5 Of The World’s Best Places For Viewing The Night Skies

If you grow up in Southern California, school field trips to the Griffith Observatory are practically a requirement. For whatever reason, I always found the Planetarium more frightening than enlightening, especially in the sixth grade, when David Fink threw up on me on the bus ride home.

Despite many youthful camping trips with my family, I also can’t recall ever paying attention to the night skies (possibly because many of these trips were in the cloudy Pacific Northwest). Fast-forward 20-odd years, and to a solo camping trip on Kauai’s North Shore. It was my last night and the rainclouds had finally blown away. I stared up at the starry sky awestruck. It’s the first time l ever really noticed the stars, due to the lack of light and environmental pollution. I’ve been a stargazer ever since, and coincidentally, many of my travels have taken me to some of the world’s best locations for it.

Below, my picks for top-notch night skies, no student chaperone required:

Atacama Desert
, Chile

This stark, Altiplano region in Chile’s far north is the driest desert on earth, as well as home to the some of the clearest night skies on the planet. You don’t need anything (other than perhaps a great camera) to appreciate the stars, but a stargazing tour, offered by various hotels, hostels and outfitters throughout the town of San Pedro de Atacama, is well worth it.

I highly recommend the Astronomy Tour offered by the Alto Atacama Hotel & Spa, located just outside of San Pedro proper. For hotel guests only, this two-year-old program is led by one of the property’s guides, a naturalist and astronomer. The hotel has its own observation deck and a seriously badass telescope; you won’t be disappointed even if stargazing isn’t your thing. In addition to learning the constellations of ancient Quechua myth such as the Llama and Condor, you’ll have incredible views of the Milky Way, and be able to see telescopic images of Sirius and Alpha Centauri with a lens so powerful you can actually see a ring of flame flickering from their surface.

%Gallery-157717%Exmouth, Western Australia
Uluru (aka the former Ayers Rock, which now goes by its Aboriginal name) is considered Australia’s best stargazing, due to its location in exactly the middle of nowhere. In reality, the Outback in general has night skies completely untainted by pollution. But as I’ve discovered after many years of visiting Australia, the only bad places to stargaze are urban areas. The skies are also stellar above remote coastal regions, most notably in Western Australia (which is vast and sparsely populated).

The best skies I’ve seen are in Exmouth, located along the Ningaloo Reef. At Sal Salis, a coastal luxury safari camp, an observation platform and stargazing talk will help you make sense of the Southern sky. Be prepared for striking views of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, seemingly close enough to touch.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In 1991, the year of the Total Solar Eclipse, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea Observatory – located at the top of the volcano – to watch the sky grow dark mid-morning. I was waiting tables on Maui, so all I noticed was a brief dimming, in conjunction with some of my tables pulling a dine-and-dash. A visit to the volcano, however, will assure you stunning views if you take a Sunset and Stargazing Tour offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Day visitors can hike, and even ski in winter.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
This national park, known for its bizarre rock spires (called “hoodoos”) and twisting red canyons, is spectacular regardless of time of day or season. On moonless nights, however, over 7,500 stars are visible, and park rangers and volunteer astronomers lead Night Sky programs that include multimedia presentations and high-power telescopes; schedules and topics change with the seasons.

Churchill, Manitoba
Located on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, the village of Churchill is famous for three things: polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. Its location beneath the Auroral Oval means the “best and most Northern Lights displays on the planet,” according to Churchill’s website, and you don’t need to sign up for a tour to enjoy the show. Save that for the polar bear viewing.

[Photo credits: Atacama, Frank Budweg; Mauna Kea, Flickr user sambouchard418;Aurora Borealis, Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

Photo of the day (12.2.10)

Seeing animals in the wild can be one of the highlights of any trip, especially when everyone comes out of it with all body parts intact. Flickr user kumukulanui captured this “Emu intensity” in Perth, Western Australia. I love the emu’s soulful eyes and curious/bordering-on-scary expression. I don’t know how the meeting will end, but I’m glad to have caught a moment. Emus are native to Australia and quite bold about approaching human, particularly when they have food, and have also inspired the Perth-brewed Emu Beer.

Have any interesting animal encounters on your travels? Add your pix to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use one for a future Photo of the Day.

World’s longest golf course opens in Australia

Like golf? Like road trips? Want to do both? Now’s your chance.

A new eighteen-hole course stretching over 1,365 kilometers (848 miles) across the Australian Outback has just opened.

If you’re thinking “ecological disaster”, don’t worry. They haven’t cultivated a green that long, only a relatively small area around each hole. And you’re not expected to walk the entire course, or even use one of those silly little carts. You play one hole and drive to the next. Even so it still takes about a week to play. Situated in the isolated Nullarbor Plain, the course features big skies, lots of scenery, and abundant wildlife such as dingos and kangaroos. Hole Four at Nundroo has the largest population of southern hairy-nosed wombats in the country. Someone out there apparently has a job counting hairy-nosed wombats.

The developers of Nullarbor Links hope the course will help business along the rural Eyre Highway, which players will see a lot of if they want to finish this endurance test.

Australia’s Wild West: Beautiful Bungle Bungle

All too often in life, things fail to live up to the hype. If you saw The Sixth Sense after it had been theaters for more than a month, you know what I’m talking about. And in travel, quite frequently things can be a tad disappointing once you arrive. Case in point: I saw the Mona Lisa for the first time last month and I have to tell you, I don’t get it. Thankfully, the one thing that almost never underwhelms is good ol’ Planet Earth. From the Grand Canyon to Angel Falls, natural wonders seem to meet or exceed expectations nearly every single time. And if you find yourself in Australia’s Top End, odds are you won’t go but a few hours without someone saying, “Have you been to the Bungle Bungle yet? You have to go!” So, what is the Bungle Bungle Range and why is everybody so impressed by it? I got to the bottom of it by going way over the top.


The Bungle Bungle Range is a landform unlike anything I have ever seen. Situated in Purnululu National Park, the Bungles, as they are often called, are arguably the most popular natural attraction in the Top End. They achieved this status because of their unique shape. The Bungles look like beehives. The domed shape of the Bungle Bungle Range is attributed to the desert winds that blow through the Kimberley and the massive amounts of rainfall that the region receives every year during the wet season. Over roughly 350 million years, the sedimentary rock came to look like a collection of women at a beauty parlor in the 1950s.

The best way to see the Bungle Bungle Range is from the air. Scenic flights depart out of Kununnura, a mining town that is the de facto capital of the Kimberley. The flights are quite popular, as hiking the Bungle Bungles is difficult and climbing the domes is strictly forbidden and the shear magnitude of the range’s size and unusual shape lend itself to tours from above. Two charter flight operators run tours to the Bungles on a regular basis: Slingair and Alligator Airways. I flew on Slingair’s early morning flight and was picked up from my hotel just as the sun rose.

Anytime you’re going to fly on a small propeller plane, you get weighed before your board. This usually occurs in front of anyone else boarding that plane. (Note to self: Don’t take a prop plane flight on your last day in Australia after two weeks of meat pies and burgers.) But I digress. If you are traveling alone, I highly recommend that you ask your pilot if you can sit in the co-pilot seat on any scenic flight. You get incredible views and the horizon is always there to keep you from getting airsick.

The flight began over Lake Argyle, a massive man-made lake that is striking both in its size and beauty. Nearly twenty times the volume of Sydney Harbor, it covers mountain ranges that now poke through the surface like the backs of crocodiles. We also flew over the Ord River Dam, which is the largest dam in Australia. After about 40 minutes, however, I began to see the main attraction. The beehive-shaped domes that everyone in the Top End had told me about. The Bungles.

Over the next 25 minutes or so, we circled the Bungles and our aerial vantage point provided sweeping views of this massive phenomenon. The range’s shape and colors resemble giant bon bons, which appear as if they’d been dropped from the sky. At times they looked like cinnamon dusted truffles waiting for a hungry giant. The red rock gleamed in the sunlight, though that sunlight was also baking me through the windows of the tiny plane.

After several loops around the range, our flight continued on to the Argyle Diamond Mine, the world’s largest diamond mine by volume. But don’t expect to pick up a cheap engagement ring in Kununnura. Nearly all of the diamonds sourced here are industrial grade and used in heavy machinery.

Two hours after our departure, we returned to Kununnura. That’s about all the time you’ll want to spend in the cramped plane, but the experience more than justifies the noise, heat and limited legroom. And after witnessing the Bungle Bungle Range for myself, I can see what all the talk is about.

At the Kununnura Airport, I bumped into some travelers I had met days earlier at El Questro. We discussed our travels and compared experiences in the Kimberley. It wasn’t long before I excitedly asked, “Hey, did you get to the Bungle Bungle Range?”

Mike Barish rode horses, flew in tiny planes and hiked across Western Australia on a trip sponsored by Tourism Western Australia. There were no restrictions on what he could cover or how many hamburgers he could eat. You can read other entries in his Australia’s Wild West series HERE.

Australia’s Wild West: Cowboy Life at Home Valley

An hour’s drive down the Gibb River Road from El Questro, in the shadow of the striking Cockburn Range, sits Home Valley Station. The spirits of the Kimberley’s settler history and cowboy culture are alive and well at this Outback resort. Its location is so fantastic and pristine, in fact, that it was used for many scenes in the film Australia. Sure, you’ll find flat screen televisions and wireless internet access here, but you’ll have to get past the cows, horses and flooded roads first. This is no American dude ranch. It’s a slice of Outback life that many Australians still relish to this day. Home Valley preserves that lifestyle, and its natural theater, in a way that allows visitors to experience a holiday that is an more about participation than pampering.


Home Valley embraces the concept of experiential travel. It expects its guests to be active and engaged and provides activities that allow visitors to take on the role of a cowboy while still sleeping comfortably at night. My cabin was beyond comfortable, with a queen-sized bed, satellite television and bucolic view of the neighboring creek. But little time would be spent relaxing, as Home Valley is no place for couch potatoes.

As anticipated, a resort embracing cowboy culture also has guided horseback rides. My relationship with horses is tepid at best. I’ve eaten horse twice and I think they can sense this. Every time I get on a horse, they react first with indifference and then graduate to annoyance. Disdain comes later, as the animal learns how ignorant I am about his movements. Still, Ivan, Home Valley’s aboriginal guide who who grew up not far from the resort, led our group confidently through the property. With the Cockburn Range always lurking in the background and livestock joining us along the way, it was hard to not feel as if I had been transported back to the time when people were first trying to settle the Outback. Outside of the restaurant and reception area, the majority of Home Valley is pristine, untouched wilderness that is ripe for exploration.

The Pentecost River cuts right through Home Valley and is home to a fascinating variety of wildlife thanks to it being tidal. As such, beyond your typical barramundi and catfish, you will also find sharks and stingrays. This diverse ecosystem makes for some interesting fishing. Of course, if you’re in Australia, you’re really only hoping to catch a barramundi that you can grill up for dinner. I spent an afternoon on the Pentecost hoping to impress the locals with a barra worth sharing. Instead, I was left with nothing more than stories of hooking a shark and my inability to understand why a stingray would want to hang out in a river.

Despite my fishing failures, the day was a success, as I turned my t-shirt tan into a tank top tan (lotion up when you’re in the Kimberley) and I enjoyed some of the most timeless surroundings I’ve ever witnessed.

Home Valley has two scenic lookouts that are perfect for watching the sunset. The Cockburn Range becomes a chameleon as its colors morph in response to the ebbing of the sun. Shades of rust and crimson provide a fitting backdrop as another day in the Kimberley comes to an end.

As I departed Home Valley, I felt as if I had visited not only the Kimberley of today, but the Outback of Australia’s settler past. And sometimes the best journey’s take us not just to physical destinations but transcend boundaries of time. Home Valley’s creature comforts may make it a resort, but it’s the environment that makes it a time machine.

Mike Barish rode horses, flew in tiny planes and hiked across Western Australia on a trip sponsored by Tourism Western Australia. There were no restrictions on what he could cover or how many hamburgers he could eat. You can read other entries in his Australia’s Wild West series HERE.