blog image April 6, 2020

in search of the aurora

South of New Zealand’s South Island is the beautiful town of Stewart Island. 20 minutes by a charter flight from the Invercargil airport, this town is quite an unknown gem for most tourists. Being in the far south, the island is brilliantly located geographically for the Southern Lights or the Aurora Australis.


A few years ago, I spent 3 weeks in New Zealand traveling around mostly in the South Island visiting Christchurch, Kaikoura, Invercargil and Bluff, Te Anau, Fiordland National Park, Queenstown and the town of Stewart Island which is South of New Zealand’s South Island. The sheer untouched beauty of the country can be best explored in a road trip. Unfortunately I wasn’t old enough to rent a car (was just 19, had to be 21) and ended up flying and taking buses around. Kaikoura was great for marine life and snorkelling with Dolphins was fantastic. Christchurch was just ravaged by earthquakes and the city was looking to rebuild itself. Then we reached Stewart Island!

Hoping a small 4 seater plane, we flew out of the Invercargil airport and in about 20-25 minutes, landed at the airstrip in Stewart Island. The Stewart Island Lodge on a hillock had great views of the wharf. Restaurants would be bustling with residents in the evening where people socialised over a glass of beer. One of the restaurants were nice enough to drop us back at the lodge everyday after dinner. It indeed wasn’t a good idea to climb a hill after a meal.



Stewart Island is a birder’s paradise in New Zealand. Home to the famous Kaka, a parrot, noisy as they are, the birds aren’t the easiest to see in the open. After half a day of looking for them and another couple of hours of waiting with my guide, we finally found the Parrot. They’re a real beauty.



The pelagic birds off Stewart Island’s coast is rich in diversity. Albatrosses, Gulls, Penguins and even Seals. I was on a fishing boat when the boatmen began fillet the day’s catch and started disposing the waste into the sea. Flocks of Salvin’s Albatross swarmed around the boat. I was hanging out of the boat with my camera lowered to water level. With multiple attempts and images being of wrong exposure or out of focus, I just managed this frame. These birds are extremely inquisitive and come as close as 2-3 feet. I shot this image with a 16-35mm lens.



With nightfall, birding doesn’t stop. An hour long boat trip and we arrived at an island. Walked for another hour before we reached beach long the Antarctic Ocean. There was the occasional seal lounging on the beach. Taking precautions, we avoided them and continued our search for what New Zealand is very famous for – The Kiwi. Torch lights aren’t used and instead, red lights are used. Hence I converted to a black and white image. ISOs soar above 8000 and still shutter speeds are at 1/10th of a second. A monopod and several attempts helped get a sharp image. These birds are also constantly foraging around and getting them to be still for even a short while is tough.



And after hunting for Kiwis, the search for the Aurora began. Standing at a high point, and overlooking the paterson’s inlet, there were hues of Orange. But I can’t for sure say that it was the Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights. We waited until 3:00 am but still no luck with the Lights. One of the three nights were cloudy and the other night had no activity. Well, I could say that my camera captured the orangish/pink tint. But it wasn’t visible to the naked eye. But the whole night was exciting, but quite tiring to hike around.

Stewart Island is a beautiful place and well worth visiting when in New Zealand. I hoped back on a Jetty to the port of Bluff before we boarded a bus further to the town of Te Anau and further proceeded to the Fiordland National Park’s Doubtful nouns the following day. Our last stop was in Queenstown the world’s adventure capital. I had an adrenaline rushing experience jumping of a peak with a hang glider and then returned home in India via Auckland, Kuala Lumpur and Chennai.


Author: Gaurav Ramnarayanan