Putting New Zealand under the lights

2015 is the UNESCO International Year of Light and New Zealand has a number of activities that celebrate the power of light.

Light plays a vital role in all our lives, whether it is something as simple as flicking a light switch or more adventurous like picking up a torch and exploring a cave. 

2015 is the UNESCO International Year of Light which is a global initiative to highlight the importance of light and optical technologies in our lives. 

New Zealand is well known for its light; Sir Peter Jackson has said that New Zealand is the best country in world to film in because of the light. The first country in the world to see the light of a new day, each year New Zealanders are the first people to witness the sunrise on 1 January and celebrations take place all over the country to welcome the New Year.

With a vast gold-rated International Dark Sky Reserve above the Southern Alps and immense limestone cave systems lit by millions of glow worms - the masters of natural light, New Zealand has all you could want when it comes to a light time experience.

In honour of the Year of Light, we have created a list of New Zealand by night activities - from the heavens to deep underground - where the addition of light is imperative to the experience.

Aurora Australis

Maybe it’s just coincidence but curiously, since the beginning of the 2015 Year of Light, the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights, has been particularly spectacular in New Zealand.  It’s not unusual to see this natural phenomenon in New Zealand’s deep south but this year has seen some of the most vivid displays on record. 

Auroras are electrically charged particles from solar winds that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and react with its gases. The result is a stunning light show, just as impressive as the more widely known Aurora Borealis.

Soon the Aurora will be able to be viewed in all its glory – any day of the year –  from the Otago Museum’s new Planetarium, expected to open later this year in Dunedin. Cutting edge technology is used to display the universe's oldest secrets giving visitors an immersive experience and a close-up view of Aurora Australis without having to brave the midnight temperatures. 

The Aurora happens year round but is not very predictable; it’s all about right place right time. Keen observers will tell you a light show like this is worth the wait though.

Getting there
Dunedin is on New Zealand’s south eastern coast and serviced by all major domestic airports. The Aurora Australis is best viewed between March-September but the Planetarium, due to open later this year, will be a year-round experience.

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve

Aoraki Mackenzie, in the central South Island, is a gold-rated dark sky reserve, in recognition of the quality of the almost light-pollution-free skies of the region. An area devoid of urban light creates an incredible example of some of the clearest skies in the world allowing stars to burn brighter than you have ever seen them. 

The dark sky reserve includes the Mackenzie Basin, Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, and the alpine villages of Tekapo, Twizel and Mt Cook. The 4300sq km area is bounded by a spectacular alpine landscape with the Southern Alps in the west, and the Two Thumb Range in the east. 

Tekapo’s Earth and Sky, which works closely with the University of Canterbury and Mt John Observatory, runs several day and night tours at the observatory. Experienced guides take visitors through an introduction and exploration of the night sky via hands-on experience of telescopes and astro-photography.

Getting there
Tekapo is a 3.5 hour drive from both Christchurch and Queenstown. Earth and Sky run multiple daily and evening tours to Mt John Observatory.

Spot the kiwi

New Zealand’s most famous native bird, the kiwi is nocturnal, so to catch a glimpse of these elusive birds you are going to need a torch – and some guidance to find them. 

A night tour at Wellington’s Zealandia Sanctuary is a unique experience you will never forget. Zealandia is dedicated to telling a New Zealand conservation story and the 225ha (555-acre) valley provides routes suitable for everyone from wheelchair-users to regular hikers. 

The guided night tour allows visitors to explore the valley by torchlight while searching out some of the more distinctive sights and sounds of New Zealand’s bush. The high-pitched call of the kiwi can be heard across the valley as they forage for food on the forest floor. Living dinosaurs, tuatara, scour the bush for dinner and kākā (cheeky forest parrots) come in to roost as the sun disappears at the end of another day. 

Getting there
Zealandia is a 10-minute drive into the suburbs from downtown Wellington. There is a free shuttle bus available from the Wellington i-SITE that runs throughout the day.

Paddle to the glow worms

Just 10 minutes from Tauranga city, in the North Island’s Bay of Plenty region, is Waimarino Adventure Park on the banks of the Wairoa river. 

Focused on the recreational activity of kayaking, Waimarino takes guests on guided night kayak tours to see the ethereal shine of thousands of glow worms. Paddlers cruise across the calm Lake McLaren as they make their way toward the secret glow worm canyon.

The glow worms occupy a narrow, high-sided canyon at the top of the lake, so tours depart once a day just before sunset so by the time you reach the glow worms you’re completely in the dark and ready to witness the natural light show.

Getting there
Tauranga, in the Bay of Plenty, is a three-hour drive from Auckland. Waimarino is a 10-minute drive from Tauranga

Nocturnal hobbits

Hobbiton by night is a sight to behold. Hobbit holes are lit up as you make your way through the 4.8ha (12ac) property with a guide telling the stories of how the movies were created. 

The night tour features a feast fit for a hobbit in the Green Dragon dining room. Ale and ginger beer from the exclusive Hobbit Southfarthing range is served with the banquet as guests get a taste of Shire hospitality – hobbit style. 

Following the meal, under the cover of darkness, the journey back to reality begins. The winding trails are illuminated by path lighting and each guest receives an authentic handheld lantern to light the way. The magical journey under moonlight travels back through the village which is breathtakingly lit up with smoking hobbit hole chimneys, music and lanterns glowing against the darkness.

Getting there
Hobbiton is a two-hour drive from Auckland or a short 45-minute drive from Hamilton. Evening Dinner Tours take place twice a week on a Wednesday and Sunday evenings.

Celebrating light

There is a list of events around New Zealand that celebrate light in some shape or form. 

The Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Festival will celebrate the creation of the southern hemisphere’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, in New Zealand’s central South Island. The festival is an official event of the International Year of Light 2015. The Festival will comprise a mix of scientific, educational and cultural events over three days (9 – 11 October 2015).

Each year in New Plymouth,  Pukekura Park, one of New Zealand's premier botanical gardens, is transformed into a beautiful illuminated night-time wonderland with multi-coloured lights gleaming amongst the trees, attracting over 100,00 visitors annually. The TSB Bank Festival of Lights runs for seven weeks and features a fantastic mix of daytime activities for children and families, twilight movies in the park and live night-time entertainment (13 December 2015 - 31 January 31 2016). 

Wellington’s LUX is a free public light festival that turns the city’s waterfront and laneways into a captivating celebration of light, art, technology and design. The festival showcases a fantastical array of light sculptures along an urban light trail. These are accompanied by artist talks from national and international artists, designers, and researchers; pop up exhibitions and installations; and fun free activities (10 nights each August).

Auckland doesn’t miss out on luminescent fun as the inner-city Albert Park lights up each February with the colourful Lantern Festival. Tens of thousands of locals and visitors turn out each year to enjoy this celebration of Chinese culture and the brilliant colours of the lanterns competing for the biggest and brightest glow on the walkways and fountains of this urban backdrop (26 February – 1 March 2016).