If there’s one thing humans across the globe have been doing since time immemorial, it’s looking up at the dark night sky and feeling awe. The movements of celestial bodies in the heavens have filled us with both curiosity and a sense of beauty, sometimes coupled with insignificance and loneliness. Gazing up at the stars can be a humbling, mystifying experience and the southern hemisphere is actually better situated to gaze into our home galaxy, the Milky Way. These 7 destinations provide some of the best stargazing experiences in the southern half of the globe:
7. Wiruna -Australia
Wiruna isn’t an International Dark-Sky Association-certified site, but it is an area in New South Wales that has been specifically designated for stargazers. Since 1993, in May of each year, astronomers of all stripes, from professionals to amateurs, gather here amid the eucalyptus to celebrate the South Pacific Star Party. The Astronomical Society of New South Wales owns the land and provides observation facilities, as well as accommodations for stargazers from around the world. Wiruna is near Ilford, about 220 kilometers northwest of Sydney. The area is considered one of the premier stargazing sites in Australia and, indeed, the world over. Although the ASNSW does hold some open nights, Wiruna is generally open only to ASNSW members, members of other astronomical societies and their guests. The society also has an observatory nearby, where they hold some of their public open nights.
6. Cape Town -South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa, is the home of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). Founded in 1972 and operated by the National Research Foundation of South Africa, the SAAO has a number of telescopes and serves as a link for global scientific and technological collaboration. The primary telescopes, including the South African Large Telescope (SALT), are located at the Sutherland site, some 370 kilometers from the Cape Town site. While the SAAO may seem like it’s too technical for amateur astronomers, it hosts open nights throughout the year when visitors can talk to scientists. Open nights are held twice monthly, on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month, beginning at 8 p.m. Guided tours through the facility’s museums are also available. Here, you can see the Crux constellation and in April 2015, the SAAO discovered the first comet in South Africa in 35 years.
5. NambiRand Nature Reserve -Nambia
The NambiRand Nature Reserve in Nambia is one of the southern hemisphere’s few certified Dark Sky reserves and the only one in Africa. It was officially designated by the IDA in 2012. The park is a large private preserve, one of the largest in Africa, that operates primarily on the proceeds of low-impact tourism. Run by the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust Centre, the reserve was established to protect and conserve the unique ecology of the Namib Desert. The NaDEET Centre runs programs to educate guests about the environment, including the sky. Overnight programs give visitors the opportunity to sleep in open-air units at the Soussusvlei Desert Lodge where they can view the stunning night sky in one of the darkest locations on the planet. Trail guides are trained in aspects of astronomy, which they share with guests as they take in views of the night sky.
4. Uluru -Australia
While Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) isn’t designated as a Dark Sky Reserve by the IDA, it is undoubtedly one of the best stargazing spots in Australia. While the inselberg is stunning by day and most famous for its red glow at dawn and dusk, stick around after hours to witness an amazing display across the nighttime canopy. Part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and a scared place for the Anangu people, Uluru lies more than 300 kilometers from the nearest large town, Alice Springs. That means the surrounding area is relatively free of light pollution. The area is easily accessible by highway. Uluru rises to a height of 863 m (2,831 ft), meaning that you can get above any potential light from vehicles along the highway—and get just a little bit closer to the stars. Look for the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and the aurora australis.
3. Kruger National Park -South Africa
One of the largest game reserves on the African continent is also one of the best places to view the southern night skies. The park is home to 9 different trails, some of which require overnight stays in the park to traverse. There are several camps and lodges in the park as well, where visitors can rest up overnight before heading out again. The wilderness areas of the park are virtually untouched by humans. Kruger also connects with parks in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Much of Kruger’s landscape is flat savannah and bushveld, and the park is remote enough that light pollution isn’t a concern here. At dusk each day, astronomy tours depart from Singita Game Reserves in the far east end of the park. Visitors should look for the Southern Cross, Scorpio and, if you’re lucky, the rings of Saturn.
2. Atacama Desert -Chile
The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is world-renowned for how dry it is; it’s reportedly the driest place on earth. People have compared parts of it to Mars, leading to film producers filming scenes set on Mars in this location and even NASA using it as a test site for eventual Mars missions. But the Atacama’s unique landscape also make it one of the best stargazing locations in the world. The harsh climate has discouraged people from settling in the desert, meaning there’s little threat of light pollution. The desert’s elevation and its location in the rainshadow of not 1, but 2 mountain chains mean it doesn’t even have clouds on most nights, leaving the sky clear and bright. Add in the fact that the Atacama is located in the southern hemisphere and you have a winning combination that draws astronomers from around the world.
1. Aoraki Mackenzie -New Zealand
Located on New Zealand’s South Island, Aoraki Mackenzie is another IDA-certified Dark Sky Reserve comprising Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin. Lighting control started in the 1980s to minimize light pollution experienced by Mt. John Observatory. Since then, lighting control has been used to protect wildlife, promote nightsky tourism and even preserve Maori culture, as the indigenous peoples of the island used the stars to navigate the island and incorporated them in their lore. Since 2012, Aoraki has been a Dark Sky Reserve, but it has long been recognized as one of the best stargazing places on earth—turning the area into a reserve ensures that Aoraki stays that way for future generations. The Hillary Deck offers telescopes for visitors, allowing a more up-close look at the heavenly bodies. Big Sky Stargazing offers an orientation at the Digital Dome Planetarium, introducing features of the southern night sky.