First thing you’ll hear or read about Lake Tekapo is usually the Church of the Good Shepherd, the beautiful little chapel situated on the rocky shore of spectacular Lake Tekapo. And, of course, the lake itself. But when it gets dark in Tekapo, you’re in for a completely different treat…
Lake Tekapo is situated in Mackenzie Country. It’s on state highway 8 (SH 8 ) and on many a traveller’s itinerary when touring the South Island as it lies en route between Christchurch and Queenstown. The beauty of the lake and the picturesque setting of the chapel provide the perfect setting for fantastic photographs and for a nice break on your trip through the region. And indeed, for most travellers, that is what Lake Tekapo amounts to: a scenic stop with a same-day departure.
And yet you should consider staying overnight. Not just because of the really tasty Thai food at Thai Tekapo restaurant, but because of one distinct after dinner activity exclusive to the small township: stargazing at nearby Mount John Observatory.
My recommendation is to book the stargazing tour with Earth & Sky. The operator runs two tours a night, departing from Tekapo in the late evening, weather permitting. It’s best to book a little in advance as during the busy summer months there may not be places available on the same day.
The tour starts with the group being picked up by a minibus from the town centre. It’s only a 15-minute drive to Mt John, during which the driver fills you in on some important details of the tour. From about halfway up the mountain the driver switches off the van’s headlights so as to not “pollute” the night sky with artificial light that may be picked up by one of the telescopes.
There is not much light pollution in the Mackenzie region, and Tekapo’s street lights are of such low intensity that they do not interfere with the telescopes at the observatory. Mt John further lends itself to being the perfect site for an astronomical observatory due to the high number of clear nights per year.
To keep light interference at an absolute minimum, visitors need to switch off mobile phones and any other devices or items emitting light. Torches are not allowed either, so the group is welcomed in complete darkness on top of the mountain by a group of guides making sure you find your way over to the observatory, a task necessary not only due to the complete lack of light but also due to people being distracted immediately by the incredible night sky.
The tour itself is extremely informative, educational and entertaining as it is led by the scientists themselves. They can tell you everything about the southern night skies and show you the southern cross, the Magellan Clouds, and so on. Certainly, using the telescopes is exciting, but one of the highlights of the tour has to be the laser pointer… The tour guide uses an extremely strong laser pointer, not unlike the one you’d use for presenting in a classroom or meeting room setting, which allows them to point directly at a star they are talking about. Fascinating. I am sure Mr. Spock would agree. Watch out for the green lines flashing up in Earth and Sky‘s YouTube video below (it’s the lasers!):
There’s a great atmosphere throughout the whole experience. It’s pitch black and the only way to relate to the people, whose faces you cannot see, is by their voices. It’s very serene and quiet on Mt John, and you completely forget about time and other earthly needs. If it weren’t for the ridiculously tasty hot chocolate they serve you halfway through the tour you wouldn’t even notice how chilly it can get up there, even in the summer!
The views from Mount John during daytime are quite spectacular, too, with the slight difference that you’ll be looking down instead of up. And think of that: not only will it be less taxing on your neck when you take in 360 degree views of the Mackenzie District from the hill top, but you can finally put the panorama setting on your digital camera to good use! There is also Astro Cafe with indoor and outdoor seating as well as day tours of the observatory for those interested in astronomy without the actual stargazing. Here’s my panoramic video view from the top of Mt John:
Whether you take the nocturnal stargazing tour or not, your visit to Tekapo should include a stop at Mt John. You won’t be disappointed!