Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand: A Complete Guide šŸ”­šŸŒŸ© Unsplash
Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand: A Complete Guide šŸ”­šŸŒŸ

Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand: A Complete Guide šŸ”­šŸŒŸ

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Article Single Pages© NZPocketGuide.com
Article Single Pages© NZPocketGuide.com
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A Guide to Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand

When you read or hear about New Zealand having a “Dark Sky Reserve” why should you care? Well, dark skies at night make for exceptional stargazing. Dark skies are usually found in places with less light pollution. So, an area in an International Dark Sky Reserve restricts the amount of artificial light pollution which retains the quality of the skies. Most famously, New Zealand is home to one of the world’s largest Dark Sky Reserves, the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve but that’s not all! Most are surprised to find that there are five Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand, including the world’s first island Dark Sky Sanctuary.

This guide will tell you more about what exactly is a Dark Sky Reserve and Sanctuary, as well as give you more information on how to make the most of your stargazing experience while visiting New Zealand’s Dark Sky Reserves.

The List of Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand

What are the Dark Sky Reserves and Sanctuaries in New Zealand? Here’s a quick list for easy reference:

  1. Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve – Location: Canterbury, South Island – Established: 2012 – Area: 4,367 kmĀ² (1,686 miĀ²)
  2. Aotea Great Barrier Island Dark Sky Sanctuary – Location: Auckland, North Island – Established: 2017 – Area: 285 kmĀ² (110 miĀ²)
  3. Stewart Island / Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary – Location: Southland, South Island – Established: 2019 – Area: 1,746 kmĀ² (674 miĀ²)
  4. Wai-Iti Dark Sky Park – Location: Nelson Tasman, South Island – Established: 2020 – Area: 1.35 kmĀ² (0.5 miĀ²)
  5. Wairarapa Dark Sky Reserve – Location: Wairarapa, North Island – Established: 2023 – Area: 3,665 kmĀ² (1,415 miĀ²).

Needless to say, these are some of the best places for stargazing, along with the 15 Best Places & Tours for Stargazing in New Zealand!

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What is the International Dark-Sky Association?

The International Dark-Sky Association is a non-profit organisation established in 1988. Their aim is to “preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting”. In order to do this, they have worked with governments across the globe to create Dark Sky Preserves which restrict and manage the use of artificial light in a designated area.

Dark Sky Reserve Vs. Dark Sky Sanctuary Vs. Dark Sky Park

There are more than 200 Dark Sky Preserves, Reserves, Parks and Sanctuaries around the world. Although there are different terms used for these “Dark Sky Places”, the titles of Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve and Wairarapa Dark Sky Reserve were given because reserves consist of a dark core zone with a populated outer area where policy controls are in place to protect the core’s darkness.

Stewart Island and Great Barrier Island received the status of a “Sanctuary” because their remote locations mean they face very few threats to the quality of their dark skies. Therefore, the “Sanctuary” status is given to increase awareness of the fragility of the site and promote long-term conservation.

Finally, the Wai-Iti Dark Sky Park was named, as it fits the criteria of a “Dark Sky Park” which is a publicly owned conservation area which implements good outdoor lighting and promotes dark sky programs.

What is a Dark Sky Reserve?© Unsplash

The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve

New Zealand holds one of the world’s largest dark sky reserves, the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. The 4,367 kmĀ² (1,686 miĀ²) area is inside the Mackenzie Basin of the South Island, which encapsulates Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and the villages of Tekapo, Twizel and Mt Cook.

The Mackenzie Basin is almost free of light pollution thanks to a lighting ordinance in the Mackenzie District Plan where lighting controls have been put in place throughout most of the reserve since 1981. It was one of the first places in the Southern Hemisphere to enforce such a plan. This, and the night’s skies’ significance in the region’s history of the early Maori who used the stars for navigation and daily routines, are what made Aoraki and the Mackenzie region eligible to become a Dark Sky Reserve.

Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand: A Complete Guide šŸ”­šŸŒŸ© ATEED

The Aotea Great Barrier Island Dark Sky Sanctuary

Located approximately 100 km (62 mi) northeast of Auckland city, Great Barrier Island, known as Aotea in te reo Maori, offers incredible stargazing from its isolated location away from the mainland. Although the sixth-largest island in New Zealand and inhabiting around 1,000 residents, Great Barrier Island benefits from both minimal development pressure and 60% of its land managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

What is a Dark Sky Reserve?© NZPocketGuide.com

The Stewart Island/Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary

Stewart Island, known in te reo Maori as Rakiura, was New Zealand’s second “Dark Sky Sanctuary”. The island, some 30 km (19 mi) off the southern coast of the South Island, is home to the small village of Oban, while around 80% of the land is protected by the Department of Conservation as the Rakiura National Park. With that, Stewart Island is almost free from light pollution making the exceptionally dark skies a wonderful sight.

Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand: A Complete Guide šŸ”­šŸŒŸ© NZPocketGuide.com

The Wai-Iti Dark Sky Park

New Zealand’s only Dark Sky Park, the Wai-Iti Dark Sky Park covers the Wai-Iti Recreational Reserve and Turncliff Forest in the Nelson Tasman region just south of Wakefield. Local community groups, such as The Top of the South Dark Sky Committee, help arrange astronomy events and star parties at the park to educate locals on the importance of preserving the dark skies of the area.

Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand: A Complete Guide šŸ”­šŸŒŸ© Unsplash

The Wairarapa Dark Sky Reserve

The new kid on the “Dark Sky” block, the Wairarapa Dark Sky Reserve is the only reserve of its kind on the North Island, encapsulating 3,665 kmĀ² (1,415 miĀ²) of the South Wairarapa and Carterton districts in the Wellington region. Local councils regulate outdoor lighting across several districts of the Wairarapa Valley, as well as ensure reserve and street lighting are compliant with regional plans.

What is a Dark Sky Reserve?© Unsplash

How Can You Experience a Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand?

It might seem obvious, but you can experience a Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand by spending a few nights and looking up! If you are staying in Twizel, Mt Cook Village, Tekapo, Oban, Martinborough, Greytown or Carterron, drive/walk a little out of town away from street lights to maximise your ability to see the stars.

A Few Tips to Get the Best Stargazing Experience in New Zealand

A clear night with no cloud cover is essential to make the most of the Southern Hemisphere stars. Because New Zealand’s weather is ever-changing, consider spending more than just one night in one of New Zealand’s Dark Sky Reserves to maximise your chances of catching a clear night.

Avoid white light. Once your eyes have been exposed to white light (for instance, the light on your phone) it takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness and to be able to see the stars in their full glory. Red lights are a good alternative if you need to use light, as they don’t affect your eyes in the same way.

For more tips on the best time for stargazing, as well as for taking photos, take a look at The Best Time to See the Milky Way in New Zealand!

What to See From a New Zealand Dark Sky Reserve

As Dark Sky Reserves in the Southern Hemisphere, any of New Zealand’s Dark Sky Places are some of the best places to see the Magellanic Clouds and satellite galaxies to the Milky Way, all year round – see The Best Time to See the Milky Way in New Zealand.

What’s more, it is possible to see the Aurora Australis, a.k.a the Southern Lights, from these reserves – check out The Best Times and Locations to See the Southern Lights in New Zealand to learn more.

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Stargazing Tours in New Zealand

To hit the best stargazing spots and make use of state-of-the-art equipment, take a stargazing tour to get the best from your stargazing experience in a New Zealand Dark Sky Reserve.

Lake Tekapo

Dark Sky Project in Lake Tekapo run day and night tours to the Mt John Observatory. Take a tour at night to get a hands-on experience of using telescopes. If you have a camera with manual settings, their astrophotographer will even get you some photos. For an affordable small-group tour, check out Chameleon Stargazing. Check out the 15 Best Places & Tours for Stargazing in New Zealand and 10 Best Things to Do in Lake Tekapo for more ideas.

Twizel

In Twizel, Alpha Crux provides more intimate tours taking you to some of the best stargazing sites in the area with an experienced guide. Admire the stars with your own eyes and powerful binoculars. See more activities in the area in the 10 Best Things to Do in Twizel.

Aoraki Mt Cook Village

The Hillary Alpine Centre and Planetarium in Aoraki Mt Cook Village also run tours with Big Sky Stargazing. After a presentation in the planetarium, go to a top stargazing spot with powerful telescope equipment and learn about the constellations seen in the Southern Hemisphere. For more information, check out the 20 Best Things to Do in Aoraki Mt Cook.

Rakiura Stewart Island

Stargazing is good just about anywhere on Stewart Island when the sky is clear, but tours with Twinkle Dark Sky Tours allow you to get more from the experience through powerful telescopes, cosy camp chairs and infectious passion and enthusiasm from your guides. Find out more about the island in the 20 Best Things to Do on Stewart Island. Plus, Stewart Island is also one of the 5 Best Places to See the Southern Lights in New Zealand.

Aotea Great Barrier Island

With a multitude of multi-day hiking trails and places to camp, there’s no lack of opportunities to stargaze on Great Barrier Island. For an enhanced experience, join either the Social Nature Movement or Good Heavens for an educative experience with your guide using a powerful laser pointer to tell the story of the stars. Learn more about the island in Great Barrier Island – Guide for Backpackers.

Wairarapa

Most of the Wairarapa Dark Sky Reserve is easily accessible for stargazing, but the more adventurous will find that hiking or mountain biking the Aorarangi Forest Park will provide the best results. Additionally, visit Stonehenge Aotearoa in Ahiaruhe, which was constructed to mimic ancient stargazing techniques. The tour teaches about Egyptian, Babylonian and Indus Valley, Celtic, Polynesian and Maori starlore on this unique stargazing tour in New Zealand.

For more stargazing tours across the country, don’t miss the 15 Best Places & Tours for Stargazing in New Zealand!

Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand: A Complete Guide šŸ”­šŸŒŸ© Unsplash

Frequently Asked Questions About Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand

Still haven’t had your question about the Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand answered yet? Perhaps these frequently asked questions about the Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand will help!

Where in New Zealand is the largest Dark Sky Reserve?

The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, located in the Mackenzie Basin of the South Island, holds the title of the largest dark sky reserve in New Zealand. This reserve is renowned for its exceptionally dark skies, minimal light pollution, and stunning night-time vistas, making it an ideal spot for stargazing and astronomical observation.

Can you see the Milky Way from New Zealand?

Yes, you can see the Milky Way from New Zealand, especially from the dark sky reserves where light pollution is significantly reduced. The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, as well as other designated dark sky areas like the Wai-Iti Dark Sky Park and the Stewart Island/Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary, offer some of the best views of the Milky Way in the Southern Hemisphere. The clarity and detail of the Milky Way seen from these locations can be truly breathtaking, especially during the winter months. For more on the subject, see The Best Time to See the Milky Way in New Zealand.

What other Dark Sky Reserves are there in New Zealand?

Apart from the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand is home to several other recognised dark sky areas, including:

  • The Stewart Island/Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary is known for its untouched landscapes and pristine night skies.
  • The Wai-Iti Dark Sky Park offers vast expanses of dark skies in the Nelson-Tasman region.
  • The Great Barrier Island (Aotea) Dark Sky Sanctuary, located off the coast of Auckland, provides secluded and unspoiled stargazing opportunities.
  • The Wairarapa Dark Sky Reserve offers the North Island’s only mainland Dark Sky Place.

How can I visit these Dark Sky Reserves?

Visiting these dark sky reserves typically involves travelling to the respective regions where they are located. For the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, visitors can base themselves in towns like Tekapo, Twizel or Mt Cook Village. Guided stargazing tours are available, offering telescopic views of celestial objects. For the island sanctuaries like Stewart Island/Rakiura and Great Barrier Island, flights or ferries from mainland New Zealand are necessary. Accommodation options range from camping and backpackers to luxury lodges, catering to a wide range of preferences and budgets.

What is the best time of year to visit these Dark Sky Reserves?

The best time to visit New Zealand’s dark sky reserves for stargazing is during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months, from May to September. During this period, the nights are longer, and the skies are clearer, offering optimal conditions for viewing the Milky Way and other astronomical phenomena. However, these reserves offer unique stargazing experiences year-round, with various celestial highlights visible in different seasons.

Are there any tips for first-time visitors to Dark Sky Reserves?

First-time visitors to Dark Sky Reserves should consider the following tips to enhance their stargazing experience:

  • Check the lunar calendar and plan your visit during a new moon for the darkest skies
  • Dress warmly, especially during the winter months, as temperatures can drop significantly at night
  • Bring a red-light flashlight to navigate in the dark without affecting your night vision
  • Consider bringing binoculars or a telescope for a closer view of celestial objects, although many guided tours provide telescopes
  • Allow time for your eyes to adjust to the dark (about 30 minutes) to see the night sky in more detail.

More About Dark Skies in New Zealand

If you can’t get enough of the night sky, check out these guides:

Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in The Best Travel Guide to New Zealand and 101 Things to Do in New Zealand: The Ultimate List.

Sources:

The information in this guide has been compiled from our extensive research, travel and experiences across New Zealand and the South Pacific, accumulated over more than a decade of numerous visits to each destination. Additional sources for this guide include the following:

Our editorial standards: At NZ Pocket Guide, we uphold strict editorial standards to ensure accurate and quality content.

About The Author

Robin C.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Robin, who is the co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. With more than 15 years of experience in the New Zealand tourism industry, Robin has co-founded three influential tourism businesses and five additional travel guides for South Pacific nations. He is an expert in New Zealand travel and has tested over 600 activities and 300+ accommodations across the country.

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