By day, New Zealand has some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth. By night, the beauty is out of this world.
Away from the city lights, your eyes adjust. As you look upwards, to what Irish novelist James Joyce famously described as the “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit”, your mind has to adjust as well: away from the prosaic and towards the mysterious, outside the human time scale and into the infinite.
In New Zealand, you’re never far from unimpeded views of the nebulae, star clusters and galaxies that populate the night skies and you have some of the best locations in the world to experience them. Choose summer or winter, depending on which celestial features you most want to see and get the settings on your camera sorted for shooting at night – then make time for an afternoon nap.
Great Barrier Island, Hauraki Gulf
Great Barrier Island is one of only three spots in the world – and the only island – to be granted Dark Sky Sanctuary status by the International Dark-Sky Association. To be awarded this status, a location must have an “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights” and on Great Barrier that’s enhanced by the fact that its small population lives entirely off-the-grid. A tour with Good Heavens is the best way to find your way around the stars on the island. Learn how important the night sky is in Māori culture; the rise of the Pleiades star cluster (known locally as Matariki) signals the beginning of the Māori new year. Your guides will have an 8-inch Dobsonian telescope on hand, just in case you want a closer look.
Great Barrier Island is in the Hauraki Gulf, a short plane or longer ferry ride from Auckland. It offers plenty of daytime diversions in addition to stargazing, like the Aotea Track, a nine-hole golf course, stand-up paddle boarding, horse trekking and an Island Art Discovery Trail.
Tongariro Night Crossing, Central North Island
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is often declared one of the best day hikes in the world, for its scenic confluence of volcanic features, dramatic mountains and brightly coloured lakes. But try it at night, assisted by a headlamp and Adrift Outdoors, to turn the scenery overhead into the main attraction. Turn off your lamp and let your eyes adjust to the glimmering wonder-world above, framed by the looming silhouettes of the grand old trio of mountains: Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Tongariro. The only difficulty will be keeping your eyes on the ground over the walk’s 19.4km – the temptation to keep your camera pointed at the stars is hard to fight.
Tongariro National Park is slap bang in the middle of the North Island, virtually equidistant from Wellington and Auckland. Lake Taupo, the country’s biggest, is just up the road, and, if you’re around during winter, some of the best skiing in the country can be enjoyed nearby.
Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, Canterbury
In 2012, a 4367sq km block of land in the middle of the South Island was designated as the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, formalising restrictions on light pollution that had been in place since the 1980s. The result was the first reserve to be awarded gold status, meaning nearly non-existent light pollution. The sheer brightness of the stars, contrasted by the ring of mountains surrounding the Mackenzie Basin, is utterly breathtaking. The photo you don’t want to miss here is of the famous Church of the Good Shepherd, standing on the banks of Lake Tekapo, backlit by the Milky Way. The Mount John Observatory offers the best views.
The Mackenzie Basin, in the centre of the South Island, is all about nature: unspoilt lakes and soaring mountains. One of the best sights in the country is the glacially fed, vibrantly blue Lake Pukaki, with Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, dominating beyond.
Rakiura (Stewart Island)
The clue is in the name: “Rakiura”, the original Māori name for Stewart Island, translates to “glowing skies” in English. It is, simply, one of the best places in the world to spot the Aurora Australis, the southern hemisphere equivalent of the famed Northern Lights. It’s not technically stargazing, but there are stars aplenty, too; Stewart Island’s population is in the vicinity of 400 people, so there’s a refreshing lack of light pollution here. Plus, its far-south vantage point means you’ll see celestial features not visible from any other spot in the country.
You get to Stewart Island by ferry or plane, from Bluff and Invercargill, respectively. For a small place, there is a lot to do, from the Rakiura Track, one of the country’s Great Walks, to the predator-free Ulva Island, where you can experience (and hear) what New Zealand was like before human habitation. Take a tour with Ulva’s Guided Walks to hear the impressive birdsong.