A resurgence in cosmic stargazing has seen a marked increase in astro tourism to many countries, particularly those in high latitude countries where the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) can be viewed. In 2017, the total solar eclipse in the United States resulted in a major tourist boom across the belt from Oregon to South Carolina as people made their way en masse from big towns seeking a clearer, less light-polluted sky from which to observe this rare phenomenon. Hotels, lodges and national parks were overwhelmed with the sheer amount of human traffic arriving on their shores which was great for local, off-the-grid economies.
Africa has not been left behind in the astro tourism craze. The continent is regarded as having an edge over sprawling metros and urbanized hubs where the night sky is almost never seen.
In the northern hemisphere, pollutants continue to cloud skies, leaving 60% of city dwellers in Europe and 80% in the United States unable to view the stars or the Milky Way. It is for this reason that areas in Africa that lie far from large cities are considered prime destinations for this trending vacation activity. Moreover, Africa enjoys sunshine almost all year round, with the South African Department of Energy averaging daylight hours in South Africa at 2500 per year.
The best places to witness the heavens
While it’s certainly a challenge to identify a particular African destination as ‘better’ than another for it’s celestial promise, there are a few, affordable spots where local tourism and hospitality regions have set up dedicated and professional astro tourism facilities:
The Namibian wilderness draws hundreds of avid stargazers each year. The NamibRand Reserve is a pristine reserve set up by the Namibian government to facilitate the protection and conservation of the area’s unique ecosystem. The pitch black sky that can only be truly experienced in the desert has recently been dubbed the “Dark Sky Reserve” by the International Dark Sky Association.
andBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge
Where to stay: The uber-luxurious andBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in the northern part of the reserve is the perfect setting for incredible celestial views. Only 20 guest beds are available at any given time to limited the negative impact of high-volume tourism traffic to this unique reserve.
Explore Sossusvlei on this short but sweet safari
Botswana’s majestic Okavango Delta, Makgadikgadi Pans and Kalahari Desert are prime destinations for planetary observation. Botswana is the new kid on the astro tourism scene, with an abundance of great mobile tented camps and luxury lodges available that get the balance between rustic safari and African glamour just right, while offering guests a chance to seriously contemplate the cosmos.
Best time of the year to go: To ensure a brilliant sky, the dry season is the best time to observe the heavens. Summer means plenty of rainfall and so the winter months of June to August are ideal for stargazing. Botswana’s location below the Milky Way gives visitors unsurpassed views of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and the occasional meteorological shower.
Home to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and largest single optic telescope in the southern hemisphere (known as SALT), the quaint town of Sutherland in the semi-desert of the Karoo is an international destination for astronomers. Very few places in the world offer guests the opportunity to view deep space with as much intense detail as SALT does. In October 2017, SALT and SAAO telescopes partook in an unprecedented international collaboration to investigate the origin of the first detection of gravitational waves produced by two colliding neutron stars. This investigation might possibly be the biggest news for astrophysics in the modern era.
Book now: SAAO hold regular astronomy tours for adults and children when the weather is permitting. However, due to Sutherland’s remote location, booking is essential to avoid disappointment upon arrival. For more information on booking a tour that will leave you star struck, visit SALT here.
The ancient San peoples of Southern Africa refer to the Milky Way as the ‘Spine of the Night’, an important fixture in folklore and early belief systems about the world and our place in it. Like ancient European astronomers and modern day astrophysicists, the stars have been pivotal in understanding our place in the solar system and while it is doubtful that the secrets of deep space will be unlocked in our lifetime, an African safari to observe the faithful companions of both our ancients and ourselves is something we simply have to do.
If you have stars in your eyes for Africa, let us create a bespoke safari itinerary for you that includes your favourite destinations.
Feature image: Africa SASA