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 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 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 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:
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 11 am, 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).
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.
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 the 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.
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 farming land, and lush rainforest.
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.
How would you spend your time at Lake Tekapo?