Aurora Australis seen from Lake Dunstan, Cromwell. © NCHANT

Southern stars: see the rare but spectacular Aurora Australis

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As world populations continue to gather in cities, and those cities grow, the chance to gaze longingly at the stars and really see them above the urban glow is diminishing.

But romantics, take heart! The heart of the South Island has always been renowned for its clear skies, and so has great potential for gazing at millions of stars that would pass you by anywhere else.

In 2012, a 4300sq km area of South Canterbury (clue: that’s helluva big) was declared a ‘Dark Sky Reserve’. One of eight globally, it’s the largest one in the world. (Go us!)

What does it do? How do they turn all the lights out? They don’t need to. Look around, there’s not much here. And it makes the best of that and aims to keep it that way. The answer is in its name: you want to see galaxies, then get yourself up here.

Where? Well, the Mount John Observatory is kind of the centre of the whole thing. It’s one of the best places on the planet to look out for other planets. And constellations, moon craters, distant galaxies.

Amazingly, from here you can also see, when conditions are right, the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights.

They are utterly unforgettable. And unpredictable unfortunately. Best viewed in the winter months, this is one of the best places in the country to catch a glimpse of them.

The planetarium within the complex gives you an amazing 3D tour of what’s up there, so you know what to look for when you get an eye on the telescope.

There you go: you’re an astro-tourist. And if you want to get right-sized about your place in the universe, this is the place to do it. Not feeling so important now, are you!

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