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Located a three-hour drive southwest of Christchurch, New Zealand, is Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. At 1,660 square miles, it’s one of only 15 zones in the world certified to be free of light pollution — and the only one in the southern hemisphere.
Translation: If your clients are amateur astronomers, this is the place to send them, And SkyScape is the place to stay.
Located on Omahau Hill Station (a sheep and cattle farm), the business is owned by Bridget and Bevan Newlands. In a past life, the two worked as teachers in East Africa, where they fell in love with the area’s nature lodges — but they wanted to raise their two young sons in New Zealand. Their solution was to build SkyScape, a single-unit luxury abode on Bridget’s parents’ farm.
After just two years in operation, SkyScape has become so popular that the Newlands are now in the process of building two new identical units for 2020.
Following easy GPS directions, I first arrived at the Newlands’ family home, which doubles as SkyScape’s office. From there, Bridget hopped into her car, and I followed her down the 2-mile gravel road through the farm.
I didn’t immediately see SkyScape. Set low into the ground on the slopes of the Ben Ohau mountain range, the unit is modeled on the shape of the region’s hills. A small green roof over the kitchenette allows the dwelling to blend seamlessly into its environment, but most of the building is glass, offering expansive views of the night sky and the surrounding countryside.
“People just want to lie in the tussocks and look at the stars,” Bridget told me.
Everything is designed with that singular focus in mind. Bridget gave me a tour of the 320-square-foot space, which comes with binoculars and laminated star charts for reading the night sky. There’s also a list of suggested astronomy apps to download, which is possible on the surprisingly strong Wi-Fi connection.
All this comes at a cost, though. While the unit has air-conditioning, its off-grid status — power comes from solar panels, and water is sourced from a nearby spring — means that SkyScape has a finite amount of energy available. To keep cool at night, guests must turn off the air-conditioning and open a window. (The two new units, while nearly identical and equally private, will be better designed for energy efficiency.)
And although people travel to Aoraki for its stars, a clear night isn’t guaranteed. During the night I spent at SkyScape, the full moon’s glare outshone all the stars. But when I woke up in the morning to the glow of the sunrise and bunnies hopping amongst the tussocks just beyond the glass, I didn’t feel like I had missed out.
In fact, the Newlands tell me that the only complaint they’ve received had nothing to do with the night sky at all — it had to do with the lack of catering. For the level of accommodation, clients may expect all-inclusive meals and drinks beyond the continental breakfast provided. (A salad or antipasto platter with local meats and cheeses can be preordered for an extra cost.)
They’ve also heard that some guests didn’t like the isolation; what’s secluded for some can be frightening for others, although guests will be able to see the glittering lights of Twizel, the nearest town, in the distance. Twizel itself — only an hour’s drive from Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak — is an up-and-coming destination, but it still only has a grocery store and a handful of restaurants.
However, the Newlands say that the seclusion is deliberate. Not offering meals is a way for guests to maintain their privacy and fully relax. That’s why it came as a surprise to the couple when they realized that guests wanted to interact with them. Their original plans for self-service check-in were scrapped, and instead, they now offer additional optional tours through the 6,000-acre farm at an extra cost.
The next morning, after I’d soaked in the two-person outdoor cedar tub, Bevan picked me up in his four-wheel drive truck, complete with a couple of farm dogs in the back. We started at the sheep shearing quarters, before driving into a field where rams are kept. Using a traditional pounamu (greenstone) whistle, he demonstrated the dogs’ skill and agility in mustering sheep and explained the critical role they play on high-country stations.
Afterward, we hopped back in the car, slowly ascending the northern slopes of the station on a track not meant for those with a fear of heights. At 4,600 feet, we stopped for mountaintop morning tea, soaking in the impressive panoramic views, including five glacial lakes and the nearby Lindis Pass below.
The stars may be the selling feature, but ultimately, they’re secondary to the experience. Staying at SkyScape is a rare opportunity to interact in an intimate environment with multigenerational Kiwi farmers — and to support a small family business in the process.