On the back of a snowmobile by the glacial lagoons of Iceland, from a remote nunatak in the heart of Alaska and pulled by dog sled through the Finnish Wilderness – we’ve spent years chasing the Northern Lights. Now, we’re flipping the perspective and heading south in search of their lesser-seen counterpart, the Southern Lights – or Aurora Australis. The best place for it? New Zealand’s South Island, where we’ve crafted this unique 10-day adventure through the heart of the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve. Encompassing 4,300 square kilometres, the reserve’s unpolluted night skies extend from the peak of Mount Cook and across the expanse of Lake Pukaki to take in much of the Southern Alps. Traveling through these peaks and valleys, our expert astronomy guides know just the spots to take you to to maximize your chances of seeing the lights and will share their top tips for capturing them on camera. For an added close up, we’ll also take you behind the scenes of the world’s southernmost research observatory. Staying in luxurious lodges throughout, some accessed only by helicopter, it’s time to wrap up warm and head out into the night.
An Introduction to the Southern Skies
Your starlit search kicks off in the coastal city of Dunedin with two nights at the Camp Estate at Larnach Castle. Don’t let the name fool you however, far from camping, you’ll cozy up in a charming country house with the option to take your meal’s in the dining room of New Zealand’s only castle. Tomorrow, discover Dunedin by day as you trace the history of the gold rush downtown and immerse yourself in the nature of the Otago Peninsula on a harbor cruise out to its windswept beaches and penguin colonies.
Come evening, you’ll head out with an expert astronomy guide for a stargazing experience. The Otago Peninsula offers one of the best canvases to the night sky anywhere in the world and is made all the more enigmatic by the soundtrack of coastal bird calls echoing across Hoopers Inlet. Your guide knows all the best spots from which to see the Southern Lights and, if conditions are right, will make sure you’re in the right place at the right time. Even if the lights don’t appear tonight, you’ll enjoy an authentic introduction to the southern skies with Maori tales and waiata (songs) that evoke the importance of the stars.
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Helicopter to a Mountain Hideaway
From Dunedin, it’s a scenic drive across to Queenstown – but you’re not stopping here. Instead, look to the peaks that surround the city as you board a helicopter 30 minutes north to the remote Minaret Station. Set in a remote glacial valley in the Southern Alps, this boutique hideaway is accessible only by helicopter. Miles away from civilization and several hundred feet closer to the sky, light pollution is non-existent up here and you’ll have three nights to savor sightings of the Milky Way, Southern Cross and, if lucky, the Southern Lights too.
By day, take to the skies once more on a private scenic flight over Milford Sound, Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Park. You’ll fly up close alongside waterfalls, traverse fjords, hover over glaciers and their accompanying fur seal colonies, before touching down on the snow for a gourmet picnic lunch. Elsewhere, there’s the chance for back country fishing, heli-skiing down remote mountain peaks and time spent on the working farm.
Stargazing from the World’s Southernmost Observatory
From one peak to another, you’ll continue to the shores of Lake Pukaki where you’ll stay in the shadow of New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt Cook. Spend the next two nights at the Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat, home to its own private observatory, where you’ll enjoy a private stargazing experience this evening. Start off in the wine cellar, where we’ve lined up a selection of canapes, a bottle of the finest champagne, and an introduction to the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. From there, you’ll move through to the observatory itself where you’ll have the chance to view the constellations through the telescope, as well as practice your astrophotography skills.
Tomorrow, your celestial search returns to the great outdoors as you journey up Mt Cook with an Aurora Australis expert. From this towering vantage point, your guide will lead you to the best clearings from which to see the lights – and teach you all the best angles from which to capture them. Lights photographed, return to earth for a trip to the Mt John Observatory, the world’s southernmost observatory. Join their team of scientists as you peer through the optical telescopes for a glimpse of far-off planets, star clusters and distant galaxies. This is a first-hand look into the world of an astronomer, with access to research equipment not usually available to the public.
Float above it all
Your trip ends amid the blissful quiet of the Ahuriri Valley with two nights at The Lindis. The night sky here is blanketed in stars, so we recommend making the most of them by staying in one of the lodges’ Pods where the mirrored floor-to-ceiling glass walls only serve to enhance the view. They’ll even provide you with a star map as you set off across the estate and further hone your photography skills as the constellations appear overhead. The sky here is equally spectacular by day however, with the Ahuriri Valley famous for its unique conditions which make it the perfect spot for gliding. Join a team of pilots as you learn the science behind this unique adventure, before heading up into the sky – even piloting the glider yourself, should you wish. If conditions are right, the wind can take your as far as Mt Cook and the Milford Sound.
Feet back on the ground, it’s then time to return home.