New Zealand is a sparsely populated country with few big cities and large expanses of wilderness and uninhabited land. This means there’s very little light pollution in some areas, creating ideal conditions for stargazing. Two of the world’s 10 Dark Sky Sanctuaries are in New Zealand, and one of 15 Dark Sky Reserves. Dark skies are good for stargazing, but they're also good for human sleep quality and the breeding and hunting activities of native birds and animals. Here’s what you need to know about stargazing in New Zealand.
What You'll Be Able to See
The skies in the Southern Hemisphere are different from those in the Northern Hemisphere, so avid and amateur stargazers alike from the Northern Hemisphere are likely to see something new in the skies of New Zealand. Keep an eye out for the following constellations and phenomena:
- The Southern Cross, which is featured on the flags of both New Zealand and Australia.
- The Magellanic Clouds, bar-shaped dwarf galaxies that are only visible from the Southern Hemisphere.
- Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri, which appear as a single star to the naked eye, but can be seen as three separate stars through a telescope. This is the nearest star system to Earth (just 4.22 light-years away!)
- Omega Centauri, a cluster of 10 million stars that is the most massive and most luminous globular cluster visible from anywhere on Earth. It can be seen with the naked eye.
- Saturn is better visible from the Southern Hemisphere.
Where to Go Stargazing
Out of New Zealand’s population of 5 million, only around one million live on the South Island. This means there are much larger areas of dark sky here. Away from the main settlements on the central-south east coast (from Christchurch to Dunedin), as well as Invercargill, Nelson, and Queenstown/Wanaka, the skies in the South Island are almost completely dark.
There are fewer places in the North Island, as it’s more heavily populated. But, the Far North of Northland, parts of the central North Island around the Tongariro National Park, and the East Cape area (away from the city of Gisborne) provide smaller pockets of dark sky in the North Island.
Some of the most impressive places to see the stars are very remote, but if you’re unable to travel far from the main cities, don’t worry. On a cloudless night, the number of stars you can see even around smaller cities and towns is still very impressive.
Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve
The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve is the largest of 15 such reserves around the world, at 2,671 square miles. According to the International Dark Sky Association, an International Dark Sky Reserve is “a public or private land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment. Reserves consist of a core area meeting minimum criteria for sky quality and natural darkness, and a peripheral area that supports dark sky preservation in the core.”
As the Aoraki Mackenzi Dark Sky Reserve covers such a large area, there are many places where visitors could potentially enjoy the views at night. Most people head to the small villages of Mt. Cook, Twizel, or Tekapo, on the shores of Lake Tekapo. At Tekapo are the Mt. John Observatory and Cowan’s Observatory, both of which offer guided tour experiences.
A delightful feature of stargazing at Tekapo is the option of stargazing while soaking in a natural hot spring. The outdoor Tekapo Springs bathing complex offers special packages that include a tour with use of telescopes, followed by a nighttime soak under the stars, in a floating hammock.
Stargazing is only possible when the skies are free of clouds, and because the tiny towns within the reserve are a long way from anywhere, it’s best to spend a few days around the reserve.
Great Barrier Island
Located 50 nautical miles from central Auckland, Great Barrier Island is one of just 10 Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world. Dark Sky Sanctuaries differ from Dark Sky Reserves in that they’re located in very remote locations with few threats to the quality of the night sky, and are more challenging for people to get to.
Great Barrier Island can be reached by air or ferry from Auckland and the North Shore. The island is sparsely populated and far enough from Auckland’s light pollution that the skies are superbly clear. Visitors can enjoy stargazing while camping or staying at the island’s boutique accommodation or join a guided tour with a local Dark Sky Ambassador.
If you can't make it all the way to Great Barrier Island, nearby Waiheke Island is also a good alternative. It's close to Auckland and can be reached on a short ferry ride. The skies aren't as dark as in some other parts of the country, but the northern and western parts of the island are shielded from the worst glare from Auckland. This is a good option for travelers who want to stargaze but who don't have time to travel far from Auckland.
Off the southern coast of the South Island, Stewart Island is New Zealand’s third-largest island. Around 85 percent of the island is a national park, reserved for penguins, kiwis, and seals. It’s also a Dark Sky Sanctuary, along with Great Barrier Island.
But why stop at stargazing? Stewart Island is one of the best places in New Zealand to see the Aurora Australis, the southern counterpart to the more famous Aurora Borealis. Conditions for seeing the Aurora are optimal between March and September, which unfortunately means you’ll have to brave some colder temperatures. But, the colors of the dancing lights should make it a worthwhile experience.
Tips for Going Stargazing in New Zealand
Whether you're taking a tour or going alone, follow these expert tips to have the best experience.
- While a lot can be seen with the naked eye, it’s worth taking a guided tour at one of the above locations. You’ll be able to use special telescopes (which will save you from packing one in your suitcase!), and as well as learning more about what you see, you’ll also get an insight into the significance of the stars to Maori culture.
- Whichever season you’re planning to go, pack some warm clothes for outdoor stargazing. Even in the summer, the South Island in particular can get cold after dark.
- Obviously, stargazing is best when the skies are clear and not cloudy. New Zealand experiences a lot of rain, which may affect your stargazing chances. The North Island tends to be wetter in the winter, and the South Island in the summer. Whenever you’re traveling, budget a few days in a stargazing hotspot to increase your chances of having ideal weather.