Kawarau Gibbston night skies officially certified by international DarkSky body

Queenstown’s Gibbston is officially now home to ‘‘5-billion star accommodation’’.

DarkSky International is today announcing the certification of the Kawarau Gibbston Dark Sky Park.

It’s just the seventh location in New Zealand to receive the international certification, and the first in the Queenstown-Lakes.

The park comprises 25 square kilometres, including the Gibbston Character and Gibbston Valley Resort zones, and sits only behind Rakiura/Stewart Island Dark Sky Sanctuary as the closest internationally-certified Dark Sky place in the world to the southern geomagnetic (auroral) pole.

Dark Sky Places programme manager Amber Harrison says the certification helps mitigate development impacts, ensuring residents and visitors can enjoy ‘‘naturally dark skies’’ for years to come.

‘‘These zones have diligently protected rural ecology, viticulture and the pristine night sky.

‘‘We look forward to collaborating with Gibbston Community Association (GCA) advocates to enhance dark sky protections in the region further,’’ she says.

The application was developed by the GCA after unanimous community approval at last June’s annual meeting.

GCA chair Rose Cross says the association was founded in 1999, tasked with protecting, preserving and promoting the unique characteristics of Gibbston as an area of ‘‘special character’’.

‘‘Today, 25 years on, we have taken the next step in that endeavour.’’

GCA Dark Sky lead Professor Brian Boyle says the certification is ‘‘very significant’’ and means the district can leverage the international recognition to help diversify the economy, through astro tourism.

‘‘I’m delighted that the international body has recognised that we have something worth promoting and protecting here.’’

‘We don’t know how lucky we are’

Boyle points out, we’re located within one of the ‘‘0.1% of inhabited land on Earth’’ where both the Aurora and centre of the Milky Way galaxy are clearly visible.

“We promote our skiing, our wine, our trails, we promote everything – quite rightly so – but look up.

“There’s another resource we haven’t taken full advantage of yet,

‘‘I would have thought that’s something to market to our tourists coming in.’’

Looking up … Retired astronomy professor Brian Boyle

How Gibbston businesses seize the opportunity will be up to them, he says, noting Iceland makes a “very good revenue” out of astro tourism during winter.

‘‘Having the Dark Sky status will give us that international cache … a place where you can come in and see the sky in its pristine state.’’

Already, he’s hoping to expand the status into the Remarkables and Pisa conservation areas, along with neighbouring communities including Cardrona, Bannockburn and Lowburn.

If successful, there’s a chance to connect Central Otago, Gibbston and Glenorchy (see below) to generate a ‘‘significant scale’’ of dark sky in Otago which could be leveraged to ultimately have Aotearoa New Zealand recognised as a ‘Dark Sky Nation’.

He’s keen to make the case to the various communities and councils about the benefits, and doing it hand-in-hand with the inevitable development of the region.

‘‘I commend [council] for their vision in establishing things like the Gibbston Character Zone and the Gibbston Valley Resort Zone with the policies that already exist within the district plan — those were sufficient to get us over the line.’’

Queenstown mayor Glyn Lewers says he’s ‘‘delighted’’ the Kawarau Gibbston Dark Sky Park’s been created.

‘‘It is particularly pleasing that the success of this application is founded on council’s lighting strategies and policies as a means to protect and promote this increasingly valuable natural resource.’’

Boyle says Kiwis — and Queenstown-Lakes residents — don’t know how lucky we are in that regard.

‘‘Globally, the night sky brightness around the world has doubled in the last eight years — essentially, we’ve robbed people of half the stars in less than a decade.

‘‘Imagine if the art galleries of the world took away half their paintings every eight years, what a loss to humanity that would be.

‘‘People don’t see the stars any longer, and here, we’ve taken this resource for granted.

“This is just an opportunity to promote it, particularly around Queenstown, to the rest of the world.’’

Glenorchy’s going for it, too


The Tāhuna Glenorchy Dark Skies group is preparing to submit an application to DarkSky International to become a Dark Sky Sanctuary.

If successful, it’ll be just the third certified Dark Sky Sanctuary in the country, and the first inland.

The application process requires proof skies within the proposed 215,000-hectare sanctuary aren’t polluted by light domes emanating either from the township, or nearby sources, such as Queenstown or Wānaka.

Over summer, Department of Conservation wardens from the Greenstone, McKellar, Dart, Routeburn Falls and Routeburn Flats hut have collected data monthly at the new moon, typically between midnight and 2am, using meters funded by an Otago University seed grant.

It’ll be added to measurements taken since 2020 at seven points in the proposed area and submitted as evidence, along with letters of support from stakeholders, organisations and community groups.

Tāhuna Glenorchy Dark Skies group chair Leslie Van Gelder says the proposed sanctuary will include an historical area comprising eight high country sheep stations that ring the northern end of Lake Whakatipu.

Boasting particularly dark skies, it’d be bounded by the Whaakari Richardson Range, the Humbolt Mountains, Bennett’s Bluff and more than 100,000 hectares of UNESCO World Heritage site in Tititea Mt Aspiring National Park.

They plan to submit the formal application this month.

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