Having lived in Colorado, I thought I knew what dark skies looked like. In truth, I had no idea. Until I moved to New Zealand. How dark is it here? Well, in most places, on a partly cloudy night, the clouds show up as slightly grey, a bit lighter than the clear sky. Here in NZ, the clouds are completely black (because there is little/no light reflecting off them) and the night sky is actually a bit light (from starlight). The Milky Way is bright enough to cast shadows on the ground.
There is very little light pollution, especially on the South Island. And the Milky Way in the Southern Hemisphere is a lot more dramatic than up north. In Colorado, the galactic core, the brightest, most interesting part of the Milky Way, stays relatively low along the southern horizon. In New Zealand, it is front and centre in the night sky through most of fall, winter, and spring. Walking under the stars during a pre-dawn hike to Hooker Lake at Mount Cook is one of the highlights of my time here.
I’d gotten rid of all my astro gear when I moved from Colorado to London, but the dark skies here made me buy again. Not the whole shebang that I had before, but still a decent 8-inch Dobsonian — very light and easy to move around and set up meant it was easy to take it out anytime, anywhere.
The nearby Ashburton Lakes provided a great place for viewing. Miles away from civilization and darkness in every direction.
Even with standard camera equipment and no fancy astro-specific gear, it is very easy to capture great details of the night sky. Just a few seconds of exposure still allow a lot of starlight to be captured.
Even 10-15 minutes outside town yields great spots to stop for pictures.
Part of the attraction of the southern Milky Way is the fact that there are two galaxies easily visible with the naked eye — the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. They can spice up an otherwise “plain” night sky when the galactic core is not up.
Just an hour and a half away is the gold-rated Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Reserve, with Lake Tekapo being a central spot. Even with the town of Tekapo, the night sky is just brilliant.
The nearby Mt. John hosts a fantastic observatory. The views from the summit during the day are great.
But the views are even better at night. Earth and Sky, based in Tekapo, is the only outfit which offers tours to the observatory after dark. I highly recommend a night tour. The astronomers who provide the tour are very knowledgeable and clearly passionate about what they’re doing.
One of the things I’d wanted to photograph ever since moving is the Aurora Australis. Unfortunately, every time there was good solar activity, the weather didn’t cooperate, resulting in cloudy skies. Still, I kept at it.
So if you find yourself in New Zealand, make sure to look up after dark.