Electric dreams: when and where to see the Southern Lights

Best seen between March and September, the Southern Lights can be equally as dazzling as their northern counterparts. Here’s what to know about the southern hemisphere's most electrifying show.

Sunday, May 24, 2020,
By Sam Lewis
Aurora over a beach in Tasmania

New Zealand and Australia — in particularly the island of Tasmania — are generally considered the best places to see the Southern Lights, also known as the Aurora Australis.

Photograph by Getty Images

What are the Southern Lights?
Many will count seeing the Northern Lights as one of travel’s most awe-inspiring experiences, but admiring the Southern Lights (the Aurora Australis) is notoriously more difficult.

The lack of land from which to view the skies — and the fickle nature of the aurora itself — means glimpsing the lights requires persistence. However, aurora-hunters willing to make the effort are often rewarded by stunning ribbons of colour lighting up the night sky, in displays arguably more impressive than their boreal counterparts. May is peak aurora-viewing season as the southern winter draws in, so journey south for the chance to catch sight of nature’s most electrifying show.

What is an aurora, exactly?
The spectral show occurs when electrically charged particles blasted out from the Sun collide with gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, like oxygen and nitrogen, causing the gases to emit light. Wavelengths determine the colour — oxygen often releases a red or greenish-yellow hue while nitrogen emits a blue light. Displays can last for several minutes or even days, and visibility is affected by factors such as light pollution, cloud cover, starlight and moonlight.

Where can I see the Aurora Australis?
New Zealand and Australia are generally considered the best places to see the Southern Lights.

Light pollution is close to zero in New Zealand’s Lake Tekapo area, and the summit of Mount John is possibly the best place to view the sky on a clear, dark night. Book a late-evening (around 10.45pm) two-hour tour of the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory and look through some of the largest telescopes in the country to see the Southern Cross and the Milky Way as well as, if luck’s on your side, the colourful display of the aurora. Places on a group tour cost around NZ$185 (£90), but for a private guided experience here, and at other locations in the country, Black Tomato can tailor-make a special itinerary.   

For those staying Down Under, it’s possible to spot the aurora year-round in Tasmania — the best viewpoints are in places without artificial light pollution and with unobstructed views to the south. The Tasman Peninsula, Fortescue Bay, Lime Bay and White Beach are great viewing areas, while other top spots include Seven Mile Beach and Tinderbox Nature Reserve. A tip — Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology issues alerts when space activity results in favourable conditions for viewings. 

For a true off-the-beaten-track experience, join Par Avion’s three-day Southwest Wilderness Camp tour for the chance to explore Bathurst Harbour Marine Nature Reserve and the waterways of Port Davey — and hopefully see the Southern Lights in all their glory. From AU$2,495 (£1,290). 

What about Antarctica?
With virtually no light pollution, the White Continent is perhaps the best place on the planet to catch the Southern Lights. However, harsh and challenging conditions mean most cruise ships and charter flights only visit during the Antarctic summer, which means getting there at the right time can prove difficult. Sightings can occur during the end of the cruise season (around April) — incidentally a great time for whale-spotting, too. Wildfoot Travel offers the 13-night Crossing the Antarctic Circle tour, which ventures as far south as Adelaide Island, with plenty of opportunities to admire the continent’s wildlife and otherworldly natural beauty. Departs 15 February 2021. 

Published in the May/Jun 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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