Dark sky adventures in New Zealand
When the sun goes down, one of New Zealand’s greatest attractions reveals itself.
With three regions under dark sky protection, and a smaller dark sky park just announced, New Zealand’s share of protected dark skies is expanding.
Stars, placed in the sky by the god Tāne, guided ancient Māori navigators across the Pacific Ocean to their new home in Aotearoa New Zealand. Since then, they have played a pivotal role in Māori life.
Today star-gazers rate New Zealand's night skies among the best in the world. Similar in size to the United Kingdom but with a population of only 5 million, New Zealand's light pollution is minimal and allows magnificent views of the southern hemisphere sky.
Internationally truly dark skies are now a rarity. According to a 2016 scientific study, more than 80% of people worldwide live under light-polluted skies. The glorious Milky Way galaxy, for example, is hidden to one-third of humanity, including 60% of Europeans and nearly 80% of North Americans.
Incredibly, the same study found that this galaxy which stretches over the night sky is visible from an impressive 96.5% of New Zealand.
While many New Zealanders take the stunning night skies for granted, a growing number of regions have set out to celebrate and protect their treasured darkness, putting New Zealand on a journey towards becoming a dark sky nation.
Dark Sky places - reserves, sanctuaries and parks
In less than a decade, New Zealand has achieved international recognition for four dark sky places - a gold-rated International Dark Sky Reserve in the Mackenzie Basin on the South Island, two dark sky sanctuaries above Great Barrier Island (near Auckland) and Stewart Island, and a new dark sky park at Wai-iti near Nelson.
The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the US-based organization that monitors and grants the various night sky designations, has strict rules for its sanctuaries, so each reserve, sanctuary or park classification represents a huge community and regional project.
One of the best places to see the Milky Way is the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The area is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve
, the only gold reserve in the southern hemisphere, and one of only a handful in the world.
It’s almost 40 years since the district recognised the value of its extraordinary night sky and started to minimise light pollution on the streets and in public places. Takapō town on the edge of Lake Tekapo is now a world-renowned stargazing centre with a range of visitor experiences from guided tours of the galaxies to soaking in hot pools or sleeping under the stars.
Great Barrier Island, located in the outer Hauraki Gulf, 100 kilometres north-east of central Auckland became a Dark Sky Sanctuary - a status reserved for the most isolated, and dark locations in the world - in 2017. The little island had no problems qualifying as it is completely off grid and relies mostly on solar power. There are also no traffic lights, supermarkets or ATMs. Around 20 Dark Sky Ambassadors on the island are now qualified to guide others in stargazing.
After Great Barrier Island’s success, Stewart Island, off the bottom of the South Island, followed suit. In addition to the chance of spotting a kiwi while gazing at the stars, Stewart Island has another fabulous draw card because this southern location has the world’s best views of the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights).
Stewart Island’s Māori name ‘Rakiura’ already tells of its special relationship with the night sky. The name translates as ‘the great and deep blushing of Te Rakitamau’ an early Māori chief, seen today as the glowing sunrises, sunsets and the Aurora Australis.
And, the story continues. Just this month (July 2020), a group of Nelson astronomy enthusiasts received advice that the Wai-iti Recreation Reserve - in the hills near the northwestern South Island town - has been declared as New Zealand’s first Dark Sky Park, a classification reserved for smaller areas.
Other regions such as the South Island city of Dunedin and small wine village of Martinborough in the Wairarapa, near Wellington, are also working on dark sky initiatives.
Experience: Good Heavens, Great Barrier Island
Great Barrier Island is truly off-grid and, with little light pollution, the stargazing is out of this world. To fully appreciate the wonders of the universe, book a night sky adventure with Good Heavens. Using a powerful telescope to bring the stars even closer, these beachside experiences are utterly breath-taking.
Experience: Dark Sky Project – Takapō /Lake Tekapo
Take a guided tour of the universe and learn about Māori culture at Ngai Tahu Tourism’s Dark Sky Project on the shores of Takapō /Lake Tekapo and in the heart of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Guides take visitors through a multi-media introduction and exploration of the night sky via hands-on experience of telescopes and astro-photography.
Experience: Tekapo Star Gazing – Takapō /Lake Tekapo
On this New Zealand-only experience, your clients can soak in a private natural hot pool at Tekapo Springs while taking a star gazing tour. Learn about the amazing night skies using telescopes, then explore the stars at leisure soaking up the wonders of the universe from a 38-degree Celsius hot pool.
Experience: Horizon Tours – Dunedin
Discover the beauties of the dark skies of the Otago Peninsula and enjoy Māori manaakitanga on Horizon Tours’ Southern Skies Stargazing Tour. Local guides tell tales of the celestial bodies on these small group tours while your clients are tucked up warmly, under cosy blankets on reclining chairs enjoying an expansive perspective of the heavens above.
Stay: The Lindis, Ahuriri Valley, Southern Alps
New Zealand’s newest luxury lodge The Lindis is discreetly nestled in a conservation park under a dark sky sanctuary. Alongside the outstanding main lodge, guests can choose to sleep under a myriad of stars in a luxurious and private pod-style glass suite. The friendly hospitality is superb with divine food and wine, hiking, horse riding, fishing, gliding and snow sports at hand.
Stay: Skyscape, Twizel
With views that go to infinity, the Skyscape cottage has a glass roof and walls designed for stargazers looking for their own special place. Set in golden tussocks, on a high-country station in the Southern Alps, it’s far enough from any near neighbours but close enough to the town of Twizel. Your clients will enjoy this off-grid accommodation, powered by the sun, that comes with all the home comforts and optional farm experiences.