family — partner David and toddler Benji — on a mission. We’ve been huddled under a blanket on the sand for an hour when David asks: “What is an aurora, anyway?” Finally: I’ve been busting to show off my (simplified) science.

An aurora flares when electrically-charged particles, flung out by the boiling sun, slam into the earth’s magnetic field and rush towards the poles. As the solar particles hit our atmosphere, they collide with atoms of nitrogen and oxygen, and charge their electrons, leaving excited ions to radiate energy in wavelengths we see as a dance of purple, yellow and green light.

David nods, agreeing geomagnetics is a gorgeous and graceful thing. “So, when’s it going to happen?” he asks.

I’ve been obsessing over space weather maps and graphs on my smartphone for weeks. The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) opens in new window makes it easiest, measuring indices locally to update its aurora page every 15 minutes.

Southern Lights Tasmania Cremorne Beach
Shooting over water is a great way to capture aurorae. When reflection fills the foreground, your photos won't be dark.

Margaret runs Facebook groups Aurora Australis Tasmania and Aurora Australis Tasmania Alert Now, where chasers talk tactics and declare things like “She’s dancing!” when a lightshow starts. It’s a fun job for kids — checking notices and yelling when to get in the car and go, go, go.

Right now, the signs are good. But so far, tonight has been silent. “Aurorae are fickle things,” explains Margaret, who’s been chasing since 1997. They could glow for seven minutes or seven hours, any time between dark and daybreak.

Have we missed it? Is it coming at all? “You never know for sure, and every aurora is different,” she says. An aurora makes you earn it. So I want it even more.

But now my woollen beanie has started to itch, and the toddler, who was sleeping heavily on my lap, has wriggled awake. Just when I think he’s going to crack it, he points up. “What’s that?” he says. Gasp! It’s not the aurora. But it is the Jewel Box, Southern Cross and Milky Way, brighter than anything our city-kid eyes have ever seen.

“That’s space,” I explain, every bit as mesmerised. No aurora tonight, but I’ll take this as a win. Plus, there’s always tomorrow night. Until then, we eat.

Dolomite cave at Hastings Caves State Reserve
Dolomite cave at Hastings Caves State Reserve

Taking a break from chasing the Southern Lights

From Hobart, you can drive to the Huon Valley in about 30 minutes. But I don’t recommend you do. Instead, we wind down the coastal highway with the D'Entrecasteaux Channel to our left, and little farms and pinot noir vineyards huddling up against a bushy mountain range to our right.

Between the pretty town of Kettering and the charmingly-named community of Flowerpot, there are plenty of gems to uncover. At Grandvewe Cheeses opens in new window, kids can watch sheep-milking demonstrations while grown-ups discover the pure joy of soft Brebichon and award-winning Hartshorn gin and vodka made from sheep whey in the house microdistillery.

At Five Bob Café and Art Farm opens in new window, take your coffee on a ramble through the kitchen garden of native food plants or up the 1.2 kilometre-long sculpture trail exhibiting works from various Australian artists.

When you cross into the Huon Valley, you’re in salmon, apple cider and fresh berry country. Follow the unmanned roadside stalls that work on a trust system to the township of Cygnet, an epicentre for local produce. Stop at the restored Victorian-era Cygnet Old Bank opens in new window café on the main street for the daily fish special at lunch.

Southern Lights in Tasmania
Witnessing aurora is one the most magical experiences you'll have but the experience of chasing it holds many surprises too.

This is a family trip, so after brunch on day two in the Huon Valley, we follow the photogenic Huon River south. There’s action down here for kids. Outside Geeveston, Tahune Adventures opens in new window fires up adrenaline with cable-controlled hang gliders and an AirWalk platform that skims the tops of the forest.

Further on at Hastings Caves State Reserve opens in new window, explore dolomite caves and thermal spring pools that are 28°C year-round. Our toddler is a train guy, so we go chugging through rugged bushland and pristine bays on the historic Ida Bay Railway opens in new window instead. He loves it.

But enough wandering. As dusk approaches, the aurora hunt is back on. Any spot with no light pollution and an unobstructed view south is a good one. From Ida Bay we could track back to one of Margaret’s favourite vantage points — the yacht club at Port Huon.

But we’re also only about 20 kilometres from the end of the southernmost road in Australia, and I’ve heard viewing there is unreal. We’re here for adventure… Onward to Cockle Creek!

“There’s nothing much down there,” warns Meg Thornton from the railway. She hand-draws us a map just in case our phones conk out and tells us the last pub in all the land is in Southport, “back thattaway”. It’s okay, though — tonight we have provisions. We’ve got farm-fresh fruit, woodfired bread and Lego for Benji to build under our headlamps.

Charles Oates Distilling
Chasing down the Southern Lights is hard work. Take a break with some apple brandy from Charles Oates Distilling.

With David as designated driver, I’ve also got small-batch apple brandy — found at the Charles Oates distillery attached to Willie Smith’s Apple Shed opens in new window in Grove — to spike my thermos of hot chocolate.

Head distiller Tim Jones sanctions this entirely. Aged in old muscat barrels, his Fine Apple Brandy’s notes of cocoa, vanilla bean and spice will give it “a lovely fruitcake character”, he says. “Just make the chocolate sweet and add a stick of cinnamon — it’s a high-end spirit.”

It’s the convicts’ Van Diemen’s Land down here with beautiful wilderness, rugged coves and the odd tiny cluster of houses. The potholes in the dirt road are punishing. I’m almost disappointed to find that the Cockle Creek lookout, where a bronze whale sculpture points roughly at Antarctica, is an easy five-minute stroll from the car and hospitably level for the camera tripod.

Southern Lights Aurora Australis Tasmania
To get a trophy photo of aurora, Hobart photographer and tour guide, Luke O'Brien (lukeobrien.com.au) suggests switching your DSLR to manual mode and increasing your camera's ISO to 1600 or 3200, making it more sensitive to light.

Pure magic

Aurora chasing is, you see, a photographer’s game. Naked eyes can detect some colour, but you need a lens, high ISO, wide aperture and slow shutter speed to capture the full spectrum in its vibrant glory.

Darkness drops fast and we’re still faffing about with the camera settings when — holy smokes! There she is. First a greenish shimmer, then an airglow, then swaying like a slow searchlight. Or an extraterrestrial visitation, which I guess it is. We’re supposed to scream, but we’re struck speechless.

I can understand why some people describe seeing aurorae as spiritual — it seems impossible something so magnificent isn’t a sign of, well, something. We almost forget to click and look at the back of the camera, where chartreuse intensifies to almost emerald. She’s not massive but she’s magic — and then she’s gone.

We’ve taken the bait, Aurora. We’ll be back.