A resurgence in stargazing has seen a marked increase in astro tourism to many countries, particularly those in high-latitude parts of the world where the aurora borealis or australis (Northern or Southern Lights) can be viewed.
In 2017, the total solar eclipse in the U.S. resulted in a major tourist boom across a belt from Oregon to South Carolina, as people made their way en masse from big towns seeking a clearer, less light-polluted sky from which to observe this rare phenomenon.
Hotels, lodges and national parks were overwhelmed with the sheer amount of human traffic arriving on their doorsteps –– which was great for local, off-the-grid economies.
Africa has not been left behind in the astro tourism craze. The continent is regarded as having an edge over sprawling metros and urbanised hubs, where the night sky is almost never seen.
In the northern hemisphere, air pollutants and light pollution continue to cloud skies, leaving 60 percent of city dwellers in Europe and 80 percent in the U.S. unable to view the stars or our Milky Way galaxy.
This is why areas in Africa that lie far from large cities are prime destinations for this trending vacation activity. Moreover, most of Africa enjoys clear night skies for a good proportion of the year.
The best places to witness the heavens
While it's a challenge to identify any particular African destination as "better" than another for celestial exploration, there are a few affordable spots where local tourism and hospitality bodies have set up dedicated, professional astro tourism facilities:
The Namibian wilderness draws hundreds of avid stargazers each year. The NamibRand Reserve is a pristine conservation area set up by the Namibian government to facilitate the protection of the area's unique ecosystem. The pitch-black night sky that can only be truly experienced in the desert has recently been dubbed the "Dark Sky Reserve" by the International Dark Sky Association.
Where to stay: The uber-luxurious andBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in the northern part of the reserve is the perfect setting for incredible celestial views. Only 20 guest beds are available at any given time, to limit the negative impact of high-volume tourism traffic to this unique reserve.
Botswana's majestic Okavango Delta, Makgadikgadi Pan and Kalahari Desert are prime destinations for night-sky observation.
Botswana is the new kid on the astro tourism scene, with an abundance of great mobile tented camps and luxury lodges available that get the balance between rustic safari and African glamour just right, while offering guests a chance to seriously contemplate the cosmos.
To ensure a brilliant sky, the dry season is the best time to observe the heavens. Summer means plenty of rainfall, so the winter months of June to August are ideal for stargazing. Botswana's latitude gives visitors unsurpassed views of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and several annual meteor showers.
Home to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and the largest single-optic telescope in the southern hemisphere (SALT), the quaint town of Sutherland in the semidesert Karoo is an international magnet for astronomers. Very few places in the world offer guests the opportunity to view deep space with as much intense detail as SALT does.
In October 2017, SALT and SAAO telescopes joined an unprecedented international collaboration to investigate the first detected gravitational waves produced by two colliding neutron stars. The research findings might be the biggest news for astrophysics in the modern era.
Book now: SAAO hold regular astronomy tours for adults and children when weather permits. However, due to Sutherland's remote location, booking is essential to avoid disappointment upon arrival.
For more information on booking a tour that will leave you starstruck, visit SALT here.
The ancient San peoples of Southern Africa refer to the Milky Way as "the spine of the night" –– an important fixture in folklore and early belief systems about the world and our place in it. As they were to ancient astronomers and are to modern-day astrophysicists, the stars are pivotal to us understanding our place in the solar system.
So while it is doubtful that all the secrets of deep space will be unlocked in our lifetimes, an African safari to observe these faithful companions of both our ancient ancestors and ourselves has lots to recommend it.
How much do you think an African stargazing safari costs? Visit Discover Africa's Safari Cost Estimator to tailor an experience to suit your budget.