TEKAPO – This little town is in the dark and proud of it.
Where other places greet the night by lighting up their streets and tourist attractions, this one goes the other way- low-energy sodium lamps are shielded from above, and household lights must face down, not up.
The purpose: to bring out the stars. The town of 830 people on New Zealand’s South Island is on a mission to protect the sight of the night sky, even as it disappears behind light and haze in many parts of the world.
The ultimate prize would be Unesco’s approval for the first “starlight reserve”, and already the “astro tourists” are coming. A group of 25 are huddled at midnight on a bare New Zealand hilltop, their faces numbed by an icy wind as they gaze up at the Milky Way.
“It’s awesome, I mean it’s like beyond words,” says Simon Venvoort, 46, a management consultant from Amsterdam. “You see so much you aren’t aware of. You know that two generations now are growing up not being aware that all this is out there because … half of the world is light-polluted.”
It’s estimated that about one fifth of the world’s population and more than two-thirds in the US cannot see the Milky Way from their homes. The “starlight reserve” idea germinated in Unesco in 2005. Tekapo, in the McKenzie Basin of South Island, was already on its own track, seeking what locals were calling their “park in the sky”. So Tekapo was suggested as a pilot site because of its haze-free sky and lighting controls already in place.
A Unesco working party agreed last month to study what Graeme Murray, chairman of the Mackenzie Tourism and Development Board, calls “a heritage park in the sky”.