It's something Murrayland locals have known for years - but now it's official. The Big Bend lookout on the Murray River, only 90 minutes from Adelaide, is one of the best places in the world to see the night sky.
The lookout in South Australia's Mid Murray district is located in the new River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve - the first of its kind in Australia.
In what leading Australian astronomers have hailed a "phenomenal milestone" for science and eco-tourism the newly-accredited reserve has been officially declared as one of the darkest places on the planet by the International Dark Sky Association, making it one of only 15 internationally recognised reserves in the world.
The plan to gain international dark sky accreditation for the site was started by Mid Murray Landcare SA chairperson Chris Tugwell, who lives near the Big Bend lookout. He worked with Mid Murray Council to turn the dream into a reality.
"Being accredited by the International Dark-Sky Association is a bit like world heritage listing for the stars," Mr Tugwell said.
"The locals are used to having unfettered access to the magic of our night skies all year round. Most people never thought they lived somewhere special, but this proves they do and I can bet that anyone with an interest in stargazing will have our backyard on their bucket list now.
"Globally, dark sky reserves are well known as the as the most remarkable places to visit at night for astronomers, astro-photographers and outdoor enthusiasts. They're really a playground for people like me."
What is a dark sky reserve?
- Night sky darkness is measured at a level of between 0-22, and those closest to 22 are generally the best to be able to view the night sky and its constellations, in all their glory.
- A Dark Sky Reserve is an area of land protected from light pollution which allows the general public the clearest and best views with the night sky. Around the world, Dark Sky Reserves are well known as the as the most remarkable places to camp and visit at night for astronomers, astrophotographers and outdoor/nature enthusiasts.
- The facilities within a reserve are limited, as light pollution is kept to an absolute minimum as part of policies and protections which help to manage and sustain them
Recent measurements from the River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve came in at between 21.97 and 21.99 - making it one of the darkest places on Earth.
Now the reserve - which covers more than 3200 square kilometres - has accreditation, it means it is protected from urban light protection.
Leading South Australian astronomer, Andrew Cool, said the designation is a "phenomenal milestone for science, environmental conservation and eco-tourism in Australia and the world".
"Light pollution is a major problem worldwide, which is why reserves like this are so incredibly unique and important," he said.
Less than 100 years ago everyone could look up at night and see the spectacular starry nights. Now, millions of people across the globe will never experience the Milky Way thanks to the growing use of artificial light.
Former Chief Scientist of South Australia, Professor Don Bursill, said the night sky in the region is so clear many interesting celestial features can be seen with the naked eye or through binoculars.
"Our home galaxy, The MilkyWay, is best seen from a dark southern sky location - and at the new River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve it is very impressive indeed."
The 3,200sq km reserve has a 'core site' within the Swan Reach Conservation Park, and also incorporates the towns of Swan Reach, Cambrai, Nildottie, Bowhill, Palmer, Tungkillo, Sedan, Blanchetown, Black Hill, Walker Flat, Big Bend and Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park
'Massive' news for region
Mid Murray Council Mayor Dave Burgess said he expected to see a spike in visitors to the region, with the town of Mannum being a gateway to the River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve, and small towns such as Cambrai, Sedan, Swan Reach and Blanchetown likely to see international guests.
Murray River Lakes and Coorong Tourism development manager, Julie Bates, said she the news was "massive" for the region.
"A decade of weather monitoring shows that the dry climate makes for long periods of clear skies all year round, so this means visitors can come in search of the perfect night sky 365 days a year," she said.
The news comes off the back of the recent announcement of NSW's Warrumbungle Dark Sky 'Park' - a different designation to a Dark Sky 'Reserve' under the IDA program.
A 'park' is a national park that has dark sky status, while a 'reserve' is a combination of public and private land, including townships - making lighting policy and control more complex.
Best spots to see the night sky
Big Bend cliffs. This is easily accessible along the road between Walker Flat and Swan Reach. There are lookouts near Nildottie and another at Kroehns Landing.
Cambrai, Meldanda. A structured educational campsite just near the township of Cambrai. Meldanda is open to the public seven days a week. Entry is free. There is a $5 per person fee for overnight campers. Perfect for groups. Bookings essential.
Swan Reach. You can access the Swan Reach Conservation Park (4WD access only, no facilities) off Stott Highway, or you can visit Big Bend By Night nearby for a tour and viewing.
Sedan. Towitta Reserve near Sedan is ideal for an uninterrupted view of the night sky.
Black Hill. The Black Hill Cemetery is a unique place for viewing.
Houseboat /boat (on river). See the sky from the magnificent Murray River anywhere along the Reserve between Younghusband and Blanchetown.
Walker Flat. There are a number of riverside reserves in and around Walker Flat where you can stop and look up. A favourite spot is the Marne River mouth.
Shell Hill Reserve (near Wongulla). A small reserve and remote location to stop and look up.
Other. The Reserve also includes the towns of Palmer, Blanchetown, Bowhill, Keyneton and Tungkillo - so there are plenty of small towns to visit and explore the skies. Ovals at Cambrai, Blanchetown and Sedan are ideal, along with lookouts at Palmer, Purnong, Younghusband and Maynards Lookout between Walker Flat and Wongulla.
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