Spotting southern lights in Tasmania

The off-season in Tasmania doesn’t necessarily mean you are in for less of an experience. Quite the opposite. The off-season is just the right time to be in Australia’s most southern state, Tasmania, especially if you want to see the Southern Lights.

Hunting down the lights can be very hit and miss. The universe really does need to align for you to get the clear skies, perfect possie and on-point weather conditions. Here is a wrap up of where to capture the Southern Lights and what to do in the area if you miss them.

What is Aurora Australis?

Image: Space Tourism Guide

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 show. You can actually see the Southern Lights year-round in Tasmania, however, the colder months of May to August is the ultimate time as night falls earlier at this latitude.

There is 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 even 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, 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 that there’s no movement affecting your photographs. First of all, set your camera to manual. The lens needs to be as wide as possible and the same goes for the aperture. This allows maximum light into the camera (lowest f-stop, around f/2.8 to f/4) is a good guide. Opt for your cameras highest ISO (800 to 3200 is a good starting point) and a shutter speed of anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds. Lastly, set your focus to infinity and you’re set.

Where to find the lights

Image: Space Tourism Guide

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

Hobart

While the city lights make it hard to see the southern lights, it isn’t impossible. A good starting point is to head just ten minutes out of the city and up to Mount Nelson. Mt Wellington is also popular but rug up as 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 and, 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 to it and you can easily walk around town and down to the harbour from here.

What to do if the lights are a noshow: Head to Mona, the Museum of Modern Art. You may miss nature’s light show, but there is lots to explore here. Mona is a museum in Hobart, Tasmania, 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 in awe. There is even 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 most southern road’s end in Australia, Cockle Creek. On Tasmania’s far south tip, naturally it’s a prime position for this southern lightshow. 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.

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 noshow: 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 clifftop views. It is also a prime spot for Southern Lights viewing due to limited light pollution. The island is about 50 km 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-min crossing on a vehicular ferry from Kettering, around a 35-min 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.

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 to 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 noshow: 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, towering crags and pass through the narrow gap between the coast and ‘The Monument’ and feel 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 this is real!) 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 furbaby. 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 the Southern Lights are a no-show.

What to do if the lights are a noshow: You can still get a wow factor 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 even take it up a level 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, however you are above the obstructions of large mountain ranges and trees, offering a high vantage point. Add to that the flat, mirrored lakes, and you have the perfect backdrop for the Southern Lights.

Where to stay: Discovery Parks – Cradle Mountain 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 noshow: This national park is teeming with rich habitat for wildlife, including Tasmanian devils, quolls, platypus, echidna and several bird species. So instead of shooting the lights with your camera, set off for a walk and captured some photos of the local wildlife. With a range of fantastic walks ranging from easy to difficult, there’s plenty of opportunities to experience the beauty of Tasmania’s wilderness first hand, while chasing wildlife and some truly stunning scenic photos.

Kate Webster is a world traveller, ocean lover and conservation warrior who is determined to make every moment count for not only herself, but the world around her. An editor and travel journalist, Kate travels the globe in search of vivid imagery and compelling stories that capture the essence of the people and places she visits. She is a passionate conservation advocate, sustainable traveller and always travels with reason and cause.

kate@capturedtravel.com