River Murray Dark Sky Reserve

By Chris Tugwell

The Mid-Murray Landcare Group, with the support of the Astronomical Society of South Australia, has been working towards creating an accredited Dark Sky Reserve in the Mid-Murray region.

With our ever-increasing busy lives, people are eager to participate in a nature experience, and being able to observe a clear dark night sky goes hand-in-hand with that. With only a 90 minute drive from Adelaide, the River Murray Dark Sky Reserve will become a favoured destination for people, local, national and international, who wish to reconnect with the night sky.

Once accredited, the River Murray Dark Sky Reserve will be Australia's first Dark Sky Reserve and only the second Dark Sky region in the country, after the Warrumbungles Dark Sky Park in NSW. Put simply, Dark Sky accreditation is like World Heritage Listing for the night sky.

Why the concept?

As cities grow, so does the spread of light pollution. Recent research shows that more than 80% of the world population and more than 99% of U.S. and European residents live under light-polluted skies. In many cities around the world it is impossible to see the stars, and some even struggle to see the moon. The International Dark Sky Association aims to preserve those regions worldwide where the night sky is still pristine.
Most Mid-Murray residents already know how incredible the stars can be in this region. We take it for granted that it’s like this everywhere. We don’t see the stars as an asset. Dark Sky recognition will make the night sky yet another reason to visit the Mid-Murray region.

Darkness is measured on a scale of 0 to 22, with 22 being total darkness. Preliminary measurements in the Mid Murray in January 2017 came in at 21.97 – much darker than many accredited regions in the northern hemisphere.

Members of the Astronomical Society of SA believe the Mid-Murray region, in particular the area from Cambrai to Sunnydale, has among the clearest night skies in the state. At under 2 hours drive from Adelaide, it is within easy reach. The flat geography of the region also maximises the view of the sky.

Where is the River Murray Dark Sky Reserve?

The Reserve will cover an area from Younghusband and Bow Hill in the south to Blanchetown in the north, and from just east of the Murray River to the foothills west of Sedan and Cambrai. It will cover an area of around 2,300 square kilometres of public and private land, including Swan Reach, Marne Valley, Ridley and Brookfield Conservation Parks, Yookamurra Wildlife Sanctuary and Moorunde Wildlife Reserve.

The reason for it being such a large area is to include as many small communities as possible in the opportunities a Dark Sky Reserve creates. As a result the Reserve covers the small townships of Swan Reach, Walker Flat, Wongulla, Nildottie, Punyelroo, Black Hill, Sedan and Cambrai.

Where are sites located overseas / in Australia?

International sites include 40 formally recognised Dark Sky preserves around the world, with 15 in Canada.. Other countries with Dark Sky preserves are the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom. Sites in the United States include Grand Canyon National Park and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve in Florida’s wetlands. There is only one dark sky reserve in South Korea. This number is rising rapidly, with the first Japanese Reserve declared on Okinawa in April 2018.

Warrumbungle National Park in NSW has been declared a Dark Sky Sanctuary.

What is the opportunity for the region? What are the benefits?

Dark Sky is a year-round attraction, but is best in the colder months, when tourist numbers are lowest. Many amateur astronomers have their own equipment; they just need a place to set up. A 'Dark Sky Trail' will guide visitors to selected camp sites, parks and other suitable locations within the region. Such visitors generally seek darkness and quiet. As a result they are unlikely to disrupt or disturb local landholders or residents. Caravan Parks, River shack rentals, Land Holders, Houseboat operators, pubs, petrol stations, bakeries and take-away shops can all benefit from additional year-round visitors. Smaller townships with little or no street lighting, such as Black Hill, Nildottie, Punyelroo or Wongulla could attract visitors by labelling themselves as ‘Dark Sky Friendly’.

More established locations like Meldanda, Ngaut Ngaut and Brookfield could run guided overnight visits with guest speakers.

In addition to regular member events, ASSA runs events for the general public at its observatory, with talks from members and opportunities to use their telescopes and learn about the night sky. Events such as this would also bring people to the region.

Local schools can also benefit from links with ASSA and build students and teachers knowledge and confidence in scientific study.

The indigenous night sky is also of great importance, with possible night sky tours for school and community groups, describing indigenous constellations such as the Dark Emu at Ngaut Ngaut in association with the indigenous custodians and ASSA.

Who is leading it? Who is involved in it?

Mid-Murray Landcare proposed this idea in 2016, and received generous support from the Mid Murray Council, the Astronomical Society of SA, and Conservation Volunteers Australia. UniSA and the Adelaide Planetarium have provided expertise and instruments to back up our work.

Have you identified potential sites?

Meldanda, a 100 acre property near Cambrai, will become the ‘core site’ for the Reserve and become a location to operate larger telescopes.

Meldanda is managed by Mid Murray Landcare on behalf of the Cambrai Primary School and is already a centre for school sciences projects on re-vegetation, native foods, bats and butterflies. Astronomy will help make Meldanda a true centre for STEM studies.

Other potential viewing sites are Towitta Park, Brookfield Conservation Park, Swan Reach Conservation Park, Ridley Conservation Park, Marne River Conservation Park, Ngaut Ngaut Reserve, Moorunde Wildlife Reserve and Sunnydale.

Community groups in Bow Hill, Blanchetown and Nildottie have already expressed interest in the concept. Several landholders have already begun providing Dark Sky camp sites.

How was the community involved?

The measurements done by the community over several months helped measure the darkness across the region, and identify the 'core' location for the Reserve and the outer boundaries of the Dark Sky Reserve. At last we know just how dark the Mid Murray is.

The level of community backing has been amazing. The Mid Murray Council has endorsed this project, and sees great potential in dark sky tourism. The council assisted Mid Murray Landcare in putting the IDA application together by providing staff, meeting rooms, funding and a dedicated application writer to collate all the material. Most importantly council has adopted a Lighting Management Plan to assure future compliance to Australian Lighting Standards.

Where is the application up to?

This has been a community generated project and we received more than 70 support letters from a diverse range of people, including the Chief Scientist of SA, the Premier and Leader of the Opposition, Prof. Brian Schmidt (Nobel Prize winner) and Prof. Fred Watson. More importantly support has also come from local shop owners, tour operators, progress associations, sports clubs, wildlife researchers, local farmers and school children.

The 470 page application for Gold Dark Sky Reserve status was submitted to the IDA in November 2017 and is currently under consideration.

Upcoming Viewing nights

ASSA in conjunction with the River Murray Dark Sky Reserve management committee have made available some dates for dark sky observing at Meldanda, 106 Bundilla Rd, Cambrai:

  • Saturday 4th August from 7.30pm
  • Saturday 1 September 7.30pm
  • Saturday 13 October 7.30pm
  • Saturday 10 November 7.30pm
  • Saturday 1 December 7.30pm