Before I can begin to expound upon the specifics of my visit to the Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve in Alentejo, Portugal I feel a little background is fundamental for you to appreciate the full magnitude and complexity of what I witnessed. Having resided in the choked city of Delhi for the past few years, mind you, a city that was declared the worlds most polluted city four years ago after a WHO study. So much so that the PM2.5 averages between 220 to 250 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) all year round. Just to put that into perspective and to avoid making the aforementioned sound like complete gibberish; a moderate and acceptable level of PM2.5 μg/m3 is between 9 to 25.9 (putting Delhi just about 1300% above the acceptable norm). Add light pollution to the mix and your view of the night sky would comprise of 10 stars at best in Delhi, doesn’t that sound a tad bit depressive?
So during my extensive research of Portugal and its many wonders I stumbled upon the Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve and man oh man there was no chance I was passing up an opportunity to realize one of my long time ambitions of witnessing the milky way in flesh, with my own two eyes. Even if it meant driving over 400 km just to be there (which I did do). Hence, just imagine the immense joy and sense of fulfilment on my part when I got to visit nature as it was intended in Alentejo.
Just to bring you up to speed, Alentejo is a cultural and historical region in the south and south central Portugal which is predominantly regarded for the production of olive oil, cork, wine and traditional polyphonic singing groups, akin to the ones found in Corsica, Tuscany and other such regions. However, my motives for visiting Alentejo were not the fresh produce or the enchanting culture, far from it, my aspiration was to see what I had only seen in pictures and in planetariums as a child. Only this time around it would be under the expansive skies and fresh air of Alentejo. Bang in the center of Alentejo lies the Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve, a safeguarded area and an internationally accredited Dark Sky Reserve or “Starlight Tourism Destination”, which spans a staggering area of about 3000 square kilometres. Having grasped what an exceptional location the Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve makes for stargazing, the neighbouring municipalities of Reguengos de Monsaraz, Mourão, Alandroal, Moura, Barrancos and Portel banded together to preserve this truly remarkable feature. For this very reason, around night time public lighting around the Alqueva lake is reduced to a bare minimum to facilitate better viewing of this natural phenomenon.
The excitement palpable and buzzing more than an electric chainsaw, I loaded the car with all the essentials one would need (I actually carried a sun bed which may sound a little extra but what it lacked in nimbleness it more than made up for in comfort and convenience). You may also look to carry binoculars and if you can, you could go one better with a telescope. If you have neither, no need to panic as you may rent one from the host of companies (that are part of the Dark Sky Route) that make this equipment available for hire, additionally if you opt for it, a tour with them will ensure they teach you the constellations and help identify stars. Having gotten off the highway, the interior, country roads of Alentejo immediately endeared themselves to me, with barely a soul in sight for miles around and rolling farmland on either side, I may as well have parked up on the side of the road and I would still have had seen more stars within a minute than I would have seen in a whole month in Delhi!
The last 100km of the journey was a breeze and I barely felt any fatigue at all as I arrived at my destination around 10pm (sunset in Portugal takes place around 7:45pm in the summer and it doesn’t go completely dark until 9pm or thereabouts). An important disclaimer, as there are barely any artificial lights in the vicinity, the light of the moon itself is extremely bright (especially on a full moon) and it may consequently make it harder for you spot other stars. Therefore make sure to research when the moon is at a crescent, what time sunset is on the day of your visit and not to visit too late in the night. The number of stars visible reduced significantly after 1am when the moon was highest in the sky and its light the brightest. Therefore, get in around 10pm as I did, which will give you a good three to four hours of uninterrupted star gazing time as the moon slowly and steadily rises higher and higher in the distant horizon.
The most noteworthy spot within the Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve is the lake that offers canoeing and other activities such as workshops, hiking trails and signposted tracks for observing flora and fauna. I personally chose to find a more isolated spot for fear of having my experience interrupted by other people’s car light or lights emitting from establishments or phones… As an upshot I drove a little further until I found an isolated road with a paved track running off into the hillside, I decided spots don’t come with more privacy than this and boy was I right. In the four hours that I spent there, to my amazement, only one car crossed my path! Which seems like a distant, unfathomable world as I sit right now in the heart of Delhi writing this.
As for what I saw there – a star studded sky beyond my wildest dreams, 15 plus shooting stars within my four hours there, my first sighting of the milky way and (I know the next part will sound trite) but memories that will truly last me a lifetime.