World's top 10 best things to do in the dark (with your clothes on)

Extraordinary night-time experiences don't have to involve frenetic alcohol consumption, a DJ or carnal liaisons. The sun going down should be no excuse to stop exploring. From weird wildlife to epic mountain treks, we've tracked down some of the world's most spectacular after-dark adventures. 

See the Northern Lights…

During the Northern Hemisphere winter, the skies above a narrow band roughly corresponding with the Arctic Circle often turn into dancing, colourful light shows. Or, in a concisely pseudo-scientific version, when solar winds hit the earth's magnetic field, some particles are trapped and collide with atmospheric gases. The Northern Lights – or Aurora Borealis – are annoyingly inconsistent though. There's no one single best place to see them, although the general rule is that the further north and further from urban areas you go, the better your chances. Alaska, Canada, Norway, Iceland and Finland tend to have the best set-up wilderness camps and The Aurora Zone is a good first stop for planning a trip. 

… Or Aurora Australis

The Northern Lights have a southern equivalent – exactly the same thing happens in the southern hemisphere between March and September. The problem is that it's more difficult to see at our end of the world, due to there not being nearly as much accessible land at the right latitudes close to the South Pole. The best bets for catching Aurora Australis (as it is known) are Ushuaia in Argentina, South Georgia or the Falkland Islands. Closer to home, the Rakiura National Park on Stewart Island at the bottom of New Zealand has the requisite absence of light pollution – and some rudimentary huts to stay in. 

Kayak on a bioluminescent bay

The waters of Laguna Grande, in the north-eastern corner of Puerto Rico, are full of tiny micro-organisms. That may make swimming seem less attractive, but these little fellas (called Pyrodinium Bahamense) have special properties. If agitated, they glow. And if you're in a kayak, slowly gliding across the bay at night, that means the ends of your paddles light up like magic wands every time you dip them in the water. Dip your hand in, and it's like fairy dust is twinkling on your fingers. And when fish swim across in front of you, they're like shooting stars.

Kayaking Puerto Rico also offers day tours to what's known as the Bioluminescent Bay, but it's about seven billion times more impressive at night. 

Cruise amongst the glowworms


Pyrodinium Bahamense aren't the only show-offs. In the caves at the edge of Lake Te Anau on New Zealand's South Island, it's fairly safe to turn the torches off and let the way be guided by thousands of glowworms clinging on to the cavern roof. The darker it is, the brighter they glow – so the night tours offered by Real Journeys are the way to see them at full intensity. Just try not to think too much about what they really are. "Glowworms" is savvy marketing – they're really maggots, and the light is their, ahem, waste. They use it to attract prey into barely visible dangling web-like traps. 

Scale Mt Kinabalu

It is just about possible to climb to the summit of Borneo's highest mountain in a day – but permits are rare, and only given to those who can prove they've got practically superhuman fitness levels. For mere mortals, the two day, one night hike is the only way to tackle Mt Kinabalu. The first day draws to a close at the 3272m Laban Rata guesthouse. Then, at 2am the next morning, it's time to don head-torches, scramble up on ropes in the dark and make it to the 4,095m summit for dawn. You're way above the cloudline, so said sunrise tends to be pretty darned special.   

Spot wildlife with night vision goggles

In the Nightcap National Park, near Byron Bay, most of the wildlife action doesn't kick off until after the sun goes down. But head in there with a torch and you're likely to scare the nocturnal owls, frogs and pademelons off. Vision Walks, however, has come up with a solution. It kits walkers out with military night vision goggles, which use thermal imaging to spot the rainforest critters without shining lights at them. This allows you – if you tread quietly – to get up surprisingly close. But walking with the goggles on is a weird sensation – your peripheral vision is totally eradicated. 

Learn night photography

Photos taken after dark don't have to be a blurry mess, and Understand Down Under tries to show you how to make a much better fist of nocturnal shots on their 'moonwalks' in the Royal National Park. The tours run from sunset to sunrise, kicking off with a candlelit dinner before everyone's kitted up with glowsticks and coloured lights for a hike around the ethereal Wattamolla Lagoon. Expect history and biology lessons on the way. 

Watch balloons fire up

Hot air balloon rides are generally timed to go up just as the sun is rising, but the Saga International Balloon Festival in Japan makes a virtue of what's often the most exciting bit – watching the burners fire and the balloons inflate before dawn arrives. La Montgolfier Nocturne (also called the Night Mooring) sees dozens of balloons being fired in time to music, the burners lighting up the sky like a balloon version of Hong Kong's Symphony of Lights. The festival takes place in late October and early November every year. 

Gawp at the stars…

The magic combination for world class stargazing is relative proximity to the Equator (you're closer to the heavens), elevation (ditto), lack of humans around (it keeps light pollution to a minimum) and lack of rainfall (no rain equals no clouds – and thus clear skies).  The Atacama Desert in Chile ticks these boxes rather nicely. Which is why a whole phalanx of space-bothering agencies have bases out there, pointing telescopes at the sky. Many of them can be visited as part of a multi-day tour with Quasar Chile – but the real highlight is camping out under the stars, night after night, taking in the southern hemisphere skies at their best. 

… Or learn to navigate using them

It's one thing looking at the stars and quite another learning how to use them. Way before satellite technology came in, sailors had to use the positions of the stars to work out where they were and which direction they were travelling in. As impressive skills to brag about go, that's up there. Should you wish to learn the ancient art, Bluewater Sailing in Los Angeles runs intensive four day, four night courses.