Ever since my grandad Ken pointed out the twinkling outline of the ‘porridge pot’ when I was a kid, I’ve had a fascination with the night sky. In spring, I was invited to reacquaint myself with the iconic saucepan, one of our most recognisable constellations, at the launch of Martinborough’s Star Field observatory.
Located south of Martinborough at Ruakokoputuna, the observatory is the brainchild of local astronomer John Whitby. A long-time, astro-photography enthusiast, John spent five years scouring New Zealand for the perfect location.
It rained too often in the Coromandel. Other spots, though close to good-sized towns, suffered too much light pollution. Others were just too hilly to get a good view. “This flat site, 10 minutes from Martinborough and close to Wellington, is ideal,” John told me the day after the Star Field launch. “The rate of clear skies is high, at about 60 to 70 per cent thanks to the dry air. And it’s beautiful out here.”
The clear skies were definitely on point for the Wairarapa’s first Star Field tour, led by Under the Stars astronomy guide, Becky Bateman. Becky and John have partnered to give two-hour astronomy tours from the new site.
Becky, a scientist and teacher, welcomes guests at the Martinborough Town Hall, explains the tour on the 10-minute shuttle-bus ride to the Star Field observatory and spends an hour pointing out what you can see from it with the naked eye.
John, meanwhile, works the site’s large telescopes, carefully educating people on how to spot Jupiter’s four big moons and comprehend mind-boggling facts such as Jupiter’s location, which is 850 million kilometres away.
On my tour, all guests were kitted out in padded jackets to ward off the cold (it was about 10°C outside). We received a polar-fleece blanket and hand torch emitting only red light and were offered a steaming mug of hot chocolate for warmth about half-way through the tour.
Directed to a paddock of reclining chairs, we were prompted to sit down, lean back, relax and look up at the night sky, while Becky pointed out constellations with a high-powered laser. Between 9pm and 10pm, we identified familiar planets such as Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn.
We oriented our position in relation to the stars and spied recognisable constellations, including the Southern Cross and the ‘porridge pot’ (which we see upside down in the Southern Hemisphere).
With her iridescent green pointer, Becky carved out the fishhook of Maui, which doubles as the curved tail of Scorpio, the astrological star sign. Then she swept the pointer across the luminous length and breadth of the Milky Way.
During Becky’s talk, I counted eight shooting stars pinging their way into oblivion. I listened to tales of celestial migration and started, for the first time, to see the night sky more as part of the human experience and less as an obscure sort of theatre for science fiction.
“That’s the goal,” John explained later. “For me, it’s just as important to share Martinborough’s wonderful dark skies with experienced astronomers as it is with people who’ve never seen this stuff up close. “People tend to enjoy the beauty of it to start with. Later comes the magic realisation that you’re part of it — albeit just a tiny speck in the scheme of things.”
Experiencing a pristine night sky might be common in the Wairarapa, but it’s rare in other parts of the world. “It’s a point of difference for New Zealand and for the Wairarapa,” said John. “That’s why we’re working closely with the Wairarapa Dark Sky Society to become recognised as an International Dark Sky Reserve. That’s the plan. If we do it, the Wairarapa will be one of only three internationally recognised locations in New Zealand and one of only a handful in the world.”
Earlier this year, the Wairarapa Dark Sky Society received $100,000 from the Provincial Growth Fund to further its bid for international accreditation. To achieve this goal, the Wairarapa must meet criteria set out by the International Dark Sky Association for ‘sky quality, natural darkness and a peripheral area that supports dark-sky preservation’.
In practice, this means doing things such as replacing standard street and highway lighting with softer, warmer lighting. “Astrotourism has huge potential for the Wairarapa. Visitors can spend an afternoon in the vineyards or at the beach and then come here for a night of exploring the universe.” For me, that was a pretty perfect combination.
Star Field Martinborough tours start at 9pm and depart from outside the Martinborough Town Hall, Te Waihinga Centre, or your preferred location. To book online, go to starfield.co.nz
Tauherenikau Motorhome Park
The sweeping country grounds of Tauherenikau Racecourse is a picturesque base for star-watching. Set on the river’s edge, off SH2, within a forest of leafy heritage trees, Tauherenikau features a new motorhome and caravan park with 10 powered sites and a growing number of non-powered sites.
Pay between $20 and $15 per night, with special rates available for NZMCA members and for stays longer than a week. Enjoy the park’s new shower block and easy access to the river. Talk to Tauherenikau staff to organise mini-van pick-up for night-time Star Field Martinborough tours. tauherenikau.co.nz
Martinborough TOP 10 Holiday Park
Officially rated a Dark Sky Friendly Business (due to the park’s low-level lighting, which preserves the clear, night sky), Martinborough’s TOP 10 Holiday Park is another great place to park up and enjoy the stars. Hook up to a powered site or stay, like I did, in one of the park’s cosy self-contained studios.
The park offers free Wi-Fi and it’s an easy walk to the village. Organise a pick-up for a Star Field Martinborough tour or ask owners Frank and Lisa Cornelissen to invite guide Becky Bateman to provide a personalised tour for you and some friends within the park itself. mtop10.nz
Stocking up on yummy snacks for a night of star-watching is a must. If you’re passing through Featherston, stop at C’est Cheese, an artisan cheese store and deli. Choose from a wide selection of cured meats, olive oil, chutneys, relishes and New Zealand cheeses. I grabbed one of cheesemaker Paul Broughton’s latest culinary treasures, The Hunted, a soft Remutaka Pass Creamery cheese washed in Wairarapa Huntress Pinot Noir.
Just outside Carterton, on SH2, you’ll find The Clareville Bakery. Choose a delicious homemade pie, sandwich, muffin, scone or brownie. Or grab a couple of baker Michael Kloeg’s signature ‘mikecronuts’ - sweet, sugar-coated, custard-filled pastries - the perfect finish to a two-hour Star Field Martinborough tour. theclarevillebakery.co.nz
Neighbourhood Coffee House & Roastery owner Dudley-Anne Hill is so excited about the Wairarapa’s plans to become an International Dark Sky Reserve, she’s launched a special dark-sky coffee to add to her existing range of handcrafted fair-trade and organic small-batch coffee.
Look out for Neighbourhood’s stellar pinot noir barrel-aged coffee sold in bags at the counter. The brew features beans aged in Ata Rangi Pinot Noir barrels to give the coffee a chocolatey, slightly fruity flavour. intheneighbourhood.co.nz
Need a few more sweet treats to see you through a long and starry night? Pop into Schoc Chocolates in Greytown to select some handmade gourmet chocolates. Inspired by the night sky seen on my Star Field tour, I opted for a couple of berry-and-cream choccies - the same mix that won Schoc chocolate-maker Murray Langham a gold award in the 2018 New Zealand Chocolate Awards. schoc.co.nz
Martinborough Wine Walks
A great way to select the perfect tipple for a celestial summer night is to first sample a few of Martinborough’s finest. Join tour guide Nicola Belsham from Martinborough Wine Walks for a half-day wine tour that starts at Martinborough Wine Merchants near the village centre.
On our walking tour, we met New Zealand’s first female gin-distiller, Rachel Hall of Lighthouse Gin, and visited four vineyards - William Grace, Devotus, On Giants’ Shoulders and Tiwaiwaka.
At Tirohana Estate, during lunch, Nicola told us, “Martinborough is more than wine - it’s this beautiful environment, too. Our skies are incredible, and there’s nothing more spectacular than watching the sunset over a vineyard and seeing the stars come out.” martinboroughwinemerchants.com
The Wine Bank
Located at the heart of the village, The Wine Bank opened in December 2018 to give people the chance to taste more than 60 different wines from the comfort of a stylishly refurbished 110-year-old heritage building. Within the former BNZ building, you can serve yourself any of the wines available in the Wine Bank’s custom-made dispensing fridges.
While I was there, I asked owner Marty Davis to recommend his top three wines. Big Sky Te Muna Road Pinot Noir - it’s the winemaker’s flagship wine, with a name inspired by the big night sky. Think ripe berry fruit, dark cherries and plums, set against savoury spices and silky tannins. bigskywines.co.nz
The Huntress Rosé — this is a great summer wine for star-gazers. Star watching is about nature, being in tune with the elements and that’s what winemaker
Jannine Rickards’ wines are all about. Organically grown, this rosé is dark, fleshy and dry in style.
The Elder Pinot Noir - another great wine to enjoy under a starry night sky. The vineyard itself overlooks Te Muna Valley and is probably the vineyard closest to the heavens. Its pinot noir is elegant and can be aged for up to 10 years (if you can hang on to it that long). thewinebank.nz