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
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
In a crowded tourist marketplace where the latest buzzword is
"authenticity", this endorsement will surely resonate
internationally with those seeking a genuine encounter with
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
Such "cost savings" - or any reduction in student numbers -
will be a severe hiccup for the city's own financial
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
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
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.