Ralph Bradley was a 10-year-old in Golden Bay when he went outside in the early hours of a morning with his father, and saw his first aurora.
He has been hooked on the night sky ever since.
Now retired, Bradley has helped drive development of the country’s first official Dark Sky Park set to open near Nelson this weekend with special star parties on Saturday and Sunday night, weather permitting.
The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) has recently accredited Wai-iti Recreation Reserve and Tunnicliff Forest with the status.
Bradley, who chaired the Top of the South Dark Sky committee, said he was thrilled the park had received international designation, when his wish had seemed light years away.
“We formed the committee about five-and-a-half years ago with the idea initially of seeing if we could create a Dark Sky area somewhere in the top of the South Island.
“We settled on a little park just five kilometres out of Wakefield.”
IDA executive director Ruskin Hartley said the achievement was testament to the persistence of those involved in the years-long nomination, which meant Wai-iti was now protected for current and future generations of New Zealanders.
He described such places as important for teaching communities about the importance of the night sky for all who shared the environment, including humans, animals and plants.
The Wai-iti Recreation Reserve was about 30km south of Nelson city. Bradley said the committee, supported by the Nelson Science Society Astronomy Section, had worked with the Tasman District Council to create a Memorandum of Understanding that freed up the 135-hectare reserve and forestry area to be designated as a Dark Sky Park.
Network Tasman and Nelson Forest & Bird had also contributed to allowing the project to go ahead.
The park now added to the list the number of accredited Dark Sky venues in New Zealand, including the existing and much larger reserves and sanctuaries at Aoraki-Mackenzie, Stewart Island/Rakiura and Aotea/Great Barrier.
Bradley said the difference between the sanctuaries and what now existed in Tasman was the size of the area.
“A Dark Sky Reserve needs to be at least 700 square kilometres – it’s a much larger area, and the next designation down is Dark Sky Park.”
He said the area was chosen for the lack of artificial light infiltration.
Accreditation relies on efforts to prove scientifically, by measuring light, that a location meets a level of high quality darkness.
Bradley, an amateur astronomer, said he had always wanted to take up stargazing but did not have the time until he retired.
“In about 2004 I decided I would try and learn the names of the 20 brightest stars in the sky – that’s how I started, and the hobby and interest grew from there, but it really began that night in Golden Bay when my father took me outside to see the Aurora.”
Bradley said it was unusual being so far north from latitudes at which the southern lights normally danced, but he was mesmerised.
“It was about about half-past one or two in the morning and it was the most amazing thing. I remember being absolutely astounded – I thought the heavens were on fire.
“It was a very rare event to be so strong that far north. It made a big impression on me and I’ve always been interested in astronomy since then.”
Bradley’s next mission was to help New Zealand follow Niue to become a Dark Sky Nation. The IDA said discussions were on-going as to what it would take for New Zealand to be recognised as a Dark Sky Nation.
Bradley said his trips overseas to Northern Hemisphere locations made him realise the effects that dense populations had on the night sky.
“You just can’t see it, and when I came back to New Zealand and was sitting outside looking at the beauty of the night sky it struck me how important it is to preserve it.
“We can’t go down the road of the Northern Hemisphere.”
He hoped to see the South Pacific as the place for the world to come and view the stars.
All are welcome to attend the star parties this weekend, look through telescopes and talk with astronomers who will act as “star-guides” and be on hand to explain why it was important to reduce light pollution.