Eight cosy outdoor chairs, each one equipped with a pair of binoculars, are set up on the tussock verge above Medlands Beach, a crescent of sand located 10 minutes’ drive south of New Zealand’s Claris, the airstrip on Great Barrier Island. I lean back into the cushions, trying to take it all in.
“Sirius is the brightest star no matter where you are in the world,” star guide Deborah Kilgallon tells me. “It’s only 8.6 light years away. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, many thousands of times brighter than our sun, but it’s further away.” Using a laser pointer, Kilgallon connects the dots between seven stars in the shape of a saucepan. To me, this constellation looks like a pot, but to the ancient Greeks, it was the sword and belt of a giant: Orion.
Normally, you’d have to hike days into a national park to see a sky like this. The stars are hidden from most of us by the light of the cities we live in – 80% of humanity lives beneath light-polluted skies, while more than a third of the world’s population can’t see the cloud-like spiral arm of the Milky Way.
That’s what makes Great Barrier Island so special. It’s dark, but it’s inhabited by about 1,000 people. Being on the eastern edge of Auckland, it’s easy to reach. It’s part of the city, yet not quite, separated from it by 88km of ocean – far enough for Auckland’s bright lights to fade out. The island is long and narrow; you could drive across it in minutes, and top to bottom in a couple of hours, on winding roads that whisk you from view to view.
Here, every resident lives off the grid. The island has no traffic lights, no street lights, no commercial lighting, no reticulated electricity, no banks and no supermarket. It’s common for islanders to grow their own fruit and vegetables to supplement what’s available at the tiny store. There’s a sense of making do, of living carefully – with ingenuity and restraint – and of embracing nature. That means that when night enfolds the island, there’s nothing to drive it away.
In fact, Great Barrier is so unpolluted by light that in 2017 it was declared a Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark-Sky Association, which certifies places around the world in order to preserve the quality of their night skies. There are several levels of certification, and Great Barrier is one of the darkest – it’s one of only a handful of destinations so far to achieve sanctuary status, and the only island at that.
Now people come here for the sole reason of getting a good look at the night sky – some for the first time in their lives. Locals, too, have gained a new appreciation for what’s in their backyard. These days, resorts host astrophotography workshops and Great Barrier Island residents form one of the largest amateur astronomy groups in New Zealand, with about 100 members or 10% of the island’s population.
The minute I arrive at my bed-and-breakfast, Medlands Beach Lodge, I notice the telescope tucked into the corner of the living room. “I think we have more telescopes per capita than anywhere else,” says Gendie Somerville-Ryan, an islander and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the sanctuary. She has a big smile, a silver-blonde bob and the air of a person who gets things done.
But it wasn’t always like this. Two years ago, Great Barrier had a perfectly ordinary number of telescopes. Gendie and her husband, Richard, had moved to the island after a career spent overseas consulting in developing countries. Returning home, both realised that Great Barrier’s sky was something special, and that it needed protecting. They joined forces with Auckland astronomer Nalayini Davies to measure exactly how special it was.
The trio pulled an all-nighter to take a series of readings with an electronic brightness meter designed for astronomers. The brightness of stars is classified according to magnitude, a system devised by the Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy. The lower the magnitude, the brighter the star, and vice versa. How do you measure darkness? By determining the faintest star that can be detected – the one with the highest magnitude. That clear, moonless night confirmed what the group suspected: Great Barrier Island was very, very dark. Davies, who is on a personal quest to protect the sky from light pollution, was astonished. “All the night skies are deteriorating around the world,” she says. “[Great] Barrier is pristine.”
Next, the Somerville-Ryans wrote a report, convinced local businesses to reduce what little outdoor lighting they had, and arranged for 25 locals to receive astronomy training to become dark-sky ambassadors, with the idea that they’d pass on their knowledge to family, friends and visitors. Soon, the Dark Sky Sanctuary will become enshrined in law too. Richard tells me he’s working with the Auckland Council on legislation to ensure that any future development respects the island’s darkness. Amiable and chatty, he almost hums with enthusiasm, even when describing meetings with public officials. “Downtown Auckland, you’d be lucky to see 100 stars,” he says. “Great Barrier, on the same night, a very clear night, you could see maybe 5,000 stars – that’s the magnitude of difference we’re looking at.”
It’s a very clear night during my star tour, but the moon is waxing gibbous, like an inflating balloon, and my fellow astro-tourists and I cast sharply defined moon-shadows. Though the moon is barely three-quarters full, it’s bright enough to read by, and I understand why moonless nights are recommended for stargazing.
The waves on the beach below form a white-noise soundtrack as I peer through the telescope at Jupiter, a golden coin of a planet. I look at a star cluster called the Jewel Box, its central star a ruby-tinged flame, before sitting back to stare at the bright arm of the galaxy flung across the sky, like icing sugar dusting the night. It’s like looking back in time, I realise; by the time this light is reaching me, some of these stars are long dead. I’m witnessing astronomical ghosts.
Kilgallon points out the twin stars that form Gemini, then draws the crab, Cancer, and shows us our closest star, Alpha Centauri. It looks like one star, but it’s actually a binary system of two. “They’re sandwiched together like a double ice cream cone,” she says.
The island’s amateur astronomy group introduced Kilgallon to the stars. She loved learning about them so much that she became a dark-sky ambassador, and through the training, found two other women, Hilde Hoven and Orla Cumisky, who were equally enthusiastic. In 2017, they joined forces to form Good Heavens, the island’s first stargazing tour company.
Hoven is direct, yet carefully considered, and has her curly hair pulled back in a ponytail. Originally from the Netherlands, she arrived on Great Barrier Island in 1999, met a local and never really left, working as a translator, running a holiday home and leading star tours. For her, like the others, astronomy has opened up new worlds. “The sky had been something one-dimensional, two-dimensional, but this makes it three-dimensional,” she says.
I’m keen to put what I’ve learnt to the test. On my last night on the island, Mark Durling, the affable, laid-back proprietor of Medlands Beach Lodge, offers to set up his telescope outside for me, but I decide to take myself on a solo star tour instead, down at the beach. It’s only just become astronomical night – it takes about 90 minutes following sunset for the sun’s rays to fully disappear – but the sand still holds the heat of the day. When I lean back, the panoply of stars above is a scattered, confusing radiance, like an abstract painting of droplets. But soon, it begins to coalesce.
It’s as though I’m looking at the sketchbook of an artist who has jotted down only the tiniest gestures on the page – a curve of dots, an outline, a form. Some stars look old and faded, their polish worn. Some shine like beacons, fresh and new. Others waver like firelight, in and out of being. I can see Scorpius on the southern horizon, and the orange-red star pulsing at its heart, Antares. The bright “star” above it is actually Jupiter. I had looked at it up close through the Dobsonian the other night, and had seen the patches of its storms and three of its moons. I know which four-star kite is the Southern Cross, because I remember to look for the bright, identifying Pointers. Below the cross I see a patch of dark, blank space, and remember Kilgallon telling me that’s a dust cloud so thick that no starlight can get through.
For the first time, I have a map to the world above, not just the world below, and already I want to find out more. Hoven and Kilgallon had both warned me that this would happen. “The more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn,” said Kilgallon. “It just grows and grows and grows.”
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine