Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, NZ

New Zealand’s Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is the southern hemisphere’s first dark sky reserve, and the world’s biggest.

Aoraki Mackenzie is a gold-rated dark sky reserve, in recognition of the quality of the almost light-pollution-free skies of the Mackenzie Basin.

The dark sky reserve is located in the Mackenzie Basin, in the South Island of New Zealand, and includes Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and the villages of Lake Tekapo, Twizel and Mt Cook.

The 4300sq km area is bounded by a spectacular alpine landscape with the Southern Alps in the west, and the Two Thumb Range in the east.

Mt John Observatory

Lake Tekapo is the site of New Zealand’s premier scientific astronomy observatory, Mt John Observatory.

The observatory site was chosen in 1963 for the clarity and darkness of the night sky after three years of site testing.

Mt John is operated by the University of Canterbury and the on-site team includes astronomers from Japan’s Nagoya University. The USA and Germany have also invested in Mt John facilities.

Astro-tourism in the Mackenzie Basin

The strength of the ongoing scientific research programme and the growth of astro-tourism in the region were prime motivators in the proposal to establish a dark sky reserve in the Mackenzie Basin.

Four companies now offer personalised day and night sky tours, educational and public outreach programmes.

Tekapo’s Earth and Sky Ltd, which works closely with the University of Canterbury and Mt John, runs several day and night tours at the observatory. Experienced guides take visitors through an introduction and exploration of the night sky via hands-on experience of telescopes, astro-photography and the summit-top cafe.

Tekapo Starlight provides a guided tour of the night sky - exploring the wonders and depth of the solar system, Milky Way galaxy and beyond with the naked eye - in the hands of a passionate, experienced guide.

Star Gazing Tours Twizel takes small group guided tours into a private out-of-town location for a light-pollution free night sky experience. With the help of an experienced guide, visitors discover hidden gems in the night sky with their own eyes and through high quality binoculars.

At Aoraki Mt Cook the Hillary Alpine Centre and Planetarium - the world’s southernmost planetarium - offers sky tours with Big Sky Stargazing. The full dome digital planetarium incorporates a 3D theatre with 126 seats. Virtual tours of space explore the southern night sky, astronomical science through the ages and the mystery of black holes.

Pure skies of Mackenzie Basin

Extensive testing has shown the Mackenzie Basin has the clearest, darkest and most spectacular night sky in New Zealand.

A high number of clear nights throughout the year, along with the stability and transparency of the local atmosphere and its unique dark skies, contribute to the Mackenzie’s international recognition as one of the best sites for viewing and researching the southern sky.

This is partly due to a lighting ordinance incorporated into the Mackenzie District Plan which has provided lighting controls throughout most of the reserve since it was enacted in 1981. It was one of the first such ordinances in the southern hemisphere.

The Magellanic Clouds - satellite galaxies to the Milky Way that are only visible in the southern hemisphere - can be seen continuously throughout the year.

International Dark Sky Association

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve has been designated by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

The IDA established the International Dark Sky Places conservation programme in 2001 to recognise excellent stewardship of the night sky.

Designations are based on stringent outdoor lighting standards and innovative community outreach.

Since the programme began, four reserves, four communities and 10 parks have also received International Dark Sky designations.