Eight places to go stargazing in New Zealand
New Zealand is celebrating the arrival of Matariki, a significant time in the New Zealand cultural calendar marking the beginning of the Māori New Year
Each year the Matariki cluster of stars - known to astronomers as Pleiades or the Seven Sisters - rises in New Zealand skies. Believed to have
formed more than 100 million years ago the cluster plays a pivotal role in modern and ancient Māori mythology. Closely connected with the maramataka (the Māori lunar calendar), the reappearance of Matariki in the early morning sky brings the old lunar year to a close and marks the beginning of the new year. Hence, Matariki is associated with the Māori New Year.
Interestingly enough, in 2022, Matariki will be recognized as an official public holiday on Friday June 24, 2022 in New Zealand. The holiday will provide opportunities for visitors domestically and offshore to plan holidays in the middle of the year, to recharge, to reconnect, to celebrate and set new travel goals.
The Matariki celebration is essentially based around 3 major principles:
- Remembrance: Honouring those we have lost since the last rising of Matariki
- Celebrating the present: Gathering together to give thanks for what we have.
- Looking to the future: Looking forward to the promise of a new year.
Aotea (meaning white cloud in Māori), also known as Great Barrier, is New Zealand’s sixth-largest island and completely off the grid, with no reticulated electricity supply.
Made up of steep forested hills, wetlands and sandy bays, all residents (approximately 1,000 permanent) are responsible for supplying their own power through solar, wind or gas. There are no billboards or streetlights. And the complete lack of light pollution makes for a stunningly sparkly stratosphere. As a result, Aotea was the first island in the world, and one of only a few destinations that have been 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”.
A place of rugged beauty and untouched wilderness, Aotea is one of the most tranquil and unspoilt places in the wider Auckland region. You can reach the island either by ferry or a short 30-minute flight from Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.
- Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, Canterbury
The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is 4,300sq km of gold standard stargazing. This was the first reserve to be awarded gold status, meaning nearly non-existent light pollution. The formalisation of restrictions on light pollution have been in place since the 1980s. The sheer brightness of the stars, contrasted by the ring of mountains surrounding the Mackenzie Basin, is utterly breath-taking.
The outdoor lighting controls have not only helped make the area one of the clearest, darkest, and most spectacular places in New Zealand to view the night but have also helped conserve energy and protect local wildlife.
There are a number of ways to take a stargazing tour in the Mackenzie Region and keen stargazers will be able to see amazing constellations that can only be seen in the southern hemisphere, including the Southern Cross, the Magellanic Clouds and the Milky Way.
- Rakiura (Stewart Island), Southland
The clue is in the name: “Rakiura”, the original Māori name for Stewart Island, translating to “glowing skies” in English. Named the world's fifth Dark Sky Sanctuary in January 2019, 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.
Stewart Island’s population is in the vicinity of 400 people, so there’s a refreshing lack of light pollution. Plus, its far-south vantage point means you’ll see celestial features not visible from any other spot in the country.
Observation Rock is a viewing platform close to the town centre of Oban. Only a 30-minute walk from the town centre, it is a great place to view the night sky as well as the islands majestic sunrises and sunsets. The view is 270 degrees and the main view is to the south.
- 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 a guide 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 Ātea a Rangi, Waitangi Regional Park, Hawke’s Bay
Celebrate Matariki – the Māori New Year and watch the Matariki star cluster rise above The Ātea a Rangi. Located in Waitangi Regional Park, the celestial star compass known as Ātea a Rangi is used to teach traditional Māori navigation methods and tell stories of those who navigated the oceans to arrive and settle here in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
- Martinborough, Wairarapa Martinborough is aiming to be the next Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand and has one of the darkest and most pristine skies in the country. The town has already achieved an IDA "3K City" classification, which means it has shielded LED outdoor lighting with a colour temperature of 3000 Kelvins or less – reducing sky glow and light pollution. Nearby Castlepoint is a great spot for stargazing, where you can watch the Milky Way rise above the famed lighthouse.
Otago Peninsula, Dunedin
The Aurora Borealis, is a must see for many night sky watchers around the world but the lesser-known Aurora Australis or Southern Lights is no less spectacular. From Dunedin, the Otago peninsula coastline provides a clear and breath-taking view of the night sky, along with a magical backdrop of coastal bird calls echoing across Hoopers inlet. In the right conditions, the Southern Lights appear just over the southern horizon creating remarkable reflections in the water much to the delight of budding photographers. What’s more, this nightscape is set to get more dramatic thanks to Dunedin Dark Skies Group, who’ve pledged to replace all the city street lights with 3000K LEDs.
- Tawharanui, AucklandYou don’t need to travel far from New Zealand’s largest city Auckland to see a spectacular light show. Tawharanui Peninsula is just over an hour drive from downtown Auckland. By day it is home to one of New Zealand’s most beautiful beaches, by night it has one of the country’s most epic night skies. You’ll even get the chance to spot one of the country’s endemic, and notoriously shy, birds, the Kiwi.