Travel

See the Northern Lights the Way a ‘Star Wars' Icon Did

May the aurora borealis be with you.

Ken Phung/Shutterstock
Ken Phung/Shutterstock
Ken Phung/Shutterstock

The sun was just setting at 11:30 pm on a snowy evening in late April, 2013 when Star Wars actor Carrie Fisher found herself pacing on a frozen lake, waiting for something special to happen. She did this for over two hours in -9 degrees.

“But fuck it,” she wrote in a Port Magazine article, “there we all were, waiting for the stars to shut their shiny eyes so we might better see a swirling streak of icy smoke, spiralling up from some unseen fire glowing there beneath the horizon.”

When Fisher decided she wanted to see the northern lights before she passed away in 2016, by god was she going to do it, temperatures be damned. She had previously tried to witness the magic of the aurora borealis in Sweden, Scotland, and Iceland and had so far been unsuccessful.

This time, she came to Canada.

Derek Robbins/Shutterstock
Derek Robbins/Shutterstock
Derek Robbins/Shutterstock

Specifically, Fisher went to a little city called Yellowknife, the only city in the Northwest Territories, where the local university is called Aurora College. And when she decided to risk another-and last-shot to see silently roaring green and purple lights dancing across a huge, dark sky, the late and once-upon-a-time Princess Leia chose to go with North Star Adventures.

“If the skies are clear, you have a 95% chance of seeing them in Yellowknife,” says Joe Bailey, founder of North Star Adventures, the first known aurora chasers. Yellowknife has been nicknamed “The Aurora Capital of North America.” And since 80-90% of the aurora oval is in Canada, plus its low humidity and light pollution, it makes sense why the chances to spot the celestial phenomena is higher here than anywhere else in the world.

Photo courtesy of Destination Canada
Photo courtesy of Destination Canada
Photo courtesy of Destination Canada

But there’s another reason why someone like Fisher would choose North Star Adventures, who claim to be the best and first ever aurora hunters.

With a mischievous smile, Bailey says their tour guides have 50,000 years of experience. That’s because the company is 100% indigenously owned. He adds, “We are North America’s original tour guides.” And though he jokes about how that turned out for his people in the history books, he says with utter sincerity that his people are just as welcoming today to any visitor.The tribal citizens of the Dene Nation have always been surrounded by the northern lights and know them well. “I’ve been with the aurora since I was a baby,” says Bailey, but he knows that his aurora-chasing tradition extends for generations beyond just his own life. Passing down knowledge from elders is a crucial part of indigenous culture. It’s something Bailey picked up from his own elders out in the tundra, where, as he assures us, “You can live in a canvas tent at -40 degrees.” And that’s exactly what Bailey did as a child with his grandparents.

martinagebarovska/RooM/Getty Images
martinagebarovska/RooM/Getty Images
martinagebarovska/RooM/Getty Images

Before you start to panic, guests who travel with North Star Adventures in the winter can opt for much more than just a canvas tent. The package includes a stay at a hotel or bed and breakfast, transportation, Canada-level winter clothes, professional photos and videos, and hot chocolate with maple cookies, lest you forget what country you’re in. You can even opt to add food, additional tours, and dog sledding.

While many (including yours truly) hear Canada and think “cold”-never mind words like “Arctic Circle,” “Yukon,” and “tundra”-there are ways to deal with the weather and an incredible reason to do so. Give me a wood-burning fire in a cozy cabin, hand warmers, and stiff drinks before and after, for the chance in a lifetime? Now we’re talking.

Unsplash/Kwan Fung
Unsplash/Kwan Fung
Unsplash/Kwan Fung

North Star Adventures takes care of everything for guests, plus all the passed-down knowledge and a human connection that’s impossible to quantify-because another thing that comes for free in the package is stories, and lots of them. “Storytelling,” says Bailey, “that’s what a true education is.”

As a citizen of the Dene Nation, Bailey explains that the northern lights are what his indigenous ancestors say are the souls of people who’ve passed away. According to the Dene Nation, when you see the lights overhead moving so fast, that means the souls in the sky are trying to tell us that we no longer need to be sad anymore. They’re a reminder to keep living.

It’s something that resonates with many who see them.”I can hear people crying, overcome with emotions,” Bailey says. He believes the power of the aurora borealis is the reason why, in another example, an 82-year-old Australian woman would stand for three hours in the cold, with a warm thermos drink and a hell of a good parka.

Vincent Demers Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Vincent Demers Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Vincent Demers Photography/Moment/Getty Images

We may never know if Carrie Fisher saw souls in the sky telling her to be at peace, or what she felt when she saw the northern lights rippling-which she did finally see on this trip. Her assistant at the time described “standing on a frozen lake, watching her look up and marvel,” to The New York Post. “She’d done and seen so many amazing things in her life by that point, it wasn’t every day I got to see her in such awe of something.”

Or we might refer to her own words of “savouring each sip our thirsty eyes might swallow.”

The only real way to know what it feels like is to see it for yourself. If you do go, pack your warmest clothes, a determination to embrace the elements, a tip for your indigenous tour guide, and Fisher’s last wish: “I hope auroras run through your veins until you feel you belong, find your place so close to right that it manages to overlook wrong.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Danielle Hallock is the Travel Editor at Thrillist. She’ll take the cold as long as a cabin and fireplace are involved.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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