When I was a child my dad took me into the backyard one clear night to show me some constellations. He’s a science teacher, my dad, and he really likes astronomy. He pointed out the Big Dipper, Canis Major, Gemini and others that I can’t remember, but my favourite was the Hunter, Orion.
To this day, Orion is the only constellation I can identify with complete confidence. I particularly like the little stars that make up his dagger, hanging from that distinctive belt.
We lived in England when my dad first showed me the stars. (He showed me Halley’s Comet as well, and the rings of Saturn through a telescope.) When we moved to New Zealand, one of the first things the ten-year-old me noticed, gazing up at the night sky, was that Orion was upside down.
This scared me a little. It seemed rather too symbolic of my life, my entire world being turned upside down. I’ve lived in New Zealand for over half my life now and I still can’t get used to the sight of Orion the wrong way up. I just can’t.
Of course, all the other Northern Hemisphere constellations are upside down here as well. The most important constellation in New Zealand is the Southern Cross. It’s featured on our flag, at least for now – see my article on the ridiculous farce that New Zealand’s new flag debate has become – and is perhaps the greatest symbol of New Zealand after the silver fern.
You can easily spot the Southern Cross by looking for its ‘Pointers’, the especially bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri. They always appeared above our neighbour’s house in Waiuku. Once my dad had pointed them out, I searched for them every time I went outside at night. The Maori saw the Southern Cross as an anchor. They were experts at using the stars to navigate and called them Te Whanau o Marama, which means ‘the family of light’.
New Zealand’s a pretty good country for stargazing. You can see the Magellanic Clouds with the naked eye, a pair of galaxies you can’t see from the Northern Hemisphere. The Milky Way looks especially milky from here as well. If you’re into astronomy and looking to tour New Zealand, you should check out nzastronomy.co.nz.