Special status for a special place

Aurora australis captured from Stewart Island. Photo: Rebecca Wilson Jennings
Aurora australis captured from Stewart Island. Photo: Rebecca Wilson Jennings
Stewart Island/Rakiura is already a star in the New Zealand tourism firmament. It offers the chance of travel across or over the water to a beautiful, diverse and isolated place.

It is already known for its bush, birds, bays and tracks - even if some of the isolated routes are infamous for thigh-deep mud. With luck, a tramper might stumble across a kiwi or, more likely, catch some fish. A visitor to quaint Oban can appreciate the vistas and the tranquility. Ulva Island is a nearby sanctuary teeming with birds.

That star should now shine brighter with the news Stewart Island/Rakiura has official recognition as the world's fifth International Dark Sky Sanctuary. That gives the island additional kudos, a badge to display and to help attract those who revel in the glory of the skies.

The International Dark Sky Association defines a Dark Sky Sanctuary as ''public or private land that has an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment''. The other Dark Sky Sanctuaries are Aotea/Great Barrier Island (awarded in 2017 and the first island with this status) and in New Mexico and Utah in the United States and Chile.

The association has called Stewart Island's pristine night skies ''a rare treasure''.

Anyone whohas never stared at the heavens on a moonless and cloudless night far from light pollution has missed a marvel. Stars abound and planets shine brighter. Portions of the Milky Way are a twinkling blanket.

The long nights of winter will be the best view time, a convenient complement to the summer season not just for the island but New Zealand as a whole. Stewart Island, like some other places, could suffer from overcrowding and lose its charm if its tourism peak becomes much busier.

As it is, Tekapo is awash with people and vehicles in mid-summer, so much so that the crowds erode the experience. The Aoraki/Mackenzie region, with Tekapo at its heart, achieved status as an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, a step down from a sanctuary. This has added cachet to the region and a reason to visit throughout the year. Telescopes, too, magnify to much better effect away from light pollution.

The biggest specific attraction for Stewart Island could well be the southern lights, the Aurora Australis. The experts have become better at predicting when the horizon flashes with greens, crimsons and purples. Viewing these distant natural phenomenon across the ocean and sans competing artificial light sources will be distinctive and memorable.

Venture Southland began the process towards the sanctuary in 2017, establishing the astro-tourism credentials and working with the Stewart Island Promotion Association. The process also involved the Southland District Council, the island's community board, the Department of Conservation, the Rakiura Maori Lands Trust and iwi.

The island's 41 street lights have been replaced, and property owners can gradually move to lighting which meets the guidelines.

The Dark Sky Sanctuary standing helps Stewart Island reinforce its environmental and preservation credentials as well as having economic benefits. Those who have worked hard and co-operatively to achieve this deserve commendation.

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