© NZPocketGuide.com
© NZPocketGuide.com

Stargazing in Lake Tekapo

© NZPocketGuide.com

198 Days on the Road

In most cities, the only reason people are still wondering the streets at 2.30am is because they are getting a greasy burger at the end of a hard night’s raving. In Lake Tekapo, the reason many of its visitors pull all-nighters is because the town is situated in an International Dark Sky Reserve. This means that Lake Tekapo is one of the best places in the world to stargaze. To make the most of this wonderful fact, we are taking the Earth & Sky Stargazing Tour!

A wake-up call to the campers of Tekapo Holiday Park

The night tour with Earth & Sky takes us away from the town lights of Tekapo up to the Mount John University Observatory. The research facility really tries to keep the light produced to a minimum, meaning that not even car lights can shine to get up the mountain! Thankfully, we will be getting a shuttle from the Earth & Sky Office in town – a 20-minute walk from the Tekapo Holiday Park, or a two minute drive… Guess which one we take…

To all the campers at Tekapo Holiday Park, we apologise for the roaring of our extremely old campervan as we leave the holiday park at 12am…

The ground rules of stargazing

After checking in at the Earth & Sky office in the centre of Tekapo, we are given a few stargazing house rules such as, no white lights from phones, cameras… anything, as well as no smoking and drinking. The former makes complete sense as we don’t want to hinder our stargazing abilities with bright lights. As for the latter, did we mention this is a university campus?

This doesn’t mean we have to stumble around in the dark, as our bus driver hands out some red solar-powered torches that we can keep as a souvenir. What backpacker doesn’t love free stuff?

A dark drive to see dark skies

Loaded up with Arctic jackets, a fetching moon lanyard, and our newly acquired torches, we are driven up to the Mount John Observatory by a bus driver who is far too chipper for 12.30am! Our driver gives us an introduction to the town of Tekapo, a few local tales, and an explanation of what exactly is a “Dark Sky Reserve”. A few jokes are thrown in here and there, but he seems to get the most pleasure out of telling us that he needs to navigate the Mount John access road without his headlights.

We have a feeling that our driver may have done this drive in the dark more than once, so we do make it up the hill in one piece.

Astronomer guides

Yellow spotlights dance in the dark outside our bus greeting us to Mount John. This must be our guides! The dancing spotlights are just a hint of the enthusiasm evoked by our stargazing guides, all of which are either astrologists themselves or astrologists in the making.

We get straight into it, following our guide up to the main observatory building surrounded by three large domes and tens of high-tech telescopes.

Welcome to the Dark Sky Reserve

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Milky Way and The Southern Cross

Before sticking our eyes in lenses, our guide gives us an orientation of the night sky, pointing out constellations with a powerful green laser pen. During this time, our eyes start to adjust. Where before we could only see the brightest of stars, (which was still a better night’s sky than most places), now our eyes start to adjust to see a greater density of stars, even to the point where we can see the haze of the Milky Way!

One of the most prominent constellations in the sky is The Southern Cross, including the second nearest star to Earth which is only a mere 4.3 light-years away! Our guide invites us to do an exercise to use The Southern Cross for navigation like the early explorers, which might come in handy knowing how unreliable Google Maps can be sometimes

Oh how we all wish we had an astrophotographer

Not only does this orientation of the night’s sky allow our eyes to take in the wonders of the universe, but it gives some of the guides a moment to give us a hot chocolate each and for the astrophotographers to gather our cameras and work their magic. As far as our friends know, we are coming out of this tour as professional astrophotographers.

Bring on the telescopes

Walking around the observatory with ease thanks to the light of the moon which is so bright it is casting shadows, we get a closer look at things so far away it’s hard to comprehend.

The Large and Small Clouds of Magellan are there to view through one of the telescopes – two cloudy patches in the sky only seen in the Southern Hemisphere. These satellite galaxies of the Milky Way are the sort of thing we’ve only seen in documentaries and here we are seeing them live!

Observatory domes

We have to admit, we’ve been dying to get into one of these observatory domes, and our time finally comes when get a look at the oldest thing we will ever see with our own eyes. The globular cluster, what appears to be a single star to the naked eye, is around 10-12 billion years old.

Something not so old and not so distance is the elephant in the room; the one we cannot avoid tonight; the moon. The observatory’s powerful telescopes reveal craters and the cones of ancient volcanoes.

The two-hour tour comes to an end with the yellow lights of our guides waving to us as we leave. It’s only the soft sound of David Bowie that fills our tired ears as the bus takes us back to Tekapo.

Join us tomorrow to see if we wake up on time for a flight over the Southern Alps!

The instruments to a good stargazing session

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Want more?

Have you read yesterday’s post about Tekapo Springs? Of course, you have! Now, check out these articles to plan an incredible gap year in New Zealand:

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See you tomorrow!