It’s nature’s most spectacular lightshow – a mesmerising display of shifting, swirling colours in the sky. Here's everything you need to know about seeing the southern lights in Australia. The aurora australis has amazed inhabitants of the Great Southern Land from its First Peoples to Captain James Cook, who documented the spectacle during his first voyage to Australia in 1770.
But what is it exactly? Here comes the science. Just like its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, the aurora borealis, the southern lights occur when electrically charged solar particles collide with atmospheric gases. The resulting energy translates into a brightly glowing lightshow, lasting for a matter of minutes and sometimes reappearing over several days, with colours ranging from red and green to yellow, purple or blue.
Witnessing the northern lights has become a boutique industry in countries that hug the Arctic Circle, such as Canada, Iceland and Norway, but the antipodean version is just as glorious. While there are no guarantees in nature, there are a few things you can do to boost your chances of seeing the heavens filled with dancing light.
Where to see the lights
The closer you are to the southern magnetic pole, the better your chances of seeing the aurora australis. That makes Antarctica the optimal spot but if you’re not heading to the frozen continent anytime soon, Tasmania runs a very close second.
Nearly all of the Apple Isle is good for aurora spotting. Look for locations with unobstructed views facing south, such as the Mount Nelson Signal Station overlooking the Derwent River, just 15 minutes drive from the centre of Hobart. Cradle Mountain is another favourite site, where capturing the southern lights reflected on the calm surface of Dove Lake has become a photographic hero shot.
To really boost your chances of a sighting, head to Cockle Creek, 120 kilometres from Hobart and about as far south as you can drive in Australia. Stand on the bridge to take photos of the lights gleaming above the creek, or arrive earlier in the day and hike to South Cape Bay beach (allow 2.5 hours each way) for some of the state’s best aurora conditions. Pack a head torch for the dark walk out, or plan ahead and camp overnight.
When to see the lights
The southern lights can be seen all year round in Tasmania but the months from March to September are best thanks to longer, darker nights (and to give the experience extra pagan significance, aim for the September spring equinox). Bear in mind that since the aurora is dependent on unpredictable sunspots and solar winds, even scientific predictions can be unreliable.
The best conditions to view the lights
It’ll come as no surprise to learn that a clear, dark night is essential for seeing the aurora. Air and light pollution can obscure the colours so avoid cities and keep the lunar cycle in mind – the brightness of a full moon is definitely not ideal. And if it’s overcast you can kiss seeing the lights goodbye. Auroras occur in the upper atmosphere so any cloud cover will obscure Mother Nature’s greatest show.
Image Credit: James Stone, Graham Freeman/Tourism Australia, Pierre Destribats/Tourism Australia and Dietmar Kahles/Tourism Australia