The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is the globally recognised authority on light pollution and dedicated to preserving dark spaces around the world. Its list of certified International Dark Sky Places are selected because of the starry quality of the night skies and protected because of the scientific, natural, environmental, and cultural importance of its nocturnal environment.
The African continent is home to two Dark Sky Places. The first to claim this significant status is, somewhat unsurprisingly, in Africa’s most sparsely populated country. Namibia’s private NamibRand Nature Reserve is a designated Dark Sky Reserve. IDA reserves are defined by a core area protected from light pollution, along with surrounding buffer zones where there is minimal artificial light.
The next Dark Sky Place is a Dark Sky Sanctuary in the northern reaches of South Africa, straddling Botswana, in an area called the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park. According to ADI’s website, these sanctuaries “are the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation status is fragile”.
Why protect Africa’s night sky?
Preserving our night skies isn’t just about being able to enjoy exceptional stargazing opportunities. The wellbeing and balance of our planet is intrinsically linked to the predictable sequence of our nights and days, known as circadian rhythm. All life on earth, from plants to animals, has thrived on the assurance of this rhythm, with most natural life cycle events, from reproduction to sleep and protection, being dependent on the constant rotation of day to night, and night to day.
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Humans have greatly disrupted this natural process with the introduction of electricity and the widespread prevalence of light pollution around the world. It’s becoming more and more difficult to marvel at the night sky without the interference of artificial light, while naturally nocturnal creatures have found their natural habitats brightened, thus affecting their natural state of being.
Nocturnal birds who hunt or move at night have found themselves thrown off course by artificial light, baby turtles mistake manmade light for the sun and moon which leads them away from the safety of the sea once they hatch, plus frog and toad populations have had reproduction rituals hampered by artificial lighting.
Migratory birds are also at risk, with many relying on seasonal light cues before they begin migrating. Artificial light has prompted many birds to migrate too early or too late in the season, which has a knock-on affect on their foraging and mating behaviours. Perhaps one of the most overlooked, yet obvious, impacts of light pollution is how it attracts insects – thus drawing them away from natural predators and hampering natural life cycles and ecosystems.
How to visit the NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia
This was the continent’s first Dark Sky Place and remains Africa’s only Dark Sky Reserve. The NamibRand borders the NamibNaukluft Park to the west, while its boundaries extend to the Nubib mountains to the east, with the reserve’s landscape serving as a biodiversity hotspot for the Namib Desert’s endemic wildlife and flora.
A restricted amount of visitors are permitted into the reserve at any given time, making any getaway here an awe-inspiringly isolated one. While many come to the NamibRand to go on safari and seek out Namibia’s desert-adapted wildlife, many of the accommodation options also cater for stargazers.
At Kwessi Dunes, each room includes a private, open-air starbed from where you can admire the night sky, while guides from the acclaimed Wolwedans collection and Tok Tokkie Trails are all trained in astronomy.
!Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park, South Africa
The most recent addition to Africa’s list of Dark Sky Places calls the famous Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park home. !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park was awarded International Dark Sky Sanctuary status after being nominated by the park’s !Xaus Lodge. This lodge is also a successful and sustainable community project well worth the support. The ‡Khomani San and Mier communities reached a historic land settlement agreement with the government of South Africa and SANParks in May 2002, which restored a large tract of park land to the indigenous communities that had once roamed or farmed this area.
The Sky Quality Meter, or the SQM scale, measures darkness between one and 22, with one being the lightest place on earth, and 22 being the darkest. The !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park’s SQM scale measurement is 21.6, making it one of the darkest places in the world.
The park can be found in South Africa’s Northern Cape, the country’s largest province and one that has seen an increasing interest in astro-tourism. This is largely thanks to the existence of the South African Astronomical Observatory, which is also home to SALT, the largest single optic telescope in the southern hemisphere.
Ready to pack your bags for a nocturnal, stargazing adventure? Get in touch and we’ll help you plan your trip to see Southern Africa’s sensational night skies.