The umbrella of celestial bodies high above our planet, a billion raindrops of hurtling space light restoring our primitive awe of life on earth, no longer captivates astronomers and Mars nerds alone. Lodges, camps and hotels have been born out of an Astro-tourism boom catering to the star-hungry, heading to designated and un-yet official dark sky reserves across the globe to look up and experience this sublime sense of transcendence. Some seek enhanced zodiac-gazing with the clarity of BlueRay, others to witness rare planetary phenomena and events first-hand.
Next year, the solar system has timetabled four partial eclipses of the moon and two of the sun, culminating in a full solar eclipse on December 14th 2020 with the narrow track of totality crossing Chile and Argentina. PRIOR will be hosting a club journey for members, following the eclipse as it passes over the Cordillera mountain range’s corridor of volcanos. This river ribboned region is famed for its fly-fishing and horseback riding, accessible from the private ranch and tented camp in Argentina where we will stay. (The journey begins further south in Chilean Patagonia at the Torres Del Paine national park, whose sublime granite massifs tower over its glacial Lake Grey and iceberg strewn shores).
Elsewhere in the volatile galaxy, there are year round stellar shows happening: from the fizzing tails of meteorite showers passing razor-close, to the supernatural electromagnetic glows of the Aurorae Borealis and Australis. And, for all the glorious space theatrics, sometimes there’s nothing like the simple child-like thrill of joining the dots to make one feel, miraculously, alive.
Here are the other places and lodgings PRIOR recommends for a life-confirming, spirit-cleansing astral fix.
SHELDON CHALET, ALASKA
There are few more wonder-summoning places to see in the new decade, than from the observation deck of Sheldon Chalet. Teetering on a glacial island 6,000 feet above the icy Don Sheldon Amphitheatre of Alaska’s Denali National Park, here, the neon-green spirits of the northern lights hiss overhead like supernatural fireworks. The remoteness of this off-grid, five-bedroom lodge, only reachable by helicopter from Talkeetna, is only matched by its intimacy with the sky. With some of the thinnest troposphere on the planet and zero light pollution, it feels possible to reach out and catch Taurus by its horns, Orion by the belt, and some of 120 meteorites that will shotgun the sky around January 3rd. Exactly one week later, this will be one of few places in North America to see the year’s first penumbral lunar eclipse, when the moon will be reduced to a leaping salmon. Aurora Borealis season peaks around the spring equinox (March 19th) and the new moon on March 24th. By day, glacial treks, snow cavern spelunking and Alaskan crab and oysters help cleanse body, mind and souls to feel at one with the nighttime sky.
LONGITUDE 131°, NORTHERN TERRITORY, AUSTRALIA
The great sandstone platform of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), as old as some of the stars themselves, is the sacred stage for one of the night sky’s most moving celestial ballets enveloped in the tulle-like twirl of the Milky Way. Front row seats are at Longitude 131°, the 15-tented luxury desert camp in the Northern Territory’s Uluru-Kata Tjuta National park, respectfully decorated with Aboriginal art alongside artefacts that conjure the great explorer’s age. It’s easy to feel like a pioneer at the Under the Star’s dinner at Table 131°, listening to an astronomer recount the creation stories of the Amangu tribe, to whom this hallowed monolith has recently been restored. As the lines of constellations are thrillingly re-drawn as they were seen by the ancients, the Southern cross becomes an emu, a creation spirit; and Orion’s belt, a canoe carrying three fisherman brothers. On June 5th, the second penumbral eclipse of the moon (Ngalini, a portly man pursued by the siren of the sun), will appear like a giant, rusty boomerang in the sky as if caught in the orange light of Uluru.
“Among the wonders of Oman are its nocturnal skies. This year a Royal Decree was issued to designate part of the Al Hajar mountains as a starlight reserve.”
HUD HUD TRAVELS CAMPS, OMAN
Staring down from a 500 feet-high desert dune in southern Oman’s Empty Quarter at an Arabian tented camp, illuminated by a cluster of oil lamps, campfires and candles, it is as if a constellation has fallen to the earth. Once all is extinguished, the sands here are as dark and silent as black matter: There is nothing but planets. Among the wonders of Oman, most authentically explored with Hud Hud Travel’s roving camps, are its nocturnal skies - this year a Royal Decree was issued to designate part of the Al Hajar mountains in the north east, as a starlight reserve. On the December 26th, the sultanate will fall in the shadow path of an annular solar eclipse, when the moon will play pupil to the sun’s fiery iris. Another ‘ring of fire’, moving first from the Congo across Yemen, can be viewed here on the June 21st summer solstice, when it happens again. So extraordinary are some of these to behold, they might feel like “ghost water”- the Bedouin for a mirage.
KACHI LODGE, BOLIVIA
One day tourists will see the glory of our solar system from the moon. Until then, there are the stark, white salt flats of Bolivia’s Salar di Uyuni, the six geometric domes of Kachi Lodge’s tents, crouching on it like lunar modules. At 3,663 metres above sea level, by day, the clouds sit at its crystalline surface. In the cold of the night, the constellations of Ursa Major and Minor (Big and Little bears) commune with llamas, cacti and the occasional Airstream. In wet season, the altiplano floods to a shallow lake that holds up a mirror to the sky, giving those present the giddy sensation of floating in space. Otherworldly, yes, but Kachi is also firmly grounded in Bolivia: The colourful pop art of Gastón Ugalde hangs over beds in the main lodge, and the restaurant serves a menu of raw, Quechua-inspired dishes such freshwater paiche fish with crispy yuca conceived by La Paz’s Gustu (from Claus Meyer, co-founder of Copenhagen’s Noma). The penumbral lunar eclipses of July 5th and November 29th - the final of the four - occur in dry season, when stargazers can feel they are watching one moon from another.
SAN CAMP, BOTSWANA
Stargazing is a contemplative pursuit, prone to spark ruminations on man’s relationship to the universe. Nowhere more so than at San Camp on Botwana’s vast Makagadi salt pans, once a super-lake whose shores were settled by the ancestors of Homo Sapiens. Today it’s still possible to feel as they once did, awe-struck and dwarfed by the southern constellations, in this area of the Kalahari desert, one of least light-polluted in Africa. Admittedly, lodgings have been upgraded in the last few hundred millennia. From a canvas pavilion and six bedroom tents furnished with four poster beds, Persian rugs and antique ‘wunderkammers’, San Camp offers not only guided bushman walks, honey badger and hyaena spotting, but telescopes for celestial safaris, with planet paths tracked as clearly as paw prints on the dunes. On December 14th, it may even be possible to catch the lion’s tail of the total solar eclipse moving its way east from Chile and Argentina.