Ephemeral curtains of light dance across the midnight sky. The corrugated beams silently radiate, piercing the stillness of night with their brilliance. The aurora might be the most captivating natural phenomena on planet earth. The spellbinding display occurs when charged solar particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen gas dispersed throughout the upper atmosphere.
These specific circumstances are actually quite common in so-called "auroral" zones. Unfortunately for most would-be witnesses, those areas exist as narrow bands encircling the earth’s poles. Not your average vacationland.
And so the sorcery of the scene is rivaled only by its elusiveness. Still, notching the northern lights off your bucket list is child’s play compared to catching their southern counterparts: aurora australis. This is just simple math. Less than a third of all land on earth is located below the equator. So it’s not as though the Southern Lights are that much more scarce—you just lack solid ground upon which to spot them.
But when the stars—or stardust—align just right, you’ll be rewarded with a kaboom of color beyond compare. Atmospheric conditions down under encourage a smattering of violet, orange, and pinkish-red hues to accompany the basic green most commonly associated with the northern rendition.
You’ll need to have luck on your side, of course. Thankfully, fortune favors the bold, and the bold are properly prepared. That means timing your trip just right, ideally between April and October (colder, darker months in the Southern Hemisphere). Then set your course to one of the following far flung destinations. Keep your head held high and your fingers crossed. Mother Nature will take care of the rest.
Invercargill, New Zealand
The southernmost city on the South Island of New Zealand is a relatively accessible auroral viewpoint. Hour-long flights land here daily from the international hub of Christchurch airport. Once you arrive you’ll find a welcoming town of some 54,000 Kiwis. There’s plenty of boutique accommodations in which to stay, and craft brews to sip on throughout the day. Though when nighttime approaches you’ll want to head a few miles outside of town to avoid the ambient light. Drive down to a small coastal suburb known as Bluff and set your sights on the winter sky. Thankfully, even between May and September—prime aurora season—the temperature rarely dips below freezing.
Nicknamed ‘The End Of The World’, this bustling port town prides itself on its southerly position. Which also marks it as ideal for catching a glimpse of the lights—in theory. Unfortunately, Ushuaia’s damp maritime climate keeps it covered in clouds for many nights of the year. So you’ll have to count on the weather cooperating. As an upside, this is the usual port of call for cruises around Cape Horn, as well as to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas, to the locals) and Antarctica. That’s a trio of destinations any intrepid adventurer is eager to cross of her or his list.
Puerto Williams, Chile
With apologies to the last entry on our list, Puerto Williams—along the southern shore of the Strait of Magellan—technically takes the crown for ‘world’s southernmost city.’ It officially earned the title in 2019 after growing to robust size of 2,000 residents. That was enough for the Chilean government to upgrade its status from rural to urban. In reality, of course, it’s nothing of the sort. But it does have an airport, clearer winter skies than neighboring Ushuaia—and a lot less light pollution. Ingredients that add up to a solid Southern Lights candidate. Particularly between May and August.
Cockle Creek, Australia
The southernmost destination in Australia (are you sensing a pattern yet?) you can reach by road is a small beach alongside the turquoise waters of Recherche Bay. It’s about a two hours drive south of the Tasmanian capital of Hobart. Come here by day to soak in the surf and perhaps spy some southern right whales, endemic to the region. In the evening, watch the pastel sky slowly dim to darkness…And be patient. Aurora australis has been observed here all throughout the calendar year; in all times of night. But your best bet is around midnight on a typically clear night between June and August. Stay for your several nights and your chances increase exponentially. So post up for a night or two, 30 minutes up highway C636 in the charming seaside hamlet of Ida Bay.
South Pole, Antarctica
If you’re willing to go the extra mile—and spend many thousands of extra dollars—there’s no sense in beating around the bush. It’s time to head to the actual southernmost point on the planet. For the stately sum of $55,000 per person (and up), Steppes Travel will fly you from the southern tip of Chile directly to the heart of Antarctica. There you’ll stay for four days at the Amundsen-Scott Research Station. For nearly twice that amount, ultra premium outfitters like Red Savannah and White Desert will jet you there on a private Gulf Stream direct from Cape Town, South Africa. But because these sorts of excursions are typically only offered between October and March, you’ll have to eye the shoulder seasons as your aurora opportunity. From approximately October 9th until March 4th, the sun never fully sets south of the Antarctic circle. And without darkness there can be no (southern) light.