Aiming for the stars

Night sky over the Mackenzie Country. Photo by Fraser Gunn.
Night sky over the Mackenzie Country. Photo by Fraser Gunn.
In a crowded world, it pays to aim high if you want to be noticed. And nobody has aimed higher than the backers of the reserve above the Mackenzie Country, who reached for the stars in their bid to create a national park in the sky. All their hard work paid off when the night sky above the Aoraki National Park and Mackenzie Basin was declared an International Dark Sky Reserve. One of only four such reserves in the world, it is attracting the attention of stargazers from overseas.

The push to keep the skies around Tekapo's Mount John Observatory began in the 1980s, many long years before "light pollution" was identified as something to worry about.

Indeed, those behind such innovations as outdoor lighting controls in the area to preserve the dark-sky experience were so far ahead of the game that when they first proposed creating a celestial national park there were no international rules in place to protect the night-sky.

In essence, reserve advocate Margaret Austin and her team had to wait for the rest of the world to catch up. In the meantime, they worked hard to realise their vision. Intensive lobbying of overseas agencies was required and much energy expended to gather support among locals and at a government level.

It can be seen as a classic piece of innovative Kiwi thinking. You love where you live. You work with what you've got. What they had was an observatory, a sparsely populated area and plenty of sky. The 4300sq km Aoraki-Mackenzie reserve is not only the biggest dark sky the world, it's the only one to attain "gold status", which means the skies are almost totally free from light pollution.

As the global population continues to grow, this type of environment is increasingly rare anywhere there is established settlement. Photographs of the Earth at night show areas larger than New Zealand blazing away.

Anybody who has visited the northern hemisphere in recent years will attest to the fact that stars are becoming an endangered species in urban areas.

Look at the sky at night and you're lucky to spot a couple of tiny specks between the street-lights.

Compare that with the dazzling night sky above the Mackenzie Country. They are worlds apart.

It is a primal experience to contemplate the Milky Way in its full magnificence. International Dark Sky director Bob Parks, who has without doubt gazed upon many an impressive night sky, was starry-eyed as he announced the reserve status: "To put it simply, it is one of the best stargazing sites on Earth."

In a crowded tourist marketplace where the latest buzzword is "authenticity", this endorsement will surely resonate internationally with those seeking a genuine encounter with nature.

Eggs in one basket
Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull and Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Christie are right to be worried about the University of Otago's concerns surrounding declining student numbers and possible reductions in research income.

The university says it faces an "uncertain" financial future in the face of the challenges, and its chief operating officer, John Patrick, this week said if the institution's income did not increase "cost savings must be made eventually".

Such "cost savings" - or any reduction in student numbers - will be a severe hiccup for the city's own financial wellbeing.

In reality, the University of Otago will cope with the uncertainties ahead. But as Mr Christie and Mr Cull point out, the city is too reliant on the university. That is not to be disparaging of it, nor its place in Dunedin.

But there can be no doubt too many of the city's eggs are in one basket.

Dunedin as a workplace is extraordinarily dependent on "government" institutions: the university, the health sector, the Dunedin City Council, the Otago Regional Council and so on.

Quite simply, we need more private enterprise, and we need it now. As we said earlier this week, many people recognise the problems. It's time for some real solutions.