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 retaining the quality of the skies. New Zealand is home to the world’s largest Dark Sky Reserve, the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. In addition, New Zealand’s third-largest island is recognised as the Stewart Island/Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary.
This article will tell you more about what exactly is a Dark Sky Reserve and Sanctuary, as well as giving you more information on how to make the most of your stargazing experience while visiting the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve and Stewart Island/Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary.
For more areas well worth visiting for their dark skies, check out the 5 Stargazing Sites in New Zealand.
5 Tips for Better Stargazing
- Get away from any towns where there may be light pollution
- Avoid using torches, phones or cameras that produce white light
- Use a red torch if needed
- Allow 20 minutes after seeing artificial white light for your eyes to adjust
- Stargaze in the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve or Stewart Island/Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary on a clear night!
Get more tips from The Best Time to See the Milky Way in New Zealand.
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.
There are more than 40 Dark Sky Preserves, Reserves, Parks and Sanctuaries around the world. Although there are different terms used for these “Dark Sky Places”, the New Zealand one was given the title of Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve 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 received the status as a “Sanctuary” because its remote location means that it faces very few threats to the quality of its dark skies. Therefore, the “Sanctuary” status is given to increase awareness of the fragility of the site and promote long-term conservation.
The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve
New Zealand holds the world’s largest dark sky reserve, the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. The 4,300km² (1,660mi²) 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 Only Dark Sky Reserve in the Southern Hemisphere
The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve is the only Dark Sky Reserve in the Southern Hemisphere, thus the only reserve where you can see the Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies to the Milky Way, all year round. What’s more, it is possible to see the Aurora Australis, a.k.a the Southern Lights, from this reserve. Check out The Best Times and Locations to See the Southern Lights in New Zealand.
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.
The Stewart Island/Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary
Stewart Island, known in te reo Maori as Rakiura, is the latest addition to New Zealand’s “International Dark Sky” areas. The island, some 30km (19 miles) 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.
New Zealand’s Dark Sky Sanctuary
Much like the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, the constellations seen from Stewart Island include the Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies and the Milky Way all year round. Learn more about the stars you’ll see in our guide on What to Look for When Watching the Stars in New Zealand. In addition, with the island’s southern position, Stewart Island is a better location to catch the sights of Aurora Australis.
How Can You Experience a Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand?
It might seem obvious, but spend a few nights in the Mackenzie Basin or Stewart Island and look up! If you are staying in Twizel, Mt Cook Village, Tekapo or Oban, 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 the Mackenzie Basin or Stewart Island 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.
Stargazing Tours in New Zealand
To hit the best stargazing spots and make use of the state-of-the-art equipment, take a stargazing tour to get the best from your stargazing experience in the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve.
Earth and Sky 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. Alternatively, Tekapo Hot Springs combines a stargazing and hot pools experience. Find out more on Viator and Tripadvisor or check out 10 Unmissable Things to Do in Lake Tekapo.
In Twizel, Stargazing Tours provide 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 8 Fun Things to Do in Twizel.
Mt Cook Village
The Hillary Alpine Centre and Planetarium in 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 Complete Guide to Mt Cook.
While there are no stargazing tours on Stewart Island, some of the best stargazing spots include the Lee Bay car park, Moturau Moana Gardens, Observation Rock and Ackers Point Lighthouse. Locations along the island’s hiking trails also provide exceptional stargazing, such as Horseshoe Bay Beach, Butterfield Beach, Mill Creek/Bathing Beach and Deep Bay. Learn more about Stewart Island’s walks in our Rakiura National Park – Guide for Backpackers.
More About Stargazing in New Zealand
If you can’t get enough of the night’s sky, check out these articles: