Hours before dawn, on the side of a lonely road near Tekapo in New Zealand’s dark sky country, I zipped up my down jacket, pulled on my beanie and got out of my car to take one last look at the stars – a massive, sparkling, silvery band smeared across the jet black sky.
I was driving to Christchurch after visiting the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – one of the world’s greatest stargazing destinations. The skies here are so pure that they have been designated a gold-standard Dark Sky Reserve by the International Dark Sky Association (IDSA) to protect them from excess light pollution, and they shine with a ferocity not seen in many other places. It’s not uncommon for travellers to shed a tear when faced with a truly prehistoric night sky for the first time; the beauty and wonder of the universe can be profoundly moving and unsettling.
I gazed upwards until my neck ached and my eyes blurred. I traced the kite-shaped Southern Cross, or Crux, a distinctive five-star constellation diving towards the south, while bright Canopus shone directly overhead – the same celestial beacon used by ancient Polynesian and Maori explorers. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two dwarf galaxies visible only here in the southern hemisphere, glowed like ghostly patches over my shoulder as they slowly orbited the beautiful core of the Milky Way. It was so dark my eyes could pick out the depths of gas and dust that shroud the centre of our home galaxy.
Even the snow-coated mountain peaks were glowing in the starlight. The entire effect was breathtaking. I stamped my feet on the grassy verge fighting the October cold, wanting to look just a little longer; perhaps catch the sudden flash of one more meteor.
In researching my book Southern Nights, the story of New Zealand astronomy, I’d become a wonderstruck stargazer. Star-chasing took me to the far north of New Zealand: the remote Great Barrier Island, one of the world’s few remote IDSA Dark Sky Sanctuaries, where the unpolluted skies have kickstarted a new island economy in astrotourism.
I’d been to Dunedin and the Otago peninsula in the far south, where I watched a moon as orange and full as a mandarin rise over the horizon as I joined Horizon Tours to learn about Maori astronomical traditions; from hearing the creation story of Atutahi (Canopus) – first-born of Ranginui the sky father, whose presence signalled winter was coming – to learning how stars were used to farm and harvest seafood.
In Wellington I’d hopped on board a Pacific-voyaging waka – the double-hulled canoes used by ancient explorers – to learn how they mastered the art of celestial navigation; and I’d looked through powerful telescopes on the Dark Sky Project’s tour of the University of Canterbury’s Mount John Observatory in Tekapo.
But still, even just simply standing on a deserted road and beholding the spectacle left me awestruck. Eventually, the biting cold forced me back into my car – but I couldn’t help stopping a few more times that night.
As I drove, I went over the next steps of my astrotourism exploration of New Zealand: visiting Rakiura/Stewart Island, an island-based Dark Sky Sanctuary at the southern tip of the country, where I plan to track down the elusive aurora australis – the Southern Lights, shy southern cousins of the aurora borealis; combining stars with slopes on a night ski at Coronet Peak in Queenstown; and witnessing a total solar eclipse – the next one in New Zealand will occur in Dunedin on 22 July, 2028.
I arrived in Christchurch just as dawn was breaking. The drive from Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve can be done in under four hours, but there’s no way of knowing how long you’ll need to stop and stare. As the rest of the city stirred for the day, I went to bed with a twinkle in my eye, replaying the greatest nightly show on Earth.
Go Further: How to Catch an Aurora on Stewart Island
You’ve heard of the Northern Lights – the aurora borealis, the mystical lights seen in northern regions from Greenland to Finland. But fewer people have heard of the Southern Lights, the aurora australis. The colourful phenomenon is even more elusive than its northern counterpart, only visible from largely remote destinations at specific times in the year – New Zealand is one of them. For hardcore astro-gazers, here’s what you need to know:
1. Winter (June-August) is the best time for aurora hunting (and stargazing) in New Zealand. The daylight hours are shorter, meaning there’s more darkness to enjoy the show. Also be aware of the phase of the moon, because its light can considerably dampen any visible aurora activity.
2. The further south you are, the better your chances. Maximise your luck on Rakiura/Stewart Island, 30 kilometres off the coast of the South Island. The Travel Insider offers aurora tours, timed for a good chance to see the aurora.
3. Log onto aurora-service.net for an aurora forecast. This service can tell you with reasonable accuracy how the Southern Lights will behave.
4. Download an aurora alert app like My Aurora Forecast & Alerts that will let you know when you’re likely to see the aurora in your location.
5. Set up a long exposure on your camera – the ghostly bands can appear faint or white to the naked human eye, but a camera will catch the rich colours you can’t see.
6. Use a red torch for lighting, so as not to destroy your night vision.
The Constellations that Gave Birth to Maori Legends
The second brightest star in the sky, called Atutahi. According to some, Atutahi was the first born child of Ranginui, the sky father. According to others, Tāne (the child of the sky father and earth mother) collected all the brightest stars into a basket (the Milky Way) but left Atutahi outside to shine alone.
The Southern Cross
This constellation is known by at least eight different names in Maori. To the Tainui Maori it was Te Punga, the anchor of a great sky canoe, while to Wairarapa Maori it was Mahutonga – an opening in Te Ikaroa (the Milky Way) through which storm winds escaped.
In Maori tradition, sharks are viewed as guardian spirits – and Te Mangoroa is probably the most famous of them all. Legend has it that Maui, the great trickster and folk hero, placed the shark Mangoroa high up in the sky, thus forming what we know as the Milky Way.