​​Southern Lights: How to See the Aurora Australis in New Zealand

Southern Lights over Queenstown, New Zealand

Ever dreamed of seeing the magical aurora australis? Here’s everything you need to know on how to see the southern lights in New Zealand. 

Nature’s most incredible lightshow, when shimmering veils of colour pulse across the night sky, is an unforgettable spectacle that’s lured countless travellers to the Northern Hemisphere and the depths of an Arctic Circle winter. But while the aurora borealis (northern lights) gets all the press, its Southern Hemisphere counterpart, the aurora australis (southern lights), is no less amazing.

So what is it exactly, you ask? In basic science-speak, the phenomenon occurs when electrically charged solar particles collide with atmospheric gases. The resulting energy translates into a brightly glowing lightshow. As wildly unpredictable as nature itself, it can last for a matter of minutes and sometimes reappear over several days, producing colours ranging from red and green to yellow, purple or blue.

New Zealand has no shortage of natural attractions and you can add the southern lights to its list of wonders. While we can’t offer any guarantees (thanks, Mother Nature), there are things you can do to improve your chances of seeing the sky during its flight of fancy.

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Where to see the lights in New Zealand

You’ve got to go south – very far south – for the best chance of seeing the aurora australis. The closer you are to the southern magnetic pole, the better the likelihood of a celestial encounter to remember. But if you’re not planning to book a cabin on the next icebreaker to Antarctica, New Zealand has some prime spots for aurora gazing.

While sightings of the aurora australis on the North Island are rare, the South Island is certainly your best bet. The adventure epicentre of Queenstown, in particular, has been known to regularly host thrills of a purely visual sort.

The magnificent Lake Tekapo in the centre of the South Island is reliable for clear skies and an internationally recognised Dark Sky Reserve, making it prime real estate for stargazers.  

It’s also worth trying New Zealand’s southernmost populated island, which lies a 30-kilometre ferry ride from the bottom of the South Island. Home to just 400 people, Stewart Island is mostly made up of national parks so light pollution won’t be an issue.

When to see the lights

The southern lights refuse to stick to a timetable but you should aim for March to September when the nights are longer and darker. Keep an eye on websites such as aurora-service.net, which offer forecasts based on the conditions needed to produce an aurora (a reading of Kp5 or above is a decent indication it’s worth braving the dark and cold – go science!).

The best conditions to view the lights

Pack your puffer jacket: a clear, dark (and most likely very cold) night is the best time to see the southern lights in New Zealand. Light and air pollution will detract from the show so head away from cities and be sure to factor in the lunar cycle, as the brightness of a full moon will upstage the colourful display. When the Land of the Long White Cloud lives up to its nickname, it’s a sign to stay inside by the fire. Auroras occur in the upper atmosphere so any cloud cover will keep the wonderment under wraps.

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Image: Patrick Kovar

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