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My God ... it’s full of stars

This little town is in the dark and proud of it.

This little town is in the dark and proud of it.

Where other places greet the night by lighting up their streets and tourist attractions, Tekapo goes the other way — low-energy sodium lamps that are shielded from above, and household lights that must face down, not up.

The purpose? To bring out the stars more vividly.

The town of 830 people on New Zealand’s South Island is on a mission to protect the sight of the vast starry blanket spanning its heavens, even as the night sky disappears behind light and haze in many parts of the globe.

The ultimate prize would be UNESCO’s approval for a world-first “starlight reserve,” and already the “astro tourists” are coming.

A group of 25 are huddled at midnight on a bare New Zealand hilltop, knees, hands and faces numbed by an icy wind as they gaze up at the Milky Way.

“It's awesome, I mean it’s like beyond words,” says Simon Venvoort, 46, a management consultant from Amsterdam. “You see so much you aren’t aware of.”

“You know that two generations now are growing up not being aware that all this is out there because ... half of the world is light-polluted.”

The “starlight reserve” idea germinated in UNESCO in 2005. Tekapo, in the McKenzie Basin of South Island, was already on its own track, seeking what locals were calling their “park in the sky.” So Tekapo was suggested as a pilot site because of its haze-free sky and lighting controls already in place.

A UNESCO working party agreed last month to study what Graeme Murray, chairman of the Mackenzie Tourism and Development Board, calls “a heritage park in the sky.”

“We helped make UNESCO world heritage look upward as well as around them in protecting the world’s heritage,” he says.

The U.N. body has extended world heritage status to 878 historic, cultural, ecological and natural sites around the planet, but none includes the sky.

The idea faces significant challenges — UNESCO’s conventions do not mention the space above and around heritage sites, and there’s still the question of how to define a piece of open sky for conservation purposes.

The darkening of Tekapo began in 1965 to serve the Mount John Observatory that opened on nearby Mount John. Town officials later turned necessity into a virtue by expanding controls on public and private lighting in a 30-kilometre ring around the town and observatory to keep the sky dark.

Three new housing developments have spent extra money for “sky-friendly” lighting. A skating rink even installed special lighting to prevent ultra violet light reflecting off its ice surface into the night sky.

Not that people here are bumping into each other or driving blind during the night hours. And anyway, there’s plenty of starlight, as residents note.

“We’re certainly not living in the dark,” said Lorna Inch, a real estate agent. “We’ve got a beautiful sky that we all enjoy many nights of the year. There’s a lot of natural light from the stars.”

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