Spotlight on Canterbury: Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is one of the South Island of New Zealand’s prime tourist destinations. I wasn’t aware of that when I was in New Zealand for the first time. My plan was to just make the trip from Christchurch to Queenstown in one day; that’s about 480km of driving through Canterbury and Otago. Lake Tekapo turned out to be worth so much more than just a quick stopover and picture opportunity. And you’re about to see why.

Lake Tekapo as seen from Mount John

Lake Tekapo as seen from Mount John

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is about half way from Christchurch to Queenstown, right on State Highway 8. It sits in Godley Valley (how aptly named), which is at the heart of a region called the Mackenzie Basin on New Zealand’s South Island. Lake Tekapo is one of three large alpine lakes that basically lie parallel to each other: Lake Pukaki, Lake Tekapo and Lake Ohau. It is the country’s highest large lake as it is 710m above sea level. The water of the lake is an amazing turquoise; this is due to the glaciers of the Southern Alps that feed the rivers Godley, Macaulay and Cass, which in turn flow into Lake Tekapo.

The township of Tekapo counts just over 300 inhabitants, but not unlike other small towns in very picturesque settings, such as Arrowtown, the population increases overnight due to the many visitors, and during weekends, as Kiwis head to their holiday homes in the township.

The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

The Church of the Good Shepherd is a little chapel that sits right on the shore of Lake Tekapo. It was built in 1935 in memory of the pioneers of Mackenzie Country and was the first church to be built in the Mackenzie Basin.

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

View from the Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

The most notable feature of this little church is arguably its altar window. It looks out straight onto Lake Tekapo and perfectly frames the most magnificent views of the lake and the Southern Alps in the backdrop. Here’s another picture of it, because it’s so beautiful. This time, a winter-time view:

View from the Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, in the winter

View from the Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, in the winter

If you want to get hitched in New Zealand and what you’re after is an intimate setting in nature, I’d say Lake Tekapo is definitely a top contender. The Church of the Good Shepherd is bang in the middle of the spectacular Mackenzie basin; the Southern Alps, glacial lakes, not many people around… The only danger here is that you get so distracted by the views from the altar window you miss your cue to say I do!

The church only seats 55 people, so it’s really small. During peak hours in the high season, you may have to queue a little to enter. Since Lake Tekapo is in the middle of one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist routes, the SH 8 from Christchurch to Queenstown, many tourist busses arrive at the church over lunch. So if you want to escape the rush hour, arrive in the morning before 11am, or in the afternoon from 2.30pm onwards. The general opening hours are 9:00am-5:00pm in the summer (October-April), and 10:00am-4:00pm (May-September).

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

So what else goes down in this high country village?

Well, it’s not all just tourism. Other notable sectors are farming, energy, and astronomy. Say what? I suppose you’re not as much intrigued by the high country sheep stations surrounding the lake or the power station generating electricity, so let’s get straight to the astronomy side of Tekapo for now. And that’s where Mount John comes in.

Mount John

There is an astronomical observatory on nearby Mount John, basically a huge rock sitting between Lake Tekapo and Lake Alexandrina, from which there are beautiful views to be enjoyed across the Mackenzie Basin. Mount John can be visited during daytime, which is spectacular as such, but after dusk it gets even more interesting. The Mackenzie District has extremely low light pollution, and so the location lends itself to astronomical observation.

Tourists can visit Mount John Observatory and take part in a stargazing tour. You can book it through Earth & Sky in the Tekapo township. There are two tours a night, departing from Tekapo in the late evening, weather permitting.

One of the telescopes at Mount John Observatory, Lake Tekapo

One of the telescopes at Mount John Observatory, Lake Tekapo

What else is there to do?

    • Soak in the hot springs at the Alpine Springs Spa and enjoy the views over Lake Tekapo from the outdoor pools.
    • Go trout fishing.
    • Go skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating in the winter. The Two Thumb range has two ski areas: Roundhill and Mt Dobson.
    • Cruise the lake (on a very small boat) with Cruise Tekapo and visit Motuariki Island, view the Godley Valley and get a close look at the Tekapo-A power station.
    • Go horseback riding with Mackenzie Alpine Horse Trekking.
    • Go mountain-biking around the lake or along well-formed trails in the Regional Park.
    • Take a scenic flight over the Mackenzie basin and Aoraki Mt Cook, and take in the views of glaciers, high country faming land, and lush rainforest.
Tekapo village as seen from Mount John

Tekapo village as seen from Mount John

Quite a lot on offer for a 300-soul village in the middle of nowhere, don’t you think? I shall leave you with this bit of information: Lake Tekapo’s name is likely to be derived from the Maori word “takapo”, which means “to leave at night with haste”. Having stood under Tekapo’s amazingly dark and clear night skies on top of Mount John, I don’t think it will serve as a motto for its residents or visitors anytime soon.
View Larger Map

How would you spend your time at Lake Tekapo?

Christina Hegele

About the author: Christina Hegele runs Sandal Road, a blog on her favourite destinations. It just so happened that 95% turned out to be about New Zealand. Follow Christina and her blog on Twitter, like her blog on Facebook, and subscribe to her Youtube channel. Alternatively, subscribe to her email newsletter at the top right of this blog.

More Posts - Twitter - Facebook

  24 comments for “Spotlight on Canterbury: Lake Tekapo

  1. 19 July, 2011 at 07:53

    Wow, looks like a wonderful place to spend some time – taking pictures and relaxing.
    Thanks for sharing about the lake, did not know it was so picturesque.
    John D. Wilson

    • Christina
      19 July, 2011 at 11:37

      John, it’s a pleasure. I’m glad you enjoyed the photo tour. Now book your ticket. 😀

  2. 19 July, 2011 at 09:14

    Some lovely photos of Tekapo.It is such a beautiful spot. Mt St John would have to be a must for any budding astronomers. It is being considered for the first Night Sky World Heritage status.

    • Christina
      19 July, 2011 at 11:39

      That is great to hear! Mt John/Lake Tekapo definitely deserve World Heritage site for the night skies!

  3. 19 July, 2011 at 10:35

    Gorgeous landscapes. Definitely a place to spend a few days relaxing and taking photographs (at least, that’s what I would do there).

    • Christina
      20 July, 2011 at 16:57

      Beautiful, isn’t it? I love the Mackenzie Country. So stunning, with the lakes and the high country vegetation.

  4. 19 July, 2011 at 18:19

    Christina, you really took some awesome photos – love the pics of the lake with the crucifix in the foreground.! Sounds like lots to see and do in Canterbury, too.

    • Christina
      22 July, 2011 at 18:34

      Thank you Cathy! I can tell you the views from that chapel are breathtaking.

  5. 21 July, 2011 at 09:04

    This place looks BEAUTIFUL! And looks like there aren’t too many tourists kicking about, which is tops in my book… 🙂

    • Christina
      22 July, 2011 at 18:37

      Thanks, Raymond. You’ll see quite a few tour busses, but as I said, only in the rush hours between 11.00 and 2.30. Before and after it’s a lot quieter. Plus, the lake is quite big, so there’s a lot of space for everyone to be away from the crowds.

  6. Lesley-Anne
    21 July, 2011 at 17:15

    It’s even more stunning in real life! I’d definitely recommend a visit.

    • Christina
      22 July, 2011 at 18:37

      You’re absolutely right Lesley-Anne, it just blows you away.

  7. 22 July, 2011 at 02:51

    It’s so beautiful! Isn’t it also one of the most popular places to skydive or am I thinking of a different lake? Regardless, I can’t wait to see it and the rest of New Zealand–I’ve got to many plans in my mind!

    • Christina
      22 July, 2011 at 18:40

      Annie, skydiving in that place would be marvellous! But I think you probably confuse it with Taupo or Queenstown, which are the two main centres for skydiving, but you have spectacular views pretty much anywhere in NZ. You can even skydive from the North Island to the South Island… what a way to cross the Cook Strait!

  8. 23 July, 2011 at 19:08

    Wow – we completely missed this when we were in New Zealand. It’s so beautiful and so much to do – had no idea!

    • Christina
      28 July, 2011 at 07:39

      Oh no! Just keep it on your list for your next holiday in New Zealand!

  9. 25 July, 2011 at 01:21

    So beautiful! Never been to New Zealand but a country village like this really intrigues me. Would love to just hike around and explore in this area. However, that’s probably true for much of New Zealand!

    • Christina
      28 July, 2011 at 07:41

      You’re right, much of New Zealand is rural and there’s so much beautiful scenery to explore, you could go hiking for a year and not have seen it all. I hope you get to go sometime!

  10. 27 July, 2011 at 20:05

    Wow you have some amazing pictures!

    • Christina
      28 July, 2011 at 07:41

      Thank you! I’m glad you like the pictures.

  11. 31 July, 2011 at 13:25

    Gorgeous New Zealand. Yet another reason I really have to visit the South Island soon!

  12. 17 August, 2011 at 01:13

    What a beautiful place. I would love to experience that view from the church and explore the church. I love architecture and churches.

  13. Juliann
    13 July, 2013 at 18:41

    My mom would love this. She’s totally into stargazing. I think I’d be satisfied with the views from the church!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: