Seeing Stars: The Astronomical Rise of Australia’s Dark Sky Tourism | Holidays in Australia
An Aboriginal dream story tells of fire magic at the foot of Kambughuda, protecting his younger sisters from the hunter Nyeeruna.
History doesn’t just exist in the oral tradition of the world’s oldest living cultures, it unfolds in the night sky; the hunter Nyeeruna is known in Western astrological tradition as Orion; Kambughuda’s fire magic is the red star Aldebaran and its little sisters the constellation Pleiades.
Krystal De Napoli, an astrophysicist from Gomeroi, told us the story – which demonstrates that Indigenous Australians knew about the variable stars around Orion long before European astronomers – at Nocturna, the dark sky party on the east coast of Tasmania, which concludes the science and arts festival on Beaker Street in Hobart.
The constellations “are our books”, says De Napoli. But this library is masked by light pollution.
More 80% of the world’s population now live in regions where they cannot see the stars. Beyond depriving humans of starlight, light pollution threatens creatures of the night; bats, bogongs, turtles and fireflies are all affected.
But as “skyglow” increasingly obscures the stars, Australians and New Zealanders are seeking darkness to stargaze in ever-increasing numbers.
The Mackenzie region in New Zealand’s South Island has seen a 300% increase in visitors from Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin has been named an International Sky Reserve starred in 2012.
Dark Skies Tasmania chairman Landon Bannister says the rise of astrotourism has happened organically. He sees it as part of a larger shift towards reconnecting with nature.
“It’s really important to embrace the darkness. One of the nicest things about stargazing is taking the time to let your dark eyes adjust. We spend so much time under artificial light now.
The desire to see stars benefits rural communities. Urban billboards, parking lots and multi-story office buildings lit all night are among the biggest sources of light pollution.
Bannister says you need to drive around three hours from cities like Melbourne and Sydney to see the Milky Way – and even further from cities in the US and Europe. But in places like New Zealand and Tasmania, you only need to drive 30 minutes out of town to see the drifts of light that give the Milky Way its name.
Bannister says astrotourism isn’t just low-impact, it’s actually essential for protecting dark skies. “It creates awareness and through awareness…people start to appreciate what they have. And that’s when people start to act to protect what they have. He highlights Mackenzie’s success and says that now other areas of New Zealand are seeking dark sky accreditation, hoping to replicate the region’s popularity.
“It really is the easiest pollutant to fix,” says Bannister. Unlike water and air pollution, light pollution does not take decades to reverse. “The stars are still there… you literally just flip a switch.”
While some light is essential for human safety, the worst effects of light pollution can be mitigated by keeping artificial light dim and warm. In Nocturna, a sympathetic yellow lighting snake with dark skies ran along the ground, guiding visitors between areas. Timers that turn off unnecessary light also help.
Very dim lighting requires some tweaking and careful footwork, but events like Nocturna and year-round Dark Sky venues demonstrate that it’s possible to get by at night with significantly less light. In doing so, we open ourselves up to other possibilities.
Thanks to Nocturna’s dim lights, Alpha Centauri was visible, even through the cloud cover. Looking through a Schmidt Cassegraine long-focus telescope, I spot it: a tiny detail of the universe magnified with more detail than I’ve seen before.
I walked away from the lens, stunned, but Matthew McDonnell of the Astronomical Society of Tasmania urged me to look again. Alpha Centauri is actually a double star, two gravitationally bound stars orbiting each other. Sure enough, there was a second circle right behind the first.
McDonnell says double and triple stars are actually the norm in space – making up 80% of stars – but you need a telescope of that strength to reveal the split.
Whether looking through a telescope or with the naked eye, Nocturna’s speech constantly returned to the awe that the night sky can arouse in us.
“We’ve always had the stars there to help us dream bigger things and fire our imaginations, but also to remind us how small we are in the universe,” says Bannister. “Really, it’s a deeply human experience.”
where to see the stars
Australia is home to three official “dark sky locations” designated by the International Dark Sky Association (ISDA) whose accreditation includes categories such as parks, reserves and sanctuaries. These are the dark sky equivalent of a World Heritage List, but there are also plenty of stargazing to enjoy outside of officially listed areas.
To see the sky in spectacle, time your visit with a meteor shower. In 2022, the Orionids will peak October 21-22; the Leonids will peak November 17-18 and the Geminids will peak December 14-15.
Warrumbungle Dark Sky Park (New South Wales)
The Warrumbungles call themselves the “astronomical capital of Australia”. It became the country’s first ISDA Dark Sky Park in 2016 and is home to the country first astronomical observatory.
During the day, the national park offers great hikes around its rocky and volcanic mountain landscape. At night, the sky is like a jewel thanks to strict measures to protect against light pollution.
Located about a six-hour drive northwest of Sydney, those coming from the east can break up the trip with a stop at the wine and food hub of Mudgee. For accommodation, you can camp in the national park (but you’ll need to book several months in advance) or stay in Coonabarabran, a 30-minute drive away. Many holiday homes in the region are equipped with telescopes.
Murray River Dark Sky Preserve (South Australia)
The reserve, which received ISDA accreditation in 2019, includes 80 km of the Murray River, small townships and conservation parks.
Adelaide is only 90 minutes away, but Mount Lofty Ranges create a natural barrier, protecting the reserve from urban lighting.
In addition to stargazing, there are water activities like canoeing, fishing, and cruises along the Murray.
The Jump-Up (Queensland)
Named an ISDA Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2019, the Jump-Up sits approximately 270m above sea level and sits atop a mesa plateau called Vindex Range, from which astronomers can appreciate the expanse of the galaxy.
The Jump-Up is part of Australia’s Age of Dinosaurs Museum, which houses the largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils in the world. The museum has a gallery of stars viewing area that is free and open year-round.
The site is on the outskirts of the outback town of Winton, 600 km southwest of Townsville.
Bindon (Western Australia)
This town, less than an hour’s drive from Perth, holds a special place in the history of space travel. It housed the Muchea tracking station, which communicated with astronauts in orbit in the early 1960s.
You can admire the reflection of stars in the water at Spoonbill Lake or set up your own telescope at the Brockman Centre, which is a designated viewing area.
If you don’t have a telescope, head to the nearby town of Gingin where the Gravity Discovery Center and Observatory offers regular night tours.
East Point Reserve (North territory)
Just a few miles from downtown Darwin, the reserve is known for its year-round safe saltwater swimming at Lake Alexander, and also offers great stargazing views at night.
If you want to venture further in your stargazing adventures in the Northern Territory, Uluru, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine all offer near pristine skies.
valley of snakes (Victoria)
Less than two hours from Melbourne, Snake Valley is an official Australian Dark Sky Sitelocated between Ballarat and Beaufort in the west of the state.
You can marvel at the universe on your own or join the Snake Valley Astronomical Associationmonthly club nights and semi-regular astronomy lessons, or visit the nearby Ballarat Observatory.
Due to Tasmania’s proximity to Antarctica, with any luck you’ll be able to catch the Northern Lights (Aurora Australis) any night in the south of the state, although they are more common from winter at the spring equinox.
Taroona is only a 15 minute drive from Hobart and can offer excellent stargazing, but for the best opportunities to see an aurora head further south to Cockle Creektwo hours from the capital.
Guardian Australia visited Tasmania as a guest of Beaker Street Science Festival.