Great Barrier Island: Where you'll find one of the world's most dazzling skies

There's not a lot to do on New Zealand's Great Barrier Island. Located on the far reaches of the Hauraki Gulf in the North Island, a four-hour ferry ride or 35-minute flight from Auckland, it's too remote to attract day-trippers, and logistically too difficult for commuting.

Instead, the 900 or so residents of the island choose to live a simple life, strolling along deserted beaches, hiking forest trails and enjoying an eco-aware, off-the-grid existence. There are no supermarkets, ATMs, footpaths or streetlights on the island; and most locals are tucked up in bed by 9pm.

Ironically, however, this quiet existence has become a tourist attraction; for when the lights go out, the lights come on. You just have to look up.

With minimal air and light pollution, Great Barrier Island has one of the clearest, most dazzling night skies in the world. Billions of stars – more than you ever thought possible – twinkle like a disco ball, with the Milky Way an illuminated stairway to heaven. Planets pop and satellites sashay, while constellations are a puzzling, join-the-dots challenge for the imagination.

So clear are Great Barrier Island's skies that in June 2017 it joined just three other places in the world that have been awarded Dark Sky Sanctuary status and became the first island to be recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The designation is based on scientifically measured darkness of sky, and provides principles to formally preserve and protect the nightscape through responsible lighting practices and public education.

"To be a Dark Sky Sanctuary, you need an mpsas [magnitude per square arc second] of 21.5, and we had an average of 21.79," explains Hilde Hoven, from Good Heavens Dark Sky Experiences. "Every step on that scale is twice as dark; Auckland is 18, so you can see 10 times more stars here than you can in Auckland."

As a Dark Sky Ambassador, Hoven's mission is to share the wonders of the night sky with visitors, educate them about what they are seeing, and inspire further exploration of the universe. Originally from the Netherlands, her obsession with the stars is relatively recent, an unavoidable side-effect of living in such a pristine landscape.

"When I first arrived here [19 years ago], I could immediately see the difference – there's so much light pollution in Europe. When the Dark Sky application went in, some locals started an astronomy club – then we saw an economic opportunity, as we knew there'd be people coming to the island specifically to look at the stars."

A prerequisite for star-gazing, however, is good weather; and during my one-night stay on Aotea (as it's called in Maori), the island is experiencing four seasons in one day: patches of sunshine tempered by gusty winds and squalling rain showers. By sunset, a heavy bank of cloud has formed overhead; and my daughter and I fear our nocturnal experience with Good Heavens may be a no-goer.

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Regardless, as daylight fades, Hoven waltzes into Trillium Lodge – a luxury B&B perched on a headland overlooking Tryphena Harbour in the island's south – hauling an enormous Newtonian Dobsonian telescope and several portable "moon chairs", setting them up on the open-air deck with steadfast optimism.

"We usually recommend people coming to stargaze to book two or three nights' accommodation," she tells us. "We tend to have a 30 to 40 per cent hit rate, so we can move them around if the weather is dodgy. Like tonight … though there's no Plan B for you, unfortunately," she admits.

Instead, we reluctantly retreat to a cosy lounge warmed by a roaring fire to watch a computer presentation about what to expect on a typical Good Heavens tour. But suddenly, through Trillium Lodge's picture windows, a glow appears just above the horizon.

"Look, a star!" I squawk with embarrassing, childlike enthusiasm. "Let's go and look at it."

Of course, I'm wrong – it's a planet, the gaseous Jupiter, glowing orange as it sets in the west, and surrounded by 79 moons, just visible through Hoven's monster telescope. Nearby, we also spy Mercury, only partly illuminated by the sun and appearing as a faint gibbous ball peeping out from under the clouds.

After focusing on the horizon, we step back from the telescope and gaze up, only to discover the curtains have miraculously parted, revealing a black velvet backdrop scattered with sequins. We clap our hands with glee: ladies, let the celestial show begin!

First up, Hoven points out some constellations: Scorpius, the zodiac sign of Scorpio, known in Maori lore as Maui's fish hook, used by the demigod to haul New Zealand's North Island out of the depths; and the Southern Cross, with pointers Alpha and Beta Centauri marking the route to the South Celestial Pole.

Appearing as smudgy clouds are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC respectively), satellite dwarf galaxies that can only be seen from the southern hemisphere. Consisting of billions of stars and nebulae bound by gravitational forces, these were important navigational tools for Polynesian wayfarers, and were believed by the Maori to be predictors of wind.

Another exquisite sight is the planet Saturn, her icy rings clearly visible after squinting and adjusting the focus on the telescope. A much easier target is Mars, bold and fireball red, commanding the sky directly overhead.

To me, however, the supernova of the diorama is the brilliantly named 47 Tucanae, a globular cluster that appears as a single star to the naked eye; through the telescope, however, it's a glittering explosion of fairy dust, with several millions stars radiating from a central bright core.

"It's so easy to take this all for granted," Hoven reminds us as we pause for a chat over a mug of hot tea, kindly delivered by Trillium Lodge host Jo Medland, along with blankies and hot-water bottles.

"People just don't go out at night any more – even here, they used to go out to use the long-drop or turn on their generators, but most have solar panels now so there's no reason to step outside. And if they do, they don't look up.

"I just find it amazing – there's so much more to it than little twinkles."

According to Hoven, the celestial canvas we are witnessing is only a fraction of its usual brilliance; the best season for stargazing, she says, is winter, when the air is crisper, the centre of the Milky Way is clearly visible and most of the planets are in the evening sky.

Time on the Trillium deck passes as quickly as a shooting star and by 11pm, any remaining house lights across the bay have been extinguished. The clouds too have re-emerged, curtains closed; suddenly there's nothing to see, and we're enfolded once again in darkness.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON GREAT BARRIER ISLAND

SOAK IN HOT SPRINGS

An hour's walk along a beautifully maintained boardwalk and trail leads to the secluded Kaitoke Hot Springs, a natural thermal spring surrounded by delicate tree ferns.

SELF-DRIVE THE ART DISCOVERY TRAIL

Car hire is a must to fully explore this large island and its trail of local arts and crafts produced by creative locals.

HIKE THE CANYON

A short and breathtaking uphill climb leads to spectacular Windy Canyon, with 360-degree views across Okiwi Basin and Whangapoua Beach to the north, and Kaitoke Beach to the east.

COMB DESERTED BEACHES

You'll never have to battle crowds on Great Barrier's surf beaches, which are dramatic, wild and generally deserted. Slip into a kayak to explore hidden coves, or just meditate to the sound of the crashing waves.

EAT UP

The most popular coffee shop on the island is My Fat Puku (puku means belly in Maori) and that's exactly what you'll get with its delicious menu featuring fresh, organic produce and excellent coffee.

TRIP NOTES

Julie Miller was a guest of Tourism NZ.

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand

greatbarrierislandtourism.co.nz

newzealand.com/au

FLY

Air New Zealand offers direct daily flights to Auckland from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, and seasonal services from Sunshine Coast. See airnewzealand.com.au. From Auckland, FlyMySky offers flights four times daily to Great Barrier Island, see flymysky.co.nz

STAY

A standard suite at Trillium Lodge costs $NZ276 per night per room (two guests). See trilliumlodge.co.nz

GAZE

A stargazing tour with Good Heavens costs $NZ120 per person, or $NZ600 for a private experience (up to four people). See goodheavens.co.nz

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