Conference Title

Date, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve

The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve was created in June 2012. It is recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson Arizona, and its recognition as a Reserve followed a detailed application made by the Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Working Party in January 2012.

The recognition of the new reserve was announced at the opening of the Starlight Conference held in Tekapo in June 2012 (see the Third International Starlight Conference website).

International recognition

Tekapo Sign

The Dark Sky reserve is recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association, which is the international body giving accreditation for Dark Sky Reserves and Dark Sky Places world-wide.

The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is the world’s largest such reserve (4367 square km), the first in the southern hemisphere and the first to be declared with gold tier status, the highest that can be accorded, and its formation is a recognition of the pristine skies of the Mackenzie which are essentially completely free of light pollution.

Goals of the reserve

The goals of the reserve are to promote star-gazing and astro-tourism, as well as to protect the astronomical research at Mt John University Observatory.

The observatory is the astronomical research station operated by the University of Canterbury and has four optical telescopes for observing variable and binary stars, for work on extrasolar planets, the Galactic Centre, the Magellanic Clouds, comets, near-Earth asteroids and the study of stellar spectra at high resolution. It is the world’s southernmost astronomical observatory at 44 degrees south.

Management of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve

The International Dark Sky Reserve is managed by a Board with representatives from the University of Canterbury, the Mackenzie District Council, Department of Conservation, the Royal Astronomical Society of NZ, the International Dark-Sky Association (Tucson AZ), Ngai Tahu and a representative of the tourism industry. AMIDSR Board has details of current board members.

The surrounding rural areas and communities of Twizel, Mt Cook Village and Tekapo

There are three small communities inside the Reserve. They are Lake Tekapo Village (population about 300), Twizel population 1100) and Mt Cook Village (population 250). These are the permanent resident populations, but the figures in all three communities more than double with the tourist population in the summer months. See General information on Lake Tekapo (Tekapo Tourism website), Twizel, gateway to Aoraki/Mt Cook website and Aoraki/Mt Cook website for more information.

The landscape in the Reserve outside these communities comprises a vast high country tussock plateau called the Mackenzie Basin, right in the centre of New Zealand’s South Island, carved out by glaciers in past ice ages, the last one being some 18,000 years ago. Apart from tourism, the main economic activity in the Mackenzie Basin is sheep farming.

The Basin is ringed by mountains in all directions, the Southern Alps and Ben Ohau Range to the west, the Two Thumb Range to the east, the Sibbald Range to the north. And a hundred kilometers to the south, the Hawkdun Range in Central Otago is nearly always clearly visible. In the centre of this magnificent panorama is Mt John, known as a roche moutonnée for its glacial formation – a mere pimple in a vast landscape, resembling the central peak of a lunar crater.

But this is not all: Lake Tekapo, stretching 25 km north to south, radiates with a magnificent turquoise-blue hue. The colour, which looks impossibly vibrant for any creation of nature, is explained by scattering of the violet rays of sunlight by fine glacial silt particles suspended in the water. Lake Pukaki, some 30 km in length, is also inside the reserve, and its waters are a milkier pale blue, being more heavily laden with glacial silt.

Banner image courtesy of Fraser Gunn Photography, Tekapo