August 6, 2021
People & Places

Star struck: The SA place that’s officially perfect for sky-gazing

Drive 90 minutes north east of Adelaide and as the city lights begin to dim, darkness descends and the Milky Way puts on the most spectacular of shows.

A lunar eclipse image captured by Don Bursill. It was taken from Meldana, which sits within the River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve.

He may not be a scientist, but that hasn’t stopped Chris Tugwell showing the world just how incredible South Australia’s skies are.

What began as a “crazy idea” from Chris, who lives on a former sheep station at Big Bend, ended with an area in the Murraylands being recognised internationally as one of the best places in the world to look skyward at night. The whole notion was conceived while viewing the stars on his property.

“We’re on top of the cliffs overlooking the river and it’s quite stunning,” Chris says. “We have an amazing view of the stars there and it’s beautifully peaceful.”

Chairman of the local Landcare group, Chris recognised that a project to have an area of the Murraylands named as an official “dark sky place” could have greater significance than simply keeping the stars visible.

“I heard there were these dark sky places that were being created around the world that were protecting areas from light pollution – I hadn’t previously realised it was a serious issue,” Chris says.

“A lot of the animals in Australia are nocturnal, so if you mess around with the amount of light they experience in a day, it confuses their body clock and it can affect things such as breeding habits, pollination of plants; all kinds of things.

“From Landcare’s point of view, it’s vitally important that we preserve these dark places because we’re trying to protect the animals and plants in the region. This is an umbrella over everything we do; so it’s not just about astronomy, it’s much more than that.”

The view from Big Bend Lookout, photograph Andrew Cool.

Chris had begun to formulate an idea of the area becoming an official dark sky reserve, but it was difficult to know where to begin. A simple Google search led him to the International Dark-Sky Association Victoria, who gave Chris two names to follow up.

“One was Martin Lewicki, who runs the Adelaide Planetarium at Mawson Lakes and the other was Andrew Cool, whose job it is to measure the darkness.

“I contacted them and told them what I had in mind and they thought I was mad. But they at least gave me a meeting with a cup of coffee and I told them my idea and they’ve been on board ever since.”

Andrew then recommended a mate named Don, who had just taken up astronomy and might be able to help. Chris wasn’t sure it sounded all that promising, but Don turned out to be Don Bursill, former chief scientist of South Australia.

“I wouldn’t have been able to put together a better team, even if I had known what I was doing,” Chris says.

An accredited dark sky reserve is an area protected from light pollution, where the public can access the clearest views of the night sky. When it was accredited in October 2019, it was the first dark sky reserve in Australia, although there are other dark sky places, which observe slightly different criteria.

The Milky Way in all its glory from Meldana, photograph Andrew Cool.

The first step in what became a five-year process to becoming accredited was the simple act of measuring darkness. Chris helped to do this with a sky quality meter, with a scale that goes from zero to 22, with zero being bright daylight. “We’ve had readings across our area of over 21.9, which is really remarkable. The darkest readings they’ve had in the US are 21.7, so we’re way, way darker than that.”

Given the reserve is only 90 minutes from Adelaide, Chris is often asked how it’s so dark. “We’ve got the Mount Lofty Ranges in the way, which is a big help, and of course, there aren’t any other major cities to the east, north or south of it, so it stays very, very dark.”

When Chris went to visit friends in Taiwan, they took him to an open-air restaurant, specifically designed so people could see the stars. “It was outdoors on top of a mountain and that evening, it was a clear sky with no moon – and we saw four stars.”

When the same friends visited Adelaide, they were amazed by what they saw in our night sky. “We took them to our place and they were speechless when they saw the sky. It just gives you an idea of how many people there are in the world who don’t experience the night sky in the way we do. That’s why this is so important and why we work so hard.”

Chris says the Mid Murray Council were with him every step of the way and were instrumental in widening the initial proposed boundaries of the area. The core site of the River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve is the Swan Reach Conservation Park, but the area stretches far beyond.

“We were thinking of just a little council park area, but the more I spoke to council, the more they said, ‘We think this is something that could benefit the smaller communities that aren’t near the river.’ So, that’s how the reserve came to be three-and-a-half thousand square kilometres, which is enormous and much bigger than I ever imagined it would be.

Chris Tugwell with his 2021 Citizen of the Year award.

“It covers about a dozen townships across the region, so, it kind of got out of hand,” Chris laughs.

The tourism opportunities are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. “If you’re going to see the sky, you have to stay at least one night, so that means you have to have accommodation. You’re going to buy a meal and do some things during the day.”

The region is really making a name for itself in the space arena – in addition to the accreditation, a commercial observatory is planned for the area, as is a multi-million-dollar space traffic management facility.

Chris is hopeful for the reserve’s ability to help strengthen a community that has seen some tough times. A couple of the landowners within the reserve are renovating cottages on their properties to serve as accommodation for visitors who come to view the sky.

“We’ve had 10 years of drought in the region and people have struggled, so this can give them another source of income.”

The benefits extend to every person who gets to experience the sky of the Murraylands in its full glory, and Chris says you don’t need fancy technology or even a whole lot of knowledge to appreciate it.

“Even if you don’t know much about it, you can still see satellites going overhead or maybe meteors or shooting stars and just take it all in. You do get an immense sense of the sweep of the sky if you just lie back and look up.”


This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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