Light pollution, that’s the problem. Since the industrial revolution, a blanket of artificial light has spread across the world, illuminating cities. The effect created is called ‘skyglow’ – a combination of millions of bulbs glowing in unison and the refraction of mass light as it hits the atmosphere. In 1988, two astronomers founded the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), hoping to preserve the night sky for posterity. Their aim was to educate and campaign against the exponential growth in light pollution, because with too much light pollution we cannot see the stars. The IDA has a dark-sky certification program that recognises communities, parks and reserves where artificial light is tightly controlled. In 2015, they named the world’s first Dark-Sky Sanctuary, the AURA Observatory, in the Elqui Valley of northern Chile, where you can stare deep into the sparkling universe.
More than 15,000 stars are visible in a truly dark sky, adrift in the Milky Way, and almost 30 meteors are visible each hour. Compare that to 500-odd stars visible above Europe and the United States. It almost breaks your heart to know the things we haven’t seen. Below are some of the dream destinations for stargazers: ‘dark sky’ places, as designated by the IDA. Travel there, and you’re on your way to see the whole galaxy.
#1 Aoraki Mackenzie (New Zealand)
Located on the South Island of New Zealand, the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve comprises the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin. It is the world’s largest Dark Sky Reserve, with over 4,300 square kilometres around Lake Tekapo set aside for stargazing. Along with the Lord of the Rings glory of the South Island landscape, Aoraki Mackenzie is one of the clearest places in the Southern Hemisphere to view the night skies.
#2 NamibRand Nature Reserve (Namibia)
Home to Oryx and springbock, baboons, zebra and African wildcats, the Namibia’s NamibRand Nature Reserve is also one of the darkest places on earth. By day, you can explore the unique ecology and wildlife of the southwest Namib Desert, by night you can lie in an open air unit and count the endless shimmering stars.
#3 Snowdonia National Park (Wales)
In the small and fiercely lit United Kingdom, the 2,100-square-mile Snowdonia National Park is one of the last true dark places. Known for its spectacular, craggy peaks and vast underground caverns, Snowdonia is the jewel of Wales, where thousands of stars hang in a brilliant northern sky.
#4 Zselic National Landscape Protection Area (Hungary)
The Zselic Starry Sky Park is a designated dark-sky zone in the heart of a 10,500-hectare woodland. One of the two stargazer haunts in Hungary, it is a place where the Milky Way, Zodiacal light and other faint interstellar phenomena are clearly visible on a clear night, including the elusive Triangulum Galaxy.
#5 Big Bend National Park (U.S.)
America’s certified Dark Sky Parks include Death Valley and the Grand Canyon National Park, but Big Bend is the most remote and the least travelled destination. From the deep south of Texas, Big Bend stretches across the Rio Grande, down into Mexico. Under an epic sky, holding vast red ochre mountain ranges, dozens of cacti species and hundreds of birds, coyote and invisible creatures, Big Bend is like a distant planet. At night, it’s a monumental tomb under a luminous glowing sky.
#6 Yeongyang Firefly Eco Park (South Korea)
Just 4.5 hours drive from Seoul, the Yeongyang Firefly Eco Park is in the Wangpi River valley on the far eastern edge of the country, sheltered from South Korea’s high population density by a belt of un-farmable mountains. In addition to the spectacular view of the stars, the darkness of Yoengyang is designed to protect millions of glowing fireflies.
#7 Pic du Midi (France)
Overlooking the Spanish border, the Pic du Midi International Dark Sky Reserve sprawls across the Pyrénées National Park and the Pyrénées-Mont Perdu UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perched on a staggering peak above a world-class ski site, the Pic Du Midi Observatory is covered in snow in winter months, and blanketed by stars.
#8 Mont-Mégantic (Québec)
Mont-Mégantic was the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. Located in a national park close the US border, the Reserve protects Mont Mégantic Observatory, a glorious white dome on the top of a mountain. When Mont-Mégantic was designated a dark sky reserve, 2,500 light fittings were changed in the nearby town of Sherbrooke, resulting in a 25% reduction in light pollution and an outstanding view of the stars.
(Lead image: Kris Williams/Flickr)
Simone Ubaldi is a ghostwriter, music journalist, film critic and frequent flyer. She has written for The Age, The Monthly, triple j Mag, Paper Sea, Faster Louder and various other publications, and appeared on ABC Radio National, triple j and Melbourne's 3RRR FM. She has co-authored four books, including memoirs of Bon Scott and Mark 'Chopper' Read, and she stashes a lot of her writing here.