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February 2019

Issue: February 2019

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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
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Travel to Auckland


Star Power

1 February 2019

New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island is one of the best places on Earth to view the constellations, but that’s just part of what makes it special

Stars aren’t just pinpricks of white light. When you’re on an island with almost zero light pollution and it’s a clear night before moonrise, they can pulse pink and green like Christmas lights, send out icy blue points like something out of a vintage Star Wars poster or – when low enough to the horizon – even resemble a miniature rainbow. It’s possible to see the sun’s rays reflected off peach-coloured Mars, the wispy clouds of distant galaxies, and the heaped glitter of the Milky Way arcing through the sky.

The 900 or so residents of Great Barrier Island, a 285km-squared landmass a half-hour flight northeast of Auckland, have been enjoying this light show for decades, but in 2017, the off-grid spot became one of only three worldwide to be officially recognised as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary for the inky blackness of its nights. Since then that number has increased to five, with another off-grid New Zealand spot, Stewart Island, joining sites in Utah, New Mexico and Chile.

Stargazing organisations have popped up to cater to the additional interest this recognition has brought, among them Good Heavens, run by locals Deborah Kilgallon and Hilde Hoven. It’s Kilgallon who leads our group through a tour of the cosmos on a night between Christmas and New Year, arranging comfy chairs, blankets, a powerful telescope and, later on, providing hot chocolate and homemade brownies.

The experience started at dusk, as Kilgallon helped us spot the brightest stars that were first to appear. By the time it ended two hours later the sky was dazzlingly illuminated with layers upon layers of flickering specks, the Milky Way clearly visible to the naked eye, as were the two galaxies orbiting our own, known as the Magellanic Clouds and visible as white wispy puffs.

“Time floats away,” Kilgallon says when we talk a few days later about the experience of letting your mind wander as you take in the vastness of the universe. “I’m sure that’s what it was like for our ancestors when [looking at the stars] was a big part of their nighttime entertainment.”

While Good Heavens caters to many people unfamiliar with the constellations, the quality of Great Barrier Island’s nighttime sky also attracts veteran astronomers from the Northern Hemisphere, who are able to see phenomena not visible further north. These include not just the Magellanic Clouds and the Southern Cross – recognisable from the New Zealand and Australian flags and used for navigation – but also two “globular clusters”: Omega Centuari and 47 Tucanae.

These group of a million or more stars, bound tightly together by gravity and dating back to not long after the Big Bang, look like glittering snowballs shot through with delicate colours when viewed through a telescope. They are Kilgallon’s favourite phenomenon in the night sky: “The fact that they are some of the original stars created in the universe was something that captivated me. And it was so beautiful, like a pile of translucent sand.” Our stargazing experience gave us time to marvel at this site, as well as allowing us to pick out the constellations familiar from Greek myths and horoscopes, and other notable stars such as the supergiant Betelguese, which gives off a red shimmer.

Kilgallon also explained the Maori constellation “Te Waka O Rangi,” which takes the form of a boat captained by a star called Taramainuku. It drags a net through the night sky and gathers the souls of all the people who died that day. When the constellation disappears from the sky in May, according to this myth, Taramainuku is taking these souls to the underworld. When they reappear a month later, they are released into the sky to become more stars, and the mourning period of the bereaved comes to an end.

To enjoy the 5,000 stars that are visible from Great Barrier Island – around ten times more than you’d see in nearby Auckland – requires the right weather conditions, of course. We were lucky that we booked our tour of the cosmos for a night that happened to be cloudless, but Kilgallon and Hoven recommend coming to Great Barrier Island for at least three days in order to ensure at least one suitable night. That’s no chore, however, as the island feels like a little slice of paradise as soon as you step off either the ferry or the terrifyingly tiny plane that brings you over.

The conditions that make these stars shine so distinctly – the lack of development, and particularly the lack of an electrical grid – also makes Great Barrier Island feel truly remote, wild and teeming with wildlife. Dolphins, orcas, rays and several types of shark can be spotted swimming in its clear waters. Crayfish, scallops and snappers can be pulled fresh out of the sea and thrown on a grill, and local birdlife abounds, including noisy parrots and electric-green parakeets.

That said, there’s enough going on that you don’t feel completely cut off: a few shops, a radio station, some art galleries, a church, internet and phone reception that mostly works, a few roads wrapping around the island. It’s possible to hire cars, and a new company called Paddles and Saddles has started to rent out electric bikes, recharged from stored solar energy, as well as paddleboards, kayaks and vintage-looking scooters. This makes it easy to explore the island’s peaks, pristine beaches, hot springs and “mermaid pool” rock formations.

Once you’ve stayed on Great Barrier Island for long enough to enjoy the constellations, it’s likely that you’ll have fallen so far down the stargazing rabbit hole that you’re hungry for more. Luckily, New Zealand offers plenty of other opportunities to contemplate the cosmos, in addition to Stewart Island, which is even less populated and developed than Great Barrier.

For example, the Mount John Observatory at the heart of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve (these meet slightly different conditions from Dark Sky Sanctuaries) is the country’s premier astronomical research centre, and offers tours dedicated to astrophotography and viewing the stars through telescopes in stunning natural surroundings. There are also ideal conditions for stargazing at Stonehenge-Aotearoa, near Wellington in Wairarapa. It’s an open-sky observatory modelled on the original Stonehenge, which helps mark out the position of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes, relative to the background stars.

Over on the South Island, it’s possible to take a trip on the Skyline Gondola in Queenstown that incorporates a stargazing tour, and an optional dinner. And those who are interested in the human exploration of space should also check out the schedule of launches by Rocket Lab, the world’s first private spaceport, which was built on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula in 2016 and had its first commercial launch just before Christmas. While the company warns that launches are likely to be delayed and scrubbed with little warning, the local council has allocated a public viewing area to see these spacecraft take off near Nuhuka in Hawke’s Bay.

Looking up at stars, planets and rockets is fascinating from a scientific point of view, but anyone who becomes captivated by stargazing will soon realise that there is an attraction that’s far deeper than that. “It changes your mindset,” Kilgallon says. “If you look beyond our planet and our solar system and realise what a small detail we are, it can help you be a lot more relaxed with your place in the world.

“Knowing that we’re this tiny speck within the whole universe helps you not sweat the small things, when everything doesn’t go exactly right. There’s something going on that’s much more momentous. In a couple of billion years, one of the Magellanic Clouds is going to come crashing into the Milky Way, and what’s going to happen then? You just have to look up and enjoy where we are right now in this moment.”

Words: : Jess Holland
Photos: : Mark Russell