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NC park a ‘dark sky sanctuary’

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Night really falls there and it is nearly totally free from pollution, including light pollution, natural atmospheric pollution and man-made pollution

The !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park in the Northern Cape has been declared an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Picture: Ulrich Munstermann

THE !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park in the Northern Cape, the ancestral home of the Khomani San and Mier communities, has been declared an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, recognising its value as one of the world’s darkest places and best areas for viewing pristine night skies.

Awarded this designation by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the park – part of the 38 000 sq km Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park straddling South Africa and Botswana – becomes one of only a few International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world, and joins NamibRand, a Dark Sky Reserve, as the only other IDA-accredited Dark Sky Place in Africa.

The application was championed by !Xaus Lodge, the only place with permanent lighting in the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park.

Night really falls there and it is nearly totally free from pollution, including light pollution, natural atmospheric pollution and man-made pollution. On the SQM (or Sky Quality Meter, pronounced “squim”) scale of darkness, with 22 being as unadulteratedly dark as you can get, Xaus Lodge and environs measure an average of 21.6.

“Astro-tourism has been identified as a particular growth area within the Northern Cape Province, South Africa where the geography, climate and existence of limited infrastructure provide an ideal environment for astronomy” Terance Fife, chairman of the Joint Management Board of the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park, said.

“Seen in the context of an existing astro-tourism industry around the SALT observatory in Sutherland, and the projected growth in astro-tourism as a result of the development of the SKA around Carnarvon, the Northern Cape Province is already the country’s premier astro-tourism destination.”

The addition of the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park as a formally registered International Dark Sky Sanctuary will promote conservation awareness, particularly in the area of light pollution and methods of mitigation. In so doing it will act as a drawcard for astro-tourism to the remote Kalahari region and provide further substance, through rural job creation and other economic activity, to this important asset owned by the Khomani San and Mier communities.”

The IDA, based in the US but working globally, “recognises and promotes excellent stewardship of the night sky”. Founded in 2001, its International Dark Sky Places Conservation Program aims “to encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education.”

The !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park – created in 2002 through a land claim awarded to the !Khomani San and Mier peoples – comprises 50 000 hectares of remote, unspoiled, semi-desert savannah, much of which is ancestral land, of particular significance to the !Khomani San.

As the only lodge in the Heritage Park – and co-owned by the !Khomani San and Mier communities – !Xaus Lodge has long prioritised protecting the almost light pollution-free night skies, and offers stargazing to its guests, through telescopes and the naked eye.

Since its application for Dark Sky certification, !Xaus Lodge has retrofitted all outside lights so that they are shielded and lighting is kept below the horizontal. Lights at the lodge remain minimal; and electricity is restricted.

The sky is spiritually and culturally significant to the !Khomani San, one of the world’s oldest “First People”, whose culture is full of skylore: tales of the sun, moon, stars, galaxies. Maintaining Dark Skies is a cultural imperative for the !Khomani San, as part of their efforts to preserve their traditions and to teach and transfer them to the younger generations.

Maintaining pristine Dark Skies also benefits the local flora and fauna – in spite of first glances suggesting barrenness, the area is full of life. Life specifically adapted to the arid environment and its relentless heat. Animals there turn nocturnal to avoid the day’s worst heat; plants adapt to avoid water loss to the sun; birds and insects also adapt.

Sustainable conservation management of the area requires that the natural dark skies there remain undisturbed or disturbed as little as possible.

Having earned this designation as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park will hopefully serve as a model and inspiration for other sites in southern Africa and around the world whose night skies deserve to be preserved.

Visit the International Dark Sky Association website www.darksky.org and !Xaus Lodge, the only tourism operation in the park www.xauslodge.co.za.

According to the Northern Cape MEC for Finance, Economic Development and Tourism, Mac Jack, the latest accolade for the Province is a major boost to the growth of astro-tourism offerings.

“We are proud of the latest achievements by !Xaus Lodge and this opens doors for more visitors to experience the offerings that awaits them in the Kalahari,” Jack said.