What is a Dark Sky Reserve?

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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 a 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.

This article will tell you more about what exactly is a Dark Sky Reserve, 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 in New Zealand.

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 on a clear night!
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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 night time 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 and Parks 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 protect the core’s darkness.

What is a Dark Sky Reserve?© Unsplash

The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve

New Zealand holds the world’s largest dark sky reserve, the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. The 4,300sq km 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.

What is a Dark Sky Reserve?© Unsplash

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

It might seem obvious, but spend a few nights in the Mackenzie Basin and look up! If you are staying in Twizel, Mt Cook Village or Tekapo, drive 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 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.

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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.

Lake Tekapo

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. For more information, check out Lake Tekapo – Guide for Backpackers


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.

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 Aoraki Mt Cook National Park – Guide for Backpackers.

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