Sometimes, you just need to look up,” Chris Tugwell tells me, as I sit in the lounge room of his 350-acre property overlooking the ancient Murray River and sunlit, vibrant red cliffs of Big Bend.
I’m here learning about how the 3,200 square kilometre stretch of land in the Mid Murray region of South Australia came to be discovered as one of the darkest places on Earth. Chris, who was the driving force behind the area earning its 2019 gold tier accreditation as just one of 15 International Dark Sky Reserves in the world and the only one in Australia, shares just how much work it took to, in his words, “heritage list the sky”.
A team of astronomers and local volunteers dedicated four years to record data and measurements of the light in the region – or, in this case, the lack thereof – using a Sky Quality Metre (SQM) and photographic evidence.
Despite its proximity to the city lights of Adelaide, the data collected within the area – spanning Mannum and Blanchetown, along with a section of the Murray River and the foothills to the west – recorded readings as high as 21.9 SQM.
“The highest darkness reading possible is 22 SQM,” Chris tells me, before sharing that some recordings within their findings may challenge this and that there are polarising differences between our skies and those in other International Dark Sky Reserves further north.
“Andrew [who recorded the light measurements] took a series of readings over one night here. He drew up a graph and the measurements shot up to 21.96 SQM at about midnight, and then it gradually started to get brighter.
“What we realised was it was actually the Milky Way rising that was making it brighter. The fact that it’s so dark that the starlight is having an impact is something that just doesn’t happen in the Northern Hemisphere,” he tells me, proudly.
It’s at this moment we turn our attention to some brightly coloured parrots that perch themselves on the eaves, just next to where we are sitting.
“See,” Chris says, interrupting the moment of silence and nodding his head toward the rainbow coloured feathers. “You don’t always need fancy equipment or a telescope. Sometimes, you can just simply lie back and look up.”
I ponder the simplicity of this concept for a moment.
For many, the world over, a starry sky is as good as a few luminous dots scattered scarcely through a navy canvas. The systems of stars, dust and dark matter are reserved for imagery and movies of galaxies far, far, away. Orion’s Belt, the Southern Cross, and even our galaxy, the Milky Way, are stargazing terms we all know but rarely see as a result of the increasing spread of light pollution.
But here, just 1.5 hours away from the twinkling city lights of Adelaide’s CBD, nestled among sweeping plains and the rolling hills of the Mount Lofty Ranges, we’re granted the opportunity to walk on ancient lands beneath a night sky that remains largely unchanged to that which was visible thousands of years ago.
At a nearby Aboriginal site, Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, a unique insight into the Nganguraku people and their connection to the land and the skies are shared through private tours, and I’m curious to discover how the preservation of the night sky can open up opportunities to learn about the Traditional Custodians of this region.
“Learning those stories… you begin to look at it [the night sky] differently,” Chris says.
It’s still light out when Kelly Kuhn, Director of Juggle House Experiences, arrives at Mannum Motel to pick me up for the stargazing tour. We’re heading to the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Site, which sits just outside of Nildottie, before meeting up with local astronomer Tony Hoskings for astronomy lessons at Maynards Lookout in Walker Flat.
We board the Juggle House tour van, dubbed ‘The Entertainer’, a luxurious van that resembles more of a limousine inside. Kelly, aided by the owner of the motel and local photographer David Hartley, guides me through the region, as we stop at several lookouts before crossing on the free ferry towards Nildottie.
I’m in awe of the vastness of the land out here. From sandy cliffs that change from reds and yellows to creams and browns, to the flowing water of the Murray and the desert-like flatlands and grassy floodplains that frame the occasional cluster of river homes and farmhouses, the landscape seems ever-changing and metamorphic in nature.
The warmth of the day is starting to recede with the sun when we arrive at Ngaut Ngaut.
It’s here that Herbert Hale and Norman Tindale conducted the first rock shelter excavation in Australia in 1929, confirming the long history of Nganguraku people living around the Murray River; radiocarbon-dated deposits found they had been there for more than 6,000 years.
We’re met at the top of the conservation park by our Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Tour guides, Ivy Campbell and Sam Stewart, both local Nganguraku people who quickly introduce themselves before launching into light-hearted banter.
“This here,” Ivy says, holding up a hammer. “This is an ancient tool I’ve used to knock into the fence so you guys don’t need to jump it,” she jokes.
It turns out she wasn’t entirely kidding. We navigate the barbed wire fence through a hole created by Ivy’s ‘ancient tool’.
At Ngaut Ngaut’s top site, Sam introduces us to the area. As we stand atop the reddish earth, surrounded by Sam and Ivy’s efforts at revegetation, he introduces us to Nganguraku country, which is part of the Ngarrindjeri nation. Nganguraku country, he explains, lies east of the Mount Lofty Ranges, and along the river near Murray Bridge.
“Where we’re standing,” Sam says, “used to be where visiting tribes would set set up camp.” He points to a flat surface of land that’s scattered with white and charcoaled rocks, where tribes from the desert would visit when their waters ran dry. The white stone, he teaches us, was also used for ceremonial sites. We wander just a few metres to our left to an area where the stones look as if they’ve been thrown at random and the earth is scarred with what appears to be plough marks. A reminder of colonisation, he explains.
“All these white stones that are scattered everywhere, this was a ceremonial site. They were placed in a certain pattern, but by the time the land was given back to us it had all been destroyed, and now there isn’t enough knowledge for us to come back to this campsite and put these white stones back to their original pattern.”
The loss of knowledge is evident in this area, and there’s a heaviness in Sam’s voice when he discusses this impact. But the duo have dedicated their time and lives to strengthening the culture and understanding of the history of the region.
“For our tribe, we can’t do nothing about the past, we can’t do nothing about yesterday, but we can do something about today. And today is all about coming together and sharing. If we don’t do that here today in Australia, what will be left for our younger generation? Hopefully, one day, we can walk side-by-side into the future,” Sam says.
“If you call yourself Australian, this is part of yours as well, but the protection of it falls to us,” Ivy goes on to add.
I’m absorbing the words they’re speaking, as Sam talks us through various plants that are used as bush food and medicine. My eyes are darting down and back, and left and right. We suddenly come to a stop.
“If you just look up,” Sam says.
I raise my eyeline from the dusty floor to see the unfurling curves and bends of the flowing ribbon-like river, reflecting the final moments of light from the sun.
“And look into the distance over there,” he continues. “That’s the township of Nildottie, which is the word for ‘Smoke Signal Hill’. When a tribe would come to this land, they’d have to send a smoke signal to let us know they were passing through… Nowadays, we have a mobile phone.”
The afternoon is full of as many laughs as it is important educational lessons.
I’m again struck by the immensity of the horizon, which seems like it never ends. It hits me harder when Sam explains that his community shares the responsibility of protecting the land with the Peramangk tribe from the Adelaide Hills.
“We’re only a small tribe, but if you look out in front of you, you’ll see it’s a big country to look after.”
We wander down the boardwalk, which meanders alongside the cliffs and the banks of the Murray. The majestic sandstone and limestone cliffs, which are reminiscent of a wave, are adorned with oyster shells, sea urchins and shark teeth fossilised into the sea beds that formed them eons ago. Rock art in the form of engravings are carved into the sides of cliffs that are dated arguably somewhere between six-and 20-million-years old.
As we reach the bottom of the boardwalk, Ivy rejoins our small group. Directly ahead of us, at the banks of the Murray, a shelter tree stands tall. Once solid, its insides were carved and burnt out generations ago to create a hollow centre, while the top of the tree continues to flourish. “That tree is very special to us because that’s where all the women gave birth to their babies. It’s a birthing tree,” Sam tells us before Ivy interrupts, dubbing it the ‘love shack’.
Ivy talks us through the women’s and men’s sites, where the Nganguraku people once camped, and teaches the history, stories and engravings. She comes to an etching of the sun, the symbol for women, and a moon, the symbol for men. Dots appear alongside the major symbols, which may be connected to the moon’s phases.
The carvings are evidence of a deep connection to astronomy and the night sky.
“The sky was used for travelling, they follow a certain star, and they use the sky as a GPS or map,” Ivy shares.
“The night sky tells us which way we need to go. You want to get there, you’ve got to look up for the right stars and also feel your way to where you need to be.” The stories of creation are also passed down through the generations, but fragments of the cultural education have been lost to the history of invasion.
“I’m a land person,” she says. “I was taught more about the land than I was the sky, but I can share the stories of the Seven Sisters, and the Emu in the Sky.”
Ivy instructs me to look for a dark circular shape to the left of the Southern Cross – the head of an emu, whose body lies across the centre of the Milky Way. As we leave Ngaut Ngaut the stars have already started to twinkle like fairy lights.
I comment on the prettiness of it when David interrupts, “The sky isn’t dark enough yet.”
I wonder how much darker it could get.
As we pull up to Maynards Lookout, Tony is already there waiting for us, set up with his Orion XX12g American-made telescope, of which I’m told there are only three in Australia. We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature to properly experience one of the darkest skies on Earth, and we’re thankfully blessed with a clear, cloudless night on this occasion.
Tony, who has been an astronomer for decades, points out various stargazing sights, but it’s the Emu I’m most interested to find.
He coordinates the telescope into the dark patch that is the Emu’s head, which he points to with a super-strength laser beam. I look through the telescope to discover the spot is not a dark patch at all, but the Coalsack Nebula, an interstellar cloud of dust and gas.
“Oh wow. Cool. Awesome,” are all the words I can muster over the two-hours at the lookout.
The Milky Way is the clearest I’ve ever seen it and before the night’s end, I’m able to identify Orion’s Belt, the Southern Cross and Taurus, amongst other constellations that have names more akin to a Star Wars spacecraft.
Tony tells me that some of the stars we can see may have burned out but are more than 10,000 light-years away, meaning their light will appear in our skies for thousands of years after the star itself has faded.
I ask if what we’re seeing today in the sky would be any different to the skies seen by Traditional Owners thousands of years ago. “No,” he responds. “There may be very minor differences and movement, but the sky you’re looking up at today is the same as people who walked here all that time ago.”
I’m humbled by the knowledge of just how small our existence is in the universe, and that the spirits in the sky hold memories of Earth we’re yet to uncover.
Before we leave, a shooting star darts across the sky. It’s a good thing on this trip I’ve learnt to look up.
Mannum Motel offers casual accommodation overlooking the Murray River.
For more information on the River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve, and the Mid Murray region, visit;