The Aurora Australis, also known as the "Southern Lights", is an amazing natural occurrence, which delights star gazers in southern New Zealand.
The night sky comes to life as these enchanting lights dance and shimmy their way along the horizon, in a mesmerizing display that leaves many observers almost speechless.
The Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, are caused when electrically charged particles from the sun are trapped by the Earth’s atmosphere.
The resulting light show has to be one of the most memorable natural spectacles on Earth.
But are they as good as the Northern Lights?
The famous Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are well known throughout the world. But according to astronomer, Dr. Ian Griffin, from the Otago University in Dunedin, their Southern cousin is no less spectacular.
Having seen the Southern Lights more than one hundred and fifty times, Dr. Griffin credits New Zealand's southern location and lack of "pollution" from artificial light as major reasons for the clarity of the local display.
And because of the relatively easy access available, Aurora Australis should be on your "to do" list if you are visiting southern New Zealand.
Dr. Griffin is Director of the Otago Museum, home to its own planetarium.
What is the best time to see the Aurora Australis?
The best viewing months are March and September.
June and July are also a good time to see them, and in fact they can be viewed, with varying degrees of success, throughout the year.
But if you want to maximize your chances, plan for March and September.
What time of night is best?
It's recommended that you be ready from around an hour after sunset. However the lights display in varying ways throughout the night, so the longer you stay, the more you are likely to see.
Where are the best viewing spots in New Zealand?
Although the lights can sometimes be seen from Wellington and Auckland on the North Island, the further south that you travel, the better your chances.
So the South Island usually provides a better display, and in particular, the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin, is a prime viewing spot.
Dr. Griffin recommends the Hoopers and Papanui Inlet (about twenty five minutes drive from central Dunedin) as prime viewing spots.
The coastal road south of Brighton,
Tunnel Beach (about ten minutes from the Dunedin CBD), and Sandfly Bay
(twenty minutes drive) are also very good spots.
Is there any difference between viewing the lights with a camera as opposed to viewing them with the naked eye?
Your camera is capable of capturing much more light than your eye, so any photos will contain much more detail than what you can see with the naked eye.
But because this is such an amazing spectacle, remember to take the time to put your camera down, and check out the lights "unassisted".
To allow your eyes time to adjust to the light, make sure that you arrive at your viewing point 20-30 minutes ahead of time.
And if you plan on taking some pictures, it's recommended that you include some water into your shot to capture any reflections on show.
Dark Sky Places
The Aurora Australis is not the only heavenly attraction here in New Zealand.
Because of our perfect viewing conditions, New Zealand has also been accredited as an official home to several Dark Sky places.
Dunedin sits roughly in the middle of two of these (the Mackenzie Basin and Stewart Island), so why not include all three in your South Island star gazing holiday?
You can learn more about these special Dark Sky places here.
Where are Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula?
Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula are located on the south-eastern coast of New Zealand's beautiful South Island - refer to the map below.
How do I get there?
Flights to and from Dunedin airport are available from many of New Zealand's larger cities such as Wellington, Auckland, and Christchurch.
And at the time of writing, direct flights were also available between Dunedin and Brisbane, Australia.
Further information can be found on the Dunedin Airport website here.
The main international airport on the South Island is located in Christchurch. You can find more information at their website here.
Queenstown Airport also hosts flights from several Australian ports. Their website can be viewed here.
Approximate driving times to Dunedin from the major centers are as follows:
Christchurch to Dunedin 3.5 hours 361 kilometers via State Highway 1
Queenstown to Dunedin 3.5 hours 282 kilometers via State Highway 8
Please see our State Highways map for more information.
What else is there to see and do on the Otago Peninsula?
The Otago Peninsula is a nature lover's paradise, and is home to a wide array of wildlife including dolphins, seals, penguins, and many species of rare birds.
Nature tours are very popular and the Dunedin and Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour is one of the most popular. In addition to seeing the sights in Dunedin, the tour takes you to see the yellow eyed penguin, and the royal albatross colony. Highly recommended.
Dunedin is a thriving coastal city of some 125,000 residents, and is home to New Zealand's largest university, the University of Otago.
With a strong Scottish heritage, Dunedin has some wonderful architectural highlights including Larnach Castle and the Dunedin Railway Station.
You can learn more about the region on our dedicated Dunedin and Otago page here.
Or, to search through a range of great activities in the region, click here.
Come and visit the Otago Peninsula
This stunning part of New Zealand won't disappoint, so come and see it for yourself.
And if you have any questions at all please don't hesitate to contact us.