New Zealand is a space enthusiast’s dream. Stunning stargazing, regular rocket launches, and awe-inspiring aurora are all common sights in New Zealand, though most travelers visit for the beautiful vistas, friendly Kiwi locals, and delicious food and wine. Seriously, if you aren’t sold on New Zealand yet, what’s stopping you?
If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand and you’re a fan of space, you might want to plan your trip to see the Southern Lights while you’re there. In this post, you’ll find everything you need to improve your chances of seeing the aurora during your trip.
What are the “Southern Lights?”
Many people have heard of the northern lights but the southern lights exist too and are equally as amazing.
The southern lights or aurora australis are only visible in the southern hemisphere. The best places to experience this phenomenon is in the southern-most destinations in the world, including New Zealand.
The aurora australis is created by the same forces of nature as the northern lights. Particles of plasma emitted by the sun (known as the solar wind) strike atoms and molecules in our atmosphere. This causes ionization and excitement of the atmospheric particles, emitting light similar to how neon lights work, only much cooler and grander.
The Best Time of Year to See the Southern Lights in New Zealand
While you have better chances of seeing the aurora in New Zealand during certain parts of the year, you can definitely try to see them year-round. Here’s a quick guide to each season and your chances of seeing the southern lights while visiting during each.
Winter (June to August)
As mentioned above, winter is the ideal time to see the aurora australis in New Zealand skies, since it’s the darkest time of the year. If you love skiing or outdoor adventure sports, you can plan a trip that combines both.
Spring (September to November)
Through spring, it is still possible to see the southern lights over New Zealand, and the weather is improving (reducing the need for extra layers and trying to stay warm while you wait for the aurora to appear). Spring is also a great time to enjoy what Kiwis call ‘waterfall season,’ where New Zealand’s gorgeous mountains shed their snowy winter clothing in massive and widespread waterfalls.
Summer (December to February )
New Zealand is a great winter getaway for northern hemisphere travelers since it’s summer in the south. If you plan to visit New Zealand during the summer months there (December through February), you may find it harder to see the aurora but it is still technically possible in the very heart of night (12am-4am each night). In the summer, enjoy trekking or cycling in New Zealand, plus beach weather along the coast – you can even learn to surf in New Zealand in the summer!
Autumn (March to May)
Similar to spring, autumn is a great transition season where you can enjoy some of the warm-weather activities. You can also take advantage of autumn colored landscapes and better chances of seeing the aurora as the night gets longer.
The Best Places in New Zealand to See the Southern Lights
Being so far south, New Zealand is an excellent destination to see an aurora. It is best to head far from city lights to minimize light pollution that brightens the sky, fading out the stars and aurora.
As the most southern populated island in New Zealand, Steward island can be reached by flying into Oban or by ferry ride from Bluff or Invercargill. 85% of the island is covered by Rakiura National Park and light pollution is not an issue due to the island’s relative isolation and sparse population.
Queenstown is a popular adventure sports destination on the shores of the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu. The skies above it are also known to put on an amazing light show. The Queenstown Aurora Australis Facebook group is a good resource for localized discussion and sharing of aurora activity and photos. Look south from the shores of Lake Wakatipu or head to Lake Hayes, a 15 minutes drive from downtown Queensland, for water-side views and photo opportunities.
Located within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the largest in the world and only one in the southern hemisphere, Lake Tekapo is well known among stargazers. Get here by bus or drive in from Christchurch (141mi/227km away) or Queenstown (160mi/256km away).
Venture to the top of Mt. John which offers some of the best views of the sky in the world on a clear, dark night. It is also the location of the Mt. John Observatory which is home to some of the largest telescopes in New Zealand. Night tours of the facility are run by are available, including the opportunity to peer at the sky through some of the telescopes.
This sparsely populated, forested coastal area is on the southeastern region of the Southern Island, where you can escape from city lights. Set up on the southern-facing ocean shores or pitch a tent on one of the campgrounds and gaze at the sky to look out for aurora.
This southernmost city of New Zealand offers some of the chances of seeing the aurora australis from, or near an urban settlement. Head 10kms west to Oreti Beach and set up for some phenomenal photos of the aurora. Bluff and Tiwai Point are both excellent viewing locations located within a 30-minute drive south of Invercargill.
Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park
Also located within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, there is nearly no light pollution out here, making for some stellar views of the sky. While it’s an alpine environment, the park is easily accessible via State Highway 80, which leads to Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village.
On a dark night with the right conditions, viewing the aurora australis is possible from pretty much anywhere in the park as long as you stay away from light sources and allow your eyes to adjust. For a guided experience, visit Big Sky Stargazing at the foot of Aoraki/Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain.
Great Barrier Island
While further north than the other locations, Great Barrier Island off the north-east coast of Auckland was designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2017. If you’re not venturing further south than Auckland, heading to this protected environment increases your chances of seeing the aurora, away from the city lights. Reach the island by ferry from downtown Auckland or by air from Auckland, Coromandel, Northland, Tauranga, and Hamilton.
How to See the Southern Lights in New Zealand
1. Plan Your Trip at the Right Time of Year
The aurora phenomenon happens year round in New Zealand, but the winter months from March to September are best. Statistically, the equinoxes that fall in March and September give you the highest chances of catching a glimpse. June and July have the darkest skies making them good months too.
Plan your viewing around the phases of the moon with the part of the month between last quarter and first quarter moons being the best time. This is when the moon will generate the least light in the night sky.
2. Check the Forecast – But Be Flexible
As with any natural phenomenon, we try to predict the aurora australis but flexibility is the order of the day. The Aurora Service has current estimated aurora levels and forecasts. It also provides a paid subscription-based SMS alert service. The Aurora Australis – New Zealand CURRENT ALERTS Facebook group is also excellent as group members post tip-offs on current activity with no other chatter. Their sister page Aurora Australis is great for discussion and several resources. Even given these resources, don’t be discouraged if you don’t see the southern lights on any one night. Give yourself more than one night if possible, to up your chances.
3. Bundle Up
In the winter months when chances are greatest to see the aurora australis, be sure to dress warmly, especially in the heart of winter (June/July). The further south you go in New Zealand in these winter months, the more likely you’ll need to dress to combat temperatures as cold as 32ºF/0ºC.
4. Be Patient
Similar to observing wildlife or other natural experiences, there are no guarantees of seeing the southern lights in New Zealand – or what the show will be if you do see them. You may have to wait several hours or even days if the predictions are a bit off. Trust us – it’s worth the wait if you can afford it in your itinerary.
5. Experience Awe
If you follow these tips, are at the right location (see a list of recommended places below), and the conditions are right for aurora, the only thing left to do is be awe-inspired. The aurora australis in New Zealand can range in colors from white to red to green to purple and can dance across the sky for hours on a great night.
Popular Tours & Day Trips to See the Southern Lights
While there are no multi-day aurora and/or stargazing tours that we were able to find, here are a couple tours worth checking out if you’re traveling in New Zealand:
- Earth & Sky offers a great stargazing and observatory tour at Tekapo/Mt. John Observatory. Prices start from $93 per person. (book here)
- Tekapo Stargazing combines stargazing with hot springs so that even in the dead of winter, you can enjoy the night sky. Prices start from NZD $99 ($70). (book here)
Both of these tours take place within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, so they offer the darkest skies you can find in New Zealand.
If you’re not up for a tour, you could also book a night or two at Skyscape or PurePods. Both of these accommodations are designed to maximize your chances to enjoy the night sky and possibly see aurora if it’s visible!
How to Photograph Aurora in New Zealand
In the age of Instagram, you may want to take photographs of the aurora in New Zealand when you see them. To improve your chances of getting a great picture, you need the right camera and gear plus the right settings to capture the color and details. Here are some quick tips:
- You definitely need a camera that allows for manual settings. You’ll also need a tripod and a remote. The reason for this is you’ll need to be able to control specific settings on your camera, plus have your camera stable to capture the aurora clearly and crisply.
- Keep your shutter speed short. If you keep the shutter open longer than 15 seconds, you’ll start to notice star trails (which admittedly look cool) but can distract from the aurora in your pics!
- Set your F-stop “low” (3.0-5.0) This helps your camera capture more light. Also, keep your ISO no higher than 1600. If you go beyond this, you’ll end up with ‘noise’ in your photos and they might not look crisp.
- Don’t forget an extra battery (or two!). When shooting in cold weather and with long exposures, your battery will run down faster than expected.
- Once you’re set up, be prepared to be patient and keep shooting. Once the aurora light up, you’ll have a chance to shoot some amazing dancing lights in the sky.
Ander is a Seattle-based space and tech enthusiast who is a Product Manager by day at one of the biggest tech companies in the world. By night, he enjoys stargazing and sampling Seattle’s nightlife scene.
Featured image by Paul Stewart via Flickr.