Discover Africa’s Heavenly Dark Sky Places

Africa is home to just two Dark Sky Places, both in Southern Africa. These two destinations offer unmatched stargazing opportunities, especially to see the Milky Way.
Written by Melanie du Toit
05 May 2021

While the lights in our homes and cities have become stronger and more potent, so the night sky has dimmed above us, changing the game for astronomers and stargazers. As our world emanates more artificial light than ever before, it has become increasingly important to safeguard the dark corners of Earth that benefit from little to no light pollution, and to prevent manmade light from hampering our efforts to observe the night sky.

Wolwedans in Namibia
The Namib Desert is one of the best place on earth to stargaze. Source | Wolwedans

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”.

Pictured: !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park at night. Source | Janik Alheid for SA Tourism

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. 

Also read: Africa’s Top 9 Conservation-Led Safaris

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. 

Most owls, like the spotted eagle owl pictured, are nocturnal hunters. Source | Matthew Wyche

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. 

The night sky above Kwessi Dunes in the NamibRand Nature Reserve. Source | Natural Selection

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.

Starbeds at Kwessi Dunes
The open-air star beds at Kwessi Dunes. Source | Natural Selection

!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. 

!Xaus Lodge Dar Sky Reserve
!Xaus Lodge is also the only place inside the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park where you can enjoy a walking safari | Source: Melanie van Zyl

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 Northern Cape is home to the Southern African Large Telescope, situated at the South African Astronomical Observatory. Source | SALT

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. 

Book your next trip with us

South Africa Namibia Morocco Kenya Ethiopia Madagascar Rwanda Mozambique

Share this African wonder with your friends

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on reddit
Share on whatsapp

If you liked this story, then you will love...

What is World Female Ranger Day?
What is World Female Ranger Day?
The forgotten mountains of the Sahara
The forgotten mountains of the Sahara
Is Kahuzi-Biéga National Park Congo’s best-kept secret?
Is Kahuzi-Biéga National Park Congo’s best-kept secret?
The Legend of Notch, King of the Maasai Mara
The Legend of Notch, King of the Maasai Mara
The Kruger Shalati Hotel is putting community back on track with local style
The Kruger Shalati Hotel is putting community back on track with local style

What is World Female Ranger Day?

Less than 11% of the global wildlife ranger workforce is female. World Female Ranger Day is hoping to change that.

3 days ago

The forgotten mountains of the Sahara

A mystic's hermitage, a queen's tomb, and more discoveries in this extinct volcanic plateau.

6 days ago

Is Kahuzi-Biéga National Park Congo’s best-kept secret?

One of the last refuges of the endangered eastern lowland gorilla.

2 weeks ago

The Legend of Notch, King of the Maasai Mara

The Maasai Mara is famous for the wildebeest migration but one lion and his sons notoriously dominated the landscape for a decade.

3 weeks ago
What is World Female Ranger Day?
What is World Female Ranger Day?
The forgotten mountains of the Sahara
The forgotten mountains of the Sahara
Is Kahuzi-Biéga National Park Congo’s best-kept secret?
Is Kahuzi-Biéga National Park Congo’s best-kept secret?
The Legend of Notch, King of the Maasai Mara
The Legend of Notch, King of the Maasai Mara
The Kruger Shalati Hotel is putting community back on track with local style
The Kruger Shalati Hotel is putting community back on track with local style

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *