The Great Escape

The Best Stargazing Experiences in New Zealand

The world's best stargazing experience awaits.

best stargazing experiences new zealand

Stargazing in New Zealand offers an experience like no other, especially during Matariki. Matariki, known as Māori New Year gives people the chance to connect with their whanau (family) to reminisce and reflect on the year that has passed and look forward to the year ahead.

It is also a star cluster that appears in the early morning sky in New Zealand during mid-winter, late May to early July, the best time to view the Matariki star cluster is early morning, right before dawn.

It is closely connected with the maramataka (the Māori lunar calendar), the reappearance of Matariki in the early morning sky brings the past year to a close and marks the beginning of the new year. The Māori lunar calendar begins in the month of Pipiri (around June-July) when Matariki rises in New Zealand’s northeast sky. Because it is connected to a lunar calendar the date of the celebration changes every year. The dates vary according to tribes and geography. 

Traditionally, festivities were conducted to celebrate Matariki. They followed the harvesting of crops when the pātakapātaka (food storehouses) were full, freeing up time for family and leisure. These festivities included the lighting of ritual fires, the making of offerings, and celebrations of various kinds to farewell the dead, honour ancestors, and celebrate life.

Nowadays, across New Zealand, people come together to remember their ancestors, share food, sing, tell stories and play music. Sharing food is an essential ingredient of modern Matariki – which coincides nicely with the seasonal yearning for warmer comfort foods —as families, extended tribal families and communities get together to savour the fruits of the harvest.

Here are the best destinations to view the Matariki Star Cluster and the best stargazing experiences in Aotearoa.

Wairarapa

The Wairarapa region is on track to become New Zealand’s largest Dark Sky Reserve and has one of the darkest and most pristine skies in the country. The town has already achieved an IDA “3K City” classification, which means it has shielded LED outdoor lighting – reducing sky glow and light pollution. What better place to stargaze than here, at the Stonehenge Aotearoa open-air astronomical observatory.

A modern interpretation of the mysterious ancient monument, Stonehenge Aotearoa is based upon starlore from tangata whenua, Pasifika and other cultures around the world.  Book a daytime guided tour to learn about the henge, Māori starlore, Polynesian navigation and archeoastronomy or head along on a Friday or Saturday night for a Star Safari followed by stargazing (weather permitting).

best stargazing experiences new zealand tongariro alpine crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Stargazing during sunrise is the best of both worlds. Experience a guided sunrise Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike with Adrift Tongariro. This private guided tour starts and finishes at Adrift Tongariro base in National Park Village and is a spectacular way to experience the Tongariro Alpine Crossing under the night stars and breaking morning light at sunrise. Stand beneath the Milky Way at Tongariro with shooting stars streaming down the pre-dawn skies with breathtaking sunrise and breakfast alfresco at the Red Crater.

Taupo

Nestled between the Kaweka and Kaimanawa forests in the central North Island of New Zealand, a visit to these lands is a privilege experienced by only a few. Accessible only via helicopter, a bedroom designed for stargazing awaits you in the heart of the exclusive Owhaoko ancestral lands. No roads, no cell phones, no people, this is the place to lie back and marvel as the stars twist and turn in a sparkling show of nature above you.

Takapō (Tekapo)

The ultimate in stellar relaxation, Tekapo Stargazing is the only guided hot pool and star gazing experience in New Zealand, located at one of the best stargazing sites on earth.

Wonder at the dazzling beauty of millions of stars in some of the clearest, darkest night skies in the world at Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Relax in soul-warming hot pools beneath the 4,300 square kilometres of officially recognized International Dark Sky Reserve, the largest reserve of this type worldwide.

Exclusive use of a 38-degree pool to lie back on a floating hammock or simply relax as you enjoy the starry blanket above you. Your guide is poolside to share local stories about New Zealand myths and legends combined with the science behind constellations, planets and galaxies.

best stargazing experiences new zealand mt cook

Mt Cook

Take a mesmerizing journey through the cosmos as you explore the wonders of the night sky with Big Sky Stargazing. Their resident astronomy guides, Kate, Igor & Brad, will take you on a 1-hour tour of the night sky through high-powered telescopes. They share their knowledge about the night sky in an informative and approachable way, answering any questions you may have as they go. 

Available on a clear night, the tour takes place close to the Hermitage hotel. Guests are shuttled to the base and are treated to homemade hot chocolate and sweet treats, before stepping outside to witness the darkness as it comes alive with the stars.

Stewart Island

Explore Stewart Island’s Dark Sky Sanctuary. From craters on the moon to the centre of the galaxy, a Twinkle Dark Sky Tour will show you some of the most stunning sites in our solar system and the larger cosmos. 

Due to its remote southern location, Stewart Island Rakiura is virtually free of light pollution, ensuring that the skies enjoyed are of the highest quality. The island’s beauty and breath-taking sceneries combine to provide an unforgettable night sky experience. This was acknowledged on a worldwide scale in 2019 when Stewart Island/Rakiura was designated as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. At nearly 47º south, this is possibly the southernmost astrotour in the world, and one of the best places to observe the sporadic Aurora Australis.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

The Great Escape

12 Indigenous Australian Cultural Heritage Sites You Need to Visit

Find a deeper connection to country and its original custodians.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @airliewalsh

Did you know Indigenous Australians are the oldest living culture in the world? For over 60,000 years the indigenous people have lived in Australia, sharing their culture and knowledge with future generations.

You can walk the outback, drive through it, and camp beneath the stars, but for a deeper connection to Australia and its original custodians, it’s better to hear from them and learn how they see Australia. Through sacred sites and awe-inspiring landmarks, you can learn more about Dreamtime stories and how they interpret the stars. So if you want to be inspired and leave transformed, visit these cultural heritage sites.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @ricky.bobby_

Uluru and Kata-Tjuta

Northern Territory
To local people, Uluru and Kata-Tjuta are more than just rock formations. Instead, it carries great spiritual and cultural significance for local indigenous tribes with over 40 sacred aboriginal sites and eleven Tjukurpa or Dreaming Trails in the area. This is a deeply important part of Aboriginal cultural identity, and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park invites visitors to share in these traditional beliefs, and hear the stories of the ancient land, but also to respect the sacred sites.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @joern.ewald

Kakadu National Park

Northern Territory
Kakadu’s ancient escarpment and stone country spans more than two billion years of geological history, boasting coastal floodplains, and dynamic environments. Although, what most don’t realise is the park is a living cultural landscape. Its archaeological sites record the skills and way of life of Aboriginal people over tens of thousands of years. Kakadu’s rock art documents Indigenous creation stories and makes up one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world. The Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) rock art site is a must-stop on your journey through Kakadu. Stroll through shaded rock shelters to marvel at the World Heritage-listed art and discover how life used to be for the Bininj.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @letsgetouttahere

Purnululu National Park

Western Australia
Situated deep in the eastern Kimberley region is the Bungle Bungle Range. The bee-hive shaped rock domes are marvellous to see, but the Dreaming stories are even more spectacular to hear. The name Purnululu comes from the Aboriginal Gija people, meaning ‘fretting sands’. The origin of the name (often referred to as the Bungle Bungles) is not known, although some have suggested that is a reference to Bundle Bundle, a Kimberley grass. At the height of the violence between the Kija people and the pastoralists, many of the Kija took refuge in the Bungle Bungles after brutal massacres of the Indigenous people in the area. You can join a tour to discover art and hear stories through songs and dance.

best cultural heritage sites australia

Cave Hill

South Australia and Northern Territory
Cave Hill, also known as Walinynga in the local language, is the most significant rock art site within Central Australia and was a ceremonial site for Aboriginal people from various regions. is the only rock art site of its kind that tells the Dreamtime creation story of the Seven Sisters. This story relates to the journey of the seven sisters that make up the group of stars we call the Pleiades, in the constellation Taurus. You can hike the area or join a tour guide to walk you through the cultural significance and stories.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @aliciaaaa777

Arkaroo Rock and Sacred Canyon

South Australia
The Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park is rich in Aboriginal rock art and engravings, that you can admire. Arkaroo Rock is a particularly important Aboriginal art site in the Flinders Ranges featuring ochre and charcoal images depicting the creation of Wilpena Pound. The main cave site is at least 5,000 years old and the rock paintings are best seen in the morning light. Sacred Canyon is a small chasm where ancient Aboriginal rock engravings representing animal tracks, people, waterholes and other symbols have been etched into the smooth sandstone walls. The rock engravings are best seen in soft morning or afternoon light. The Sacred Canyon walk is only a 30-minute walk and well worth the trip alone, although you’d be missing out on discovering amazing rock art if you don’t also visit Arkaroo Rock.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @cm_photos_adventures

Coorong National Park

South Australia
Coorong National Park is breathtaking. You can cruise its backwaters, visit remote beaches and explore salty lagoons. Although, when you visit, you are a guest of the Ngarrindjeri people, traditional custodians of the Coorong for thousands of years. Dotted throughout the sandy landscape are middens—mounds of shells deposited from many years of fishing. For a deeper experience, join Spirit of the Coorong‘s Ngarrindjeri Kurangk Culture Experience Tour where you’ll unearth and taste unique native foods, explore the pristine water network and be initiated into country with a smoke ceremony performed by your Ngarrindjeri guide.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @captainschoicetravel

Arnhem Land

Northern Territory
This wild and untamed landscape is rich in indigenous history. You can explore this timeless land and its billabongs, rainforests and ancient escarpments, while hearing stories about the land and its people. The Guluyambi Cultural Cruise takes you through the rugged wilderness of West Arnhem Land in small groups, where your expert guide will share modern and ancient tales of the region. The Arnhemlander 4WD Cultural Tour is the perfect place for you to experience this unique expertise, transmitted in an engaging and entertaining fashion by expert guides. You can also explore Macassan Beach—the site of the Yolngu people’s first interaction with Indonesian traders.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @adventure__hikes

Grampians National Park

Victoria
The Grampians National Park is a leafy national park three hours west of Melbourne. While it’s a great day trip for adventurers, you can also find ancient Aboriginal rock art. In fact, 90% of all Aboriginal rock art in the state can be found here. Learn about Indigenous folklore at the Brambuk Cultural Centre in Halls Gap before bushwalking your way around the colourful rock art sites. There are approximately 200 rock art sites recorded in the Grampians National Park (Gariwerd) with five sites open to the public. Most art sites are situated under rock over hangs providing shelter and strategic viewing points of the surrounds. Stop by Brambuk to connect and learn about what Gariwerd means to the Jadawadjali and Djab Wurrung people.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @heather__hayward

Quinkan Country

Queensland
Quinkan Country is also a great place to see rock art. There are several collections of rock art here that are at least 15,000 years old. They include paintings of wildlife, spirits, and people. You can walk to several sites, or join a guided tour from late March to early December, led by the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre in Laura.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo:@readingbook93

Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park

New South Wales
You don’t have to venture to the middle of Australia to find cultural sites. Ku-ring-gai Chase National Parkis mere minutes from Sydney’s CBD, and offers a number of rock-art sites on the Lambert Peninsula. Here, you will find several examples of large rock engravings with simple designs that are unique to the greater Sydney area, and are up to 5000 years old. Join a tour to hear more about tools and artwork.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo:@nathc_explore

Worimi Conservation Lands

New South Wales
Newcastle is mostly known as having the largest sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere, but most don’t realise its enormous cultural significance. The most visible cultural material present in the lands is the extensive shell deposits called middens, which are 12,000 years old. There are also burial sites, which are highly significant and difficult to predict where they may occur in the landscape. It is possible that burials may occur in association with some of the midden sites. The traditional custodians—the Worimi people—now manage the 4200-hectare Worimi Conservation Lands, offering guided tours of the impressive dune landscape.

best cultural heritage sites australia
Photo: @michayeboulter

Wukalina Walk

Tasmania
The Bay of Fires is is a stunning landscape, featuring  clear blue seas, brilliant white beaches and striking orange lichen-cloaked boulders. But the recently launched Wukalina Walk adds another layer to the experience. The Aboriginal owned and operated four-day tour of Tassie’s north-east coast immerses visitors in palawa (Tasmanian Indigenous culture), traditional bush tucker, and the natural environment. When walking on Country please respect that you are on Aboriginal land and a visitor to this significant living cultural landscape. The walk will enrich your experience of lutruwita and show you the best parts of the region simultaneously.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related