Chasing the Aurora in Wanaka, New Zealand

aurora new zealand

In 5 years of blogging, this has to be the fastest turn around time for a post for me, ever. If that doesn’t give you any indication of how excited I am to share this with you guys, I don’t know what will!

So I knew since moving to New Zealand over a year ago that sometimes you could see the Southern Lights, the Aurora Australis, usually only on the very bottom of the South Island. I was raised on stories of the beauty of the Northern Lights dancing over the far north skies in books like the Golden Compass since I was a kid. I’ve always dreamed about seeing them but haven’t really had the chance. Yet.

While I am still dreaming about the north, it slipped my mind that you can actually see them right here in New Zealand and in Australia too. My friend Matt Glastonbury has been teasing me with his epic aurora photos and videos on Instagram for over a year now! One day I would see them!

aurora new zealand

Wanaka is some 3 hours north of Southland and the bottom of the South Island where it’s usually visible so I didn’t hold my breath that I’d easily get the chance to see it, that is, until last night. Since you can only really see the Northern Lights in winter, I assumed it was the same for New Zealand. It’s actually just the tail end of summer now, but it’s not true, you can see them all year round here.

Here and there photographers would pass through Wanaka and sometimes their night photos would have a twinge of pink to them because of an aurora far away, but it was never enough to motivate me to get out of bed for. Lazy to the max!

aurora new zealand

Then last night as I was pulling on my pajamas and dreaming about my book when my Facebook started to explode with photos of the Southern Lights right here in New Zealand. Ok, this I had to see.

I’m a member of a couple of Facebook groups for the Aurora Australis and most of the time I had zero idea what anyone was talking about regarding solar flares, forecasts, magnetic poles and particles. I mean, I am a total nerd too, but not a scientific one.

Everyone was going berserk around 10pm last night which was an indication I needed to give it a shot! So glad I didn’t go out to the bars for St. Patrick’s Day which was my original plan!

aurora new zealand

Photo cred – Paul le Comte

Unfortunately, I had no idea how to shoot the aurora or where to start, so after quickly downloading a compass to figure out which way was south (assuming the Aurora Australis comes from the south), I bundled up and headed down to my go-to swim spot by the lake at Eely Point, dragging my friend Mickey with me.

Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out glowing lights in the distance over the town and Roy’s Peak. It almost looked like the glow of a big city on the other side of the ridgeline.

Except there is nothing over there except more mountains. It was a little bit green.

aurora new zealand

Setting up my fancy new Vanguard tripod, I took a total shot in the dark with the camera settings (I think I used 15 seconds, ISO 1000 and f2.8) and clicked.

When the first photo popped up on my screen, I literally sucked in a huge breath of air and yelled into the darkness HOLY SHIT!

Pinks, yellows, greens and purples and bright red all over the sky! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! It was a veritable nighttime rainbow!

aurora new zealand

Nearly knocking my tripod over in my excitement, I couldn’t stop taking photos for about 10 minutes, just rotating left and right, not even trying to change anything or make some artful composition!

I was as giddy as a kid!

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited to take photos, except maybe for the baby elephants in Sri Lanka last year.

aurora new zealand

aurora new zealand

As I stood there watching the lights of Wanaka twinkle across the lake, the aurora seemed to grow stronger and stronger. I could see beams of light shooting straight up from behind the town and surrounding mountains, and the horizon glowed green as if the had just set.

I couldn’t help but wonder what people thought of the lights hundreds of years ago before there was Wikipedia, Facebook and aurora forecasting to explain and track it all. It seemed magical to me now, who knows what they would have believed back then.

I couldn’t believe how fast everything began to change and where the colors moved to and fro every few seconds, the Southern Lights really were dancing!

aurora new zealand

After a little while, I turned my camera off and tried to just focus on the beauty of the sky. The Milky Way was rising over the other side of the lake towards my favorite mountains in Mt. Aspiring National Park.

I am always blown away by the beauty of the night in New Zealand. Growing up on the urban east coast of the US, I didn’t get to see and experience the clear skies free of light pollution until I moved to New Zealand.

The stars are so bright here it is almost as if you could reach out and touch them, and I don’t think I will ever take for granted the fact that I can see the Milky Way on a cloudless night from my backyard.

aurora new zealand

Soon the green tinge over the town started to dim but more beams began to shoot up like a sword in the other direction.

Turning my camera that way, I started to pick up bright, blood red beams of light towards Treble Cone. It was extraordinary. And after a few minutes, short parallel green lines broke through the red across the sky.

New Zealand was putting on a show!

aurora new zealand

Finally things started to calm down and my euphoria began to wane as I lost all feeling in my fingers and toes. Winter is coming in New Zealand.

Packing up my stuff I headed home and couldn’t sleep all night because I was so excited with what I had just seen. It was like Christmas times a million!

As if I couldn’t love New Zealand and Wanaka even more, then this happens. As it turns out it was a severe solar storm and getting to see the lights like this is extremely rare. I feel so fortunate I was at the right place right time to witness it!

aurora new zealand

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129 Comments on “Chasing the Aurora in Wanaka, New Zealand

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  1. Seriously Liz, I think this is one of your best posts ever. The pictures are INCREDIBLE and I am so jealous that you got to see this. Absolutely gorgeous. What a totally impromptu but awesome experience for you!

  2. I just loved the photos! So impressive. I feel a little dumb because this is the first time I get the difference between the Northern Lights and the Aurora Australis. Oh well, thanks for teaching me something today!

  3. Wow! Just wow! I’d only heard about the Aurora Australis a few years ago, despite growing up in Auckland! Like most people, I’ve only ever been focused on seeing them in Iceland (haven’t got there yet, but one day!) I swear, when I’m finally back home, I’m going to make it my mission to see them in the south.

    These photos are amazing! What an amazing experience and such a cool story! Thank you so much for sharing them with us 🙂

  4. I got all goose-bumply reading that! Despite having grown up in Christchurch, I never even knew until a couple of years ago about the Aurora Australis. I briefly saw the Northern Lights on an Alaskan Cruise in 2013 but nothing like this! What an incredible experience for you!

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