The Mackenzie Country is one of the special places left where you can still see the night sky and its dazzling starlight and, from the top of Mt. John, I have a 360º view of the big skies of the McKenzie Basin and its carved-by-ancient-glaciers landscape.
Fed by the glacial waters of New Zealands Southern Alps, below me is the 30-kilometre long Lake Tekapo with its remarkable turquoise colour – caused by the refraction of light through the finely ground rock particles of the melt waters.
Through-out the world stars are disappearing under the haze of light pollution and locally, a group called the Starlight Reserve project are pushing to preserve this view and gain UNESCO world heritage status for a ‘National Park’ in the Mackenzie Country sky.
Graeme Murray of Earth and Sky tells me “The local council are leading New Zealand and many parts of the world and have special ordinances about the use of lighting and light pollution. All Lake Tekapo lights must be beamed downwards and no spillage is allowed. It recognised the dark sky as a valuable resource to protect and value and to also encourage the responsible use of energy.”
At the international convention on the Dark Sky in Spain last year, Starlight’s proposal received total endorsement and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) nominated Mt. John and the Lake Tekapo area as the pilot study for the first ever “World Heritage Starlight Reserve”
They are hopeful this protection and status will be formally announced during January – in Paris, during the International Year of Astronomy 2009 that marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first astronomical observation through a telescope in 1609. (SEE THE LATEST NEWS RE THIS – November 2009 here)
Because if its latitude, astro-tourism or stargazing from the summit of Mt. John (a ‘roche moutonnee’ a braided rock mass formed by old glaciers) is considered the best in the country and seduces and captivates locals and tourist alike.
A daytime tour of the observatory tells me something of the latest scientific space research and I view Alpha Centauri, which is not only a daystar but also the earth’s closest star.
Later, I join the Earth and Sky night-tour and with their powerful telescopes explore the wonders of the southern sky. The sky seems diamond-studded and it seems as if I could reach out and touch the moon or Saturn.
We see clusters of stars, the Orion nebulas, Mars, Jewel-box cluster, the Southern Cross and clouds of glowing gas that are millions of light-years away. The moons craters are breath taking: add the fascinating rings of Saturn and I’m amazed I’ve never looked skywards until now.
This observatory also has New Zealands largest telescope and the scientists are searching for objects such as extra solar planets and celestial bodies that constitute dark matter and black holes.
Part of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was filmed in this area which was first populated by Maori during eel and bird hunting expeditions in the summer, and the Mackenzie Basin really only became known to the Pakeha (European) settlers in 1855 when James Mckenzie, a Scottish shepherd, was arrested for sheep stealing in the area.
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