Protecting our pristine night skies for generations to come

At the head of Lake Whakatipu the stars shine brightly. On clear nights the Milky Way weaves a river across the sky while planets shine like bright beacons atop the mountain peaks.

Our sky is so dark it draws us to the light.

Video by Brian Boyle

Dark Sky Sanctuary

Glenorchy / Tahuna is in the process of applying to become an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. With only 21 currently designated sanctuaries in the world, and only 2 in New Zealand, we will be the first inland mountain sanctuary where you can touch the stars from the tops of our mountain peaks, see them reflected in the depths of the lake, and lie on your back in tussock meadows and count your lucky stars.

Sanctuary Area

The Glenorchy/Tahuna Dark Skies Sanctuary stretches over 200,000 ha encompassing the traditional “head of the lake” area from Mt Crighton Station around the mountains that make up the Head of the Lake to the mouth of the Greenstone River and Elfin Bay.

Following the catchments of Te Awa Whakatipu/Dart River and Puahere/Rees River, the sanctuary embraces 8 high country stations, the settlements of Glenorchy and Kinloch. It reaches far into Mt Aspiring National Park (UNESCO World Heritage country) to the wilderness of the Forbes and Barrier Ranges. Te Araroa, the Routeburn, Rees-Dart, and Greenstone Caples tracks all fall within the Sanctuary. Department of Conservation wardens have been helping us out by measuring the darkness out in the wilderness huts, using specialist recording equipment that we have provided.

Glenorchy Dark Skies Sanctuary Area

What is a Dark Sky Sanctuary?

According to the International Dark Skies Association’s website…

“An IDA Dark Sky Sanctuary is public or private land that has an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.

A sanctuary differs from a Dark Sky Park or Reserve in that it is typically situated in a very remote location with few (if any) nearby threats to the quality of its dark night skies and it does not otherwise meet the requirements for designation as a park or reserve. The typical geographic isolation of Dark Sky Sanctuaries significantly limits opportunities for public outreach, so a sanctuary designation is specifically designed to increase awareness of these fragile sites and promote their long-term conservation.”

Who designates a Dark Sky Sanctuary?

The International Dark Skies Association founded the International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) Program in 2001 to encourage communities, parks, and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education. There are 5 types of certifications:

  1. International Dark Sky Sanctuaries
    Sanctuaries are the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile.
  1. International Dark Sky Parks
    Parks are publicly- or privately-owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors.
  1. International Dark Sky Reserves
    Reserves consist of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core.
  1. Urban Night Sky Places
    Urban Night Sky Places are sites near or surrounded by large urban environs whose planning and design actively promote an authentic nighttime experience in the midst of significant artificial light at night.
  1. International Dark Sky Communities
    Communities are legally organized cities and towns that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents about the importance of dark skies.

Where is the Glenorchy / Tahuna Dark Skies Sanctuary in the process?

We are excited to announce that we are candidates for becoming a Dark Skies Sanctuary! Currently, we’re raising funds to support any alterations needed to our bid. We’ve already submitted our 1st completed bid and are eagerly awaiting the results of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) evaluation. While the IDA’s evaluation process is thorough and lengthy, we remain optimistic. If everything goes as planned, we hope to officially become a Dark Skies Sanctuary by 2025.

What does the Sanctuary mean for lighting in Glenorchy and environs?

Part of the application process involves a lighting inventory of the Sanctuary. We’ll be working with the community on education and working with QLDC to insure that we have the correct lighting to support wildlife and a dark skies environment, but still be bright enough to find your way home from the pub.

How does wildlife benefit from the Sanctuary?

Many of our local species thrive in the darkness. For over 20 years, Glenorchy has participated in the national critical long-tailed bat/pekapeka survey and we know that our population has been growing over the last few years thanks to the trapping efforts taking place. The lesser short-tailed bat has also been recorded in the Routeburn and our project creates a wonderful opportunity to help encourage them to flourish again. An aging tuna/eel population who have been trapped by the Clutha Dam also live in the waterways of the Head of the Lake. Our night moths, glow worms, and many invertebrate species also take advantage of the darkness and our improving habitat.

How is the Glenorchy / Tahuna Dark Skies Sanctuary connecting to arts and culture?

We see the Dark Skies as a source of inspiration and many of our creatives agree! We have partnered with Nature’s Symphony who hosted a first concert for the stars at Rees Valley Station featuring the beautiful work of pianist Luke Gadjus in April 2023. We hope to be a home for astrophotographers, creatives of all kinds, and in the future will host an arts competition inspired by the night sky called Nox. We look forward to seeing what emerges and welcome inquiries for partnerships.

What can I do to support the Glenorchy / Tahuna Dark Skies Sanctuary?

There are lots of ways to support the Dark Skies Sanctuary project. At the moment, we’re in need of financial support, so you can donate here: We also encourage you to come to our annual Glenorchy Matariki midwinter dinner and events we’re scheduling throughout the year. If you have special knowledge or a desire to connect in with us, let us know as we’d love to expand everyone’s understanding of the night skies

Dramatic Skies

At 45 degrees south the aurora australis is often visible and a delight for photographers who can capture its magical colours reflected in Lake Whakatipu’s depths.

If you would like your images featured in this gallery please get in touch.

Long-tailed Bat © Colin O'Donnell
Long-tailed Bat © Colin O'Donnell

A Rich Heritage

In a world where 80% of people can no longer see the stars, we believe our sanctuary will be a gift from the past to the future generations. Coupled with the work of Routeburn Dart Wildlife Trust and the Southern Lakes Sanctuary, preserving the darkness means that our night loving wildlife will have the conditions to flourish and be at home here both now and in the future.

Glenorchy / Tāhuna Dark Skies Team
Glenorchy / Tāhuna Dark Skies Team

Our People

The Glenorchy / Tahuna Dark Skies Sanctuary is a project of the Glenorchy Heritage and Museum Group.