Starry, Starry Nights at Lake Tekapo

mt-johnOn 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?)

southern-lightsWhen 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.

South Island Lake Tekapo a Stunner


When you visit the South Island of New Zealand you find yourself saying “wow” a lot. It is hard after a while to be impressed. Places that would win most beautiful or special contests in other countries become average in New Zealand. So believe me when I tell you that you will find Lake Tekapo stunning.

As it says in the coffee table book in our hotel room:  “From the moment you cross Burkes Pass and first see the enormous, tussock-covered plain of the Mackenzie basin and encircling Southern Alps, you know you have arrived in a another world—a largely untouched world filled with wide open spaces, breathtaking scenery, and are so clear it feels, as Dame Ngaio Marsh once wrote, ‘unbreathed, newly poured out from the blue chalice of the sky.”

Pedestrian bridge links lake trail from village to Church of Good Shepherd; glacial “rock flour” turn the water vivid blue turquoise.

We landed in Christchurch around 8 a.m. and picked up our rental car. We drove south on Highway 1 then east on 79 for about 3 hours. Steadily the farmland and small towns grew in beauty and charm. Finally we pulled around a corner to be gobsmacked by Lake Tekapo and the snowy mountains that frame it.

We are still an hour from the tallest mountain in New Zealand–Mt Cook or Aoraki (the cloud piercer). We discussed driving to see it, but the weather has been rainy with low clouds and the odds are that it won’t be visible. Similarly we booked the 9:45 p.m. tour of Mount John Observatory but received a full refund from Earth and Sky tours when the cloud cover was 100%.

This statue by Innes Elliott honors all of the collies that assist shepherds–not just to James Mackenzie’s partner in sheep stealing crime: his dog Friday.

There is still so much beauty and interest.We walked to the Church of the Good Shepherd and the dog statue. This Mackenzie Country area is named for James Mackenzie, a sheep rustler with a strong constitution who also happens to be the first European to find his way to this special place. More sheep farmers flooded in from all over Scotland and England and carved out a life in this remote place. The population didn’t really reach any significance until the hydro-electric dams and facilities were constructed in the middle of last century. Now tourism rivals farming for economic eminence.

Church of Good Shepherd built by Presbyterians and Anglicans in mid 1930s. (photo: Rev. Sarah Clare)

We’ve enjoyed great coffee and toasted cheese sandwiches at Mackenzies, and a great lunch at the Tin Plate. Our hotel room at Lakeview Tekapo is super comfy with elegant and modern furnishings that all focus on the view of the lake and mountains. We are hoping for a clear night tonight because the area is protected from light pollution and the stars are rumored to be amazing. So glad this is where UK Sarah and I are spending the most time on our road trip.