International Dark Sky Reserve – Tekapo, New Zealand

News the Mackenzie Basin has been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve is expected to bring stargazers from around the world to the region and significantly boost tourism in the area.

The Church of the Good Shepherd – Tekapo

“This is fantastic news for Canterbury and the outcome we’ve all been hoping for,” says Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter.

“It’s wonderful finally to have recognition in both national and global terms for this premium asset. It puts the Mackenzie Basin on the map as a destination of international significance and sends a clear message to people that if they want the ultimate dark sky experience then this is the place to come.

“We’re anticipating seeing a significant increase in visitors to the Mackenzie as a result of this designation because there is enormous interest in the stars and this is one of the few places left in the world where you can really appreciate the natural beauty of the sky,” Mr Hunter says.

The newly designated Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve joins a select group of just 17 International Dark Sky Places worldwide, and is only the fourth International Dark Sky Reserve, following on from Mont Megantic in Canada, Exmoor National Park in the United Kingdom, and the NamibRand Nature Reserve, in Namibia.

Lake Tekapo

Steve Owens, chair of the IDA’s Dark Sky Places Development Committee says for many of the other 16 places, tourism was one of the main drivers in their bid for dark sky status and they were already seeing the dividends.

“Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in Scotland has recently begun to assess the impact of dark sky astronomy tourism in the local economy, and a sample evaluation in the region recently showed that 77% of local guest houses and bed-and-breakfasts had reported an increase in bed-nights due to the dark sky park. The report also stated that the money spent on lighting refits was already paying for itself: for every £1 spent on achieving the dark sky status £1.93 has been generated for the local economy within the first two-and-a-half years.

“Anecdotally too astronomy business is booming, with hotels in Galloway and Exmoor running regular stargazing weekend breaks, meteor watches and astronomy talks. Dark Sky Tourism has become such a big part of the area around Galloway that work is almost complete on a £600,000 public observatory to the north of the park, which will attract school groups, families, and stargazers from far and wide to come and marvel at the beauty of a really dark sky,” Mr Owens says.

The Honourable Margaret Austin, who chairs the Starlight Working Party which has been working since 2006 to get the Mackenzie Basin internationally recognised as a Dark Sky Reserve, says the night sky in the Mackenzie basin is a truly magnificent sight and is particularly fascinating for overseas visitors who come from areas where light pollution masks the stars from view.

“This is a truly exceptional environment, landscape and night sky that we want to protect and promote,” Mrs Austin says.

Mackenzie Tourism general manager Phil Brownie says the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve will ensure New Zealand is foremost on the astronomy and astro-tourism map.

“Mt John, above the Tekapo township, is considered one of the most accessible observatories in the world. The observatory is home to six telescopes including the country’s biggest telescope which measures 1.8m across and can observe 50 million stars each clear night.

This decision will have enormous ramifications and beneficial flow-on effects for the Mackenzie region as well as for New Zealand as a whole,” Mr Brownie says.

Denis Callesen, previously general manager of tourism at Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village, is also excited about the potential opportunities the reserve status brings for marketing the region and beyond.

“We are very good at promoting New Zealand tourism in the daylight; we can double our income if we promote night sky tourism,’’ Mr Callesen says.

Canadian David Welch, who is chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) dark sky advisory group, says in Canada places that have been formally recognised for the quality of their night sky have experienced an upswing in visitor numbers.

In the case of the Mont-Megantic Dark Sky Reserve in Quebec the area was popular with day-hikers before it won reserve status, but now it also attracts people for night-sky viewing.

“Beyond increasing visitation dark sky activities also add a great new dimension to a person’s appreciation and understanding of the natural world, bringing biology and astronomy together and linking them to a deeper wilderness and natural landscape enjoyment. So there is a great benefit in the sense of providing a rounder, richer, fuller experience to appreciate our natural world,” says Dr Welch.

The above is a news itemI recieved a few days ago

McNaughts Comet: Mt John ( photo from Earth & Sky)

… see a blog I wrote earlier here

southern skies: a starlight national park in the sky?



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.

Lake Tekapo in winter (photo from Earth & Sky)
Lake Tekapo in winter (photo from Earth & Sky)

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.

McNaughts Comet: Mt John ( photo from Earth & Sky)
McNaughts Comet: Mt John ( photo from Earth & Sky)

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.

For more information:

This article was originaly published in the South China Morning Post

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