New Zealand’s southern stars
“Star light, star bright, first stay I see tonight”… but what if you couldn’t see that star the next night? In this International Year of Astronomy there is a rally to recognise the wonder of stars. New Zealand is a mecca for stargazers and if you’ve travelled on our South Island Explorer and stayed in the heart of MacKenzie Country you’ll understand why. Intrepid’s Kim Bowden is amongst the many who are making a wish to protect our stars…
“We used to call it ‘Onemana Sky’ – we would lie on the scratchy grass outside our caravan and look at a starry night that curved dome-like right down to the horizon. We could follow the ghost-like trail of the Milky Way, spot the Southern Cross and the Pot (which is actually an upside-down Orion’s Belt), then trace together our own imagined constellations.
The brilliance of the night sky at Onemana, the small beachside settlement where we spent our summer holidays, was in an awesome league of its own. From our suburban backyard at home we would look up throughout the year and sigh “It’s just not quite like an “Onemana sky”.
Staring at celestial bodies has been a gratification across all cultures and times. The contemplation of the night sky has practical applications in the fields of science, including navigation, timekeeping and climate studies. And there are benefits less tangible, such as turning to the heavens helps us put our planet and our individual lives in perspective. We stargaze and we feel awe-inspired. Be warned however, our stars are disappearing. They are still there of course, but as the amount of the world’s population residing in cities grows, the ability to see our stars clearly is becoming rapidly endangered. More development means more light pollution, which means fewer stars can be spotted.
There is a growing movement for especially spectacular sections of the night sky to join historic buildings and natural wonders and become protected as recognised UNESCO World Heritage sites. And what better time than this; 2009, the “International Year of Astronomy”; to debate the importance of recognising, protecting and promoting the night sky as a renewable resource and part of cultural heritage.
The stunning beautiful and sparsely populated MacKenzie Country in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island is making a bid to claim one of the world’s first UNESCO night sky reserves. The area is home to Mt John observatory, internationally recognised as one of the best situated observatories for viewing the southern night skies. Likelihood of clear nights, the stability and transparency of the atmosphere and the uniquely dark skies in the MacKenzie Basin allow observation of as many as fifty million stars. Local government regulations already in place add weight to the initiative and work to restrict light pollution in the area. Street and outdoor residential lighting must be beamed downwards and no spillage is allowed.
The next time you see a shooting star make this wish: that UNESCO World Heritage night sky reserves become a reality and that the clear and beautiful night skies of the MacKenzie Basin will forever provide the opportunity for people to stargaze and wonder at the expanse of the universe.”
* photo by Anna Schmidli – Intrepid Photography Competition