From Morocco to South Africa, the African continent’s sparsely populated areas make for some of the best stargazing in the world. Whether it’s in the middle of a desert or far out on the savanna, there are numerous options to choose from. Theese are some of the best places to sit back, relax, and look up to the heavens.
Zimbabwe’s big sky, clear weather and low light pollution make it the perfect place to get a glimpse of the galaxy. Victoria Falls Safari Club is capitalizing on these natural assets by offering complimentary stargazing for guests of the lodge. Every Wednesday and Saturday night, a specialist guide gives an educational talk on the Club Deck about the night sky, in which he identifies stars and galaxies, explains the origins of the universe, and gives perspective on the vastness of the universe. As an added bonus, the lodge offers a free 15-minute head/shoulder or foot massage, afternoon tea and pastries, and evening cocktails and snacks. The Club Deck also offers views of the Zambezi National Park and waterhole where elephants congregate.
The huge expanse of South Africa provides a great backdrop for stargazing. Stargazing is nothing new in South Africa, and there are several San legends about how the constellations formed.
The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAOO) offers tours at facilities in Cape Town and Sutherland (just a four hour drive from the Mother City). The SAOO in Cape Town is open every second and fourth Saturday of the month at 8:00 p.m., and if the sky is clear, guests can use the McClean and other telescopes for spectacular views of the night sky. The observation area at Sutherland rests on a hilltop 1800 meters (5905 feet) above sea level, allowing for pristine conditions and the absence of light pollution. Tours need to be booked ahead of time and guests can use two dedicated visitor telescopes while there. On the other side of the country, Kruger National Park has several astronomy programs for safari tourists. One of the best spots in the park is Olifants Rest Camp which has astronomy facilities on site and a telescope powerful enough to view the southern skies in vivid detail. Hotels in South Africa are making the most of the astronomy tourism with telescopes in rooms on offer, giving opportunity to visitors to watch night skies at their ease.
Namibia’s Sossusvlei Desert offers uncompromised views of the night sky far away from large cities. The Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is not only near the world’s largest sand dunes, but also has its own observatory and astronomers. Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is located on the NamibRand Nature Reserve, and can be accessed along the C27, south of Sesriem. The NamibRand Nature Reserve, a private nature reserve in Southern Namibia, qualifies as an International Dark Sky Reserve — the skies there are almost totally free from light pollution. To qualify as a dark sky reserve, areas need to be endowed with dark skies and virtually no light pollution. Another option in Namibia is the Namib Naukluft Lodge, the preferred viewing location of Space Observation Learning Namibia (SOLNA). The lodge is located in the Namib desert and borders the Namib Sand Sea World Heritage Site. The Tivoli Southern Sky Guest Farm also provides impressive views of the night sky and over a dozen telescopes, including the 25-inch Obsession Dobson.
Kenya offers several lodges where you can view the heavens while still remaining close to some of the best wildlife experiences in Africa.
One such place is Finch Hattons that has recently added a stargazing terrace and will finally complete a US$5.5 million renovation in December 2014. The privately-owned lodge is situated in Tsavo West National Park. Along with superb views of the stars, Finch Hattons also has amazing views of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Another great location to see stars in Kenya is at Loisaba Wilderness. The lodge features a set of “star beds” that are spaced five miles apart from each other and can be reached by foot, camel or 4×4. The original set is located in one of the eastern valleys overlooking the Kiboko waterhole. The second set is located further south on the banks of the Ewaso N’giro River.
Morocco’s mountainous and desert terrain make it one of the best spots for stargazing in Africa, if not the world. It’s no wonder the Arabs living there were observing and naming stars for thousands of years. At the SaharaSky Observatory, guests can stay in the Draa valley in the remote western border of the country. SaharaSky is also the first privately owned astronomical observatory in North Africa that provides a full panoramic view. On location experts are able to assist those who aren’t familiar with the high-tech telescopes on site. Another option is to take a nine-day tour from On The Go Tours which will also include a visit to the SaharaSky Observatory. Guests can take a camel trek into the Sahara, then spend the night under the stars in the Zagora dunes. The tour also goes into the mountain passes of Ait Benhaddou and the High Atlas Mountains which both offer fantastic natural backdrops.Joe Kennedy contributed to this article.