On the shores of Lake Tekapo about 8 km from the village is the Mount John Observatory, New Zealand’s premier observatory run by the University of Canterbury. To visit this observatory and to see stars through one of their telescopes, you only need make a reservation with Earth and Sky tours and keep your fingers crossed for clear skies.
There are nine tours to choose from depending on the time of year and time of day. Some are designed especially for families. We made reservations for 2 adults ($148 NZ per person) for the 9:30 p.m. tour. When we arrived at the Earth and Sky office and shop in the village we were informed that there was 100% cloud cover. We had the offer to go on the tour with just the behind the scenes observatory and the slide presentation, or to reschedule, or to get a full refund. Since I had just been to the California Science Museum planetarium and we were very tired and the forecast was rubbish, we opted for the refund.
Late the next night the clouds broke up and Sarah set the alarm to check the stars at midnight (very good) and at 4:00 a.m. (very, very good–full on Milky Way). I had not seen the stars so glorious in such a long time. I only wish it had not been so cold and damp or I would have spread a blanket and stared longer. It is a healthy reminder that these stars are there all the time, we just can’t see them because of light and air pollution.
The Mackenzie Basin, where the Mt John Observatory is located, is especially good for stargazing. On the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale—which measures how dark the night sky is—the Mackenzie Basin scores number 1, the highest (best) darkness rating. Astronomers disagree about how many stars it is possible to see with the naked eye (a lot), although Professor Brian Cox calculated the number as anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000. Compared to 200 in most parts of Europe. And the center of the Milky Way is in the Southern Hemisphere in the constellation Sagittarius.(Gerard Hutching, Why Can’t Kiwis Fly?)
When we caught up with my friend Ole in Christchurch he told us he was taking a group of photographers to Lake Elsinore to learn to photograph the southern lights also known as the Aurora australis. He works for the Canon company and gets to do lots of fun stuff like this.
So whether you set your clock to go out on the lawn by your hotel room, or you book a tour with Earth and Sky, don’t sleep through the most awesome natural show in New Zealand.
All photos for this blog post are from Google Images search. My photography skills do not extend this far–no fault of my trusty Canon camera.