Southern skies get starlight reserve status

THE LIGHT FANTASTIC: Aurora Australis seen from Tekapo late on the evening of March 16.
THE LIGHT FANTASTIC: Aurora Australis seen from Tekapo late on the evening of March 16.

Canterbury is now home to the biggest and the best dark-sky reserve in the world.

Six years of hard work and intense lobbying have finally paid off with tonight's announcement that the Aoraki-Mackenzie Dark-Sky Reserve has been officially approved by a global astronomical body.

The reserve, which includes Canterbury University's Mt John Observatory above Lake Tekapo, Twizel and Aoraki-Mt Cook village, is only the fourth in the world and the second in the Southern Hemisphere.

At 4300 square kilometres the Aoraki-Mackenzie reserve is the biggest, ahead of reserves at Exmoor in England and Quebec in Canada, and the recently announced NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia.

It is also the first "gold-rated" reserve, meaning the darkness of its night skies is almost unbeatable.

International Dark-Sky Association executive director Bob Parks, who announced the new reserve, said it was about the best astronomical site one could get without being on the summit of very tall, remote mountains. 

"The new reserve is coming in at a 'gold-level' status. That means the skies are almost totally free from light pollution.

"To put it simply, it is one of the best stargazing sites on Earth."

The success of the efforts to have the Mackenzie Basin recognised was announced at the start of third International Starlight Conference being held in Tekapo township this week.

Opening the conference was Ngati Tuwharetoa paramount chief Sir Tumu te Heuheu, a former chairman of the World Heritage Committee of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

An earlier bid to the Unesco committee to have the Mackenzie skies gazetted as a world heritage site failed because there were no rules in place to protect the heritage of the skies.

Starlight reserve chairwoman Margaret Austin, who also led the Unesco bid, said she and all those involved with the application were thrilled it had been accepted.

"We're just over the moon.

"Really, achieving this status is a tribute to the people of the district who never wavered in their commitment to achieving it."

Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter said it was "fantastic news" for Canterbury.

"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."

He expected to see visitor numbers to the Mackenzie soar as a result.

Mackenzie Tourism general manager Phil Brownie said there would be "enormous ramifications and beneficial flow-on effects" for the district and for New Zealand.

"Mt John is considered one of the most accessible observatories in the world.

"The observatory is home to six telescopes, including the country's biggest, which measures 1.8m across and can observe 50 million stars each clear night."


This video is an all night timelapse animation taken from Mt John, Lake Tekapo, looking South East with a circular fisheye lens across Lake Tekapo and Tekapo village.

At the start of the night the main feature is the milkyway rising - then a small aurora followed by a zodical light and sunrise. 

For more time-lapse photography by Fraser Gunn, see

Sunday Star Times