While some destinations trade on the buzz of bright lights to entice tourists, a handful of wilderness lodges in southern Africa are turning that approach on its head, touting the darkness of the skies above as a major draw card.
It’s the sharp end of a global movement, spurred on by the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Founded in 1988, the IDA is a registered non-profit organization whose stated mission is “to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies.”
In 2001, the IDA established its International Dark-Sky Places (IDSP) Program to recognize areas around the world actively working to reduce light pollution and preserve night sky darkness and the contrast of the stars.
This year saw the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park in northern South Africa declared an International Dark-Sky Sanctuary, and it’s added a new facet to the region’s nascent tourism economy.
“Astro-tourism has been identified as a particular growth area within the Northern Cape Province [of] South Africa where the geography, climate, and existence of limited infrastructure provide an ideal environment for astronomy,” said Terance Fife, chairman of the joint management board of the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park.
Part of the broader Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana, the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park stretches across more than 120,000 acres yet is home to just a single 12-room property, !Xaus Lodge.
“One of the driving forces behind applying for Dark-Sky certification was witnessing the incredible impact the skies here had on guests,” said Eleanor Muller, head of marketing for Transfrontier Parks Destinations, which operates !Xaus Lodge on behalf of the ǂKhomani San community. “They come to !Xaus for the stillness and the remoteness, and the night sky is an important part of that. With the Dark-Sky certification, in time we will start seeing more people coming specifically for the stargazing.”
Finding the Sky
Receiving certification wasn’t a simple process though.
Even with its small size and remote off-grid location, it took !Xaus Lodge five years to compile the required documentation and make compulsory lighting changes to the lodge. That included fitting shields on all external light fittings, and installing bulbs emitting light ‘warmer’ than 2700 on the Kelvin scale.
That ticked the boxes for Dark-Sky accreditation, but night sky preservation is also increasingly part of conservation strategies in the region.
“Besides preserving a sense of space by conserving the dark night sky, minimizing the effect that bright lights have on the local ecology goes a long way towards nature conservation,” said Nils Odendaal, chief executive officer of the 530,000-acre NamibRand Nature Reserve, which was certified as Africa’s first Dark-Sky Reserve in 2012.
As part of its certification the reserve’s lighting management plan restricts the use of outdoor lighting, bans fixtures from allowing light to be emitted upwards, and requires game-viewing vehicles to keep lights switched off until it is too dark to drive safely.
The assurance of dark skies is expected to be a major draw for visitors to the new Kwessi Dune Lodge, opening in the NamibRand in March 2020.
“Increasingly we are seeing that travelers want a total disconnect from the busy-ness of their urban lives and sitting under the African skies is an important part of that,” said Dave van Smeerdijk, co-founder of lodge operator Natural Selection. “The unique asset we have of being part of Africa’s only Dark-Sky Reserve was at the forefront of our planning for Kwessi.”
That planning includes adding outdoor ‘bedrooms’ to each guest suite, and training guides in basic astronomy.
And there is already stiff competition for starry-eyed tourists, thanks to andBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in the north of the NamibRand.
The dark skies is “one of the lodge’s unique selling points and a key part of its positioning,” said Joss Kent, chief executive officer of andBeyond.
Along with private open-air decks and stargazing ‘skylights’ in each suite, Sossusvlei Desert Lodge offers an on-site observatory, equipped with a 12-inch telescope and star-tracking technology, with nightly stargazing led by the lodge’s resident astronomer.
The lodge !Xaus takes a different approach though, adding a uniquely African spin to the stargazing experience. Instead of highlighting constellations dreamt up by the ancient Greeks, lodge guides focus on the rich astral folklore of the ǂKhomani San.
Whether it’s tapping into the ancient culture or admiring the constellations, lodge owners are hoping Africa’s dark skies will offer travelers one more reason to visit.
Richard Holmes is Skift contributor based in Cape Town.