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This story was updated on 5 March 2019.
South Africa might soon be home to a new International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Tess Paterson looks at the rise of astro tourism, and why protecting our dark skies has such significance.
Into the dark
Kim Nixon, managing director of Wilderness Safaris Botswana, has what you might call a very cool job. Overseeing a number of private camps in different concessions, he’s in the know when it comes to savouring the splendours of the Dark Continent.
“One thing we’re seeing more of, and it’s something our clients are telling us, is the fascination with truly dark skies,” he says. “It’s an increased rarity in developed parts of the world, and there’s a definite movement towards these ‘life-changing’ interactions with nature.”
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In Botswana, dark skies are everywhere, easily accessible by diehard campers and lodge-lovers alike. “From an eco-tourism perspective, the premise is based on high-cost, low-impact destinations,” explains Kim. Take the Abu Concession in the Okavango Delta, a 175 000ha stretch of wilderness with just 30 guest beds available per night. Or the Central Kalahari game reserve, where a handful of camps share some 52 800km² of spectacular open nothingness. We’re talking clean, dry air, and skies so inky that at dark moon you’ll battle to see your hand in front of your face.
Shining a light on pollution
With its low humidity levels and sparse population, Namibia fits the profile perfectly. Much of the country boasts a marked absence of pollution from giant billboards, streetlights and industrial lighting; extraneous, wasted light that blazes unshielded above more developed sprawls. With accreditation by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), NamibRand Nature Reserve was proclaimed Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012. It’s a key accolade, and a process that could yield numerous positive spin offs if achieved in South Africa.
“The IDA is relatively new,” explains NamibRand CEO Nils Odendaal. “However, it’s well documented that light pollution is undoubtedly a problem for ecology. Moths, for example, will be drawn to lights rather than pollinating flowers; predator-prey interactions are disturbed and migratory patterns disrupted.”
In the United States, Florida’s sea turtles are under severe threat as their nesting beaches, once quiet and dark, are bombarded by night lights. Instead of heading towards the moonlit ocean, hatchlings are disoriented by the bright shore-lights, which draw them towards land.
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Recognising these threats, the IDA has become an advocate for the protection of night skies. It is systematically raising awareness of the negative impact of light pollution – not just on our ecology, but on human life as well. Canada’s Mont-Mégantic reserve in Québec was designated as the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve in 2007.
“It’s interesting that, in the early days of the IDA, the focus was on addressing developed, light-polluted areas and fixing them, rather than keeping dark places dark,” says Dr George Tucker, a retired physics and astronomy professor based in New York.
As a member of the IDA, George played a key role in driving NamibRand’s successful application to become a Dark Sky Reserve. “Africa proved to be a completely different ball game. We were dealing with a minimal amount of light fixtures, and our light measurements taken via Sky Quality Metre were so low that at first the IDA couldn’t believe they were accurate.”
George is now collaborating with the !Ae!Hai Heritage Park within the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. “We’re hoping to have the park declared an International Dark Sky Sanctuary,” says George. “By definition, a sanctuary is in a remote and mostly undeveloped area with exceptionally dark skies. Above all, the designation is aimed at promoting the conservation of these fragile areas.”
Should accreditation take place, South Africa will be home to one of only three Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the Southern Hemisphere, after New Zealand and Chile. “Our hope would be for a strong involvement with the SANParks system, to protect as many pristine skies as possible,” says George.
Chile has a growing astro-tourism industry, and South Africa has similar resources in abundance, with areas like the Tankwa Karoo, Richtersveld and Namaqua national parks. And the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) near Sutherland and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. “As an add-on to the established wildlife tourism and excellent lodges, a Dark Sky Sanctuary would be a significant beginning for astro-tourism.”
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Andrew Schoeman, a photographic guide at andBeyond Kirkman’s Camp in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, agrees that this presents a fantastic opportunity. “Right now it’s our wildlife that brings people here. Visitors might do Cape Town, with shark diving and wine tasting, and then they want a safari. Dark skies are not the reason for their trip, but once they’re here, their reaction to the stars is one of wonder.” Protecting our dark-sky regions would be a vital marketing tool, both for established eco-tourism destinations and more remote ones like the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Dr Robin Catchpole, researcher and astronomer at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy, says that more people are seeking getaways where they can experience the night skies. “The added bonus of the Southern Hemisphere is that it contains the brightest part of the Milky Way looking towards the centre of our galaxy,” he explains. “The two Magellanic clouds are also visible, and the closest star, the brightest star and the Southern Cross. Another thing only visible in the darkest sky is the zodiacal light, a triangle of light rising above the horizon that is caused by dust in the solar system.”
A plethora of lodges already offers stargazing as a major drawcard. At andBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in NamibRand, roving astronomer Paul Russell introduces guests to the night skies assisted by a Meade 12-inch LX2000 telescope. He’s also adept at astro photography, something that guests are increasingly keen to try.
“We’ll head up to the observatory after dark and begin by pointing out the Milky Way. Depending on the time of year, you might see Jupiter, replete with its striped bands, red spot and full Galilean moons. Our visitors’ first response is often ‘is it real?’ They’re just astounded.” Paul also likes to do distance demonstrations in light years. “We’ll identify Alpha Centauri, our nearest star at 4,3 light years away. Then a globular cluster that’s 18 000 light years away. You end up looking back in time about 50 million years – it’s a life-altering experience.”
Bordering the Camdeboo National Park in the Eastern Cape, Samara Private Game Reserve has added a star-bed to its bushveld repertoire. Picture a secluded, raised deck surrounded by 70 000 acres of rugged, mountainous landscape. Then add a four-poster bed, mohair blankets and a mozzie net. Weather permitting, it’s one of the greatest star-fests you’ll ever witness.
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“Before we developed the sleep-out, I remember sitting mesmerised at Karoo Lodge under a sky bathed in stars,” says owner Sarah Tompkins. “The star-bed experience is about regaining that sense of wonder. It’s also about the rarity of silence, and connecting to natural sounds. There’s nothing like falling asleep to the call of a Scops Owl.”
“I think the connection to our universe is a deep and instinctual one, it’s carved into our DNA,” adds Kim Nixon. And yet, there is already light pollution in the Serengeti. One third of the world’s population can no longer see the Milky Way. As we lose our dark skies, we lose much that is precious. “Designating Dark Sky Reserves is not a magic bullet, but it’s a start,” says George. “Every single step taken to reduce light pollution is meaningful.”
Words Tess Paterson
Photography and Beyond, Wilderness Safaris, !Xaus Lodge and Samara