17/Aug/2018
Friday, 17 August 2018

Hunting for the Southern Lights

Hunting for the Southern Lights

"Try it once, and you’ll find it quite addictive”. Australian photographer Lachlan Manley is hooked on the natural world and the auroras boreales. Oh, excuse me, I meant australes. When we speak of auroras, the association we make is almost automatic: auroras boreales, snowy landscapes and winter cabins.

Yet there is no need to travel to Lapland, the Lofoten Archipelago of Norway or Alaska to enjoy the spectacular light show. To the south (very much to the south), nature puts on another ethereal coloured light display that can be enjoyed in Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, the Falkland Islands or the Antarctic. It’s not as well known as its northern equivalent, but its impact is equally hypnotic.

They are unpredictable, but there are ways to track them. The solar climate is what causes them, and so a little knowledge about that is all you need. Lachlan Manley recommends following space weather on SpaceWeatherLive or the NASA website, “although easiest of all is to follow Facebook groups of aurora fans, on Aurora Hunters Victoria or Tasmania”.

The best time of the year to catch the auroras is in winter, which in the Southern Hemisphere is from March to September. It is when there are more hours of darkness, without which it’s impossible to see the flickering lights of the heavens in all their splendour. The best months are usually July and August, but that isn’t always the case. Like their northern counterparts, the southern lights are unpredictable. “Getting a camera shot of the aurora isn’t so difficult”, says Lachlan, “what is difficult is to be there when it is happening”. It isn’t enough to be in the right place (“the further south the better”, she adds) at the right time; condtions too have to be just right, too. Clear, dark skies are needed, with no other light source interfering – and that includes the moon.

The Good Shepherd church in Lake Tekapo township is one of the world’s most privileged spots for the landscape views it has, and occasionally is witness to the aurora.

The further south you are the better. And there’s no place further south than Antarctica. The auroras are caused by solar particles hitting the earths’s magnetic field, and at the poles there is more magnetic activity. Cruises to Antarctica operate out of Ushuaia in Argentina.

All this makes the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, in the south of New Zealand, one of the best places to watch from. It is the largest dark sky reserve in the world, and the first in the southern hemisphere to be certified by the International Dark Sky Association, (IDA). The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and Lake Tekapo are both inside the reserve, along with 23 mountains over 3,000 metres high, among them Mount Cook (or Aoraki in Maori), the highest peak in New Zealand, while the Mount John Observatory, the leading observatory in the country, is to the north of Lake Tekapo township. Another privileged place in New Zealand from which to view the aurora is on Stewart Island, the closest New Zealand gets to the South Pole. Its name in Maori, Rakiura is a good clue: it means “brilliant skies”.

In Australia, too, there are fine places to photograph these pink, green and yellow “brilliant skies”. Lachlan Manley has shots of the aurora taken in Queenscliff, to the south of Melbourne, others captured in Port Philip Heads, also in the state of Victoria. But if asked to recommend just one place, she would opt for Tasmania, a view shared by her fellow photographers Matt Glastonbury and Dietmar Kahles, who are experts on the island. Matt first photographed the southern lights from Mount Wellington, reflected in the river Derwent, while Dietmar took his shots from Strahan, a small coastal town on the west coast. Cradle Mountain, the outskirts of Hobart and the remote Melaleuca are other favoured spots he recommends. Above all, the key is to find a dark place, face south – preferably at the top of a mountain or facing the ocean – and wait for the magic to happen.

Source: Passenger 6A UK.

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