Many people live their entire life without seeing so much as a shooting star in their part of the world, but there is one place you can go where you will get a lot more than you bargained for.
New Zealand is known as a country of wonders and the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) is one of the most famous wonders of this region. Even though Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights) may not be as popular as Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights, it is no less impressive.
What Are the Southern Lights?
The southern lights occur when solar winds react with the gases in the atmosphere resulting in a wondrous electrical display of green and white lights in the sky. This rare display is called the southern lights because it is typically seen further to the south although on rare occasions it can be seen in the North Island region of the country.
Because of New Zealand’s proximity to the South Pole where the aurora begins, you might see a light display that would give you a night to remember.
How to know the time for the Southern Lights
Many of the people who travel to New Zealand just to see the southern lights end up getting disappointed because they got the timing wrong. Remember to be in the right place at the right time if you want to experience the southern lights. To know when to visit New Zealand, join one of the many Australis social media groups where you receive notifications about potential southern lights nights. You can also keep an eye on the Aurora Forecast where you can get real-time info about what is happening with the southern lights. Not all these alerts are 100% accurate but they are close enough to give you a general idea of when and where it is happening.
The intensity of the southern lights is calculated in KP, with 1KP being the lowest and 9KP the strongest. If you are lucky, you may stumble on lights between 5 and 7KP.
Where to see the southern lights
Some popular destinations in New Zealand to see the Southern Lights are:
∙ Lake Tekapo: The area surrounding Lake Tekapo in the middle of the South Island is a popular star gazing point. The whole area including the Mackenzie region is an International Dark Sky Reserve, and one of the best places to see the Southern Lights. And if you feel the need to get a closer view, head to the higher ground upon Mount Cook, the first-night sky reserve in New Zealand.
∙ Stewart Island–New Zealand’s third and most populated island in the South Island is another great place to see the southern lights. On a typical aurora night, you can get great views from a lookout near the center of the main town, Oban. Apart from the Southern Lights which can be seen in this area, over 85% of the island comprises the Rakiura National Park, so there are many things to do during the day while waiting for the Aurora night.
∙ The Catlins: Located in the south of the southern island, The Catlins is a sparsely populated area with little atmospheric pollution that makes the southern lights a wonder to behold. While seeing the southern lights in other parts of the south island in New Zealand is spectacular, experiencing it in the Catlins is mind-blowing. You can also spend the day exploring the waterfalls, thick forests and rugged coastline of the region.
∙ Chatham Island: You will be hard pressed to find a more remote New Zealand location than Chatham Island. This sparsely populated island of about 600 souls is a glorious reserve of nature with incredible skies. On a clear aurora night, the view of the night sky is unbelievable. Don’t forget to carry a good camera and practice your night-time photography skills.
∙ Dunedin: The southern lights have lit up the skies at Dunedin occasionally, but you may be lucky to see this rare display. However, just a few miles northwest of Dunedin is Naseby in Central Otago. In Naseby, your view of the night sky will not be disturbed by bright streetlights. This area also boasts several attractions such as hiking trails, campgrounds, swimming holes and ice packed areas for winter sports.
There are dozens of services that offer trips to the south island of New Zealand and southern light sighting trips. Take advantage of them but make sure you take safety measures when travelling.
When is the best time to see the Southern Lights?
Even though the southern lights occur throughout the year, this phenomenon is rather unpredictable. They often occur with only 30 minutes prior notice. If you are serious about seeing the southern lights in New Zealand, winter is the best time of the year to visit, between March and September; and you will get the best experience around midnight when the sun is on the opposite side of your side of the earth.