Heaven's above - star-gazing in New Zealand

When mid-winter nights are long and dark, Aotearoa New Zealand celebrates the rising of the Matariki star cluster - seven stars that first appear on the horizon signalling Māori New Year in the southern night skies.

In the Mackenzie Basin, nestled in the foothills of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, where the stars twinkle brightly in a crystal-clear night sky that makes the heavens appear closer to earth, astro-tourism is booming.

The skies above the surrounding region, which includes the country’s highest peak Aoraki Mt Cook, have been officially declared an ‘International Dark Sky Reserve’ with a gold rating. Covering 4300sq km over Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve forms the world’s largest such reserve.

There are also plans afoot to have the region declared as a ‘Starlight Heritage Reserve’ - recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site but this is a lengthy process and, as yet, the international organisation has not declared any starlight reserves.

Light pollution

Light pollution diminishes the human view of the night sky for up to half of the world’s population, making astro-tourism a developing travel trend, but it’s nothing new to New Zealand - the land of the Southern Cross.

Captain James Cook was an early astro-tourist when he voyaged on HMS Endeavour to the Pacific to observe the Transit of Venus in 1769. After witnessing the transit in Tahiti, Cook sailed on to New Zealand and landed at Uawa / Tolaga Bay on the North Island’s east coast where he was welcomed by the Māori people.

The 2012 Transit of Venus brought international scientists, academics, amateur astronomers and the local community together in Tolaga Bay to observe and celebrate the dual heritage that goes back to that first meeting.

Following the stars

In ancient times it was the stars that guided the original Māori migration in tribal waka / canoes from their homeland, across the Pacific to Aotearoa New Zealand. They were following the same celestial maps as their ancestor Kupe who discovered Aotearoa.

Stars were like compass points for ancient Māori navigators and their celestial knowledge has been passed down to modern adventurers.

In May 2013, a group of intrepid navigators returned to New Zealand from an epic 10-month adventure - voyaging in a traditional double-hulled sailing canoe using non-instrument navigation to retrace the old sea route between New Zealand and Rapanui / Easter Island.

Matariki celebration

Near the end of May, a cluster of tiny stars intermittently twinkles as it rises on New Zealand’s north east horizon. To astronomers this constellation is known as Pleiades, but to the Māori people of New Zealand it is Matariki - a celestial reminder of the most important event on the Māori cultural calendar.

The new year is marked at the sighting of the next new moon which occurs at the midwinter solstice, and Matariki is celebrated over four weeks with many events that bring families and communities together to celebrate new beginnings.

Public and private events include everything from family feasts, to kite-making workshops, films, art exhibitions and night sky star-gazing events - all celebrating New Zealand’s Māori heritage, nature, creativity and expression.

Astro-tourism activities

Stargazing is a year round activity but New Zealand’s summer months and autumn (December to April) are when skies are clearest. Unique star features include the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies to the Milky Way that are only visible in the southern hemisphere.

Visitors to New Zealand will find many ways to experience and appreciate the southern skies - from simply stepping outside on a fine night to gaze up at the Milky Way, to the complete guided experience and viewing the celestial wonders through giant telescopes at Lake Tekapo’s Mt John Observatory.

Inland from Christchurch, the Mt John Observatory offers spectacular viewing - whether that’s the alpine landscape during the day or the southern skies. Here, in the South Island’s Mackenzie Basin - renowned for New Zealand’s clearest night sky - four companies offer personalised day and night sky tours.

Tekapo’s Earth and Sky, 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 a knowledgeable guide, visitors discover hidden gems in the night sky with their own eyes and through high quality binoculars.

At Aoraki Mt Cook’s Sir Edmund 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 - a complete visual and educational orientation before venturing outside to view the night sky.

Queenstown's Skyline - on a mountainside above the resort town - also offers winter season star gazing tours. Visitors can take the Skyline Gondola from downtown Queenstown to a special viewing area for a guided tour of the southern night sky.

New Zealand planetariums

Aside from Aoraki Mt Cook, there are two other planetariums in New Zealand. Carter Observatory Wellington and Auckland's Stardome Observatory, both centrally located and easily accessed.

The Auckland Observatory and Planetarium offers an amazing year-round indoor stargazing experience in a 360-degree theatre.

Wellington’s Carter Observatory - a short scenic cable car ride above town - has panoramic views of the city, an historic 23cm refracting telescope, displays and a 30-minute planetarium show. The telescopes are manned by a qualified astronomer who is available to answer questions, and the observatory also offers special events to celebrate Matariki.

Stonehenge Aotearoa, in the Wairarapa wine region north of Wellington - inspired by the original English Stonehenge - highlights the stars and constellations that guided the original Polynesian navigators across the Pacific. Visitors learn about stargazing and how ancient cultures used the heavens to navigate and chart the four seasons.

Or for a more intimate experience, book in at Stargazers B&B - near Whitianga, on the North Island’s Coromandel Peninsula. Stargazers comes complete with its own solar powered observatory dome and deck where passionate hosts offer night time star tours. Accommodation is in an historic gold miners cottage surrounded by native bush.

More information

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve

Matariki - Maori New Year celebration