Experience the Northern Cape, South Africa

The !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park, the ancestral home of the ǂKhomani San and Mier communities, has just 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.

Xaus Lodge
The night sky envelops !Xaus Lodge. The !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park holds the potential to be a model for sustainable astro-tourism. (Image: !Xaus Lodge)

Awarded this designation by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the park – part of the 38 000km² Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park straddling South Africa and Botswana – becomes one of only a few dark sky sanctuaries in the world. It joins NamibRand, a dark sky reserve, as the only other IDA-accredited dark sky place in Africa. The application was championed by !Xaus Lodge, a luxury lodge in the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park.

Night really falls in this park, which is virtually 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 its environs measure an average of 21.6.

“Astro-tourism has been identified as a particular growth area within the Northern Cape, where the geography, climate and existence of limited infrastructure provide an ideal environment for astronomy,” said Terance Fife, who chairs the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park’s joint management board.

star gazing northern cape
A prime star-gazing spot, Sutherland in the Northern Cape is renowned as the astronomical heart of South Africa. (Image: Northern Cape Tourism Authority)

“Seen in the context of an existing astro-tourism industry around the SALT [Southern African Large Telescope] observatory in Sutherland, and the projected growth in astro-tourism as a result of the development of the SKA [Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project] around Carnarvon, the Northern Cape is already the country's premier astro-tourism destination,” he added.

Fife said he was confident that the addition of the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park as a formally registered international dark sky sanctuary would promote conservation awareness, particularly when it comes to mitigating light pollution.

“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 ǂKhomani San and Mier communities.”

The IDA, based in the United States but working globally, “recognises and promotes excellent stewardship of the night sky”. Founded in 2001, its International Dark Sky Places Conservation Programme 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 ǂKhomani San and Mier communities – comprises 50 000ha of remote, unspoiled, semi-desert savannah, much of which is ancestral land that is of particular significance to the ǂKhomani San.

As the only lodge in the heritage park – and co-owned by the ǂKhomani San and Mier communities – !Xaus Lodge has long prioritised protecting the area's night skies that are almost free of light pollution, 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 they are shielded and lighting is kept below the horizontal. Lights at the lodge remain minimal, and the use of electricity is restricted.

The sky is spiritually and culturally significant to the ǂKhomani San, one of the world’s oldest “first people”, whose culture is full of skylore: tales of the sun, moon, stars and galaxies. Maintaining dark skies is a cultural imperative for the ǂKhomani 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. Far from being barren, 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. The sustainable conservation management of the area requires that the natural dark skies there remain almost or completely undisturbed.

Meerkat Northern Cape
Maintaining pristine dark skies also benefits the local wildlife, as animals turn nocturnal to avoid the day’s worst heat. (Image: Northern Cape Tourism Authority)

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.

For more information, visit the International Dark Sky Association at www.darksky.org, or !Xaus Lodge, the only tourism operation in the park, at www.xauslodge.co.za.