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.

Sunday Star-Times - - Escape -

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.

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