Starry, starry nights
There isn’t a lot to do on Great Barrier Island, and that’s just as it should be, writes Julie Miller.
The pure beauty of Great Barrier Island,
On the far reaches of the Hauraki Gulf, a four-hour ferry ride or 35-minute flight from Auckland, Great Barrier Island is too remote to attract day-trippers and, logistically, it’s too difficult to commute. Instead, the 900 or so residents of the island choose to live a simple life, strolling along deserted beaches, hiking forest trails, and enjoying an ecoaware, off-the-grid existence. There are no supermarkets, ATMs, footpaths, or streetlights, and most locals are tucked up in bed by 9pm.
Ironically, however, this quiet existence has become a tourist attraction because when the lights go out, the lights come on. You just have to look up.
With minimal air and light pollution, Great Barrier Island has some of the clearest, most dazzling night skies in the world.
Billions of stars twinkle like a disco ball, with the Milky Way an illuminated stairway to heaven. There are planets and satellites, and constellations are a puzzling, join-the-dots challenge for the imagination.
Great Barrier Island’s skies are so clear that in June 2017 it joined just three other places in the world that have been awarded Dark Sky Sanctuary status, and became the first island to be recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association.
The designation is based on scientifically measured darkness of sky, and provides principles to formally preserve and protect the nightscape through responsible lighting practices and public education.
‘‘To be a Dark Sky Sanctuary, you need an mpsas [magnitude per square arc second] of 21.5, and we had an average of 21.79,’’ says Hilde Hoven, from Good Heavens Dark Sky Experiences. ‘‘Every step on that scale is twice as dark; Auckland is 18, so you can see 10 times more stars here than you can in Auckland.’’
As a Dark Sky Ambassador, Hoven’s mission is to share the wonders of the night sky with visitors, educate them about what they are seeing, and inspire further exploration of the universe.
Originally from The Netherlands, her obsession with the stars is relatively recent, an unavoidable side-effect of living in such a pristine landscape.
‘‘When I first arrived here [19 years ago], I could immediately see the difference – there’s so much light pollution in Europe. When the Dark Sky application went in, locals started an astronomy club – then we saw an economic opportunity, as we knew there would be people coming to the island specifically to look at the stars.’’
A prerequisite for star-gazing, however, is good weather, and during my one-night stay on Aotea, the island experienced four seasons in one day: patches of sunshine tempered by gusty winds and squalling rain showers. By sunset, a heavy bank of cloud had formed overhead, and my daughter and I feared our nocturnal experience with Good Heavens might be a no-go.
Regardless, as daylight faded, Hoven arrived at Trillium Lodge – a luxury B&B perched on a headland overlooking Tryphena Harbour in the island’s south – hauling an enormous Newtonian Dobsonian telescope and several portable ‘‘moon chairs’’, setting them up on the open-air deck with steadfast optimism.
‘‘We usually recommend people coming to stargaze to book two or three nights’ accommodation,’’ she told us. ‘‘We tend to have a 30 to 40 per cent hit rate, so we can move them around if the weather is dodgy. Like tonight … though there’s no Plan B for you, unfortunately.’’
Instead, we reluctantly retreat to a cosy lounge warmed by a roaring fire to watch a computer presentation about what to expect on a typical Good Heavens tour. But suddenly, through Trillium Lodge’s picture windows, a glow appears just above the horizon.
‘‘Look, a star!’’ I squawk with embarrassing, childlike enthusiasm. ‘‘Let’s go and look at it.’’
Of course, I’m wrong – it’s a planet, the gaseous Jupiter, glowing orange as it sets in the west, and surrounded by 79 moons, just visible through Hoven’s monster telescope. Nearby, we also spy Mercury, only partly illuminated by the sun and appearing as a faint gibbous ball peeping out from under the clouds.
After focusing on the horizon, we step back from the telescope and gaze up, to discover the curtains have miraculously parted, revealing a black velvet backdrop scattered with sequins. We clap our hands with glee: let the celestial show begin!
First, Hoven points out some constellations: Scorpius, the zodiac sign of Scorpio, known in Ma¯ ori lore as Ma¯ ui’s fish hook, used by the demigod to haul New Zealand’s North Island out of the depths; and the Southern Cross, with pointers Alpha and Beta Centauri marking the route to the South Celestial Pole.
Appearing as smudgy clouds are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, satellite dwarf galaxies that can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere. Consisting of billions of stars and nebulae bound by gravitational forces, these were important navigational tools for Polynesian wayfarers, and were believed by Ma¯ ori to be predictors of wind.
Another exquisite sight is the planet Saturn, the icy rings clearly visible after squinting and adjusting the focus on the telescope. A much easier target is Mars, bold and fireball red, commanding the sky directly overhead.
To me, however, the supernova of the diorama is the brilliantly named 47 Tucanae, a globular cluster that appears as a single star to the naked eye. However, through the telescope it’s a glittering explosion of fairy dust, with several million stars radiating from a central bright core.
‘‘It’s so easy to take this all for granted,’’ Hoven says as we pause for a chat over a mug of hot tea, kindly delivered by Trillium Lodge host Jo Medland, along with blankets and hot-water bottles.
‘‘People just don’t go out at night any more – even here, they used to go out to use the long-drop or turn on their generators, but most have solar panels now so there’s no reason to step outside.
‘‘And if they do, they don’t look up. I just find it amazing – there’s so much more to it than little
twinkles,’’ Hoven says. The celestial canvas we were witnessing is only a fraction of its usual brilliance. The best season for stargazing, she says, is winter, when the air is crisper, the centre of the Milky Way is clearly visible, as are most of the planets.
Time on the Trillium deck passes as quickly as a shooting star and by 11pm, any remaining house lights across the bay have been extinguished. The clouds too have re-emerged, curtains closed – suddenly there’s nothing to see, and we’re enfolded once again in darkness.
Great Barrier Island has some of the clearest, most dazzling night skies in the world. So clear, in fact, that in June 2017 it joined just three other places in the world that have been awarded Dark Sky Sanctuary status.
You don’t have crowds to worry about on Great Barrier Island’s beaches.