In 2012, New Zealand’s Aoraki Mackenzie community successfully applied to the IDA to become an accredited dark sky reserve. An inland plain region about 180km south-west of Christchurch, where large country sheep stations have been the norm for more than a century, Aoraki Mackenzie is rugged, isolated country dominated by mountain and lake scenery.
Today, Aoraki Mackenzie’s 4,300sq km dark reserve is the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and just one of 18 in the world. Two New Zealand communities, Great Barrier Island and Rakiura Stewart Island, have since become sanctuaries, with Wai-iti, a 135-hectare hunk of council land in Tasman District, now an IDA-certified dark sky park. Another 20 New Zealand dark sky communities – including the Wairarapa — are looking to follow suit and gain some form of certification.
In 2019, it was Dark Skies Group Director at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, Steve Butler, who daringly announced the country’s plans to become the world’s first dark sky nation. “It was more of an aspirational rather than a hard-and-fast goal,” he told me recently. “The IDA doesn’t yet have an official dark sky nation designation. But when it does New Zealand will be first in line.”
“Are we obsessed as a people? Probably. We’re definitely uniquely advantaged,” he explained. “Look, Kiwis are an outdoor people with easy access to the natural dark skies of the Southern Hemisphere. Very few of us have grown up without being awed by New Zealand’s night skies, particularly those you see in national parks like Aoraki Mackenzie or Rakiura Stewart Island. Sure, not all of us know how to find the Southern Cross, but we’re a far cry from 80% of the world’s population who can’t even see the stars of the night sky.”
That’s why when New Zealanders were asked to comply with the IDA’s rigorous requirements to restrict outdoor lighting and switch to low-powered yellow lighting in regions such as Aoraki Mackenzie and elsewhere, by-and-large they were up for it, Butler explained. It’s why Butler is confident even the country’s urban centres, over time, will find ways to limit artificial light spilling into natural areas and reduce light use generally. It’s also why more and more New Zealanders are joining the global chorus to save the world’s night skies.